Lake Titicaca Travel, Puno, Peru

A view of Puno shack-attack from Lake Titicaca port, Peru

Peru’s Lake Titicaca port city, Puno, a drab place with a bad case of shack-attack, almost no elegant Spanish colonial and definitely no Inca wonder-workmanship.

Titicaca and Puno

Puno's Plaza del Puno, Peru

This is Plaza del Puno, the city’s prime space and practically shack-free. Photo by Cecilia Heinen.

Puno city is not a pretty place, but any all-seeing tourist to Peru needs to go there to meet colourful local people, shop for quality handicrafts (much better prices than in Cusco), maybe wander the Altiplano and most of all to boat around vast and glassy Lake Titicaca and the wonders thereon/in, which include underwater-garaged UFOs according to actress Shirley Maclaine.

Apart from that there is also the benefit of altitude acclimatisation before heading for Machu Picchu and the sight of two odd island cultures on Lake Titicaca, Uros Floaters and Taquile Knitters.

Hiking in the hills around Puno is discouraged as bandidos lurk there but boat trips to odd and unique islands such as Uros and Taquile can be fun though occasionally they can be aggressively touristy.
Tours or self-drives around the bleak Altiplano, bumping into llama herds, an ancient ruin or two and grand views of the Andes are modestly entertaining but not a must-do.

At a height of 3, 800m (12, 500ft) and crammed between the shore of Lake Titicaca and the Andes mountains, Puno offers very little in the way of architectural attractions apart from the ever-present churches, being mainly composed of crude brick structures that are deliberately half-finished in order to avoid taxes, but the city is nevertheless humming with colourful rural folk – mostly in the llama/alpaca business or smuggled goods from Bolivia – and lively cultural activities.

Puno fruit seller wearing traditional bowler hat, Peru

Peruvian Indios selling their wares in the streets of Puno. Fruit is a rarity in this harsh climate and makes a fine present.

Onion attack

Peruvian Indios selling vegetables in the streets of Puno, Peru

The hand grabbing a bunch of spring onions on the left was a friend of the smiling woman pictured, and the onions were to beat me – the photographer – with. I had asked permission to take a photo and the smiler said yes while the grabber said no, so I took the picture of the smiler and was (good-naturedly) beaten for my trouble by the sullen mate. Moral: always ask permission before photographing local people, but expect some of them to refuse.

Titicaca/Puno weather

Generally cool, sunny and dry, the 3, 800m elevation here not only offers the average tourist flying in from Lima the chance to experience altitude sickness but also to freeze at night and burn during the daytime. That being said, the same goes for Cusco and Machu Picchu so perhaps it’s best to get that out of your system before arriving at your primary target!

Maximum temperatures in Puno reach about 15C, the minimum goes below 0C in winter (June-August), but whatever the temperature – as when skiing – the sun is scorching.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, 8, 000 sq kms (3, 100 sq miles) connecting Peru to Bolivia. According to Inca legend Titicaca is the birthplace of the Inca nation and as such was revered by the Incas.

Rumours suggest that at the time of the Spanish conquest Inca dignitaries threw many precious artifacts from Cusco into the lake rather than let the Spanish get them, but the famous French oceanographer and diver, Jacques Cousteau, spent a couple of months exploring the depths with a mini submarine and found nothing of interest other than a gigantic, live, multicolored frog.

The Virgen de la Candelaria Festival, Puno, Peru

The Virgen de la Candelaria Festival, Carnaval de Paucarcolla. Photo by Ortega.

February is a superb month to visit Puno, not just for the mild late summer weather, but also for the brilliant fiesta of the Virgen de la Candelaria, a kaleidoscopic music and dance celebration involving a great variety of Andean dances sourced from many Peruvian towns, one reason why Puno is sometimes known as the ‘Folklore Capital of Peru’. February 2nd is the best day.

Altiplano Travel Health Advice

• avoid sunstroke by wearing a hat during the middle of the day at least.

• avoid altitude problems by travelling up to mid-altitude Arequipa (or Cusco if you go that way) by road from Lima, then drive or fly to Puno.

• avoid night chills by bringing some compact but seriously warm clothing, even if it is summertime in Peru.

