Peru fascinates with its landscapes. One day you’re by the ocean – the other high in the mountains. After a few days in hot and humid jungle you get on the ship and cruise at the highest navigable lake in the world. And that’s just one of the things about Lake Titicaca.
Puno, or once more high altitude
Traveling in Peru, though very inspiring and engaging, it can get you a little exhausted. The distances between the places we visited usually required at least a few hours bus ride and differed considerably in altitude. From ocean level Lima we set out on the trail of the Incas (2500 – 3500 m.a.s.l.). From these peaks we roamed the jungle, located low in the lowlands (180 m.a.s.l.) to again reach the heights of the 3820 m.a.s.l., this time in Puno – the second highest situated city in Peru.
Puno is beautifully located – between the shores of Lake Titicaca, and the slopes of the mountains surrounding the city. However, we did sightseeing the city by just walking around. Still tired after the bus journey, not quite sure whether we truly recovered after the food poisoning in the jungle, we decided not to push ourselves and therefore didn’t even try to get to any of the many viewpoints on the outskirts of the city. We didn’t regret it, because doing so we had time to feel the rhythm of the city, observe people and recharge ourselves.
Among the sights to see in Puno we should certainly mention Plaza de Armas. The large square is surrounded by nicely restored buildings, among which the most impressive is the cathedral dating from colonial times. Also, walking along the main street you can see a lot of interesting houses, churches and the occasional souvenir shops.
However, our most interesting memory of Puno was dinner in the restaurant. After more than two weeks since our arriving to Peru, we managed to find a dish we were very curious about – roasted guinea pig. First to try was Patrycja – she is always the first to try the strangest dishes.
The way how it was served could be a bit shocking, especially if someone had a guinea pig as a pet (Patrycja had 4 when she was a kid). Quite frankly it was not really a special taste whatsoever. There was also more of sucking the tiny bones than the real meat, and the same meat tasted like a combination of fish and chicken. Our curiosity got satisfied, but we have no plans to eat more guinea pigs.
Undoubtedly, the major tourist attraction in the region of Puno is Lake Titicaca. This is the largest freshwater lake in South America , located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and is the highest navigable lake in the world. What does it mean? Although there are many lakes situated above 3812 m.a.s.l. in the world (the altitude of Titicaca surface), none of them has big ships and tourist boats sailing on it.
The name of the lake comes from two words, which in literal translation from Quechua mean “ titi ” – puma and the “ caca ” – hare. With good imagination you can try to see a puma chasing a hare in the shape of the lake, when the map is rotated by 180°.
According to the beliefs of the Incas, on one of the islands – the Island of the Sun – white Inca god Viracocha and the first Incas were born. This island even today is a sacred place to the Aymara and Quechua Indians living in Peru and Bolivia. Although we didn’t visit the Island of the Sun, we still saw several other islands on Lake Titicaca.
About 5 km from Puno one can find the islands of Uros – artificially created archipelago of floating islands. There are more than 40, and each was built by hand by Uru people that live on Lake Titicaca for generations. They claim the lake is theirs and that the black blood in their veins makes them resistant to cold weather. And although no one speaks the traditional language of the Uru or practices the beliefs of their ancestors no more – they still cultivate some of the traditions, of which the most important is the living on the floating islands.
Uros Islands are built cane called totora, which grows in the lake. The base of each of the islands is made of 1-2m thick blocks from cut totora roots. These blocks are tied together and anchored by ropes to the bottom of the lake. Dried reed is layered on top of the blocks, and it needs to be replaced regularly. Dried totora is also used as a material to built houses, beds for sleeping and traditional boats. Fresh totora also has a wide application on the islands of Uros, including in the treatment of wounds, as a “toothbrush” or simply as a food – it is so-called water banana.
Tourists are very eager to visit the floating islands and the inhabitants are trying to further diversify their “tourist offer”. On the island you can buy hand-made ornaments and woven bedspreads and one of the locals told us about Uru traditions and construction of the islands. At the end of our visit we had the opportunity to take a ride in traditional boat made of totora. During this short voyage we tasted water banana, and listened Uru children singing various songs 🙂
To us it was somehow shocking thet despite so many tourists visiting Uros, their people still lead a very modest life. On the small islands live up to 3 families, which usually share kitchen, have a shared bathroom and a few tiny one-room huts, where one could find little more than the beds and the clothes hanged on the walls. As it turned out later not only the inhabitants of the islands of the Uros live so modestly.
Another island which we visited was Amantani. This is the largest island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It has about 4,000 inhabitants – most of whom speak only the language of Quechua. Dependent mainly on their crops and fisheries, and partly from tourism. You will not find here any cars or hotels, and only a few tiny shops, where you can buy the most necessary articles. Tourists who want to spend the night on the island, can stay with residents and that’s usually in really basic conditions. Some of the homes still lack running water and electricity (if they have it), works usually only for a few hours a day – and comes from the generators.
