Lake Titicaca: A Journey to the Highest Lake in the World

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Travelling from Peru to Bolivia presented us with one of the most picturesque border crossings on our round the world trip via Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world at just over 3,800 metres above sea level. Nestled high up in the Andes, many people believe this to be the birth place of the Incas, not hard to believe when you consider how tough Machu Pichu was to find. They sure do love secret hideaways, and this lake is in many ways just as mysterious as it’s more famous counterpart. On the Peruvian side you can find intriguing colonies of indigenous people living on man made reed islands, in Bolivia a rural island full of Inca ruins and agricultural communities that are yet to receive any form of transport or wifi. It’s a real back to basics trekking experience not to be missed if you’re feeling intrepid. We ventured forth to find out more.

First up, the Peruvian side

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Lake Titicaca is a popular stop on many holiday makers’ itineraries to Peru, being just 6 hours bus journey away from Cusco. There is the option to take tours directly from Cusco or even a tourist train that provides entertainment, food and stops along the way at beautiful points of interest. For the more intrepid traveller it’s easy to take the public bus as we did, the service is regular, cheaper and takes around 6 hours.

Puno isn’t a particularly interesting town but good enough to spend a night in while you book a trip to the famous floating islands. You can choose from 1/2 day, full day or overnight tours with the overnighters being homestays aimed at giving the complete indigenous experience. Choose your tour wisely as it’s a highly commercialised business with plenty of tat around. For this reason we opted for a half day tour (just 20 soles/£4) which we booked through our hostel. It was enough time to enjoy a relaxing boat ride through the reeds, see what these islands were all about and feel the spongy reeds below our feet. It also allowed us to get over to Bolivia in the same day.

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imageNext up, the Bolivian side…

In the afternoon we took a bus to Copacabana on the Bolivian side, via the border. It’s a short journey of about 3 hours, doable even if you’re only intending on a Peruvian holiday, should you be looking for something a bit different (Americans should note however that its expensive for the visa and they require crisp dollar bills). We took the Titicaca tourist bus which looked NOTHING like the pictures, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. 60 backpackers crammed onto a decrepit rusty bus in the sweltering heat headed straight for the wild side. Ok so the bus wasn’t idyllic, but not many are in this country. They’re good businessmen though, dropping us right outside a hotel instead of the bus station. They offer a huge discount, the bus company gets a commission, the hotel gets business. Everybody wins! It was a great deal, far better than the others we walked around to, with a huge room and this view of the lake, no complaints here!

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Copacabana is a nice town set on the Bolivian side of the lake.  The main drag is rather touristy, so do your research before picking a restaurant, some of the food is abismal. Again, no-one comes to Bolivia for the food so don’t expect too much. The Condor and Eagle cafe does fantastic breakfasts, it’s part Irish owned and they make amazing homemade baked beans on homemade Irish soda bread. It was the little taste of home I had been craving. Next door to this we had a great meal at Winaya, great enchiladas of all things.

Isla del Sol

The main reason people come here is to visit Isla del Sol, a 2 hour ferry ride away from Copacabana. This is easily the highlight of lake Titicaca for so many reasons. It’s very isolated without wifi which makes a nice change, it’s beautiful terrain for challenging climbing, the views over the snow capped Cordillera Real are gorgeous and this all makes it the perfect place to go back to basics and unwind for a few days.

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The view of the Cordillera Real
The view of the Cordillera Real

We spent one night on the south side of the island, and enjoyed a magical dinner at  Las Velas,  restaurant in the middle of a eucalyptus forest lit solely by candles (even in the kitchen!) The lovely couple that own the restaurant are trained gourmet chefs and the food reflects this. It’s a seriously long wait for he food but we were kept entertained by card games and wine. Make sure you get there in time for sunset for a great view and guaranteed table. You’ll also need to take a torch as there’s no lights to lead you back home at the end of the evening. Despite being prepared we still got lost on our way back down as we were staying near the port, I’m not going to lie I was terrified. Luckily the boys led us to safety using their Bear Grylls skills.

The trek across the island is one of the best I’ve done, despite being at altitude and therefore pretty difficult at times. Luckily there’s not too much uphill to do once your on the summit you kind of walk across the peak, but we did get a bit lost yet again as it’s not exactly well signposted. Luckily it’s not a big island, so just keep heading north! We were led through some beautiful eucalyptus forests and isolated farms, down ancient Inca trails and eventually made it to the other end where some ancient Inca ruins awaited us. This trek had everything (except toilets and water) and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

It's steeper than it looks, and difficult at over 4000 metres altitude! Don't be fooled by the water, this is NOT sea level.
It’s steeper than it looks, and difficult at over 4000 metres altitude! Don’t be fooled by the water, this is NOT sea level.
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Part of the ancient Inca trail

Trekking Tips

When we visited in October 2015, ferries ran at 8.30am to take you to the north side of the island, but we were running late so took the 1.30pm ferry to south of the island. The plan was to spend the night her and trek to the north the next morning in time for the 1.30 ferry back to the mainland. It was doable, but I would have preferred to spend a night on the north side as well.

Both the south and the North have archaeological sights so it’s worth seeing both if you can, you can do this by boat without trekking if you wish. There are several trails across the island that you can do, some through wonderful smelling eucalyptus forests and some through indigenous villages. You can do it all if you decide to do a full circuit in one day which takes about 7 hours, if you do this you can take all your things with you to the island and leave them at your hostel when you trek. We decided to leave our big bags at the hotel on the mainland and just take supplies for 2 days which meant we could hike from one end of the island to the other without all our stuff. We met a lovely couple Nicole and Dave and decided to head to the island with them and do the trek together.

On the south side, I recommend staying as high up as possible. There are a lot of hostels being flogged near the port but the main part of the village is on the summit so it’s worth doing the long walk up at the beginning to find a place to stay, otherwise you’ll be doing it again the next morning when you start your trek, and it’s not easy!

Read more about my experience in South America here.

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