Puno Stories and Tips

The Logic of Landing on the Titicaca Lake

Titicaca Lake and Cathedral Photo, Puno, Peru

Perceptive readers may attack me on the claims made in the first entry of this journal, Puno – A Spanish Pun; after all, if Puno and Copacabana are so similar, while spend time in both of them? "One culture, one lake, one visit," would summarize their point of view.

These two views depend on the type of trip the traveler is making in the area. If aiming at meeting the altitude cultures of the Andes – Inca, Quechua, Tiwanaku, Aymara, Pucara and more – then beginning a trip at Lima and skipping Bolivia is the last thing one should do. Yet, not surprisingly, most tourists do just that, after all is what the printed Peru guides tell them to do.

If wishing to meet the altitude empires, there are two key locations for the international traveler: Cusco and La Paz. Both are very high; unluckily, most travelers completely obliterate altitude acclimatization considerations. Despite Machu Picchu the attraction not being at an extreme altitude, a significant percentage of people would experience mild altitude sickness symptoms there. Invariably, all human bodies would experience an acclimatization process to the decreased air pressure; I’ve described that extensively in the past. That means bad news for travelers rushing through the area from sea-level Lima, especially if unaware of his – or hers – reaction to altitude; everybody is different with respect to that. Well, that is unless you descent into Cusco.

Despite Cusco being higher than the vast majority of human settlements, La Paz is even higher. Acclimatizing in La Paz before reaching lower Cusco makes more sense since most of the activities and attractions in La Paz require less effort (unless engaging in trekking or climbing). Moreover, large cities – as La Paz is in comparison to any other settlement in the area - provide a more comfortable environment for resting and acclimatizing during a few days. Moreover, there is another reason for choosing this path. It closely follows the source and heart of the Inca Empire, which was deeply related to the Andean High Plateau and not to the arid coasts of the Pacific Ocean. Making a round trip between La Paz and Cusco allows visiting also the Lake Titicaca and Tiwanaku, both related to the birth of this altitude empire.

If adopting this strategy – centering the high altitude trip between La Paz and Cusco – then visiting the Titicaca Lake and Puno is unavoidable (flying over the spectacular landscape of the area in a single hour would be an unforgivable sin). Lake Titicaca is vast, offering the traveler two main routes between La Paz and Puno. Most travelers chose the shortest past through Copacabana. It allows exploring of the "Isla del Sol" (Island of the Sun), a pivotal point in Inca mythology, as well as visits to one of the most important cathedrals in Bolivia and its adjacent "Calvario." Yet, I have described in the past also the crossing via Desaguadero, the town at the southern tip of the lake, which is split between Peru and Bolivia. Each one of these trajectories offers special views and thus is worth experiencing both of them. Buses and taxis to Puno are available from the Peruvian side of both borders. Both paths are relatively easy and straightforward. The only point of concern is security, and that holds for both sides of the border. Eventually, Peru and Bolivia are pretty similar societies, what holds for one is usually true for the other.

As said in the first entry of this journal, the Andean High Plateau is the most densely populated area among the world’s high altitude zones and home to various historic cultures, which rate among the largest in this continent. Relatively difficult to reach and demanding an altitude acclimatization period means the traveler should try to get the max out of the trip. If accepting this, landing on the Titicaca Lake for a while and visiting the whole area is the only sensible option.

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