Lake on Top of the World – The Magic of Titicaca

“Show me a better window.” A friend posted the challenge on Instagram with a golden view of a Tuscan cornfield.

Here was the one who outlived him. It gathered in its plate-glass rectangle a steel-blue vastness, stretching almost to the horizon, inviting you to lose yourself in the interplay of light and shadow on a canvas of water. Clumps of purple-gray storm clouds were moving slowly over the horizon; Slanting streaks of rain lit up as if from a spotlight from feathers.

Titicaca: If once it captures your fancy, it never lets go. As a child I laughed at the lake’s comical name, and fantasized about the legends of ancient cities and Inca treasures sunk in its depths. In my fourth-form geography class Atop the Atlas, I was intrigued by the notion of a navigable lake some 300 meters deep, lying in a mountain plateau nearly three times the height of the UK’s highest peak.

Seeing it from the window of my south-side hotel decades later, I too was astounded by the reality. Perhaps because I finally made it there, when the coronavirus knocked the world diagonally and Peru’s borders were closed, a strange intensity clings to the memory of my days at the lake, like a mighty dream for the rest of your head. Lives in the day.

I made the long journey by PeruRail train from Cuzco to Puno, rumbling at a gentle pace over the gloomy plains of the Altiplano, in my upholstered seat, lunch served in the strains of a cocktail piano. At the railway’s highest point, where the train stopped and I went out to peep into the diamond-bright air at 4,300 meters above sea level, glacier-melt streams formed white cascades of springs beneath the mountain. From Puno, a spooky, charming, neon-lit town by the lake, I hurried to get to Titilaka – not to be confused with Titicaca – just before nightfall.

A lodge and balcony on the rocks by the lake
Titilaka is situated on a hill on the southern bank. , ,
A view from a balcony in front of the white furniture on the lake and the islands
, , , and offers sweeping views of Peru’s high-altitude lake

A boxy, modernist structure in glass and concrete, dramatically perched on a lonely province, Titilca is one of a small stable of stylish Peruvian residences run by hotelier Ignacio Macias. The fun begins with the eclectic furnishings of color-striped Peruvian rugs, antiques, and cool modern furniture, and the open-plan living room with its wood-burning stove and mind-expanding lake views. The silkiness of the Relais & Châteaux served in this remote location is almost surreal. The chef’s trout ceviche was so good I ate it on the run for three nights.

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Among the hotel’s various suggestions for local adventures and excursions, from cycling and birdwatching to a cultural jaunt around the crumbling colonial baroque churches of Julie, Lampa and Pomata, there was one that caught my eye: the complex seas of the lake. A safari by kayak around the coast of the inlets and outcrops, its curious islands and distinct cultures.

Last night’s storms had rolled in, and a soft-edged dawn light promised a bright day. Accompanied by Ruben Mamani, my guide and captain, I set out in a double kayak from the hotel’s small pier, slipping into the water as smooth as mercury. Our route – in which, I admit, an interval on a motor launch to cover the distance – would take us north around the Capuchica peninsula, bypassing the protected national reserve where the Euro people live on floating islands. Totora reed

Titilaka offers a safari by kayak around the complex shoreline of Lake | © Paul Richardson

We turned away and my gaze turned to the water, gin-clear like a rock pool, with leaves of grass swaying slowly, but there was no other life that I could see. In fact, the lake is home to no less than 26 species of fish and about 70 birds, Reuben said, including the flightless Titicaca grebe, but its most famous resident is a giant and spectacularly ugly frog, telmatobius culiusWeight up to 1 kg.

There was silence on the boat, broken only by the rhythmic rumbling of the oars. About 4 km above sea level the sun’s rays were hot and prickly on the skin. Along the shoreline I saw quiet inlets, adobe huts with thatched roofs, patchwork squares of potato and quinoa orchards, and orange-flowered Kejol Trees scorched from the cold and high.

I rummaged to compare this scenario somewhere in my memory. The Scottish Highlands, perhaps: those vast skies, stark beauty, cold, clear waters. But there were no mountains on this great Andean loch—only bare-faced granite hills flanked the shore, as if at these dizzying heights it would be asking too much to go any higher.

After an hour’s effort a piece of land appeared. Except that it was not quite dry land but a man-made atoll where three families subsist on whatever the lake’s ecosystem can provide. “Amanesar” (“Don”) is one of 50 or so floating islands inhabited by the Uros ethnic group, who fled the mainland due to Inca expansion, isolated themselves, and evolved into an extreme example of adaptability . atmosphere.