We stayed in such place as well – without running water and with electricity only in the evening – and even then only for a moment. Along with Karina and Richard, tourists from Chile, were stayed with the family of Ernesto who – though very poor – received us kindly. The rooms and meals were modest and only Ernesto spoke a bit of Spanish – his wife and daughter spoke only Quechua. Despite this, we were touched and happy that we had a chance to see how a typical family from the Amantani lives. It showed us how little is needed to live peacefully and happily.
After the lunch we went to see the most important places on the island. There are two peaks – Pachatata and Pachamama with the ruins of the temples of the same name. Once they worshiped Mother Earth (Pachamama) and the Father Earth (Pachatata) – today these are closed throughout the year. We climbed to the top of the Pachamama hill – and it was a special moment, because it was the first time we in a point that was above 4,000 m.a.s.l. A view from the top was breathtaking. You could see from there the whole Amantani island, beautiful panorama of Lake Titicaca along with some surrounding islands, and Bolivia in the distance.
In the evening came time for the next stage of learning about the culture of island inhabitants. We got traditional costumes from our hosts – Patrycja wore a woven blouse, wide skirt and a black shawl with beautiful embroidered designs, and Dawid wore the traditional poncho and a bobble hat.
Dressed like that, with other tourists, we gathered in a large hall where we took part in traditional dances with live music. There was a lot of laughter, and Patrycja almost lost her shawl due to fast dances. We exhausted this madness not persevered to the end of play. Exhausted we returned to our host home and quickly went to sleep.
Early next morning we sailed to the island of Taquile. This small island can be traversed in less than one day. And so we did. From the port on one side of the island we went to the port on the other side, stopping many times along the way. Initially, we walked a narrow path between the trees, but when we climbed higher we saw the view is even more beautiful than the previous day. On a sunny day the calm surface of the lake is like a crystal blue mirror. With single white clouds reflecting in it, and with high hills surrounding and completing the whole frame of this beautiful landscape. Next, the path led between the lush green terraces, climbing the slopes, and from time to time we passed single houses and stone arches.
Then we arrived to the main square of the island, where there is nothing spectacular, but you can not deny its charms. Observation deck, a church and several buildings, including one where you can find the greatest pride of Taquileños. The island of Taquile is known mainly for high-quality textile products made from alpaca wool, which are considered the best in all of South America. Almost everyone on the island does knitting – men, women and children. Here you can buy all kinds of things – blankets, clothes, bags and accessories, all handmade and very colorful with rich patterns.
Clothes themselves are a very important element of the culture of the inhabitants of the island. Everyone dresses up here according to strict rules. Men always wear long black pants, white shirts and colored stripes. Additionally, each man wears a hat or so-called chullos, and the color of caps, its length and pattern reflect the matrimonial status of the man. Married man always wears red or colored cap, while bachelors and boys wear white and red long chullos.
The same goes for women. Traditionally, every woman wears a skirt, an embroidered shirt and a wide decorative shawl being headgear. These clothes differ with colors. Married women wear only black skirts with little petticoats and brides and girls wear colorful dresses. Traditionally, on the first wedding anniversary women give their husbands a gift belt with her hair woven into it as a symbol of the inseparability of marriage.
What’s interesting, the people of Taquile do not accept divorcing. Before the wedding, each couple is living together for two years to see if they fit to each other. If everything goes well – they get married. But if not – they separete and look for new partners. And if there are any children born from such broken relationship – the son always stays with his father, and the daughter with her mother.
We learned all these interesting facts about the culture and traditions of Taquileños during lunch at one of the houses. After lunch we continued our journey to another port from which our ship sailed away. We returned to Puno late in the afternoon – very happy and with better knowledge with this two-day cruise on Lake Titicaca.
- There are several observation points in the upper levels of Puno, from which you can admire the panorama and Lake Titicaca. Hiking in the hills surrounding Puno can be very charming, but definitely it is not recommended to walk around the outskirts of the city alone, as you can become a victim of robbery or mugging. So if you plan to hike, it is recommended to take the colectivo bus to Chuciuto village (about 19km from Puno) and from there start the hike. The cost of such a bus is 1-2 PEN (0.3-0.6USD).
- Many travel agencies in Puno offer day trips in different variants. Prices depend of course on the length of the trip and the number of visited sites.
- We opted in for the cruise on Lake Titicaca, together with a visit to the islands. The two-day tour of the islands of the Uros, Amantani and Taquile, including accommodation and half board, did cost us 95PEN (27USD) per person. Price was initially higher, but we managed to bargain a bit. We do not remember the name of the agency, but the truth is that the prices are almost identical everywhere and you can also try to negotiate. So just go to any of the agencies and choose whatever interests you – tours can be have various lengths and visit various islands.
- Alternatively, you can go to the port and on-site try to get a independent carrier. That way you can save some PEN, e.g. if you want to visit only one island.
- Taquile can also be reached by a kayak from the Llachon city, either on a package tour or by yourself renting kayaks.
- You can stay overnight on both Amantani and Taquile, renting a room at one of the family homestays. Usually the price of such accommodation is 10PEN (3USD). Meals are paid additionally, also around 10PEN. You must remember that you probably will not have access to running water (not to mention the warm one), and the electricity can be very limited as well.