Often referred to as the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca is located at an altitude of 3,812 meters and it is the largest lake by volume in South America.
60% of the lake is located in Peru (the western part, in the Puno Region), whilst the remaining 40% belong to Bolivia (the eastern end, in the La Paz Department). The lake’s shores are highly indented, and its surface is located a amean 3 meters above the narrow outlet sill at the border town of Desaguadero. The lake itself can be found at the northern stretch of the endorheic Altiplano Basin.
The lake is made up of two large basins which are connected by the Strait of Tiquina. The strait is 800 meters across at the narrowest point. The larger basin is called Lago Grande or Lago Chucuito, with a maximum depth of 281 m and an average depth of 135 meters. The other basin is not only smaller, but also shallower too, with a mean depth of 9 meters and a maximum depth of 40 meters. It is referred to as Winaymarka.
The Lake Titicaca Reserve was created in 1978 in aim of preserving the special fauna, flora and the unique countryside found here.
More than 25 tributaries feed Lake Titicaca, out of which 5 are major river systems (Ramis, Coata, Ilave, Huancane and Suchez). Out of all these Ramis is the largest, draining two-fifth of the entire Lake Titicaca Basin, arriving to the lake on its northwestern part. Despite its many contributors, the lake only has one outflow, the Rio Desaguadero, which flows south, making its way to Lake Poopo in Bolivia. During very wet circumstances the lake’s waters head further towards the Salinas, forming the Titicaca-Desaguadero-Poopo-Salinas river system, with a surface area of 144,000km2. The draining river empties merely 5% of the lake’s waters; the remaining 95% is lost by evaporation.
Lake Titicaca is a monomictic lake, with only 1 season of free circulation. Evapotranspiration occurs due to strong winds and intense sunlight at high altitudes. A thorough water analysis confirmed the presence of measurable quantities of sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, calcium sulfate and magnesium sulfate in Lake Titicaca.
Because of the cold water sources and the powerful wind the lake’s average surface temperature is between 10 and 14OC. During winter months between June and September mixing appears with the deeper waters, which have a constant temperature of 10-11OC. The lake’s waters are limpid and slightly brackish. Its salinity ranges from 5.2 to 5.5 per 1000.
The Tinajani Basin was created by strike-slip movement along fault lines, which started in the late Oligocene and lasted until the Miocene. It is a pull-apart and intermontane basin. The development of Tinajani Basin is insinuated by volcanic rocks which have accumulated some 27-20 million years ago in the area. They lie upon an angular unconformity, which makes its way across the pre-basin strata. The lacustrine sediments found in the Lower Tinajani Formation attest the presence of an ancestral, pre-Quarternary Lake Titicaca, 18-14 million years ago.
Scientists are short of information when it comes to the prehistory of the lake between 14 million years ago and 370,000 BP, since the lake’s sediments which date back to this particular period lie deep beneath the lake’s bottom and have never been sampled by continuous coring as of yet. A drilling project at the lake recovered a 136 meter long drill core of sediments from the bottom of the lake, east of Isla del Sol, at a depth of 235 meters. This core holds continuous records of the lake’s deposits and its paleoenvironmental conditions back to 370,000 BP. During this time period Titicaca was somewhat fresher and its levels were much higher during the periods of expanded regional glaciation. During periods of reduced regional glaciation, which correspond to global interglacial periods, the lake typically had lower water levels.
These sediments gained from the lake testify for the fact that during the Pliocene and Pleistocene five additional lakes could also be found in the lake basin: Lake Mataro (at 3950 meters), Lake Cabana (at 3900 meters), Lake Ballivian (at 3860 meters), Lake Minchin (at 3825 meters) and Lake Tauca (at 3815 meters).
The Altilplano is mainly occupied by late Tertiary and Quarternary lake deposits, volcanic deposits and extensive alluvial fans. The side of the eastern Cordillera holds much-folded Paleozoic geosynclinals sediments, which are faulted against Cretaceous and Mesosoic formations.
