08 October 2018

Great Lake: Exploring Lake Titicaca and Puno

To journey from Cusco to the city of Puno, the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca, there are several options, including flights and bus journeys of various lengths and comfort levels. I like the idea of Inka Express's ten-hour trip that includes stops at four places of interest along the way ($53 including drinks and lunch, plus 50 soles for entrance fees), but I am less keen on its 6:50 am departure time, especially as I will have finished the four-day Inca Trail trek. Internal flights in Peru invariably involve a lot of faff and a good chance of delay, however, and Puno has no airport, which means flying to Juliaca, an hour's drive away.

As such, I find myself at the Inka Express terminal on the outskirts of Cusco's historic centre at 6:30 am on a sunny Monday morning. I am less tired than expected after the Inca Trail and I have my Espro flask full of coffee. The seats are very comfortable and I soon find myself dozing off. Our first stop is San Pedro Apóstol chapel in the village of Andahuaylillas. Known as the 'Sistine Chapel of the Andes, it looks fine from the outside but inside, it's an incredibly beautiful work of eye-poppingly intricate baroque art, from the colourful murals on the ceiling to the huge gold altar. No photographs are allowed inside, but they give us a CD containing some images. Next up is a brief visit to the Incan Temple of Viracocha, Raqch'i — an interesting site but perhaps a little underwhelming the day after Machu Picchu. 

We eat lunch (included in the ticket) at a buffet restaurant and then proceed to the next stop, the La Raya pass — at 4,335 metres. The landscape here with snow-capped mountains and fields of alpacas and llamas is quite something. Finally, we call at the small Inca museum at Pukara. Our guide mentions a coffee shop selling 'the world's best coffee' (coati processed), as determined by the 2017 Specialty Coffee Association expo. Inside, however, there is just an automatic coffee machine and lots of packs of coffee — mostly pre-ground, although some whole bean — with no roasting dates, so I don't partake.

Entering the Puno province and, in particular, driving through the city of Juliaca, it is clear that the region is much poorer than Cusco. Houses remain unfinished and unpainted — there's no property tax until the building is complete — although with the upcoming regional elections, we see many houses painted with slogans for dozens of parties and candidates. Many roads are unpaved too and garbage bags tend to mount up.

We catch our first glimpse of the vast, blue Lake Titicaca and arrive at the Puno bus terminal just before sunset, at about 5:15 pm. I haven’t booked a taxi and have no small change so I decide to walk the 15 minutes to my hotel. This is a bad move as it’s a steep uphill walk, and many of the streets are muddy and the pavements uneven or incomplete.

My hotel, the Conde de Lemos, is right on the Plaza de Armas, opposite the cathedral. The city’s touristic centre is very small and after checking in, I go out in search of dinner and a hat; I’ve lost my cap somewhere between Ollantaytambo and Puno. Most restaurants are located on and around Jirón Lima and for ease, I go to La Casona, a Lonely Planet recommendation, and because it’s been a long day, I order my new favourite Peruvian dish, ajì de gallina and a lemonade with mint and ginger. It's a touristy spot, but the food is very good and the waiter very friendly and welcoming. I fail in my second mission, unable to find a hat I can tolerate wearing for even one day.

In the morning, it’s another early start. My Edgar Adventures tour guide meets me in my hotel reception at 7:10 am, and we hop in a minibus down to the port. I have booked a one-day 'Titicaca Uncovered’ tour, which costs $69 — over twice the price of most tours, although they take a more ‘off the beaten track’ route. Ideally, I would like to spend two days exploring the world's highest navigable lake but time is not my friend.

Thirty of us climb into our speedboat and we head off to our first stop, Isla Taquile, an island with no cars or electricity but a rich cultural history. We arrive on the north side of the island, which our guide assures us is less touristy (most groups also arrive at Taquile in the afternoon, so it is indeed quite quiet). We go to a house to watch some local women weaving, while the men knit. The men wear woven hats of different colours according to their marital status (pinkish red for married, red and white for single) and to win a woman’s hand in marriage they must make a hat that can hold water with no leaks. We watch a few traditional dances and I buy one of the beautifully soft alpaca wool headbands. 

We walk down the hill to the beach, taking in the rather Mediterranean-like scenery of Taquile. I have worn my swimsuit in case there is time for a swim, but there isn’t. In any case, the water is a little cool despite the heat of the bright sun. I have a quick paddle and then we board our boat to journey to a beach on the Capachica Peninsula where we have lunch cooked in an underground pachamanca (hot stone) oven, not dissimilar to the hangi meal I enjoyed in Rotorua, New Zealand. The food — chicken, trout, sweet potato and banana — tastes good and we have beautiful lake views. 

Our final stop is one of the Islas Uros — tiny islands constructed entirely of buoyant totora reeds, inhabited by Aymara- or Quecha-speaking people. There are just four families on the island we visit and there is, of course, no electricity or agriculture. The people fish and hunt birds, and the children take a reed boat to the nearest school. I don’t buy any of the handicrafts but I do pay 10 soles for a ride on one of the reed boats — “a little cheaper than in Venice,” our cheerful guide Cleber quips. Then it’s back to Puno, where a minibus returns us to the city centre.

Noticing a sign for ‘mirador Kuntur Wasi: 700m' near my hotel, I decide to go. It’s a very steep climb up to the 'condor lookout' but there are great views of the city and the lake — not to mention a life-size condor model — at the top. I stop for a while to catch my breath, regretting that I have run out of water. On the way down, I stop in at the Museum of Coca and Customs, which turns out to be free for tourists on Tuesdays (it’s usually 10 soles). First, I watch a 20-minute video about the various local dances and costumes (it isn’t the most engaging production), and then wander through the small but informative three rooms about the history of coca leaf consumption, which is thought to date back to 20,000 BC (on account of sculptures of people with a bulge in one cheek). 

Uninspired by Lonely Planet’s dinner recommendations, I revert to my own research and happen upon a lovely French-Peruvian fusion restaurant just around the corner from my hotel. At La Table del Inca, they do a three-course meal plus a drink for 80 soles. The drinks don’t include pisco sours so I order one of those too. It is small but tasty and potent. The food is delicious too. I have a fried prawn wonton-like dish with an avocado sauce to start, followed by the tastiest take on lomo saltado I’ve tried so far: juicy, perfectly medium and served with dauphinoise potatoes. Peruvian servings are usually so big, I’ve only rarely had room for pudding, but the Cusco chocolate fondant with custard is rich and delicious, and beautifully presented. The wait staff are friendly too.

And that is all I have time for in Puno. Note that the altitude in the city is 3,800 metres (higher if you go up to the condor lookout, of course) and so it's worth taking precautions against altitude sickness if you have travelled from a much lower altitude. I drank a lot of water and had some coca tea, and tried to take things easy where possible, and I wasn't affected, but a few people on my Edgar Adventures trip reported some symptoms.

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