The city of Puno is rarely considered most beautiful destination on Lake Titicaca; the modern and somewhat scruffy city is a working port town. It is a destination not only for tourists, but also lake dwellers here to market their wares and shop for necessities. Puno does, however, have its understated charms, and is a convenient base for exploring Titicaca’s amazing islands, pre-Columbian ruins and other attractions.
The original indigenous settlement here on the lakeshore was first occupied by the Spanish in 1668, and soon became a boomtown thanks to the neighboring Laykakota silver mines. After Independence from Spain, indigenous Peruvians began asserting their own autonomy and have since reclaimed their spiritual homeland and (according to legend) birthplace of the Andean peoples, for their own.
Today, Puno is known as the “Folkloric Capital of Peru,” where Aymara, Uros, Quechua and other cultures have long mingled. More than 300 folk dances, each accompanied by colorful costumes, elaborate masks, cheerful songs and other traditional accouterments, are performed throughout the year at assorted festivals held in honor of Catholic saints and virgins, as well as the old gods. Check to see what’s on while you’re in town.
Travelers should be aware that Puno’s altitude of 3,822m (12,565 feet) presents some serious considerations for visitors. Altitude sickness is common and the ubiquitous coca tea only helps so much; take it easy, and consider acclimating at a lower elevation, such as Cuzco, for a few days. Sunburns are also serious business; wear hats, sunblock and glasses, or risk being one of the hundreds of travelers hospitalized with blistering (literally!) sunburns each year.
Day One: Explore the City
Puno’s strollable city center has plenty of sites that can keep you busy for a day or two. The most famous is the Church of San Pedro, called the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas” for the exquisite murals covering its ceiling and walls. Several other attractive churches offer relief from the blistering sun, such as the Church of San Juan, home of Puno’s patron, the Virgen de la Candelaria, and stone 1757 Cathedral of Puno, famed for its elaborate silver-plated altar, next to the famed Balcony of the Count of Lernos, who founded the city.
In the mood for museums? Don’t miss the Dreyer, with a wealth of pre-Columbian art and artifacts. Also interesting is the Yavari Ship Museum, which covers the history of shipping on the world’s highest navigable lake, from reed canoes to British steamships. Other options include the Paleontological and Totora Reed Museums.
For great views, visit Huajsapata Park, just three blocks from Plaza del las Armas, topped with statues of local legends. Or climb 700 stone steps from the city proper to the Kuntur Wasi viewpoint, where you’ll find an iconic metal condor sculpture and incredible views over the port and lake. Security is an issue, so go in groups (or better, with a local guide) and leave valuables at the hotel.
Day Two: Out and About
After watching an epic high-altitude sunrise, book a tour or catch a public boat for the half-hour ride to Islas Uros, Lake Titicaca’s famous floating islands. You can easily spend half a day wandering the artificial landscape, with an extra spring in your step thanks to the reeds with which these unique islands are made. Take an island tour in a gondola made with lashed bundles of reeds, then do some shopping for the region’s famed handicrafts. After returning to the mainland, book an afternoon tour to the Chullpas of Sillustani, the remarkable burial towers overlooking lovely Lake Umayo.
Day Three: Out onto the Lake
While Puno offers a taste of Lake Titicaca’s attractions, it’s well worth the effort to spend the night out on one of the islands. There are several choices.
If you are seeking a taste of the local lifestyle, Isla Taquile and Isla Amantani offer community-organized homestays, meals and guided hikes around their isolated island paradises. Taquile tends to appeal to handicrafts aficionados, while Amantani is a bit farther off the beaten trail. Luxury lovers should book a night or two on Lake Titicaca’s only private island, Suasi, with its excellent upscale hotel. Those in search of the lake’s spiritual and cultural heart, however, will need to head across the lake to Copacabana, Bolivia, with access to Isla del Sol. There, according to legend, was where the sun and moon were born, and the human race began.