Altitude 3,827 meters (12,500 feet)
Population 91,877 inhabitants in the city
Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca - the world highest
navigable lake - displays the reminiscences of its
origin through cave paintings and spearheads, testimony
of our highland ancestor's life.
The Collao Plateau Is the geographical space, where
ancient and Important cultures like Pucara and, later,
Tiahuanaco, appeared.This is the region where, according
to the legend, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo emerged from
the sacred Lake Titicaca to found the Inca Empire.
During colonial times, the Spaniards established In Puno
attracted by its mineral richness, bringing new
cultural, social and economic Patterns along. The city
of San Carlos de Puno was founded in 1668 and the
priests, eager to convert the natives, motivated them to
build beautiful churches.
Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake and
the center of a region where thousands of subsistence
farmers eke out a living fishing in its icy waters,
growing potatoes in the rocky land at its edge or
herding llama and alpaca at altitudes that leave
Europeans and North Americans gasping for air. It is
also where traces of the rich Indian past still
stubbornly cling, resisting in past centuries the
Spanish conquistadors' aggressive campaign to erase Inca
and preInca cultures and, in recent times, the lure of
When Peruvians talk of turquoise blue Titacaca, they
proudly note that it is so large it has waves. This, the
most sacred body of water in the Inca empire and now the
natural separation between Peru and Bolivia, has a
surface area exceeding 8,000 square kilometers (3,100
square miles), not counting its more than 30 islands.
Click on the thumbnail to enlarge map
At 3,856 meters (12,725 feet) above sea level it has two
climates: chilly and rainy or chilly and dry. In the
evenings it becomes quite cold, dropping below freezing
from June through August. In the day, the sun is intense
and sunburn is common.
According to legend, this lake gave birth to the Inca
civilization. Before the Incas, the lake and its islands
were holy for the Aymará Indians, whose civilization was
centered at the Tiahuanaco, now a complex of ruins on
the Bolivian side of Titicaca but once a revered temple
site with notably advanced irrigation techniques.
Geologically, Titicaca's origins are disputed, although
it was likely a glacial lake. Maverick scientists claim
it had a volcanic start; a century ago, Titicaca was
popularly believed to be an immense mountaintop crater.
A few diehards today stick to the notion that the lake
was part of a massive river system from the Pacific
Indian legend says the sun god had his children, Manco
Capac and his sisterconsort Mama OcIlo, spring from the
frigid waters of the lake to found Cusco and the
beginning of the Inca dynasty. Later, during the Spanish
Conquest, the lake allegedly became a secret depository
for the empire's gold. Among the items supposedly buried
on the lake's bottom is Inca Huascar's gold chain
weighing 2,000 kilos (4,400 lbs.) and stored in
Koricancha - the Temple of the Sun in Cusco - until
loyal Indians threw it into the lake to prevent it from
falling into Spanish hands.
Oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau spent eight weeks
using mini submarines to explore the depths of the lake
but found no gold. (What he did discover, to the
amazement of the scientific world, was a 60-centimeter
(24-in) long, tri-colored frog that apparently never
On the Peruvian side of the lake is Puno, an
unattractive commercial center settled as a Spanish
community in 1668 by the Count of Lemos. Although today
Puno seems unappealing, during the Spanish period it was
one of the continent's richest cities because of its
proximity to the Laykakota silver mines discovered by
brothers Gaspar and Jose Salcedo in 1657. The mining
boom drew 10,000 people to an area not far from what is
now Puno. It also brought a bloody rivalry that ended
only when the ironhanded count traveled to Puno, ordered
Jose Salcedo executed and transferred Laykakota's
residents to Puno.
At an altitude of 3,827 meters (12,628 feet), Puno is
still the capital Peru's altiplano - the harsh highland
region much better suited to roaming vicuñas and alpacas
than to people. It is also Peru's folklore center with a
rich array of handicrafts, costumes, holidays, legends
and, most importantly, more than 300 ethnic dances.
