Lake Titicaca is not always the top item on one’s agenda when planning a trip to Peru.  It wasn’t exactly the first destination on our list either; in fact, it was second on our back-up plan! When we had to cancel our Inca Trail trek due to a lingering injury, we scrambled to fill our two weeks in Peru with something other than the obligatory (but rewarding) visit to Machu Picchu.

After reading about the floating islands of the Uros people and the cultural significance of Puno, Peru’s folklore capital, we decided that a visit to Lake Titicaca would allow us a glimpse into Peru’s history, culture, and geography that we would not find elsewhere in our travels. It was simply too intriguing to pass up.

We scheduled a four day, three night stay.

This famous lake derives its name from the Quechua terms Titi, meaning puma, and Kaka, meaning stone. Most visitors to Lake Titicaca (on the Peruvian side) start their exploration in the commercialized port city of Puno.

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At over 12,300 feet, Puno poses some challenge to those who are not acclimated to the high altitude. Visitors starting their journey here should allow a few days to adjust before moving to higher altitude. The city’s geographic location lends it to very hot days and cold nights. It’s also not uncommon for rain or hail to come on suddenly. In fact, we saw some of the most beautiful storms we have ever seen during our three days at Lake Titicaca.

To truly take advantage of all that Lake Titicaca has to offer, you should plan to spend at least three days there.

Here are five things you will want to include in any Lake Titicaca itinerary:

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1.) Take a boat ride on Lake Titicaca.

It’s impossible to just go to Lake Titicaca; you have to go out on Lake Titicaca. Going out onto the lake gives you a much better appreciation for how vast it truly is. Furthermore, the lake changes the further out you go. Closer to the shore, the lake is murky and green; out in the open water, it is crisp and clear, a blue as vibrant as the Mediterranean. You’ll be tempted to jump right in! Cruise the pristine waters while absorbing the dry, mountainous landscape along the shore as you breeze past local fisherman seeking their daily catch.

You can book a half-day tour of the lake at any of the tourist companies lining Lima Street in the city’s center. Or, for those who are a bit more adventurous, or who just have more time, you can connect with a company offering kayaking opportunities on the lake. It is recommended to book at least several weeks in advance for such tours.

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2.) Get to know the locals through a Lake Titicaca island home-stay.

An overnight home-stay will significantly enhance your experience on Lake Titicaca, helping you to understand just how rural life on the lake is. At least three of the larger inhabited islands offer the opportunity for home-stays. We opted for Isla Taquile, about a three hour boat ride from the port of Puno.

The home-stay allows you to eat delicious (and all-natural!) meals prepared by your host family, stay with them in their homes, and explore the island in greater depth than if you simply took a quick day tour. Depending on what day you stay, you may even get to help with family chores or attend community meetings or events.

Our host family lived in a compound-like home with several separate rooms and buildings, with a bathroom around back. Bleating sheep grazed in the surrounding yard, while cows roamed nearby. We slept in a nice (but firm) bed with several wool blankets. The building was made of mud-brick, with a dirt floor and corrigated tin roof. Although hotel accommodations are certainly more convenient, we were never uncomfortable during our stay.

This is the type of opportunity that I find difficult to pass up when traveling. This is the type of travel experience that broadens your perspective and shapes your worldview. It’s definitely an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Just don’t forget to bring your own roll of toilet paper — just in case!

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3.) Visit the floating islands of the Uros people.

The Uros Islands were one of the main reasons we chose to visit Lake Titicaca. This cluster of 60 islands is about a forty minute boat ride from the main port at Puno.  

Stop by and visit with the local families whose ancestors have inhabited the islands for decades. Learn how they cook, work, share food, educate their children, and maintain the physical condition of their islands by replacing rotting reeds.

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Take a ride in one of the ubiquitous puma-head reed boats, steered by a local guide. These amazing structures take eight men a full day to make — and they only last for two weeks!

The history of the Uros people is fascinating, but their future is uncertain. The temptations and opportunities presented by a more modern, convenient life on the mainland are becoming increasingly more difficult for young people to resist. Plan a visit to these islands while they still exist in their traditional manner.

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4.) Shop at the weekend market in Puno.

Every Saturday, local residents hold a public market just a quarter mile from Lake Titicaca’s shore in the center of town. Here they sell fruits, vegetables, bread, and grains. You can even take your pick from dozens of Peru’s more than 3,000 varieties of potato! The market runs through several of the town’s main streets and along its old train tracks.

The public market is a great way to immerse yourself in local culture and commerce.

There are also several other attractions in Puno worth a look. Lima Street is in the town center and provides a great place for tourists to shop and eat. It’s particularly lively at night. If you’d like to eat a someplace that caters less to the tourists, just turn down any of the side streets running perpendicular to Lima.

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La Catedral, the city’s main cathedral, is also worth a stop. It sits along the Plaza de Armas, or main square, and is open to the public and free of change. Just be aware that masses are conducted throughout the day. You’re welcome to stay, just be courteous to those who are there to worship.

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5.) Enjoy a folk festival.

Puno is known as the folklore capital of Peru. You can catch festivals and parades boasting music and dancing in the streets throughout the year. Monthly celebrations are common, and on Sundays military parades are held on the Plaza de Armas. These frequent and colorful celebrations stand in stark contrast to the city’s dry, stark landscape and primarily brown buildings.

One of the best times to experience Puno’s rich folk history is during the Puno Week celebration the first week of November, when the city celebrates its founding. Puno Day is celebrated November 5th, but the celebration starts several days in advance, with parades starting around 2 pm and lasting until nearly midnight. Live brass bands follow troops of masked, energetic dancers winding their way through the city’s narrow streets as they portray aspects of Peru’s culture and history, starting with the birth of the Inca Empire.

How to make it happen:

You can get to Puno by bus or by airplane. If you’re traveling by bus, you can arrive from Arequipa (about 3-4 hours away) or Cusco (about a 7 hour drive). Neither of these journeys is too terribly difficult, and the scenery across the altiplano makes the long ride well worth it. If you’re traveling from Lima, you’ll likely connect in Arequipa, and the ride from Lima to Arequipa is about 14 hours. You can take an overnight bus and sleep most of the way if that’s an option for you physically. We took this route from Arequipa back to Lima at the end of our trip.

By plane, you can fly domestically from Lima, Arequipa, or Cusco, and none of the flights takes more than a few hours. Be aware, flights are much more expensive than taking the bus, even though they are more convenient.

You can book a boat tour by connecting with any of the tourist organizaitons on Lima Street in the center of the town. These do not usually need to be booked far in advance. if you’re planning a homestay, do your homework ahead of time and book a few weeks in advance. 

If you have the time, we highly recommend you include an expedition to Lake Titicaca in your Peru travel plans. You’ll definitely come away with an entirely different view of the country than if you concentrate your time solely in the Andes region.