As the sun dips under the Cordillera range to the west, dusted in snow, the black wave of a storm rises behind it. Persimmon-coloured light floods the fields where campesinos plough by hand. Children herd a flock of sheep home, pitching stones to guide them. The burnt-orange light turns purple on the surface of the lake. It is one of those rare dreamlike afternoons I won’t soon forget.
About 3,800 metres above sea level, the 195 kilometre-long Lake Titicaca is the one of the highest lakes in the world. From its western edge, in the Puno region of Peru, the shores of Bolivia are visible some 65 kilometres away. Here on the altiplano it’s an austere, dramatic landscape – endless, straw-coloured plains, red mud, and temperatures verging on crisp.
While regions such as Cusco now revolve almost entirely around tourism, life on the altiplano goes on much as it has for thousands of years. While much of Peru is Quechua-speaking, Titicaca locals are mostly Aymara, who were conquered by the Incas around 1600. Evidence of their culture is everywhere – from massive cup-shaped tombs on the hillside at Sillustani to apartment buildings on the rough dirt streets of Juliaca. Many are subsistence farmers, growing quinoa, corn or potatoes, running small flocks of sheep and weaving the wool by hand.
The Aymara people of Titicaca | Tim Grey
In Copomaya village, we meet Angela and her granddaughter, Ofelia, who wears a hat the same shape and colour as a Peruvian lily. In their dirt-floored courtyard, Angela stoops over a wooden loom, unpicking threads of llama wool with a sharpened bone. I buy a rug hand-woven by her grandmother, an everyday artwork used by locals to carry goods to market.
Jutting from the lake is Taquile, a stony island inhabited for some 3,000 years. It boasts UNESCO heritage status and an unusually
Mediterranean microclimate. The locals build terraces for farming and weave elaborate textiles. We meet Roberto, who serves us a delicious quinoa soup garnished with piquant salsa.
Their neighbours literally live on the lake. The Uru people have lived on floating islands made from woven totora reeds for thousands of years, supporting themselves by fishing and trade. These days, most Uru live in nearby Puno, but their way of life is preserved on about 45 “islands”. Travelling in by boat, an elder waving a chequered flag directs visitors to a nearby island, which bobs gently underfoot as people go about their daily business.
Despite the abundant cultural authenticity around Titicaca, visitors need not be deprived of their luxuries. Titilaka lodge is a modern boutique hotel on the banks of the lake run by Relais & Châteaux. Decorated in a quirky, post-modern style, there is local and international artwork on display and each one of the 18 guestrooms features lake views. Excellent dining comes with the tariff, including a haute cuisine take on local dishes such as tender pork chicharrònes (fried pork rinds). Daily activities range from bird-watching to cycling, sailing and visiting local ruins – and the staff regularly monitor your oxygen levels to ensure you’re in good health at this high altitude.
About two hours from the nearest airport, the lodge sits on four acres with two private beaches right beside the lake. Besides guests and staff, there’s no-one else around. The near-total absence of artificial light makes Titilaka a world-class stargazing spot. It is the perfect place to retreat to, safe behind floor-to-ceiling windows as the rain breaches the mountains and showers down on Lake Titicaca.