The next morning I heard the “Titicaca Train” long before I saw it. It had set off from Puno station at 7:30 and had been blowing its horn ever since. Finally around 7:45 it came into view and, as I stood watching from the hotel room window, it trundled past on the first stage of its journey back to Cusco.
After a leisurely breakfast we walked down to the bottom of the hotel garden, opened the little gate and immediately found ourselves on the railway track. Safe in the knowledge that the only train on the line wasn’t due back until the following evening, we decided to use the track to walk into Puno.
Many of the tourists who come to Puno, and certainly those who stay in the hotels outside the centre, just concentrate on seeing the lake and they miss the town completely. Even many backpackers seem to use the town as nothing more than an overnight stop on the way down to Bolivia. This is a shame because I think Puno is definitely worth exploring for a day.
Music, Ships and Dogs
Our walk along the railway took us well over an hour. For the first part the track was away from the road and we had excellent views out towards the lake.
After a while we were surprised to hear the sound of music coming from near the lake’s edge. We walked over and found a youth band standing together in the open air playing their instruments. We greeted them and they told us that they were practising for the weekend’s festival.
A little further along we came to an old siding where a couple of old railway carriages had been parked. Sitting just behind them, beached on the side of the lake, was the SS Coya, an old steamship. I climbed up on to it for a closer look and then did a quick bit of research on the mobile phone.
The ship had been built in Scotland, dismantled, shipped to Peru and then reassembled by the side of the lake in 1893. It had remained in service until 1984. It wasn’t entirely clear what the carriages and the steamer were doing there now but I assumed it could be a failed attempt at a museum.
After we had resumed our walk we noticed a large number of stray dogs. They weren’t particularly menacing but remembering that we hadn’t bothered to have rabies shots before leaving home, we decided to give them a bit of a wide berth.
As we approached the outskirts of Puno a large football stadium came into view. This was the University stadium and it marked the point where the railway finally joined the road. We continued along the road passing little stands selling Leche de Tigre (literally “Tiger’s milk” but actually the leftover juices from ceviche) and other cheap snacks.
As we continued walking through the town it became clear that Puno was a lot less wealthy than Cusco. The shops were not as well stocked and the people were certainly not as well dressed, but there was something about the place that I liked. It seemed more rustic, more rugged and perhaps honest than Cusco.
The people seemed friendlier too. We spent the day wandering around slowly. We visited the market and bought bread from one stall, biscuits from another and then haggled at a third with a lady and her son over a pair of gloves.
We walked down towards the port, got lost and sought directions a couple of times. Everyone we met seemed to have a smile on their face and be glad to see us.
Plaza de Armas
Eventually we ended up in the slightly more touristy part of the town. We walked around the Plaza de Armas, the main square, and then sat for a while in the little gardens in the centre facing the colourful Palacio de Justica.
We popped into the stunning cathedral (1757) for a look around….
….and then went across to La Casa Del Corregidor, a colourful old 17th colonial home with an elegant balcony that overlooked the square. It is reputed to be the oldest home in the city and now houses a lovely little café were we enjoyed a refreshing drink.
We continued by walking along the city’s primary pedestrian thoroughfare, the Jiron Lima, and eventually ended up in the Parque Pino where we watched men construct the grandstand seating for the forthcoming Candelaria Festival.
Puno is Peru’s folklore capital and the Candelaria festival, which would get going on the day we left, was the largest of the year. Even though we knew we would miss most of the events, we did manage to witness one or two practice sessions as we walked around.
We wandered back towards the Plaza de Armas via a more roundabout route. Puno is a hillside city and we walked a little bit uphill and then through some of the more interesting and colourful back streets to get more of a feel for the residential part of the city.
Finally we ended up back in Plaza de Armas where we found a nice little restaurant and enjoyed a delicious dinner of quinoa soup and local fresh trout. The waitress spoke excellent English and told us that trout had actually been introduced to the lake in the 1940s by the Canadians.
Puno may not have had the excitement of Lima or the charms of Cusco, but I am certainly glad we spent some time exploring it.
At 7:00am the next morning we were sat on a little boat in Puno harbour waiting for the crew to get clearance from the Peruvian Navy to depart. The Navy have quite a presence on Lake Titicaca and there is a museum dedicated to their exploits in Puno too. It is perhaps easy to forget that, with Bolivia located on the opposite bank, the lake is also an international border. There are all the problems of a frontier here; most notably smuggling of all kinds.
Eventually we got our permission and we set off on the 15-20 minute journey towards the Uros Islands.
There are around 50 of these small man-made islands located just off the edge of Lake Titicaca. They are constructed from the totora reeds that grow on the side of the lake and then anchored to the lake bed to stop them floating away. Each one is around 5 square metres and has 5 or 6 huts that accommodate about 5-6 families.
We stepped off the boat and onto one of the islands. It was actually quite a strange sensation; I knew it was safe but it still felt a bit like walking on a water bed as you moved around.
We were introduced to Joel, the elder of the little island, his wife, daughter, son and some of the other wives of the other families. Joel wore tracksuit bottoms but the women were all resplendent in very colourful costumes.