While Reuben tied the kayak to a post, I awkwardly landed. Like a mattress, it was awkward to move around on a slightly yielding surface with each step. The island is in essence a platform made of blocks of Totora The root is glued together and covered with a thick layer of cut reed. but Totora Works for much more than island-building. A canoe tied to the side of the island was as beautiful as a Venetian gondola rebuilt in straw. A group of women in pink and green Andean skirts sat around a clay hob, wielding sticks. Totora in the fire of smoke.

A boat nestles against a reed raft dotted by huts
Amenesar is one of 50 or so floating islands inhabited by the Uro people, who went to the lake to flee the Inca expansion
Collection of rectangular and conical reed huts with an Andean woman and a solar panel in the background
As with the other Uro Islands, reed is the main building material on Amnesar © Paul Richardson

Walter, the head of the small community, was pleased to tell me about his area. Five huts made of reed were the limit of the built environment; Another hut served as a community kitchen. Uros on colored clothing were the basic elements of larder, namely choose Freeze-dried potatoes in dried Andean air, OCA And Mashua Roots, duck eggs and mummified waterfowl. Some small catfish swam in a bowl. Outside the kitchen door an old man sat on a corn bed on a flat black stone. Potatoes were growing in a bed of soil sunken in a reed platform.

map of Titicaca

Walter suggests that living on what was originally a wickerwork basket may be picturesque, but presents some inconveniences. A storm like last night could rip the entire island off its swamp. Drowning is common. The three-meter-thick platform requires constant maintenance, and naked flames are a perpetual danger. In case of emergency, a prehistoric Nokia is the community’s single link to the outside world.

If the word “idyl” suggests a miniature world free from stress, need, and effort, Amnesar doesn’t quite measure up. Taquile, the next stop on my Titicaca island-hop, came close to the Platonic ideal. The island was gratifyingly enduring – natural, not man-made – as well as huge, but it had a singular charm of its own.

a man standing on the stern of a boat made of reeds
Made of the same type of reed as artificial islands, Uro boats have lines similar to Venetian gondolas

We arrived from the southern end, where a steep slope of pink cliff was sheathed in tattered sections of potato fields and pasture. In the small harbor where we docked, two sailing boats collided in the sapphire blue waters, which made me think of some rocky Mediterranean cove. Atop the hill, stone paths wound between meadows grazed by flocks of dwarf sheep. (Taquille’s 2,200 residents roam on foot; the island has neither need, nor need, cars or roads.) This may be the effect of my deoxygenated brain, but there is something about the gaudy flowers and butterflies. There were hallucinations, streams of thunder, spots of purple-flowered potatoes against the big blue background of the lake.

We met some local people on wandering roads, I learned about the rich taquileno Traditions, including textile arts, recognized under UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Scheme. Island society with its three principles is based on collective effort and Inca ethics.Ama Sua, Ama Lulla, Ama Quela(Quechua for “thou shalt not steal, lie, or be lazy”). Social and marital status is embodied in a complex dress code. A man in a black Homburg hat and white cotton shirt walks past came: an important person, whispered Ruben. The scenario was a through the Looking Glass Whimsical and charm. Old wooden gates made of old shoe soles opened onto handkerchief-shaped vegetable plots bound by knee-high walls.

If this was Wonderland, lunch would be at Alice’s restaurant. At Alicia Cruz’s home, where Titilka likes to take guests for private trips, the hostess’s daughter turned out to welcome us in a black shawl with brightly colored pom-poms (a sign of an unmarried girl). Twisting the wool on a bobbin, Cintia guided us to a table in the garden and her mother brought us potatoes grown on the island. chuckle Herb chutney and fresh cheese, grilled lake trout and juicy Cape gooseberries for dessert.

Afterwards I walked to the end of the meadow where the hill fell towards the edge of the ground. From here the lake was laid down in its full glory, the needle-sharp sun picking out details on the far shore, the water around the island shimmering with that counter-effortless Mediterranean blue. Down at the harbor my kayak was quietly awaiting a visit to Titilaka.

There was such an intoxication of beauty. Life on this enchanted island, like Peru’s mythical mountain lake, seems to blur the boundaries between reality and dream.


Paul Richardson was the guest of Scott Dunn (, which offers a nine-night tour from £8,395 per person, including three nights at Hotel B in Lima, three at Explora Sacred Valley and three at Hotel Titilca, with various arts and cultural tours, including kayaking on Lake Titicaca, Flights are included. Private transfers to and from London

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