Are the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca worth a trip?

The biggest of the floating Uros Islands, Toranipata, on Lake Titicaca, Peru

The biggest of the floating Uros Islands, Toranipata, on Lake Titicaca

The Uros Islands are an unmissable tourist trap due to the bizarre nature of tribal life afloat for over a thousand years on Lake Titicaca, where one angry foot stamp will drop you into cold water, or an erratic kick on the football pitch requires ball retrieval via woven reed boat.

A guide is essential as the reality of life bobbing on a lake is fascinating and full of curiosities, including the fact that islanders need to keep laying down reeds constantly because the islands are endlessly sinking as the lower reeds decay and drift away!

The trip from Puno takes about 20 minutes and may be combined with a Taquile Island visit (see below).

A boy on Lake Titicaca reed boat, Puno, Peru

Fishing used to be the islander’s raison d’etre, but not any more. The boy is playing on a traditional reed boat.

What are Uros islands?

The bases of the 41 floating islands on Lake Titicaca are muddy reed rootballs with piles of cut reeds stacked on top; the biggest island, about 70m (200ft) long, contains a reed church and small football pitch in addition to reed huts. Island life is tough and rewards small so tourists should expect to pay for photos they wish to take.

A typical new style Uros reed boat, Lake Titicaca, Peru

As the main revenue source of the Uro people becomes more tourist-oriented they have turned their reed boat building skills towards boats aimed at entertaining tourists rather than fishing expeditions.

Bum Trip!

One feature of the bugcrew’s visit to Uros was part sad, part funny. We agreed on a price for a short ride around the island on a reed boat (as above with kid in it, but bigger), then, when about 50m out the paddler demanded more money to take us back, arguing that we had only paid to be taken out, not back. How we laughed!

Well, the sun was shining, the view fantastic and we were in no hurry so we said, ‘OK, let’s not go back’. And waited. And got back 10 minutes later with no further expense and certainly no tip.

Is Taquile Island worth a visit?

Taquile Island and islanders, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Taquile Island port (and fairly steep climb), with a Puno boat on it’s way home across Lake Titicaca.

Set in Lake Titicaca 25 kms from Puno, Isla Taquile is a small, calm and pretty place with great lake and mountain views and an unusual local custom – women make the yarn while men do the knitting, generally red coloured hats and clothing.

The ferry to get there takes about 3 hours each way (tourist boats usually include Uros and Taquile visits on the same day), there are over 500 uneven steps to reach to the island’s plateau habitat (at high altitude, remember! ) and it’s all a bit touristy (a small landing fee is charged), but still redolent of genuine, rural Peru peopled by genuine, friendly folk.

Is it worth 6 hours on a ferry and a hefty hike for a brief meet with quaint people, lunch and ‘spontaneous’ dance show? It was for us but if you’re short of time you may well choose not to go. The wind coming off Titicaca may make the boat extremely cold so wrap up.

Taquile men sitting around chewing, Lake Titicaca, Peru

If travellers wish to stay on a Titicaca island, it’s possible, but we have heard good reports of nearby, less-touristy Amantani Island where tourists stay in B&Bs, rotated between local families and live like the locals.

Dressing up on Isla Taquile Saint's Day, July 25, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Dressing up on Isla Taquile Saint’s Day, July 25. Photo by Maurice Chedel.

Getting to Puno

• Fly in via Puno’s Inca Manco Capac International Airport in nearby Juliaca.

• Bus from/to Cusco (8 hours) or Arequipa (6 hours). There was a bus with beds a year ago!

• Train (recommended) from/to Cusco, but only three times a week so book ahead, it’s brilliant. Tourist only carriages (so relax, no rateros).

Puno is also a convenient route to enter into/from Bolivia

Traveling Puno to/from Bolivia’s lakeside Copacabana on a once-daily bus taking 3 hours or on a ferry (no information). From Copacabana to La Paz is about 4 hours by bus.

Alternatively it’s also possible to travel directly to La Paz, Bolivia, from Puno.

Another route to La Paz is via Bolivia’s Desaguadero, also on Lake Titicaca, but this town has an appalling reputation for filth and inconvenience so don’t go that way!