Peru #5: Puno and the Uros Islands

Set high up in the Andes mountains, even higher than Cusco, where I had suffered from mild attitude sickness, Puno lies on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, a stone’s throw from the maritime border with Bolivia. Six years previous I’d been to Copacabana and Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side, and the views were mightily impressive, so I hoped for more of the same. I’d only spend a day in the city, the main aim being to check out the floating Uros Islands, home to a centuries-old Quechua community. Definitely worth a visit, but very plastic from a tourism point of view. I wouldn’t have time for an abundance of adventures, though I would endure a rather tumultuous bus ride to get there and later interview a girl for a job.

Getting in

The ten-hour, 50/S (15USD) trip out from Puerto Maldonado to Puno was certainly a journey to forget. The bus was filthy and stunk of piss and sweat even before we got on, and there was no air-conditioning meaning even more sweat-athon compounded our misery. Why the driver, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and frequently exceeded the speed limit, opted to take a break in the middle of nowhere for what seemed an age is a mystery, and he wouldn’t let us off to get air, so we stewed for an extra hour in the bus. Add to this a screaming baby who had no off-switch, and a rather rotund woman who boarded half way through, sat next to me  and spent the whole journey retching into a singular plastic bag.

Despite all the above, I eventually broke into conversation with a lady and gentleman sitting across from me and the content of our chat made the whole thing worth it. Upon me telling them where I was from, they bombarded me with questions about money, such as how much things cost and how much money I earned etcetera, which I tactfully averted with vague replies. The next question, however, reminded me just where I was in Peru; a cheap bus full of locals who haven’t had much contact with outsiders. The man described how many people in Lima had cars as a rule and then went on to ask, fully expecting an affirmative response, whether everyone had a plane in Europe, such was the wealth over there. I politely explained that it wasn’t the case and that most people took commercial planes, but he seemed very reluctant to believe me and probably went away to tell his friends that I’d confirmed his suspicions about Europeans’ modes of travelling.

We also passed through Juliaca, a city about an hour from Puno renowned for its commerce, particularly cheap clothes. It wasn’t very picturesque, what with every other street or road under construction and a load of incomplete buildings. My new acquaintances on the bus didn’t big it up and said that recently someone had been knifed for their phone and thrown into a bin, before being rescued the following morning. Thankfully there were now weapon-wielding warriors in the bus station, and, as promised by the lady at the desk in Puerto Maldonado, an employee of the bus company was waiting for me to arrive and escorted me to a much more comfortable bus to go on to Puno.  The ride took an hour, though when I got off, the driver seemed a little angry at me. Don’t know why.

Where to stay

Having taken a photo of the very useful map at the bus station, and surprisingly not been swarmed upon by a horde of taxi drivers, as is the norm outside transport terminals in Peru, I arrived at Cozy Hostel (31/S). I was glad to see that the dorm room I booked consisted of four single beds, which were indeed cosy, and as in Cusco, there was coca tea available at all hours to combat the altitude. Breakfast was decent in that it was an open buffet with a choice of fruits, bread, eggs and hot drinks, and there was a small area with sofas in which to chill if one wanted.

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A useful map

I had to wait a while for the room to be readied, as I’d arrived quite early, so sat at a table and had some coca tea, as you do in the Peruvian Andes. Until an employee of the hostel came over to me with a young girl in tow and asked me if I would speak to her in order to ‘test’ her English and comprehension. Being an English teacher, I didn’t roll my tongue at a thousand miles per hour and was very selective with words when speaking to her. We had a bit of a conversation, and to be honest her comprehension wasn’t that great, and nor her speaking, but given the hostel worker asked me what I thought of the girl while she was still sat in front of her, I had to say that her English was absolutely fine and that she’d have no problem communicating with tourists. I mean, only a cruel person wouldn’t have, right?

The Uros Islands

As per usual, the hostel offered a tour package to the Uros Islands for 35/S, but I figured it could be done at the port for a better price, and it was indeed, so I paid just 15/S, though note you pay the boat ticket and tour cost separately at different booths. The ride out was about 20 minutes long, and I was on the boat with a foursome of Dutch girls, a know-it-all guy from the US, and a handful of Peruvian couples, who were just as much tourists as we were.

