Lake Titicaca – Puno, Peru

The Islands and Festivals of South America’s Largest Lake

As some will remember from geography class, the legendary 3,200- square-mile Lake Titicaca is – at 12,500 feet above sea level – the highest navigable lake in the world. But only those who have visited it know of the luminescence of the light and the ever-changing play of color on its water. Titicaca’s singular beauty supports the ancient myth that Manco Capac and his sister-consort, Mama Ocllo, founders of the Incan Empire, emerged from these magical Andean waters. The Uros Indians created the lake’s epony­mous floating islands centuries ago to escape conflicts with the land-inhabiting Inca. Their descendants still live on the springy forty-odd islands of indigenous tortora reeds, which are also used to make both their homes and their boats.

The two natural islands of Taquile and Amantani are hilly and peopled by hospitable Indians, whose bright-colored traditional dress and handwoven textiles are an irresis­tible draw for sightseers and shoppers. There are no cars or bicycles here, or even roads, but the gently terraced hills bespeak the islands’ proud agricultural traditions. Schedule your trip to Puno for February or November, when local celebrations turn this city upside down.

The mythical founding of the lakeside city of Puno is the reason for November’s fasci­nating Semana de Puno festivities, whose ornate and imaginative costumes, wild danc­ing, masks, music, and instruments are rooted in the Incan culture. February 2, Candlemas or the feast of the Virgen de la Candelaria, may ostensibly figure on the Roman Catholic calendar, but witness the famous diablada (devil’s dance) and the kallahuaya (medicine man’s dance) before deciding for yourself if it’s a Christian or pagan celebration. As many as 300 folkloric dances are performed in the streets of Puno throughout the year. If things are quiet when you arrive, ask the local tourist office for directions to the area’s nearest fiesta. You won’t regret the trip.

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