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When you first glimpse Lake Titicaca’s crystalline, gemlike waters, beneath the looming backdrop of the Cordillera Real in the clear Altiplano light, you’ll understand why pre-Inca people connected it with mystical events. Those early inhabitants of the Altiplano believed that both the sun itself and their bearded, white god-king, Viracocha, had risen out of its mysterious depths. The Incas, in turn, believed that it was the birthplace of their civilization.

When the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century, legends of treasure began to surface, including the tale that some Incas had flung their gold into the lake to prevent the Spanish carting it off. Distinct fluctuations in the water level of the lake have led treasure hunters to speculate that the ruins of ancient cities might lie beneath its surface.

From year to year, changes in the water level of Lake Titicaca are not uncommon; previous fluctuations may even have inundated settlements and ruins. In the floods of 1985 to 1986, highways, docks, fields and streets all disappeared beneath the rising waters, adobe homes turned to mud and collapsed, and 200, 000 people were displaced. It took several years for the Río Desaguadero, the lake’s only outlet, to drain the flood waters.

Although evidence of submerged cities remains inconclusive, archaeologists are still unearthing exquisite finds around the lake. At Isla Koa, north of Isla del Sol, they found 22 large stone boxes containing a variety of artifacts: a silver llama, some shell figurines and several types of incense burners. And in 2004, the tiny island of Pariti hit world headlines when a team of Finnish and Bolivian archaeologists discovered elaborate and beautiful pottery there, which is now housed in a small museum on the island, and in La Paz.