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The boat ride out with abnormally long legs

Upon arriving at one of the islands (there are thousands, each controlled by a different leader and group), we were given a talk in Spanish and English (well-rehearsed and obviously recited dozens of times) by a man allegedly in typical dress, before being allowed to take photos in a kind of lookout point, which doesn’t really give any more views than if you were just standing on the island, but may symbolise authority for whoever stands up there. Interesting was how the islands were created and maintained, basically by wrapping and compressing layer upon layer of totora reeds together and constantly topping them up. Houses and boats are made of these same reeds and they can also be eaten. How about that for versatility? Talking of which, according to the leader of the island fishing is the main source of food on the island, and most money is made from tourism. The Uros people then go to Puno every weekend to trade and buy other products for their sustenance.

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Looking out from above
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Islands made from reed
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A chunk of totora

These communities supposedly date back centuries and their way of living has been maintained throughout time, but I’m very sure that tourism has massively increased. They full well take advantage of this, and as the boats rotate the islands which they visit so everyone has a fair chance to have access to tourists, they make the most of their visits. Tourists are asked (pressured) to buy some handicrafts from one of the stalls, each of which apparently belongs to a different family on the island. Each family have their own house, and there seemed to be shared kitchens, and I’m not sure if there were bathrooms. From time to time there are family disputes, which our guide told us often results in one or both of the families literally being cut away from the island, though as the islands don’t move that much, except in huge storms, they’d be visible and fair game for haranguing for quite a while after.

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A house on the Uros Islands with a solar panel

Anyway, I bought a necklace for 5/S and also got on one of the fancy dragon boats, 100% made for tourists and of no practical use for the islanders. The dragon boat is pushed along by a speedboat, and in this case we crossed a straight stretch of water to reach another island, but instead of seeing aspects of Uros culture, perhaps schools or community buildings, we were deposited at an island with a restaurant and shop with overpriced food and drinks. To make the trip on the dragon boat, you have to pay 10/S, though it is apparently optional. Thus the Dutch girls and American opted not to take the dragon boat, and instead go across in the regular speedboat. This was evidently unexpected, and the islanders tried persuading them to get on board with the lure of a discount, eventually going all the way down to 1/S per person, though they still refused and came across in the speedboat.  However, to be fair, they did spend a decent amount of cash at the restaurant, so money was indeed extracted from them.

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The ‘dragon’ boat

After about an hour on the island, we left, and to be frank, the whole thing was a little superficial, not particularly culturally enriching, and definitely something aimed at tourists. However, compared to normal touristy activities, prices are a lot lower and it is still cool just to look at how the islands are built and manage to float.

Other attractions

As I had a few hours to burn in Puno that evening, I went to the Dreyer Museum, founded by a German man, and it contained pretty much what most Peruvian museums contain, pre-colonial artefacts, though to a lesser extent. For 15/S I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, especially if you are to visit Lima, whose museums house the most impressive objects of Peruvian history and culture. I also walked about seven or eight blocks from the main square and scaled a few stairs to get to the viewpoint which gives out over Lake Titicaca, and the panoramic view on offer is impressive. A note of caution, however, in that the altitude hits you a little harder in Puno than in other cities, so take things slowly when walking around.

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Puno skyline

Indeed, earlier in the afternoon, I had been lucky enough to be in town for what appeared to be a local public holiday, and subsequently watched several groups of people singing, dancing and playing music in procession. The music was typically Andean and the women wore the long and colourful pollera skirts typical of the region.

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Andean typical dance
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Andean dancing

Food

I had been told by some other travellers that the roasted cui (guinea pig) was good to eat in the city, but I passed on that and instead lunched at the market for a handsome 5/S, eating ­aji de gallina, pieces of chicken cooked in a creamy spicy sauce and served with rice. In the evening, I fancied pizza, but not sitting alone in one of the expensive and fancy pizzerias, of which there is an abundance, and I eventually found a small and simple place and got three mini margherita pizzas for 1.50/S each.

Conclusions

Puno is a picturesque and tranquil city perched over the beautiful Lake Titicaca, but lacks a little in terms of things to do. The obvious tourist attraction is the trip to the Uros Islands, which although rather contrived, is still worth a visit. There’s no doubt that Bolivia has the best part of Lake Titicaca, what with the Isla del Sol amongst many other idyllic islands and landscapes, but if you’ve got a little time to spare, seeing Puno shouldn’t be out of the question.

Next on the agenda was Arequipa, Peru’s second city, where I’d have to dig deep to scale a mountain almost 6000m high and also visit the marvellous Colca Canyon.

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