Seeing Lake Titicaca for the first time has the same effect of bumping into a famous movie actor; everyone thinks that they know him personally and everyone is stunned when proof of his existence is confirmed through a face-to-face encounter. This is one of the place names with most resonance in our universal culture: up there with Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego; the Sahara and Siberia; Everest and the Amazon.



I missed a meal because of Titicaca. Our dawn bus from La Paz stopped at the village of Huatajata where a hearty breakfast awaited us as well as a huge porcelain bowl of high quality coca leaves for tea. But I wanted to take in all the lakeside scenery and skipped the buffet. Instead, I stashed half the bowl in my pockets for further mastication and got straight onto our catamaran. It had better be good cos Crillon Tours weren’t cheap.



I needn’t have bothered. We started off slowly, on what seemed to me to be a very ordinary lake, but it was beyond the straits of Tiguina, where the full enormity of Titicaca became evident: the horizon became diffused and the landscape blurred like a Seurat painting. At 3812m the altitude caused low clouds with strange formations to overhang and the clear, dry atmosphere turned the sky pure cyan and the waters of the lake cobalt-blue.



Yet, it’s not just beauty that Titicaca has in abundance. Sacred to the Incas, it is the fulcrum of their mythology.



We first approached the Isla de la Luna where, in times past, Inca virgins kept the fire of the Sun burning and wove the vestments of the great Inca. In the 1940s a military regime turned the main temple into a prison and used the stones to build houses for the guards. As it happens there was a football match between cons and screws. The screws won (fix!) and got so pissed celebrating that the cons nicked their boats and escaped to Peru. This really killed the reason for the prison, but the temple – one of the most complete from Inca times – was lost to the world forever.



Titicaca means 'wildcat’ after its shape, because if you look at it from above, it resembles a local feline species stretching its paws. Indeed, various regional civilisations seemed to know how natural or man-made features looked from the sky. There is no evidence that the Andean people practised hang-gliding, but with all the hallucinogens they took, I don't think they needed much mechanical help for lift-off.



The Isla del Sol is much bigger, has a variety of temples and is inhabited by Aymara Indians who have caught on that tourists like to take photographs. So they pose in their ponchos by their llamas and demand money. They have even wised up to the zoom and they know that you are not taking a picture of the landscape if you are pointing your long lens in their general direction, so they wave their hands to spoil your composition. Such commercial savvy made me sigh. Is nothing left uncorrupted?



Our final stop was Copacabana, a small town wonderfully located in a small bay between two high hills. Being only 10km from the Peruvian border, it has a military camp where photography is forbidden. In theory, that is. Because, as the camp stands by the mooring, it’s featured in the pictures of every approaching tourist. Mind you, the army base is in itself worth ticking off for a tourist: it harbours, after all, the sum total of Bolivia’s navy.



Copacabana’s large cathedral provides some historical continuity of worship. It is in Titicaca where, according to the Incas, the Sun and the Moon first rose, commanded by Viracocha, the Creator. And today it is in Copacabana where a miraculous picture of Virgin Mary was discovered and turned the town into the biggest pilgrimage site of the Andes.



Yes, be under no doubt: it’s the miracle of this vast, life-providing body of water that people worship. For religions come and go, but Titicaca remains timeless and constant.


You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

roundtheworldflights.com have some great options in South America here