Puno for the embarrassed

“Puno is a hole.” This is the answer I’ve got by a weird traveler when I asked him the smalltalk question “Have you been in Puno?”. Honestly, I did hope to get some information about this town situated at Lake Titicaca – or at least get into a casual conversation. Because I got bored during the two hour border stop waiting for our bus – going from Bolivia to Peru – to be cleared by the officials. But my conversation partner definitely had traveled too long alone. During his monologue, he never answered my questions, but would brag about how stupid all tourists are – obviously including me – and how much more authentic his way of travel was.

Floating Islands near Puno on Lake Titicaca

When I changed subject by small-talking about the duration of the formalities at this border, he felt the urge to explain to me that I haven’t traveled much and – oh yeah – “you Europeans aren’t used to border crossings, anyway”. This poor, arrogant guy reminded me that one can travel for too long and go nuts. Sometimes, certain behavior that is perfectly acceptable on a solitary island, will not be considered as being “social” when interacting with other people.

However, since an idiot had defined the town of Puno as being a “dump”, this was a probable indicator that the place actually might be quite nice. Which turned out to be spot on. The setting of the town along Lake Titicaca is absolutely beautiful.

Condor on Condor Hill, Puno

Although there are two, three touristic pedestrian streets in downtown Puno, the area doesn’t (yet) feel over-commercialized. I still found plenty of residential areas around the back alleys, as well as markets for locals where curious colorful items are sold at a bargain, although of no use for the average traveler. Strolling through this town takes the better time of an afternoon. Having a population of just over 100’000, the distances between sightseeing points are small enough to do everything by foot.

Since none of the current travel guides do feature the three year old lookout point “Condor Hill” (at 4017 meters altitude) (and since I was looking for a nice spot to take pictures during the sunset), I walked up there from a 3850 meters altitude in downtown Puno. What a struggle! Although I did adapt to the altitude in the meantime – not being sick, hung over or whatsoever – any minor effort does make me feel like a 60 year old man. However, the effort was rewarded, by experiencing a great panoramic view over Puno, the harbour and the Lake Titicaca. Moreover, one of the police officers hanging around at the top of “Condor Hill” was eager to point out all places downtown he knew. He was very proud of his hometown kept me busy in a conversation until after dusk.

View over Puno and Lake Titicaca from the Condor Hill

Many people come to this town to break the long journey between La Paz (Bolivia) and Cusco (Peru). Being one of the biggest towns at the shores of Lake Titicaca also means that there is enough traveler infrastructure, such as hostels and supermarkets.

Tomb at Sillustani

Moreover, there are enough sites around town to keep a traveler busy for a couple of days. For example, the “Islas Flotantes” (Floating Islands) near the Puno harbor are an interesting – albeit a bit exploitative – tourist sight. These artificial islands are made by the “Uros” (a local tribe) out of bundled totora reeds which then act as huge rafts on which the people live every-day’s life. The size of each of the islands provide home to only two or three families, although larger islands would house as many as ten families. This sedge is also the basic building material for the huts and boats used by the tribes. Actually, I bumped into the totora plant back while being on Easter Island. Which is another “Rapa Nui” mystery: It is unknown how this plant has made it there from Lake Titicaca.

These days, the families who live on these islands are all well dressed up in traditional clothes and do usually sell souvenirs to tourist groups. Which is quite a bother, because I spotted – behind a “floating island resort” – several corrugated huts and a building named “school”. Which makes me think that this actually is the authentic way the “Uros” live nowadays. What a pity that I didn’t own a boat to explore the islands on my own.

Another major attraction around Puno are the Sillustani towers, about 30km West of town. Centuries ago, ancient people from the Andean highlands and from the shores of Lake Titicaca, did build funeral towers to bury their important people. These towers at Sillustani are said to be the most perfect cylindrical buildings in South America. No, I won’t enter into a rant about archaeological sites in South America, since I did this in an earlier post.

Market stands getting ready again after our train passes (at Juliaca)

However, the trip as such to the Sillustani towers was nice enough. The setting at the “Umayo” lagoon is definitely a picturesque scene. Unfortunately, the only (financially reasonable) way to go to that site is by tourist tour bus. Which meant that on the way there, we stopped to take some pictures of a farm boy with two Lamas – featuring the town of Puno in the backdrop. On the way back, we stopped at a family house, where we could buy hand-made souvenirs and taste local food. If ever during my travel I wanted to hide in absolute shame – this was the place. The tourist crowd behaved like being at the Zoo.

Unfortunately, the worst tour group experience for me was yet to come. Being a railway buff, Puno has a great sightseeing trump card up its sleeve: The scenic railway journey between the towns of Puno and Cusco. This ten hour trip is called the “Andean Explorer” and comes at a quite steep price tag (US$ 220 as from April, 1st 2009). Obviously, I did not realize when planning to use this mode of transport, that I was just setting up myself for yet another kitschy, glossy and unrealistic disneylandish experience.

As it turns out, the rail operator, “Peru Rail” makes this trip a very plush and first class experience, therefore attracting mostly elderly couples in white sneakers and baseball hats. You probably guess the fact of having folklore groups on board of the train – playing instruments and singing for money. However, you won’t guess the absolute low-light of the trip: It started when the aisle of the carriages were converted into a catwalk. There, beautiful young Peruvian girls were walking up and down in traditional clothes to the humming sound of Parisian “Pret-a-porter” dance music. The old ladies loved it. Obviously, the models returned after the “show” to sell me their clothes. For my wife or my girl friend, as they tried to convince me. Yeah, sure! Amazing what corporate decision makers can conceive just to be able to squeeze out the very last drop of money from each tourist.

From that standpoint, the rail trip was quite interesting. However, based on that experience, I would not recommend anyone interested in railways to undertake this journey. There are similar to better trips in terms of scenery, technology and railroad architecture – for a fraction of the Peruvian ticket price. Moreover, in other places, tourists get to sit on the original train, interacting with locals. Something which is actually not allowed here: Trains for locals bound for Machu Picchu are strictly off-limits for foreigners.

But that’s another story for my next blog entry…