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October 14th 2018
Published: October 14th 2018
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We got up at the ungodly hour of 2:30 AM went down to the hotel lobby to get our box breakfast and coffee while we waited to be picked up at the hotel at 3 AM and driven to the Lima airport. We were 12 groggy travelers leaving for Puno in this group, while another Kaypi group of 10 left later for an 8 AM departure. Someone must have told Kaypi we were the adventurous group giving us the earlier departure.

Elias, our new guide from Kaypi Peru, met us at the Puno airport and gave those of us who had had enough coffee plenty of information about the area. Puno is located on a high plateau. The Puno airport has an altitude of 12,300 feet so we were instructed to be sure to drink a minimum of 2.5 liters of water a day. Due to challenges with high altitudes, Elias also advised us to drink lots of muna (Peruvian native mint tea) and coca tea and to eat light foods. Elias additionally advised us not to eat beans or meat for dinner because they take too long to digest and he insisted we need to let our bodies work on supplying oxygen and providing the needed energy to survive at this altitude. With Ernesto as our driver some of us napped on our way to Puno before stopping on this very windy morning, for our first view of Lake Titicaca and the city of Puno. Our overlook was at an elevation of 13,072 feet, and as we disembarked to photograph the scenery overlooking Puno we also had our first real experience of breathing the very thin and dizzying air. A taste of what was to come.

Elias told us it takes 26 hours by bus from Lima to Puno. We didn’t have the time for the bus ride but it sure would have been a better way to acclimate to the extreme differences in elevation. Bolivia, he told us, is only a 4-5 hour boat ride from Puno making Puno a regular stop on the South American tourist trail. Puno is the melting pot of the Aymara and Quechua cultures. Most of the people who live here are of Andean origin which soon became clearly visible in the unique mixture of Andean traditional clothing. There are 250,000 people living in this mountainous province and many come regularly to bring their agricultural products, mainly quinoa and potatoes, to market.

As we traveled to Puno we saw signs posted along the road advertising candidates in provincial elections for regional mayor, and regional presidents for the upcoming election. Elias gave us more Peruvian facts: Corn originated 12,000 years ago in Peru and only 7,000 years ago in Mexico (Peruvian bragging rights). The biggest corn in the world is grown in the Sacred Valley (more bragging rights). And of course Peru is the mother of all potatoes (the best of the bragging rights). There are 600 different kinds of dancers in Peru and many dance competitions with their colorful costumes are frequently held here but unfortunately we were not present for any of these exhibitions.

We checked in to the Hotel Hacienda Plaza de Armas where hot water and coca leaves were waiting for us. Since we arrived quite early and couldn’t get into our rooms we checked our bags at the hotel and left to begin a walking tour of Puno with Elias. We didn’t get very far. Right in front of the hotel in front of the Cathedral of Puno, near the Plaza de Armas, people began to gather to watch the Children’s Safety Parade on the Celebration of the Child Day. Aptly enough, this little park in front of the cathedral is called Parade Square. Marching bands and police preceded adorable little boys and girls who walked in military costumes, rode on balloon decorated tricycles, and some walked wearing boxes that represented street lights, (although I didn’t see any sign of street lights in the area), while colorfully dressed Andean families watched and clapped as the children paraded through the plaza.

Our walking tour began in earnest as the parades subsided. Elias took us down Arbulu, the busy market street that lead to Pino Square, pointing out restaurants, banks and apothecaries as well as many of the stores that we might return to on our way back. I dipped into one of the apothecaries and with Elias’ help bought a can of oxygen for Dave. We continued on, following Andean women with jaunty bowler hats and colorful wraps that held goods for sale on their backs. In the 1920s Quechua and Aymara women took up the style of wearing bowler hats after a shipment of said hats was sent from Europe to Peru for use by Europeans working on Peruvian railroad construction. It obviously caught on.

We paused at Pino Square to look at its monument to Dr Manuel Pino at the center. This was quite a lovely sunlit, open space with Spanish-influenced pink, yellow and blue buildings surrounding the plaza, reminding me of some places I have visited in the Caribbean. People sat on park benches that lined the spacious plaza while Quechua women began to fill the streets, setting up places to sell their wares. One woman on the corner was already selling cooked quail eggs.

Very much like a spring day in New England, when the sun is out and the wind is still, you can remove warm layers, but once in the shade and the wind picks up, you are reminded that you are at elevation and quickly replace those warming shells to keep off the chill. But another thing to consider here is how close you are to the sun. Wearing hats, sunscreen and sunglasses is essential unless you are willing to suffer the painful consequences. And water. Drink water. Always.

Elias brought our “Kaypi tour parade” down the hill past Pino Square to the Mercado Central, a concentration of many kinds Inca markets all in one vast two story building. Peru’s self proclaimed “Folkloric Capital” was on full display here with a plethora of handicrafts, flowers, textiles and of course agricultural produce, including local fruits and vegetables, especially numerous stalls with all kinds of potatoes. Many Peruvian women wearing typically colorful hats and clothes added unintentional decoration to the market stalls. I left Dave who was content to stay put with Elias, and began strolling past stall after stall with Quechua and Aymara people selling all kinds of vegetables and produce from throughout their regions. Sweet, large-kernel popped corn was sold and many of us carried bagfuls of the stuff. At the far end of the market I discovered a selection of native herbs laying on the floor in front of two Quechua women. I looked with curiosity trying to identify some of the herbs until one of the women held up a bunch of tiny leaves and made a sad face, then rubbed her tummy, then made a happy face and I knew in an instant I wanted those herbs.
Meat Market, Mercado Central, Puno Meat Market, Mercado Central, Puno Meat Market, Mercado Central, Puno

If you look at the woman on the lower right carefully you can see the green coca leaves stuck to her forehead
I later found out it was muna mint used to make tea that is known in the region for the curing an upset stomach from altitude sickness.