Lake Titicaca’s climate is borderline subtropical Highland and Alpine, with cool to cold general temperatures throughout the year. The mean annual precipitation is 610 mm, which mostly occur during summer thunderstorms. Winters around the lake are usually dry with very cold nights and warm afternoons.
Flora and Fauna
The lake is home to 18 different species of amphibians, of which the most famous is the giant frog of Titicaca, which can weigh up to 3 kilograms. The Titicaca water frog is endangered, whilst the Titicaca orestias became extinct due to competition and the introduction of trouts and silversides to the lake. There are 14 different species of fish, of which the most common are 2 species of killfish and a type of catfish. Trout has been introduced to the lake in 1939. Titicaca has more than 530 aquatic species. Nearly 90% of the lake’s fish population is composed of endemic species.
The lake is home to 26 species of freshwater snails, of which 15 are endemic, including several tiny Heleobias. More than 60 types of birds inhabit the Lake Titicaca area. The region was proclaimed a Ramsar site on the 26th of August, 1998.
Scientists observed that the lake’s waters are constantly receding as of 2000. In 2009, between the months of April and November, the lake’s water level dropped by an astounding 81 centimeters. This was said to be caused by shortened rainy seasons. Because of the continuous growth pattern of the cities surrounding the lake, there’s an increasing concern about the pollution Lake Titicaca suffers of. The growth of the cities oftentimes outpaces the solid waste and sewage treatment programs and infrastructure. The Global Nature Fund acclaimed that Titicaca’s biodiversity is at risk by water pollution and the introduction of new species. In 2012 they nominated Lake Titicaca as “Threatened Lake of the Year”.
Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on the lake, located on the Bolivian side. The “island in the sun” is known for its hard terrain and its rocky, hilly shores. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island, and there are no paved roads either. About 800 families live on Isla del Sol, and work without any motorized utensils on the numerous agricultural terraces found on the hills. More than 180 ruins can be found here, mainly dating back to the Inca period, to the 15th century AD. Some of these are The Sacred Rock, the Chinkana labyrinth complex, Kasa Pata and Pilco Kaima. Inca and Tiahuanaco artifacts are on display in the museum of Challapampa.
Isla de Luna can be found east of Isla del Sol, which also has a great number of historical sites and artifacts. The ruins of Mamakuna, a supposed Inca nunnery can be found here. Archaeological excavations showed that the Tiwanaku peoples, who lived between 650 and 1000 AD built a major temple on the island. Pottery vessels of high rank noblemen who lived in this period were excavated and are currently exhibited at the British Museum in London. The structures one can see today were constructed by the Inca (between 1450 and 1532), directly on the older Tiwanaku sites.
The small island of Suriki can also be found on the Bolivian part, and is especially famous as the last place where the art of the reed boat construction survived to this day.
Uros Island is a group of 44 islands made of floating reeds, which have become a major attraction of Peru, being on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Day excursions from the town of Puno can be reserved in advance. The islands’ original purpose was of defense, so they had the liberty of moving if they were ever threatened in any way.
The island of Amantani is populated mostly by Quechua speakers. 10 communities live on the 15km2 island, with a total of 4000 inhabitants. Two main mountain peaks govern the lake: Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth). Every 18th of January locals dressed in traditional clothes climb these 2 mountains. The two different climbing groups then meet to offer cocoa leaves, alcohol and grain to the earth. Ancient ruins can be found atop of both mountain peaks. The hillsides are generally terraced, planted with wheat, potatoes and vegetables, while there are parts where sheep and cattle graze. Just like on Isla del Sol, motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. Electricity is often provided through generators, flashlights, and more often than not, even candles. Locals offer their homes to tourists for accommodation and even provide them with daily meals.
Taquile is a hilly, narrow and long island 45 kilometers east of Puno. It used to be a prison during the Spanish colony into the 20th century. Its highest point is 4050 meters, and its main village lies at an elevation of 3950 meters. It’s noted for its colorful culture, which manifests itself through its lively handicraft tradition, considered among the highest quality handicrafts in the World. “Taquile and its Textile Art” was included in UNESCO’s “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Knitting is done exclusively by men, while women make yarn and weave. They have a controlled tourism model, with homestays, transportation and restaurant options for tourists.
