Lake Titicaca, Peru

At 12,529 feet, Lake Titicaca is one of the highest navigable lakes in the world. It perfectly mirrors the concentrated blue of the sky, and in the distance, water and atmosphere are indistinguishable.

From Puno, it takes three hours by boat to reach Taquile, one of the lake’s Peru-side islands. You dock at the base of a 500-step staircase carved into the side of a hill. The thin, high-altitude air makes the steep climb challenging, but the island’s bizarre and beautiful charm is worth the effort.

After the ascent, an earthen path leads you to a small square. Views of the lake fill the space between a whitewashed church, a restaurant, and a communal tourist market that sells knitted caps and samples of brightly woven material. An island chief greets you and asks if you want to stay the night. There are no hotels here, only a hand-written roster of families who provide a bed and blankets for two dollars, and meals for a bit more. The list rotates daily, creating a communal system that keeps the island refreshingly free from the urban hustle found elsewhere.

Trimmed by sapphire water, the pastoral landscape is a dazzling weave of red, mineral-rich soil, and healthy crops. Cows graze freely, chickens coo and cluck, and an occasional rabbit hops by. Men walk the island whispering to each other in their native Quechua; it is unnecessary to raise your voice in a place this peaceful. As they stroll, they knit on tiny needles, expertly crafting the customary, red and white caps that all the men wear. If the pointy tail of the hat flops to the side, he’s single; if it hangs to the back, he’s married. Women, too, wear the traditional dress: delicately embroidered white blouses, black skirts, and multicolored belts that tie around the waist.

You meet your hosts for dinner in their rustic stone home. A tureen of vegetable soup and a plate of salted sweet fish and rice steam on the table. After the meal you are offered the ubiquitous maté (coco-leaf tea), which speeds the flow of oxygen through your veins and warms you against the cold mountain air.

Night falls and the island is yours to explore. Through glowing windows, candles cast soft light on the serpentine pathways, lined by ancient walls. You follow the trails and pass under stone archways, adorned with Incan carvings of moons, birds and rabbits. On the highest point of the island lay the ruins of an Incan shrine. Here it all comes together- the mystery of ancient rituals, the reverence for Pachamama (mother earth), and the simplicity of a life without electricity. Here, in the quiet middle of some of the highest mountains in the world, a crescent moon and a trillion stars throw speckled light on a crystalline lake, and you decide to stay another night.