I climbed to the top floor of the market and found the banos that required 1 Sole and a bucket of water to flush. After making use of the facility I walked through stalls selling textiles, sweaters, hats and other useful items. At one point I was able to look down over a vast open meat market where numerous women sat waiting to chop and package the unrefrigerated fresh chicken, beef, sausages and other meats for customers. There did look to be freezers behind them but even in the cool temperatures of Puno, chilly as I was, I don’t think it was in the 40s, standard degrees for US refrigeration. I was surprised to watch one of the women lick, then stick, coca leaves to her forehead! (I wondered if I could lick and stick them to Dave’s troubled tummy.) As I was ready to leave I caught sight of a juice bar and seeing a customer drinking what looked to be a smoothie, I stopped to investigate. I ended up buying the most amazing fresh orange-pineapple smoothie I have ever had for 5 Soles, about $1.50.

Returning to Arbulu Street I began to poke my head into the stores to learn more about the unique Peruvian crafts. I saw colorful ceremonial masks with bulging eyes, horns and elaborate costumes, some to my untrained eye, seemed to have an Asian influence. Surprisingly Ken and Barbie made several appearances in traditional Peruvian hats, wraps and dresses! A music store featured the many guitars unique to Peru along with a variety of flutes and pipes, but of course store after store offered all things alpaca, beautiful silver jewelry, along with fancy colored straw mobiles and other fun crafts that would not fit in my suitcase. I was surprised there were no Christmas ornaments. Instead there were plenty of Christmas-potential hanging keychains but I didn’t want to set a new trend.

As I walked around the picturesque and hilly city of Puno I began to realize I hadn’t drunk enough water and soon began to feel light headed. It is easy to forget when there is so much to see and photograph. I went back to the
Mojsa Restaurant PunoMojsa Restaurant PunoMojsa Restaurant Puno

The hair salon that was recommended was two blocks around the corner
hotel to check on Dave, he was not well and not interested in food, so I went to the Mojsa Restaurant across from the park and had some delicious quinoa soup while I enjoyed a perfect view overlooking the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral. I would have loved to have taken a taxi up to see the statue of Manco Capac to take in the view of the city and Lake Titicaca but I hardly had energy left after walking in the market and exploring the shops and crafts for sale. Plus, we had a wonderful view of the city on our way from the airport. Check.

I decided to treat myself to a relaxing, professional shampoo and blow dry so I asked the staff at Mojsa for a place close at hand. I was told I would find Marco Coiffure two blocks from the restaurant but after canvasing the two blocks, with no visible signs, I took a guess and climbed up stairs through an open vestibule and saw a poster of a well coiffed fancy blonde. I had found Marco. I don’t know what language he spoke but I thought I had made myself clear when indicating wash/dry no cut, that’s all. After some rapid cleaning up, Marco put me in a comfortable chair behind a folding screen and he began to wash my hair. For an hour. Wash, rinse, repeat, repeat, well you get the idea, but I didn’t. After the wash and rinse saga he brought me to the main room and while dropping combs, disconnecting dryers, skipping around and frequently trying to get the right music turned on, he stepped back to admire his work. I paid him the 50 Soles ($15) plus tip and left, not as relaxed as I had hoped, but clean. Little footnote: when I washed my hair post Marco I saw globs of brown color slosh into the tub. I have no idea what he put in my hair but apparently: wash, rinse, repeat…

Dave lost his altitude sickness pills so later in the day, Franco and Elias kindly took us on an emergency expedition all over Puno looking for a drugstore that would sell him some replacements. Without Franco and Elias we would never have been able to negotiate the language or find the stores especially in the early evening when places
Virgen de la Candelaria Church, Puno Virgen de la Candelaria Church, Puno Virgen de la Candelaria Church, Puno

We listened to a band with their horns, cymbals and drums play wonderful Peruvian music in front of this church at night
began to close. Luckily we found some pills that were similar to what Dave was taking and I got cream for my angry, red-blooming eczema that is routine for me at dry atmosphere elevations.

As we walked back towards our hotel, following the evening scramble for Dave’s altitude sickness pills, we passed Pino Plaza where a band was celebrating the Madonna in front of the Santuario Virgen de la Candelaria Church in Pino Park. Although this was not the Festival of the Virgen del Candelaria, the most important religious festival in all of Peru that is held once a year in February, I think there must be frequent practice sessions as displayed while we were here. At any rate it was delightful to stop and listen to the traditional bands play in front of the festively lit church. Perhaps this is how the local people spend their Friday nights.

Following the little concert, we realized it was time to eat and although not terribly hungry, sustenance of some sort was in order. We stopped into La Casona Restaurant on Arbulu Street, a restaurant close at hand, ordered two soups, then waited at least half an hour in the near empty restaurant to get said soup, which sadly was the worst so far, and then we had to wait another half hour for the bill. No wonder Elias and Franco were not enthusiastic with our choice. Following dinner we proceeded to walk back, in the now very cold night, to our hotel. As we approached the Plaza de Armas we could hear the loud and incessant beating of drums in front of a roaring fire on the steps of the historic Cathedral of Puno, right across from our hotel. The loud non-rhythmic drumming continued for hours, finally ending promptly at 11 PM. Thankfully for us it was somewhat muted because our room did not face the park. Despite our relatively quiet room I had a terrible night’s sleep with altitude sickness rearing its ugly head. I was so sick I almost decided to cancel my trip to Lake Titicaca but I took every kind of medicine at hand and by hook or by crook I was going!


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