Five Days Visiting Lake Titicaca and Puno

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Kids: 
11 years
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Parent
Date: 
2013-06-23 to 2013-06-28
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While I had always wanted to visit Lake Titicaca, I never knew that much about the region around the lake. Rich in history, with ancient sites that predate the Inca, the lake also happens to be the largest in South America, spanning a distance larger than Puerto Rico! After three weeks staying in Cusco, I decided to take my daughter on a five-day trip to visit Puno, a town on the northern, Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, as well as to see a few of the many islands. 

Totora reed boat on Lake TiticacaTo get to the lake, we took a bus from the station in Cusco, and traveled south for about seven hours. Eventually, we reached the dismal, dusty town of Juliaca. My daughter and I watched motorbikes speed past down the dirt roads, dogs as they fought in the dust, and people congregated along the roadside as they sold some fruits and vegetables, but mostly large appliances such as freezers. The buildings were not in good condition, and the area didn't give me a very good feeling. Finally, we drove past a billboard that read in Spanish: "Juliaca, a Modern City." I later found out that Juliaca, being so close to the Bolivian border, illegally imports electronics and appliances to sell to Peruvians on the black market, and is known for its criminal activity. I started to wonder what we'd find as we got closer to the lake. 

An hour later, we arrived to the bus station in Puno. We dragged our bags outside, and haggled with a taxi driver about the fare. After we agreed on a sum, the driver sped through Puno and dropped us off at our hotel. 

What follows are some of the highlights of our trip to Lake Titicaca, first in Puno, then, the islands:

PUNO

Young dancers in the Plaza de Armas, PunoBalsa Inn Hotel

After our drive through Juliaca, I couldn't help but wonder what we'd find at our hotel in Puno. My daughter and I were, however, pleasantly surprised. The hotel was clean, open, and bustling with tourists from all over the world. Upon receiving our key, we entered our room. After three weeks of staying in an unheated house in Cusco (which is common in Peru), we were thrilled to find that not only was our room warm, but a space heater had been provided. I quickly plugged in the heater and enjoyed being warm for the first time since we had left New York. We were even more surprised to find that our shower had hot water! My daughter, who had only taken a few showers while in Cusco, finally was squeaky clean. Once warm and bathed, we turned on the TV in the room, and had fun watching soap operas in Spanish and ordering room service. There was a desert on the menu called "Purple Mush," which we had to try, and we also indulged in simple sandwiches and omlettes. In addition, the hotel provided a great buffet breakfast each morning, with coffee, juices, pastries, eggs, meats and fruit. 

Plaza de Armas 

In many Peruvian cities, there is a main square, or Plaza de Armas, that is the site for festivals, gatherings of friends, and just where people go to "see and be seen." Located just a few blocks away from our hotel, we spent long hours people-watching in the square, and even caught a couple of festivals. We loved watching young schoolchildren dance in festive outfits, and just generally taking in the sites. The town, known as the "folkloric capital of Peru," certainly lives up to its name: all around us were visible signs of the art and dance inspired by the indiginous cultures in the area. For most of our days in Puno, we relaxed in the plaza, tried some of Puno Cathedralthe restaurants in the neighborhood and surrounding areas. After many weeks of seeing something new every day in Cusco, it was nice to slow down a bit in Puno and simply absorb the culture. After all, travel is really about getting to truly know new people and places in an intimate way, not rushing through sites as though running a race!

Cathedral of Puno  

This example of Andean Baroque architecture, built in 1757, is a great site to visit in the center of Puno. While the facade is impressive, sadly, due to a fire in the mid-1900's that destroyed much of the art inside the building, the interior is less impressive.  Puno is notably less Spanish than Cusco, and we enjoyed meeting some of the town's indigenous inhabitants and trying to speak with them in our broken Spanish as we sat in front of the cathedral. Although we poked our heads inside, we never really ventured in, choosing instead to sit on the stairs and watch church-goers arrive for mass. Located on the western side of the Plaza de Armas, the streets hugging the cathedral have a number of little restaurants and ice cream shops, many of which have balconies that overlook the plaza and cathedral. 

Mosja

After weeks of eating Cusquenian fare, we were thrilled to try options besides potatoes, beef and quinoa. Puno is known for its delicious trout as well as its preparation of alpaca. Of course, we had to try both. The trout, a cold dish, was served with avocado, onions and mashed potatoes. As we happily dug in, I realized that back in the United States, a dish such as this would've cost triple what we were paying in Puno. It ended up being one of our favorite meals in Peru (which is saying a lot, as we loved nearly all Peruvian fare!). While I loved the sauce served with the alpaca (made of coffee and local berries), the meat itself was a little tough for my liking. We were, however, so happy with the food served at Mosja that we ended up eating there on three separate evenings! We perched on the restaurant's balcony and spent long hours eating, drinking coffee and daydreaming. My daughter tried her first Inca Cola, Peru's favorite soda. Although she pronounced that it "tasted like bubblegum" and was "way too sweet," she enjoyed the novelty of trying the beverage.

