Three large towns lie along the Titicaca Lake shores. Copacabana is on its eastern side, Desaguadero - split between Bolivia and Peru – on its southern end and Puno on its western side. Puno is the largest, but not by much. As Copacabana, Puno is trapped between the lake’s shoreline and the adjacent hills. As in Copacabana, the Titicaca blues dominate the views; there is something in the color of deep altitude-lakes that makes them unforgettable.
Despite marketing efforts, Puno is a rather recent town (founded in 1668) which is not related to the Inca or the Tiwanaku. Yet, the town is called the "Folkloric Capital of Peru;" the term refers mainly to traditions from colonial times, which seem to be still very alive and well here. As such, it is arranged around a typical Spanish central square and a beautiful cathedral. In essence, the town looks and feels like a replica of Copacabana without the famous Calvario of the last.
Other points of interest for passing travelers are the terminal and the dock by the lake. Kuntur Wasi is the name of a viewpoint atop a large set of steps; from the Condor Viewpoint – which conveniently displays a large condor sculpture – there are great views of the town and the lake. Puma Wasi is a similar viewpoint, both are better reached by taxi due to security issues in Puno.
To the traveler arriving from Asia the views are deceitful: a calm city by a deep blue lake, surrounded by desert hills. Denizens walking in a rather lethargic pace; sometimes awkwardly frozen in the middle of ambiguous activities. You sit in a coffee shop and look at the walking people; it doesn’t take long to discern certain peculiarities. While walking, the people look indecisive; more often than not you’ll fail to guess the direction of their next step. At times they unapologetically bump into each other; most of the time they seem to be just blocking each other. You may think the area has passed through a rapid urbanization process and thus the people you’ve seen just moved to the city recently and do not know those silent rules of urban movement we all master without having studied them formally. Then you talk with one of the denizens – maybe the receptionist at the hotel or a travel agent – and you get a warning. Then you notice the people at the street corners systematically taking pictures with their phones. You don’t believe the stories or the views, until shortly after you see somebody being attacked, or you become the victim. Despite its looks, the area is very violent. The chances of being attacked are real; the hopes of getting help are unreal.
Yet, Puno is more than a dangerous and unavoidable travel hub. Probably it is the best place for buying souvenirs in Peru. It is less expensive than Cusco and Lima, and it offers the same merchandise as the floating islands. Moreover, with the help of a taxi it is possible to visit the Chullpas de Sillustani, a set of impressive adobe burial towers built by the Kollas; similar to the ones seen along the Bolivian Altiplano. Tourist agencies are promoting now visits to llama farms, though these animals can be seen wandering freely as well. A point to keep in mind is keeping a safe distance from them; if they feel threatened they spit whatever they are chewing on the aggressor’s eyes. Walking on the hills surrounding the city may be tempting, but it is dangerous, violent robbery in them is common.
The food in Puno is typical of the Altiplano area, with the huge variety of tubers – dehydrated or fresh – I have described in my Bolivian journals, charque (jerky) of llama and other animals, chuy (guinea pigs) stews, goat heads and a plethora of other equally appetizing dishes. In the Mercado Central (central market) they are offered by around 3 soles each, while at Calle Lima - where most shops catering for travelers are – they are offered for around 20 soles. Wi-fi is still an oddity here, as in Copacabana. Most travelers would stay here for short periods of time in the way between Bolivia and the Inca related attractions on the Peruvian side, yet, with some care to the surroundings, such a stay can be a safe and enjoyable one.