The origin of the name “Titicaca” is said to be unknown. It is often translated as “Rock Puma” in a local communication interpretation. This name is considered to exist due to the lake’s form. Many people seem to agree that its shape is similar to a puma hunting a rabbit. According to an informant of an anthropologist of the 20th century, “Titicaca” translated to “Crag of Lead”. The lake’s southeastern corner is referred to as Lago Huinaymarca by Bolivian locals, which means “the eternal city” in Aymara. In Peru the lake’s smaller part is called Lago Pequeno, whilst the larger body of water is referred to as Lago Grande.
History and Mythology
The Lake Titicaca area is the ancestral land of the Quechuas, Aymaras, Uros, Pacajes, Puquinas and the foundation site of the most influential pre-Hispanic cultures of the Andean Region. Many independent kingdoms grew out of the area, but the most famous culture is that of the Incas, which conquered the region in the 15th century.
The Aymara people in the lake basin still practice ancient methods of agriculture today, on stepped terraces, growing barley, quinoa and potato. Actually, the highest cultivated plot in the World was found near Lake Titicaca, a field of barley at an altitude of 4,700 meters.
Ancient Incan mythology suggests that Viracocha, the great creator, after forming the sun and the moon, went to Tiahuanaco to create the first humans, Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo, the Incan Adam and Eve. They were then sent to populate the world. Therefore, in Incan culture the area is considered the birthplace of the Incas, and many islands are considered sacred even today. The first Incan king, Manco Capac was also born here.
In 2000 an international archaeological expedition discovered an ancient submerged temple in the lake. It’s twice the size of a soccer field, and was accidentally found by following a submerged road which begins near Copacabana. It is said to be 1,000-1,500 years old, and specialists are contemplating on bringing this valuable temple to surface.
Ships of Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca has witnessed many large steamships take sail for the first time. All of them were constructed in the United Kingdom and were brought to Titicaca through various methods. In 1862 Thames Ironworks constructed two sister-ships on the river Thames, called the SS Yavari and the SS Yapura. The ships had combined purpose and could carry cargo, passengers and also gunboats for the Peruvian Navy. Yavari was launched at Lake Titicaca in 1870, Yapura in 1873.
In 1892 William Denny and brothers built the 52 meter long SS Coya in Scotland on the river Clyde. The ship was launched in 1893. Earle’s Shipbuilding constructed the SS Inca in 1905. The ship arrived to Lake Titicaca by rail. It was the largest, with a length of 67 meters and a weight of 1809 tons.
As the trade grew Earle’s constructed the SS Ollanta in the 1930s. Its parts landed in Mollendo, and were brought to Puno port via rail. It was larger than the Inca, weighing 2200 tons, and having a length of 79 meters. It was launched November 1931.
Yavari and Yapura were returned to the Peruvian Navy in 1975. Yapura was converted into a hospital ship and renamed BAP Puno. They initially discarded Yavary, but charitable interest bought it in 1987, restored it and it now serves as a static tourist accommodation site. The SS Coya is currently a floating restaurant, whilst the Inca was broken up in 1994. The SS Ollanta is no longer in scheduled service, but Peru Rail leases it for tourist charter options.
Tourism and Recreation
The Lake Titicaca area is a mixture of checkerboard fields, rolling hills, high Andean peaks and small communities which are rich in history. The city of Puno, on the Peruvian side, is considered to be the best base if you consider exploring the lake and its islands.
Numerous towns can also be found on the lake, which contain interesting attractions. The Sillustani Burial Towers are located 34 kilometers north of Puno, and are considered one of the most important necropolises in the World. Juliaca is a small town close to Lake Titicaca, and is home to the main airport in the region. It is worth visiting for its impressive architecture and buildings. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru, and has many attractions, including Goyeneche Palace and the famous Santa Catalina Monastery. Colca Canyon is one of the most impressive natural wonders of the area, since it’s the second deepest canyon in the world.