Puno: A first taste of Peru

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April 10th 2008
Published: April 28th 2008
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Ladies of TiticacaLadies of TiticacaLadies of Titicaca

As we left Pachamama Island, the ladies treated us to their version of "Vamos a la Playa".
Titi for Peru and Caca for Bolivia
Another border crossing, another passport stamp, another country and yet another currency to get our heads around! Like Copacabana, Puno lies on the shores of Lake Titicaca. But there the similarities end. Puno is a far bigger city, which doesn't depend so much on the tourist dollar, yet, perhaps paradoxically feels like more of a tourist trap. During the bus trip from Copacabana a representative from the company started trying to entice us and everyone else to stay in a company owned hostel in Puno. They offered a free transfer from the bus terminal so we thought why not. About 10 passengers got off in Puno while the rest continued to Cusco. Nearly all 10 of us went to this hostel, where we negotiated a room for 35 Soles while a group of Argentinian girls got an even bigger reduction. We couldn't escape this guy for the next two days and he even managed to sell us a tour to the Uros Islands and arrange our bus trip to Arequipa.

Puno is an immediately likeable place. It had a lovely cathedral on an attractive main square and plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants.
And on the menu tonight....And on the menu tonight....And on the menu tonight....

Guinea-pig (or cuy, as it's known locally) is a popular dish, especially amongst Andean communities, in Bolivia and Peru.
We had gained an hour by crossing to Peru so that gave us more time to do an afternoon tour to Sillustani. Prices in Peru were a bit of a shock after almost a month in Bolivia, so perhaps it was just as well we were struggling to get our heads around the new currency. The Sillustani tour, given in both English and Spanish, set off at 2pm and it cost us 25 soles each (about 8 Euros). The first stop was on the outskirts of Puno, at a viewing point over the city and Lake Titicaca.

We then continued to Sillustani, which is about an hour away from the city. Sillustani is a pre-Incan site consisting of impressive stone burial tombs. The Sillustani tribe were defeated by the Incas, and little remains of the their civilisation other than these huge stone tombs. They are located on a hillside overlooking a small laguna, a very impressive location high in the altiplano. In all honesty, our guide wasn't the most illuminating and I think I learned as much about the tribe in a book I had previously read. The site was impressive however, especially the largest tower at the top of the hill, which had both Inca and Sillustani design.

Tea with the locals
On the way back we had a stop at a traditional rural farm. I immediately thought "tourist trap", but to my surprise this was a fascinating tour. The younger kids ran out to greet us when we got off the bus and they all asked for money or sweets. Their mother immediately ran out and told them to stop - she would use more subtle means to get the money out of us later!! In the front garden the family kept a group of alpacas and llamas, very cute and photogenic.

I hadn't been too impressed with our guide at Sillustani but he made amends for it here. He seemed to know the family well and made the visit great fun without being too inquisitive or imposing too much upon them. We were shown inside the bedrooms which were surprisingly snug, given the altitude(we were at approximately 4000m). Then Julio, the main man, showed us the crops he grew and also how he used a stone to ground quinoa, while his wife demonstrated her skill with the slingshot. You wouldn't want to make an enemy of this woman - if she had got the angle wrong it might have taken someone's eye out. The family also had a guinea pig pen - I'd like to think these are pets, but this is Peru, where "Cuy" is something of a national dish, and I'm afraid these are for the dinner table!

We were given a small supper, constituting of coca tea, homemade bread, potatoes dipped in what appeared to be tar, and cheese. It was absolutely delicious and I think I ate more than my fill. No guinea pigs thankfully! The family also made and sold alpaca clothing and souvenirs. There was no pressure to buy, but everyone had been so impressed with the food and the tour that nearly all of us made a purchase! As well as Julio and his wife there were three or four small kids and a lovely girl aged about 20. She was quite shy but friendly enough once we started chatting.

Back in Puno we had a fantastic meal in Restaurant Ecco. I've noticed that in Peru many restaurants have no prices outside for a set menu (or even for the a la carte) and, just
Puno CathedralPuno CathedralPuno Cathedral

Impressive sight on the main square of Puno.
like in our hotel, what we were paying was not the same as everyone else. We negotiated 15 soles for the menu, and I thought this great value given how good the food was. We had a four course meal plus a free drink, and I tried alpaca for the first time. I did feel a little guilty as we had only an hour previously taken our photos with some of these cute animals.

The Anchored Islands
The next morning we were up early for a tour to the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca. The islands are located 5km from Puno, but it's really a world apart there. These islands are often described as floating islands though I think anchored is a better word. The islanders don't live on land - instead the islands are constructed of bundles and bundles of reeds piled on top of reed roots. The roots are joined together with ropes to form islands and the whole thing is anchored - "otherwise they'd end up in Bolivia" as a local man explained.

We landed on one island - Pachamama - where we were given a talk by our guide about the history of the islands, their construction, and the living conditions for the thousands who live here. We then had the opportunity to buy some souvenirs or to wander around and have a closer look at the buildings. A local man told us they use candles for electricity, which of course can be a fire hazard, though the ex Prime Minister, Fujimori, did donate solar panels after he visited. To be honest, a lot of what you see on the Uros is only for show and many of the locals live in the corrugated tin huts, rather than the more romantic, traditional reed houses (as they might have you believe). Nevertheless, it's not an easy existence living here like this, and I don't envy them.

No matter how remote the community you can be sure there will be some religious group attempting conversion and so it was on the Uros Islands, where the Seventh Day Adventists have set up the only school. This is located on the most touristy of the islands where there are also restaurants, souvenir shops, and even a hotel for anyone who fancies a night on the reeds. While visiting the islands gave us a fascinating insight into a traditional culture, the whole experience felt just a little too tourist oriented. For example, we were told to take a traditional reed boat to move between islands. Only when we got to the other side were we told about the 10 soles fee! Isla del Sol, which we had visited on the Bolivian side of the lake, felt like a much more genuine, traditional island. Nevertheless, I would recommend the Uros Islands to anyone visiting Puno.

Our two days in Puno gave us our first taste of Peru. We then moved onto Arequipa eager to see more.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Ruth trying a reedRuth trying a reed
Ruth trying a reed

They are used for food and as a surface for the island by the locals.
Pachamama IslandPachamama Island
Pachamama Island

Pachamama Island is just one of many floating islands which make up the Uros Islands.
Island on Laguna AmayoIsland on Laguna Amayo
Island on Laguna Amayo

View from Sillustani over Laguna Amayo.
Uros Islands LectureUros Islands Lecture
Uros Islands Lecture

Our guide explains how the islands are constructed
Traditional Reed BoatsTraditional Reed Boats
Traditional Reed Boats

On the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca
Uros Island SchoolUros Island School
Uros Island School

Run by the Seventh Day Adventists

28th April 2008

Another great account of your experiences Barry. I know what you mean about the Uros Islands being a bit touristy though - it's a shame you didn't make it to Tacquille which I found less so. But the farm visit sounds wonderful so you were lucky there :)
28th April 2008

PLEASE bring me home one of those guinea pigs - cuter than henry

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