A mother and her daughter on one of the Uros IslandsPuno Marina - Plaza del Faro

The Puno Marina and Plaza del Faro isn't necessarily the most beautiful area, but it's a great spot to stock up on snacks and water before leaving for the islands of Lake Titicaca. After taking a taxi from the hotel, we met up with our guide, Ever, who suggested we puchase goods such as sugar, rice and pasta to bring to bring for the hosts we'd be staying with once we arrived to Amantani Island. We then found our boat, which, having a small cabin and open rooftop, pulled away from the marina, quickly leaving Puno and the marina behind as we wound our way through channels cut through miles of totora reeds. The farther we got from the shore, the more excited I felt about Lake Titicaca. 

UROS ISLANDS

In about an hour, we reached the edge of the Uros Islands. These 40 or so islands, popularly called "floating islands," have been completely constructed by the Uros people of totora reeds. The Uros people originally built islands hundreds of years ago to escape the Inca, and then the Spanish, but today, one Uros family resides on each island, which is connected to the other islands by totora ropes.The culture survives mainly because of tourism and subsidies from the government, but also fishes for trout and dines on iodine-rich totora to survive. We visited a family who gave us a fascinating demonstration about how to build a floating island, and we were then invited into their homes to get a glimpse of what their lives are like. Of course, because the people rely on tourism, we were invited to purchase woven gift-items, scarves and the ilk. Life on the islands is difficult. Cold, and with a need to constantly work to maintain the islands and the building of boats, my daughter and I were impressed by the Uros people, and had a hard time imagining day-to-day life. One of the islands, we were told, exists solely to hold the a school, and island inhabitants send their children five days a week by boat to be educated. With more and more men leaving the Delicious cold lake trout at Mosjaislands to find work in Puno and surrounding areas, as we pulled away from the island, I felt we were leaving behind a "lost civilization." I wondered if next time I visited Lake Titicaca, if this ancient culture would still remain, and if so, in what shape would it be in? 

AMANTANI ISLAND

After leaving Uros, we found ourselves leaving the channels of totora reeds and hitting open water. Lake Titicaca took my breath away. First of all, the lake is HUGE. In the distance we could just make our the snowy mountaincaps in far-off Bolivia, but other than that, were captivated by the blue water meeting the even bluer sky. On the lake, not seeing any other boats, it was easy to imagine that we had escaped civilization. A few hours later, however, an island surfaced. Like much of Peru's mountains and hills, the island was covered in terraces that had been made by the Inca and pre-Inca people farming communities. Today, many of the island's inhabitants raise sheep and grow potatoes along these same terraces. 

As we reached shore, Ever asked if we were ready to meet our new "mamas." Excitedly, we nodded. We'd be staying for a night with a local, and had no idea what to expect. We grabbed our belongings and started the hike up the island. It was hard-going, and we were soon out of breath. Eventually, after passing many farms, we stopped to catch our breath, and were soon met by Gladis, our host. A small woman wearing a woolen, woven shirt and traditional mantle, Gladis led us even farther up the hill as she spun wool. I was amazed: how on earth was this woman spinning wool and walking when I could barely keep up? Upon reaching her home, she showed us to our room. So much for heat and hot showers. The room was quite rustic, with two small, wooden beds laden with dozens of wool blankets. I felt a little worried, wondering if the islands got so cold at night that all of those blankets needed to be used?

Standing on one of the Uros IslandsGladis was a great host. Although we had a language barrier (Spanish was neither of our first language), she cooked us a lunch of cheese, potatoes and peppers as well as served us muna and coca tea to combat altitude sickness. As it was cold, my daughter and I wore our parkas while eating, but the tea helped heat us up a bit. The kitchen was very rustic, with compacted dirt floors and a wood-burning stove. After we ate, Gladis had disappeared. I checked the rest of the house, and eventually found her behind the house working her potato fields with her daughter. As we sat sorting potatoes, I appreciated how hard the islanders on Amantani worked. 

In the late afternoon, we climbed to the top of one of one of Amantani's highest peaks to watch the sunset, which was, I have to say, the most stunning sunset of my life. Small girls tried hard to get us to purchase woven bracelets, and followed us wherever we walked, but I understood that they were just trying to help making a living for their families. I laughed at some of their sales antics, but did eventually cave in and buy a few bracelets for a sole each (about 30 cents).

That evening, we were invited to wear some of Gladis' traditional clothing. While I felt a little funny appropriating someone else's culture, I did finally agree to wear a beautiful, embroidered mantle (scarf), and my daughter let herself also be dressed up. Once wearing the appropriate garb, we were led down dark paths to a community center where we danced the night away at a party. Musicians played lovely music, and, amidst locals who were teaching us new dances, we felt happy, albeit a little on display in the somewhat contrived party. After the party, we were led back to our room in the dark, with a sea of stars above our heads. The night had turned frigid cold, and we found that indeed, we needed all of our blankets!

