Lake Titicaca-Jewel of the Andes

Face it: The kids will talk a lot about their upcoming trip to Lake Titicaca—they just won’t  be  able  to  resist  saying  the  name. But  that’s  okay.  Once  they  get  there  and see  this  huge  deep-blue  freshwater  lake sitting  in  its  cup  of  mountain  peaks,  an awesome  3,600m  (11,811  ft.)  above  sea level, they’ll stop snickering.

To locals, measuring the altitude is irrelevant:  Lake  Titicaca  is  a  mysterious  and sacred  place.  Here,  in  the  midst  of  the lake,  Manca  Capac  and  Mama  Ocllo—the Adam and Eve of the Incas—were supposedly born on the Isla del Sol (Sun Island), which you can visit on a day trip from the picturesque  lakeside  town  of  Copacabana,  Bolivia.  (A  3-hr.  bus  ride  from  La Paz,  Copacabana  is  also  known  for  its Moorish-style  cathedral,  with  a  deeply venerated  miracle-working  statue  of  the Virgin inside.) On Sun Island, you’ll visit the ruins  of  Chinkana,  a  huge  stone  labyrinth built  as  a  seminary  for  Inca  priests.  The path  back  to  the  town  of  Challapampa passes  the  sacred  rock,  shaped  like  a puma,   from   which   Manco   Capac   and Mama Ocllo first stepped; farther on, you can look down and see the two huge footprints the sun is said to have made when it landed  on  earth  to  give  birth  to  them. Tours also stop at Isla de la Luna (Moon Island),  site  of  an  ancient  convent  where the Virgins of the Sun performed ceremonies honoring the sun.

Most local tour packages visit not only the  Bolivian  shore  but  also  the  Peruvian side  of  the  lake,  with  its  main  town  of Puno  (a  10-hr.  train  ride  from  Cusco). Puno  is  not  nearly  as  lovely  as  Copacabana, but the kids will want to come here to  take  a  boat  tour  to  the  Uros  islands. Since the time of the Incas, the local Uros Indians  have  lived  on  these  tiny  floating islands  built  on  soft  patches  of  totora reeds. Walking on the springy islets is truly a  strange  sensation.  Some  Uros  wait  for the tour boats to arrive so they can hawk their  handmade  textiles  and  reedcrafted items,  but  many  others  keep  to  their thatched huts, far from the snapping cameras,  where  they  quietly  fish  and  catch birds   and   continually   repair   the   reed underpinnings of their islets. Full-day trips also include stops at Taquile and Amantani  islands,  serene  and  rustic  natural islands with Inca ruins to explore.

Other  Andean  peoples  subscribe  to  a different myth: that Viracocha, the creator deity,  called  up  the  sun,  moon,  and  stars to rise from icy Lake Titicaca to lighten the dark world. Powerful spirits still live in this amazing  sky-high  lake,  they  say.  Gliding over  the  calm  blue  surface,  you  may  find yourself staring down into the water’s cold depths  to  connect  with  them.  But  you don’t need to believe in these ancient legends to sense the magic of Lake Titicaca.