Among the latter, the most famous is Devil dance
performed during the feast of the Virgin of Candelaria
during the first two weeks in February. Dancers fiercely
compete to outdo one another in this Diablada, notable
for its profusion of costly and grotesque masks. The
origins of the dance have become confused over the
centuries but it is believed to have started with pre-Inca
Indian cultures, surviving through the Inca conquest and
the Spanish takeover of the country, with the costumes
being modified each time.
Dance and wild costumes:
As numerous as the dances themselves are the lavish and
colorful outfits the dancers wear. They range from multi-hued
polleras (layered skirts) donned by barefoot female
dancers to the short skirts, fringed shawls and bowler
hats used in the highland version of the marinera dance.
For centuries the Indians in the altiplano were
accustomed to working hard, then celebrating their
special days with gusto. In fact, many of the dances
incorporate features of the most repressive times for
the Indians with dancers dressed as mine overseers or
cruel landowners characters that are mocked during the
festivities. It is difficult to find a month in Puno
without at least one elaborate festival, which is always
accompanied by music and dance.
Within Puno, there remain a handful of buildings worth
seeing. The cathedral is a magnificent stone structure
dating back to 1757 with a weather-beaten baroque-style
exterior and a surprisingly spartan interior- except for
its center altar of carved marble, which is plated in
Over a side-altar to the right side of the church is the
icon of The Lord of Agony, commonly known as El Señor de
la Bala. Beside the cathedral is the famous Balcony of
the Count of Lernos found on an old house on the comers
of Deustua and Conde de Lemos streets. It is said that
Peru's Viceroy Don Pedro Antonio Fernandez de Castro
Andrade y Portugal - the count -stayed here when he
first arrived in the city he later named "San Carlos de
On the Plaza de Armas is the library and the municipal
pinacoteca, or art gallery and half a block off the
plaza is the Museo Carlos Dreyer, a collection of Nazca,
Tiahuanaco, Paracas, Chimú and Inca artifacts bequeathed
to the city upon the death of their owner, for whom the
museum is named.
One of the museum’s most valuable pieces is an Aymará
arybalo, the delicate pointed-bottomed pottery whose
wide belly curves up to a narrow neck. Throughout the
South American continent, the arybalo stands as a symbol
0 the Andean culture.
Views of the Sierra:
Three blocks uphill from the plaza is Huajsapata Park,
actually a hill that figures in the lyrics of local
songs and an excellent spot for a panoramic view of
Puno. Huajsapata is topped by a huge white statue of
Manco Capac gazing down at the lake from which he sprang.
Another lookout point is found beside Parque Pino at the
city Is north side in the plaza four blocks up Calle
Lima from the Plaza de Armas. Also called Parque San
Juan, it boasts the Arco Deustua, a monument honoring
the patriots killed in the battles of Junin and
Ayacucho, the decisive battles in the Independence War
The "San Juan" moniker for the park comes from the San
Juan Bautista Church within its limits; at its main
altar is a statue of the patron saint of Puno, the
Virgin of Candelaria. Also in the park is the Colegio
Nacional de San Carlos, a grade school founded by a
decree signed by Venezuelan liberation leader Simon
Bolivar in 1825. It was later converted into a
university, then subsequently used as a military
Two blocks down F. Arbulu Street from Parque Pino is the
city market, a colorful collection of people, goods and
food. Tourists should keep their eyes on their money and
cameras while here, but it is worth a stop to see the
wide collection of products - especially the amazing
variety of potatoes, ranging from the hard, freeze-dried
papa seca that looks like gravel to the purple potatoes
and yellow and orange speckled olluco tubers.
Woolen goods, colorful blankets and ponchos are on sale
here, along with miniature reed boats like those that
ply Lake Titicaca. Among the more intriguing trinkets
are the Ekekos, the ceramic statues of stout jolly men
laden with a indefinite number of good luck charms,
ranging from fake money to little bags
of coca leaves. Believers say the Ekekos smoke and they
are often found with lit cigarettes hanging from their
mouths. Those who really believe in the power of these
jolly statues claim that they only bring luck if they
are received as gifts - not purchased.
