Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Puno

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Puno is quite popular these days on the Southern Peru track, and a stroll through the main streets will quickly confirm that a large portion of the day-to-day population consists of tourists from all parts of the world. It matters little that the town itself is not particularly picturesque, since the main attraction is Lake Titicaca and its many islands.

Historically, Puno lies at the junction between the Quechua and Aymara peoples, though to the foreign eyes and ears, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two. Indeed, Puno is a melting pot of sorts, both between cultures and generations. Older women and men dressed in traditional Andean garb cross paths with their younger counterparts in t-shirts and jeans. This lovely mosaic of colors, sounds, and tastes encapsulates a beautiful snapshot of the entire Lake Titicaca region.

A feast for the eyes - shopping in Puno

At around 12,500 feet, Puno is no place to be messed with in terms of altitude sickness. From there, you only go higher as you make your way into Bolivia. To give you some perspective, Lhasa, in Tibet, is just under 12,000 feet. My best recommendation would be to get a prescription for Acetazolamide (Diomox) from your doctor before heading there, and to follow the directions on taking them carefully. Even if you don't have a genetic predisposition to experiencing the affects of altitude sickness, it's much better to bring the pills along just in case.

My second recommendation, despite some people's hesitation, would be to chew coca leaves. This stuff really works. Within an hour of arriving in Puno, I began experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness, including a severe headache, fatigue, and nausea. I was about to run to the restroom to vomit during lunch, but the waitress handed me a cup of coca tea instead and told me to chew the leaves immediately. Within 10 minutes, almost all the symptoms had subsided. Just be careful not to bring any leaves with you when you return home, as there are strict anti-drug laws in many countries regarding the importation of coca.

Buying the wonder drug - coca leaves

After a 45-minute drive from the Juliaca airport, we were dropped off directly at our hotel, Mosoq Inn. The total cost of the transfer was 90 soles. We chose Mosoq Inn based on the positive reviews on TripAdvisor, and also because of how affordable it was, even relative to the already low cost of hotels in town. While nothing terribly special, we did appreciate the fact that they had triple rooms and the fact that breakfast was included.

Check-in was friendly, and the front desk lady was extremely helpful with our questions regarding buses to Copacabana the next morning as well as tours to the Uros Islands. In fact, we went ahead and booked both directly with the hotel as the cost was comparable to estimates we found online. The Uros Islands tour was $15 USD per person, payable directly to the tour company, and the bus to Copacabana (including a taxi transfer from the hotel to the bus station) was 18 soles. It was also a plus that Mosoq Inn took Visa or MasterCard, as many hotels in this region are cash only.

Mosoq Inn


Computers for guest use

The room itself was perfectly adequate, with a full size bed and two twins. There was an old television in the room that we didn't even bother turning on. Since the nights do get cold at such high altitudes, a portable heater was included, but luckily we didn't have to use it. A very old safe, located in the closet, required a physical key to use, which didn't seem very secure since anyone could have had a copy made. Regardless, we had no issues with safety or security during our one-night stay. Our large window overlooked the quiet street in front of the hotel.

The bathroom was dark, but had everything we needed - hot water, a running toilet, soap, and plenty of clean towels. Strangely enough, all the bathrooms in the hotel had windows that appeared to open to the interior corridors and stairwell. So a nice breeze you will definitely not get, but I suppose they at least made an attempt at some sort of ventilation.

Stained glass artwork in the atrium

After settling in, we headed out to grab some lunch and explore the town. We headed over to the Plaza de Armas, where the largest cathedral was located. Pasaje Lima, the main pedestrian street, extends north from the main square for a number of blocks, and is filled with visitor-friendly restaurants, shops, and tour operators. Most of the eateries here had set menus for 15-20 soles. While you shouldn't expect much in terms of quality, for $7 USD, you got a fairly decent meal including beverage and dessert.

Plaza de Armas

Pasaje Lima

We walked around town some more, grabbing some coca leaves, ice cream, and browsing the colorful stalls of the central market, a huge indoor complex with scores of narrow alleyways, selling just about anything you can think of. Feeling winded from the altitude and burning from the blazing sun, we decided to head back to the hotel for a bit until it was time to leave for the Uros Islands tour in the afternoon.

Ice cream shop

Streets of Puno

Central Market fruits

Buying more coca leaves

A van picked us up for the start of the tour, and proceeded to visit a number of other hotels along the way to the harbor, picking up other passengers. We were dropped off near the docks, and walked along the pier until we reached our boat. Our friendly tour guide was proficient in English and Spanish, and conducted the tour using both languages, which was a great way to test out my Spanish comprehension skills. As we pulled away from land, a beautiful view of Puno stretching into the hillside could be seen from behind us.

View of Puno from Lake Titicaca

It was a fairly short 30-minute ride to our destination. The Uros Islands are completely man-made, consisting of layers upon layers of thick reeds that grow in Lake Titicaca. They need to be constantly maintained by their inhabitants, as the lower layers continuously rot away, and fresh new reeds need to be piled on top. There is a fairly large community centered around the islands, with everything - the houses, the furniture, and even  the boats - made from reeds. What is unclear to me, however, is whether the people actually still live there full time, or if the islands only serve as a source of tourist income nowadays.

Our family welcoming us to their island

Either way, it was an interesting sight to see. I had read some unfavorable reviews regarding the Uros Islands, claiming it was too touristy and a rip-off, but I found the tour to be informative and the people to be very friendly. Typically, each tour boat lands on a different family's island (there are more than 50 all in close proximity) so that both the number of visitors as well as the profits are evenly distributed among the inhabitants. After a detailed introduction from our guide, we were allowed to explore on our own, take pictures, and buy handicrafts made by the locals.

Walking on the floating islands was a cool experience in and of itself. The reeds sort of squish beneath your feet, and you can definitely sense the ground moving up and down with each step. In addition, the reeds aren't used only as building material, but also as a source of food. The locals eat the bottom portions closest to the roots. I tired a little bite of the juicy white flesh, and it reminded me of jicama, but with very little flavor. One of the coolest things on the island was a little reed house built for guinea pigs (also a source of food).

Tour guide explaining how the islands are built

Reed house for guinea pigs

There was an option to ride in one of their reed boats for an additional cost, but there was certainly no pressure to do so, and no one from our tour took the offer. After leaving our family's island, we headed over to the larger main island, which housed the administrative buildings, a small coffee/tea shop, some souvenir stands, and a watch tower. From there, we had a beautiful view of the setting sun over Lake Titicaca. As it got darker, we left the Uros Islands and returned to Puno.

Traditional reed boat

Sunset from the Uros Islands

For those who have a little more time, there are tours that visit the other islands in Lake Titicaca. Be aware that they are quite far, and the boat rides agonizingly slow. It can take up to two and a half hours to get to Taquile, and four hours to get to Amantani. I have read good things about the islands, however, and their traditional way of life still seems to be maintained, especially on Amantani. There are no hotels, and the only option for accommodations are home stays with the locals, which is a great way to support the community directly and to also learn about the culture.

Unfortunately, with only one night in Puno, we didn't have time to do much else. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was already fairly late. I woke up the next morning with a slight headache from the altitude. We headed downstairs early for breakfast. Surprisingly, the spread wasn't half bad, and there was plenty of fresh fruit, cereal, bread, yogurt, and even some hot selections of scrambled eggs and potatoes. Most importantly, they had coca tea! Afterwards, we checked out and waited in the lobby for our taxi to the Puno bus station. From there, we would head across the Peru/Bolivia border and onto Copacabana.

Nice breakfast spread

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