TAQUILE ISLAND

Great view while learning about the people on Taquile IslandIn the morning, after a quick breakfast, Gladis walked us back down to the dock, where we said our goodbyes and boarded the boat for Taquile Island. Smaller than Amantani, and located about 45 kilometers away from Puno, the island's 2200 inhabitants live similarly to their ancestors. Islanders fish, raise crops on terraces similar to those on Amantani, but they are also known for their beautiful woven goods. On Taquile, women made the yarn and weave, while knitting is an art performed only by the males. After docking on one side of the island and learning about the history of its inhabitants from Ever, we hiked across the rocky terrain to the town square. There, we entered a building where knit and woven goods filled three floors. We marveled over sweaters, vests, belts, hats and even guitar straps. I was so impressed by these woolen items that I purchased a belt. 

After learning about the weaving and knitting culture of the islanders, we made our way again to the town square, and caught the end of a local wedding. The bride, exiting the small Catholic church at the edge of the square, wore many layers of skirts in a variety of colors, and a processional of family walked single file across the square and through the thin streets. We followed them for a ways, but at a fork in the road, we headed up a hill while they headed down. Midway up the hill, we came to a small community center where we were greeted by a friendly family who served us an unbelievably tasty lunch of lake trout. Seated outdoors, with a view of the island below, we watched the wedding party preparing for their own lunch: a feast of 100 sheep and potatoes. The smells of their food wafted up the hill, and, with the sapphire lake and sky hugging the island and filling our vision, we wondered if we'd ever be able to beat this day. 

Muna and coca teaEventually, however, all good things come to an end. Full of good food and memories, we hiked down to the dock nearest the town square, where our boat sat waiting. We were whisked away across the lake back to Puno, and, more relaxed and happy than I had been in a long time, I even managed to get in a nap!

Back in Puno, my daughter and I enjoyed a few last leisurely hours sitting in front of the cathedral, dined yet again at Mosja, and retired in our room back at the Balsa Inn Hotel. In the morning, we cranked our space heater to high and took long, hot showers. After all, we'd be heading back to Cusco, and we weren't sure when we'd next have the opportunity to take piping hot showers! 

TIPS FOR VISITING PUNO AND LAKE TITICACA

  • Puno has an elevation of 12,556 feet, even higher than Cusco! One must be careful to watch for signs of altitude sickness. Headaches and stomachaches are unfortunately rather usual, but one should see a doctor if those symptoms are accompanied by disorientation or any other unusual reactions.
  • Puno and the entire Lake Titicaca region is ALWAYS chilly. Make sure to dress in layors. During the day, the air can be twenty degrees warmer than at night, when the temperature often dips below freezing.
  • Because of the high elevation, one is more prone to being sunburned. ALWAYS wear sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher. I'd advice to purchase sunscreen before your trip, and to also bring along a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Keep your bags close, and never carry valuables or more cash than necessary. If confronted by a would-be thief, give him what he wants. Mostly, if you comply with a thief's wishes, you'll be left unharmed. Because I travel with a daughter, I take extra precautions. In Puno, this meant making sure the lock on my hotel room was secure, and not going out at night. One can never be too careful.
  • With our host on AmantaniWhile Uros, Amantani and Taquile depend on tourism to feed their economies, the people living in each island are private, and deserve an incredible amount of consideration. It isn't polite to take photos without asking, although don't be surprised if some of your subjects- children, particularly- ask for a sole (around thirty cents) in return. Indeed, one time I took a photo of a small kitten, and a little boy ran up and demanded money for taking a snapshot of his "friend!" 
  • While you should always ask before taking a photo of locals, note that sometimes, if you try to pose for a photograph, young children will, at the last moment, jump into your photo. These "photobombing" kids will then ask for a sole. I laughed over their antics, but didn't succumb to their demands. It's perfectly fine to say "no" if you've being taken advantage of!
  • Like anywhere else in Peru, don't drink water from the tap! I made sure to purchase bottled water in Puno and bring it with me. On the islands, fellow tourists grumbled that beverages were much more expensive than on the mainland.
  • While travel doesn't necessarily mean you must know the language(s) of the places you visit, it would certainly be helpful to know a little Spanish when visiting Puno and the islands in Lake Titicaca. Outside of the hotels and tour guides, most locals don't speak English. Indeed, some of them don't even speak Spanish, having grown up learning only their native Quechua language! Even if you don't speak Spanish, learning words for water, food and bathroom might help you greatly. Also, it's just considerate to know at least a few words and phrases, and you'll find that the locals love when you give speaking Spanish a shot.
Gallery: 
Totora reed boat on Lake Titicaca
Terraces on Amantani Island
Helping sort potatoes on Amantani
The view from the top of Amantani
Great view while learning about the people on Taquile Island
The church (left) and weaving/knitting community center (right) on Taquile
Wedding on Taquile
Nice place for a nap- on the boat back to Puno
Nice lunch on Taquile Island
With our host on Amantani
Muna and coca tea
Young dancers in the Plaza de Armas, Puno
Delicious cold lake trout at Mosja
A mother and her daughter on one of the Uros Islands
Standing on one of the Uros Islands
Puno Cathedral
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Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions

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