A crossroads for most travellers en route to Bolivia or Chile, PUNO lacks the colonial style of Cusco or the bright glamour of Arequipa’s sillar stone architecture, but it’s a friendly place and one of the few Peruvian towns where the motorized traffic seems to respect pedestrians. Busy as it is, there is less of a sense of manic rush here than in most coastal or mountain cities. On the edge of the town spreads vast Lake Titicaca – some 8400 square kilometres of shimmering blue water enclosed by white peaks. Puno’s port is a vital staging-point for exploring the northern end of Lake Titicaca, with its floating islands just a few hours away by boat.
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There are three main points of reference in Puno: the spacious Plaza de Armas, the train station several blocks north, and the vast, strung-out area of old, semi-abandoned docks at the ever-shifting Titicaca lakeside port. It all looks impressive from a distance, but, in fact, the real town-based attractions are few and quickly visited.
The climate here is generally dry and the burning daytime sun is in stark contrast to the icy evenings (temperatures frequently fall below freezing in the winter nights of July and August). Sloping corrugated-iron roofs reflect the heavy rains that fall between November and February.
Puno is immensely rich in living traditions – in particular its modern interpretations of folk dances – as well as fascinating pre-Columbian history. The Pukara culture emerged here some three thousand years ago leaving behind stone pyramids and carved standing stones, contemporaneous with those of Chavín 1600km further north. The better-known Tiahuanaco culture dominated the Titicaca basin between 800 and 1200 AD, leaving in its wake the temple complex of the same name just over the border in Bolivia, plus widespread cultural and religious influence. This early settlement was conquered by the Incas in the fifteenth century.
The first Spanish settlement at Puno sprang up around a silver mine discovered by the infamous Salcedo brothers in 1657. The camp forged such a wild and violent reputation that the Lima viceroy moved in with soldiers to crush and finally execute the Salcedos before things got too out of hand. The Spanish were soon to discover the town’s wealth – both in terms of tribute-based agriculture and mineral exploitation based on a unique form of slave labour. In 1668 the viceroy made Puno the capital of the region, and from then on it became the main port of Lake Titicaca and an important town on the silver trail from Potosí in Bolivia. The arrival of the railway, late in the nineteenth century, brought another boost, but today it’s a relatively poor, rather grubby sort of town, by Peruvian standards, and a place that has suffered badly from droughts and poor water management over the years.
Famed as the folklore capital of Peru, Puno is renowned throughout the Andes for its music and dance. The best time to experience this wealth of traditional cultural expression is during the first two weeks of February for the Fiesta de la Candelaria, a great folklore dance festival, boasting incredible dancers wearing devil masks; the festival climaxes on the second Sunday of February. If you’re in Puno at this time, it’s a good idea to reserve hotels in advance (hotel prices can double).
The Festival de Tinajani, usually around June 27, is set in the bleak altiplano against the backdrop of a huge wind-eroded rock in the Canyon of Tinajani. Off the beaten trail, it’s well worth checking out for its raw Andean music and dance, plus its large sound systems; ask at the tourist offices in Puno or Cusco for details.
Just as spectacular, the Semana Jubilar (Jubilee Festival) occurs in the first week of November, partly on the Isla Esteves, and celebrates the Spanish founding of the city and the Incas’ origins, which legend says are from Lake Titicaca itself. Even if you miss the festivals, you can find a group of musicians playing brilliant and highly evocative music somewhere in the labyrinthine town centre on most nights of the year.