Exploring the Lake:
Puno is the stepping-off point for exploring Titicaca
with its amazing array of islands, Indian inhabitants
and colorful traditions. Small motorboats can be hired
for lake trips or for catching the 13kg (30lb) lake
trout that make it one of Peru's best-known fishing
Most of the transportation is either by motorized
launches or the totora reed boats that Norwegian Thor
Heyerdahl studied in preparing for his legendary 4,300-nautical
mile (7,970-km) journey from Peru to Polynesia in the
reed boat Kon-Tiki in the 1940s.
The best-known of the islands dotting Titicaca's surface
are the Uros, floating islands of reed named after the
Indians who inhabited them. Legend has it the Uro
Indians had black blood that helped them survive the
frigid nights on the water and safeguarded them from
The last full-blooded Uro was a woman who died in 1959.
Other Uros had left the group of islands in earlier
years owing to a drought that worsened their poverty -
and intermarried with Aymará and Quechua-speaking
Indians. But the Indians who now inhabit this island - a
mix of Uro, Aymara and Inca descendants - follow the Uro
The Uros' poverty has prompted more and more of them to
move to Puno. That same poverty has caused those who
remain to take a hard-sell approach to tourists and,
besides pressing visitors to buy their handicrafts, they
frequently demand "tips" for having their photographs
Some tourists suggest that bartering with fresh fruit is
better than money exchanges. However, there is continued
criticism that tourism has not only opened the Uros
Islands to the stares of insensitive tourists but has
destroyed much of the culture as the Indians modified
their handicrafts to appeal to outsiders or abandoned
traditional practices to dedicate more time to the
influx of outsiders.
The Uros islanders fish, hunt birds and live off lake
plants, with ... 7 --- the - important element in their
life being elake reeds they use for their houses, boats
and even as the base of their five islands - the largest
of which are Toranipata, Huaca Huacani and Santa Maria.
The bottoms of the reed islands decay in the water and
are replaced from the top with new layers, making a
spongy surface that is a bit difficult to walk on.
Even the walls of the schools on the bigger islands are
made of totora. The soft roots of the reed are eaten,
making it a pretty handy thing to have around.
Another island that lures tourists is Taquile, the home
of skilled weavers and a spot where travelers can buy
wellmade woolen and alpaca goods as well as colorful
garments whose patterns and designs bear hidden messages
about the wearer's social standing or marital status.
The residents of this island run their own tourism
operations in the hope that visits of outsiders will not
destroy their delicate culture. There are no hotels on
Taquile but the islanders generously open their homes to
tourists interested in an overnight stay.
Handicrafts also play an important role in life on
Amantani, a lovely and peaceful island even further away
from Puno than Taquile. Amantani was once part of the
Inca empire, as attested to by local ruins, before the
Spanish invaded and slaughtered the islanders. The
Spaniard who was granted a concession to the island used
the Indians in forced labor and his descendants were
still in control after Peru's independence from Spain.
But eventually an island fiesta turned violent and the
Indians attacked their landlord with hoes and
consequently split up the island into communally-held
Amantani has opened its doors to outsiders who are
willing to live for a few days as the Aymará-speaking
islanders do -and that means sleeping on beds made of
long hard reeds and eating potatoes for every meal.
There is no running water or electricity and nighttime
temperatures drop to freezing even in the summer. But
those happy to rough it catch a glimpse of an Andean
agricultural community that has maintained the same
traditions for centuries. Some Amantaní residents live
and die without ever leaving the island.
Journeys to Amantaní begin at the Puno docks aboard
sputtering wooden motorboats operated by the islanders.
At the end of the four-hour trip, visitors are
registered as guests and assigned to a host family. The
family, usually led by a shy patriarch, shows the way to
its mud-brick home set around an open courtyard
decorated with white pebbles spelling out the family's
Prepared visitors usually bring gifts of fruit -a rarity
on the isolated island and the socializing begins when a
family member who speaks English offers a guided walk
around the island, from where the views are something
spectacular. Women wearing traditional black and white
lace dresses pass by with Islingshots in their hands to
kill scavenging birds.
