Happy New Year blogging family! To start the new year off right, we are going to explore a variety of hidden gems across Peru together. Every other Sunday for the next six months I am going to give ya’ll a travel tips post featuring my favorite locations across the country. Some will be popular tourists attractions, on a volunteer’s budget of course, and others will be so far off the beaten path that only the adventurous will dare! To start, Puno and Lake Titicaca.
As part of a spontaneous trip to Bolivia I started with a day of solo travel in Puno before crossing over to Bolivia by land. Admittedly it was my first solo trip, so my day on Lake Titicaca will always hold a special place in my heart.
(If you’re just here for the fast facts and travel tips scroll to the bottom of this post, if you came for the personal adventure keep reading!)
Puno is a small town in the South of Peru bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water, and it is alive with bright colors, friendly people, and beautiful artisan work! Neon pom poms line boat windows and shops are filled with handmade alpaca winter accessories. The man-made floating reed islands can by spotted from the shoreline and tourists from all over the world visit to get a taste of the island traditions.
As I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by the shockingly cold morning air (19° F) and the yellow rolling mountainside. Puno sits at about 12,500 ft, which means that very little grows. With only a day to explore it all I headed straight from the hotel down to the docks for a tour of the floating Uros islands.
The town of Puno is quaint and quiet, with all of the major tourist attractions located within walking distance of the main plaza. The main language is Spanish, but there are still strong ties to indigenous roots so Aymara is also widely spoken. It is port town whose main source of income is tourism.
Most tourists only stay for a day or two, so island tours range from an afternoon to an overnight with a local host family. I opted for the afternoon tour to the man-made Uros floating islands! I had been warned that this tour was pretty touristy, but going into it with that in mind enhanced my experience because I understood that the islands we visited were constructed as an example of how people actually live privately further offshore.
We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.
He demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they don’t float to Bolivia, and how the islands are made up of layers of reeds that have to be added upon every fifteen days. Each island committee divides the chore of laying out a new reed layer between the residents.
The local economy survives off trout fishing, yuca, quinoa, and potato farming, tourism, and artisan work. Most people who have houses on the floating islands also have a family residence in town where they stay during the work week. The people travel by a collective speedboat or hand-made reed boats.
I spotted some children playing soccer and of course my first question was, what happens when they kick the ball into the lake?! Surprisingly enough kids learn to swim at a very young age for just that reason, and if the ball goes into the lake they jump into the freezing water to retrieve it!
After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Every house is powered by an individual solar panel that soaks up the bright mountain sun all day. Previously candles were used, but as you can imagine… candle + reed house/island = disaster.
The houses were filled with local artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner as we browsed the mobiles, pillow cases, and table runners that lined the walls. I will say I felt pressured to buy something, which I wasn’t a fan of, but I bargained for a set of hair pom poms.
To my surprise the woman even offered to show me how to braid them into my hair! These pom poms are all the rave in Puno and women can be spotted all over town with different styles and colors. I still haven’t been able to find out if there is a meaning behind them, so if you know please share.
From there we were ushered onto a reed boat to be transported to the next island where they offered fresh trout for lunch! The reed boat and lunch are technically optional because it costs an extra 10 soles to ride and lunch prices depend on what you order.
The construction of the boats is really interesting. Obviously as reeds soak up water they go flimsy and sink, so to extend the life of the boats the reed frame is filled with empty recycled water bottles! Way to go Peru.
Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Take the time to appreciate the massive size of the lake, the warm mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.
After returning to Puno it was time to explore the city and find some food! I started in the Plaza de Armas, because hello it’s Peru and everything revolves around the plaza. At the head of the plaza is a beautiful cathedral that is open to the public most days. It is worth a peek!
Food in Puno is easy to come by, with everything from $2 menu to $10 western food there are plenty of options. There is only one place however where you can dine and watch a spectacular performance of typical dances accompanied by Andean flute music.
“Puno is considered the Folkloric Capital of Peru, there are more than 300 different local dances representing centuries old traditions inherited from the Incas and the colony. Folk dances and songs are accompanied by colorful costumes and masks to celebrate Catholic holidays or Inca celebrations related to the agricultural calendar.”
Balcones de Puno is one of the few touristy restaurants that I would consider worth it! Make reservations early because it fills up fast, but the musicians and dancers are top notch and it is very family friendly. There are affordable options and an extensive menu. I was hungry and poor, so I decided on the $10 large pizza and yes I finished it all. Don’t judge.
The show ended around late and with a 6am bus to Bolivia the next morning, it was time for bed. If you are traveling the South of Peru or on your way to Bolivia, Puno is must see if even for a day. I will definitely be back for an overnight island stay before I leave Peru!
Puno/ Lake Titicaca Travel Tips from a Peace Corps Volunteer
-Puno sits at an altitude of 12,500 ft. (3,810 msm) so be sure to bring altitude pills and take time to acclimate if coming from a lower altitude.
-It is cold year round! Bundle up… like really, please bundle up. Minimum two pairs of socks at all times people.
-Rainy season is from late December to early April like the rest of the Peruvian Andes and it mostly rains in the afternoon.
-There is a 1.5 hour flight from Lima to Juliaca on LATAM airlines. Upon arrival in Juliaca look for a shuttle van right outside the little airport yelling Puno. The ride is a little less than 1.5 hours and should cost no more than 15 soles (~$5).
-There are also day and night buses that come directly from Cusco and Arequipa.
-A taxi around town should not cost more than 6 soles (~$2) and a mototaxi should not cost more than 4 soles (~$1.50).
-There are a wide variety of lodging options in Puno ranging from backpacking hostal to five star hotel. Here is a good trip advisor list: Puno Hotel List. I stayed at Hotel Don Giorgio and was pleasantly surprised by the hot water, good wifi, comfy beds and delicious free breakfast! I had a friend’s discount, so this was a lot nicer than a backpacker’s hostal… in fact I would recommend it for parents or people used to a little more comfort.
-Walk along the main roads off the plaza and you will see lots of artisan shops, money exchanges and tourism offices! They will all try and charge you the tourist price to start, so please please please negotiate because you can usually get about a third off the price.
-Ask your hotel. I booked the Uros floating islands tour from my hotel and they picked me up and dropped me off in the lobby. It was 30 soles (~$10) for the entire thing!
-For the best luck negotiating, just walk down to the lake and talk with any one of the tour guides hanging out around the docks waiting for their next tour to start. They are most likely to give you a great deal because there is no middle man.
-If you are interested in the $60 overnight host family tour on the island of Amantani, Loki Hostal is the best provider in my opinion. Here is their website: Classic Lake Titicaca Tour.
P.S. I don’t make any money from this blog, so any and all recommendations are my personal opinion. Comment below if you have any questions or other recommendations to share. Happy Exploring!