He explained, using scale models, how exactly the islands were constructed by covering a two metre base layer of thick congealed reed material known as khili with multiple layers of reeds. He told us that it took about one year to construct an island and that once constructed the islands tended to last for about 30 years.
A large part of the job was gathering the reeds and all the families spent a fair amount of their time out on the lake collecting materials. The reeds were then used to construct everything from the islands themselves, to the huts that stood on them and the boats that were used to travel between them. They were also used as a source of food and medicine.
After showing us how the islands were constructed, Joel explained the history of his people. He suggested that most Uros were Aymara speaking and they came to be on the lake as a result of fleeing from the Quechua-speaking Incas back in the 15th century. Apparently when they hid in the reeds the Incas dismissed them as “Uros” meaning “shy” and then just ignored them. The Uros stayed near the lake and eventually constructed the islands.
The lifestyle was, until relatively recently, quite self sufficient. They would fish in the lake, keep rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and make use of the reeds. They would sell the surplus fish or use it to barter for other items in Puno. They lived quite apart from the rest of Peruvian society and paid no tax.
Sadly, the lifestyle is now under threat. Overfishing by other communities around the lake has led to a very dramatic reduction in the amount of fish the islanders are able to catch. In the last 10 years or so, the islanders have all but lost their self sufficiency. A few have lingered on in isolation and some have turned to raising pigs on the reed banks, but most have been forced to turn to tourism as a way of making money.
The results of the movement to tourism are, to be honest, quite sad. Now up to half the islands are visited each day on a ongoing rota system. The largest island has been turned into a tourist centre with a small café at its centre.
As Joel reached the end of his talk his wife invited us into her little hut and she explained it all to us. It was modestly decorated but we noticed there was electric lighting and a TV in the corner. Electricity generation via solar panels has now been in the Uros for a few years.
She also explained that her daughter of 15 was attending high school on the mainland. As this increased exposure to the mainland continues it is estimated that the inhabitants will continue to decrease from the current 1500.
The saddest part of the whole experience was at the end when the wives brought out a makeshift market of things they had made and tried to sell them. As we left they serenaded us with English songs they had learnt.
To be honest, I found it all more than a little depressing. It seems that the transition from self-sufficient fishing and farming community to “living tourist attraction” is almost complete. When I learned that the life expectancy of an islander can be a lot less than 70 years, I wondered if there is really any point of them continuing to live such a primitive lifestyle just to earn money from tourists.
If the visit to the manmade Uros islands was somewhat depressing, the visit to the natural island of Taquile was slightly more uplifting. The island, which is located about 2 hours by boat from Puno, is inhabited by Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas.
Taquile is about 7km in length and less than 1km wide in most places. It is home to about 2,500 people who, in their own part of the lake, still seem able to enjoy a more self-sufficient lifestyle. They also have a much longer life expectancy (more than 75 years) than the Uros inhabitants.
We moored close to what is claimed to be the highest beach in the world and then spent some time hiking up to the top of the island. It was a lovely day and the views out across the island and the lake were fantastic.
Eventually we made our way to the local community centre where we had a lunch of quinoa soup, trout and rice cooked by some of the locals. It was followed by an explanation of the way the Islanders govern themselves and an introduction to their some of their customs.
There are 6 communities on the island and each elects 4 elders to an island assembly. A single overall leader adds to the combined total of 24. All justice is administered by this 25-man assembly. In theory, they still use public flogging as punishment, but in reality crime is virtually non-existent.
Although they embrace modern technology including solar power and mobile phones, they reject most contact with the outside world, particularly the urban way of life in Puno. In contrast with the Uros, all schooling is done on the island at a high school manned by a teacher who only returns to Puno on the weekends.
Islanders generally only marry islanders and unions with outsiders are very rare. They marry between 16 and 18. A wedding ceremony can last up to a week and in that time the happy couple are discouraged from smiling at all for superstitious reasons. There is no divorce either.
In the tradition of the islands the men knit and the women weave. A male looking for a partner is required to knit his own hat. His prospective partner judges him on the quality of his knitting. The average hat takes about 80 days of knitting (4 hours a day).
The knitting and weaving tradition on the islands goes back centuries and it is still practiced by most of the islanders. The textiles produced are worn by all the inhabitants.
Leaving Puno, Leaving Peru
On our last evening in Puno we watched the fireworks that marked the official start of the Candelaria festival.
Early the next morning we took a taxi back to Juliaca.
It was quite windy at Juliaca airport and we watched as the aircraft that would form our flight back to Lima tried a couple of times to land but couldn’t. Eventually it diverted elsewhere and we were left with a 3 hour delay.
The “LAN Peru” gate agents at the tiny airport dealt with the issue in a very interesting way; they cleared the area around the gate, got a sound system in, put some upbeat local music on and encouraged everyone to dance. In the end quite a lot of the passengers joined in and there were more than 50 people on their feet.
I don’t know if this was standard LAN practice but it seemed like a really fitting ending to our time in Peru.