Saturday, 4 January 2014

Day 287: Puno

The overnight bus from Arequipa to Puno was not a good idea. Departing at 11pm, arriving at 5am, getting anything like an adequate sleep was always an ambitious task. Making that task harder, we were sat right at the front of the top deck, and gaps between the lower deck allowed a freezing breeze to torment us all night. I perhaps got an hour's rest. Fortunately, our hotel - the wonderfully named Casona Colon Inn (I only booked it because I thought the name was funny) - allowed us to check in at just after 5am, and we got a decent few hours rest before our single day of Puno exploration.

Puno is yet another high altitude location in Peru, this time at around 3800 metres, and brings with it shortness of breath I've begun to associate my travels in Peru. Well, that and violent sunburn. It's best known as the launchpad for those who want to explore the varied islands of Lake Titicaca, a lake I genuinely had supposed was entirely mythical before starting these travels. It sounds like something you'd find in an issue of Tintin, or in a chapter of King Solomon's Mines. But it's very real, being the largest lake in South America (it's larger than Denmark), and the highest major lake in the world, on the shores of both Peru and Bolivia.

If we had endless time, perhaps we'd have spent a few days exploring the islands, although the impression I get is that tourist saturation has made them a theme park of "authentuc tradition", which if it's anything like other parts of Peru means lots of stalls selling identical handicrafts. But as we didn't go, this is perhaps an unfair assumption. Time isn't endless however, and we were both in agreement that more time in Bolivia and Chile would be preferred. So our day in Puno was really just to break up the journey between Arequipa and La Paz.

But I rather enjoyed it. Danielle was less sure, thinking it a bit dull and a bit of a dump, but I thought Puno rather charming in its own shabby way. There's no doubting it's very scenically situated. Clinging to the mountainside, the main part of the small city levels out before spreading round the shore of Lake Titicaca. The buildings... yeah, they're mostly very routine brick blocks in various states of undress and unfinishedness, without much intrinsic character, but the city itself had a charm. The centre is blessed with a pleasant pedestrianised street, leading to the central Plaza de Armas, which is surrounded by slightly nicer buildings and with an attractive Peruvian-style cathedral on one side. This style has a facade facing the square, intricately carved with a mixture of Catholic and Andean images. Inside, Puno's cathedral is surprisingly long - it would take Usain Bolt a few seconds to get to the altar, at least. Upon entering, light poured through the roof window on the central dome, so as we walked down the aisle we were bathed in glorious light for some moments.

Spilling down the mountainside as it does, Puno residents have seen fit to erect various statues of buildings at some of these peaks. Chapels, crosses, and big Jesuses are the most popular as ever, but while in the Plaza de Armas we spotted a giant condor statue, with wings spread. This was definitely worth a look. Oh, ok, it probably wasn't, as it involved the annihilation of our lungs with a series of steep stairways and was just a metal sculpture of a bird. But the views were nice.

Going down was much easier, and we wandered around some Puno streets. To be truthful, away from the centre, Puno's charm is a little less distinct. It could be anywhere with shabby buildings, dusty roads, and honking cars. Not horrible, just non-descript. The lake front, mostly, is squandered. It could be lovely, but instead I saw one man pissing and another taking a dump in the smelly marshland. Certainly not what you'd find in an issue of Tintin.

In fairness, part of the lakeside is more developed, with small outdoor restaurants and peddleboats for hire. Peddleboats with swan or cartoon character heads. You can bet that myself and Danielle signed up for this. The best £0.90 I've spent in ages.

So in the end, I suppose, I did sail the waters of Lake Titicaca, in a fashion. For 20 minutes in a swanboat. We followed this up with the biggest corn-on-the-cob I've ever eaten. All in all then, thumbs up for Puno.

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