We left Arequipa in the morning by bus, and arrived to Puno early on in the afternoon. We were especially lucky to watch a great movie along the way, The Brass Teapot. Right up Em’s alley. Like the trip to Arequipa, the route was a bit treacherous for the faint of heart – I recommend the views on the bus ride if you can stomach them! The other interesting (perhaps nerve-wracking) part of our bus ride was going through a few small towns entering Puno, where the streets were not paved and some minor flooding led to our bus slowly sliding and plowing through muddy “streets” full of standing water.
The city of Puno is a little rough around the edges. However, you’re not going to Puno for the city, you’re going to see Lake Titicaca which is considered the highest altitude navigable lake in the world! And it is perhaps even more well-known for having the islas flotantes, floating islands, and their inhabitants. Puno itself is also at a very high altitude – much higher than Cusco or even Machu Picchu! This was actually the only place where we really noticed the altitude – neither of us were sick, but we both had mild headaches the first day and night that we arrived. The gradual bus ride in likely helped a little bit for us to adjust, but we still slightly felt some of the effects of the altitude.
We got to our hostel, Posada Don Giorgio in the early afternoon, and decided to do a quick tour of the downtown area. The hostel was located very conveniently to the Plaza de Armas (main square) and also the main walking street (Calle Lima) of bars, restaurants, and shops. The hostel was nice enough on the inside, but we are pretty sure that they did not turn on the heat in the rooms, and there was no hot water. This was the only place on our trip where we had these issues, and we were both okay – we’re survivors! [Note: This is one of those things I mentioned about being flexible and managing expectations – high maintenance travelers be forewarned!] This was the slow season of tourism for them, so they also only accepted cash (and that’s my guess with the heating as well – they were likely trying to save money during the slow season).
Puno was actually quite chilly at the time of year we were there (beginning of September). This was one of the reasons (or excuses!) for us to get some hats and sweaters. Who can resist some super warm and super soft alpaca gear while in Peru!? I will mention again that everything in Peru (and much of South America) is negotiable. So whether you go into the little shops or talk with the people who come up to you on the street, you can absolutely haggle with prices. [Note: Remember to think in soles (Peruvian currency), and also know that using English will probably reduce some of your bargaining leverage because they assume you have money at that point. This is also true for hostels, food, and excursions – not just excellent alpaca gear.] Once we had our warm gear and some food inside of us, we booked a day trip for the floating islas for the following day. [Note: There are island trips where you can stay overnight on one of the islands with a “host family,” but with our timeline and especially the cold weather, we elected to just do the single day trip, which turned out really well.]
We were up early for our trip to the islands, which was an all day affair. Our first stop was the floating islands of Uros. This is actually a group of around 80 islands with about 2,000 people total. They are literally floating islands, and you can see the movement as you approach and feel it as you are on them. It was really fascinating to take the tour, get out and walk on the islands made completely of reeds and anchored in place with twine and rope. The people showed us how they constructed the islands with the reeds, used the reeds to make their houses and canoes/boats, and even used the reeds as a food source – they truly use them for every aspect of survival! [Fun fact: Most of the houses do have a solar panel attached which helps provide power!] Each island lasts for about 20 years and then a new island needs be constructed to replace the old. The population on the islands stays steady around 2,000 because all of the children go off to high school on the mainland of Puno, and only about 20% of them end up returning to the islands to live permanently, which is actually a good thing because it saves them from over-population.
We hopped in one of the reed boats which were hand rowed (I helped for a portion!) and visited another of the islands of Uros. After that, we headed out to the isla Taquile, which was about a 2.5 to 3 hour boat ride from Uros. Just as we were arriving, it started to rain which made the cold that much colder….and also made us very glad we had thrown our ponchos in our bags! We did a quick, but steep, hike up to nice little house where a family was waiting to host our group for lunch. This lunch was quite delicious – partially because the nice, warm food hit the spot in contrast to the cold, wet conditions outside, and it also happened to be quite tasty. We had quinoa soup with bread and grilled trucha (trout). The soup was piping hot and the trucha was grilled perfectly! It was interesting that the people on Taquile generally do not eat meat or trout – the trout is mostly for visitors, and meat is generally only for celebrations or special occasions. The people there live nearly completely off the land, and they tend to live for a very long time (well into their 90s and even 100+). They farm, work, walk, raise a very little bit of livestock, and live nearly isolated from others with the purest of resources and little pollution/contamination. It is truly amazing! If the world were ever to lose power or technology, I know exactly who would be the most equipped to survive – and it’s not us in the US. It’s definitely the people already living that way on these islas.
The weather cleared up just as we were finishing our lunch with the host family, which was perfect for walking around and touring the island a bit more. Again, Puno was the one place where the altitude did get to us a little – I will say that I was very winded from hiking around a bit after our lunch. Granted the paths were steep, but the altitude played a big role. But the hike was worth it; it was incredible to see the lake sparkling under the sunlight, and the “Isla de Sol” off in the distance – technically a part of Bolivia. So we can say that we were able to see Bolivia while were were visiting – bonus!