Another island, Esteves is connected to Puno by a bridge
and is best known for Turistas Isla Esteves This luxury
hotel is a far cry from what used to be the main
construction on the island - a prison that accommodated
the patriots captured by the Spanish during Peru's war
James Orton, a naturalist and explorer who died crossing
Titicaca on a steamship in 1877, is buried on Isla
Esteves; his memorial sits beside one honoring the
liberation fighters who perished in the war with Spain.
Orton, a natural history professor from Vassar
University, was on his third expedition to explore the
Beni river in the Amazon area. The Beni's link to the
Mamore river both crucial conduits during the jungle's
rubber boom - was named the Orton river in his honor.
Mysterious burial chambers:
Some 35 km (21 miles) from Puno is Sillustani, with its
circular burial towers or chullpas overlooking Lake
Umayo. The age of the funeral towers, which are up to 12
meters (40 feet) high, remains a puzzle. A Spanish
chronicle-keeper described them as "recently finished"
in 1549, although some still appear as if they were
never completed and the Indians that built them were
conquered by the Incas about a century earlier.
The chullpas apparently were used as burial chambers for
nobles of the Colla civilization; these were Indians who
spoke Aymara, had architecture considered more
complicated than that of the Incas and who buried their
nobility with their entire family.
Not far away is Chucuito, a village that sits upon what
was once an Inca settlement and which boasts an Inca
sundial. Stop by the Santo Domingo Church with its small
museum in this altiplano village; also worth visiting is
La Asuncion Church.
Juli, once the capital of the lake area, has four
beautiful colonial churches under reconstruction.
Although it now appears a little odd to see so many
large churches so close together, at the time the
Spanish ordered them built they hoped to covert huge
masses of Indians to Roman Catholicism.
In addition, the Spanish were accustomed to having one
church for the Europeans, one for the mixed-raced
Christians and yet another for the Indians. The largest
of Juli's churches is San Juan Bautista with its
colonial paintings tracing the life of its patron, Saint
John the Baptist.
From the courtyard of La Asuncion Church visitors have a
captivating view of the lake. The other churches in the
city are San Pedro, once the city's principal place of
worship and the church in which a choir of 400 Indians
used to sing each Sunday, and Santa Cruz, which is just
beside the city's old cemetery. Santa Cruz was
originally a Jesuit church upon the front of which
Indian stonemasons carved a huge sun - the Inca god -
along with more traditional Christian symbols.
It is from Juli that the Transturin hydrofoils leave
across the lake for Bolivia. (Information is available
from the Transturin office in Puno, Av. Girón Tacna 201.
Tel: 737). There is a catama ran service from Juli and
Puno to Co pacabana, Bolivia.
Copacabana can also be reached by taking a minibus rid
around the side of the lake, passing the reeds waving in
the wind, shy but curi ous children at the bends in the
road and always the brilliant blue of Titicaca or the
roadway that ends the lake.
This pleasant trip involves a short ferry trip at the
Strait of Tiquina and the destination is a pleasant one.
Copacabana is a friendly little town accus tomed to
tourists and has a number o modest but clean restaurants
and hotels It is most famous for its cathedral
containing a 16th-century carved wood figure of the
Virgin of Copacabana, the Christian guardian of the lake.
The statue, finished in 1853, was the work of Indian
sculptor Francisco Tito Yupanqui, nephew of Inca Huayna
Capac. Except for during Mass, the statue stands with
its back to the congregation - but facing the lake so it
can keep an eye out for any approaching storms and
One of the loveliest outings in Copacabana is a dawn or
dusk walk along the waterfront, watching the sky explode
into color with sunrise or slip into the blue black of
night at sunset.
It is also possible to reach Bolivia by crossing around
the other side of the lake via Desaguadero, but this
border town is one of the continent's filthiest and
there is no acceptable lodging there in the event buses
on the Bolivian side are not running (a common
eventuality owing to holidays, strikes or sometimes lack
From Copacabana, launches can be hired to visit the
Bolivian islands which are also on Lake Titicaca - the
Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon. The Island
of the Sun (also accessible via a public ferry) has a
sacred Inca rock at one end and the ruins of Pilko Caima
with a portal dedicated to the sun god at the other. The
Island of the Moon, which is also sometimes called Coati,
has ruins of an Inca temple and a cloister for Chosen