Puno – Lake Titicaca

With 118,000 inhabitants, Puno is the largest city on Lake Titicaca and the tourist centre in its Peruvian part.

To the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca and Copacabana.

Its nickname ‘ciudad de plata’ (City of Silver) dates back to the time when its silver mines were among the most productive in the country. Today, apart from tourism, Puno thrives on agriculture and the breeding of llamas and alpacas that graze on the pastures of the Altiplano. Visitors will notice that many of the houses in Puno and the surrounding municipalities seem unfinished. This is in order to avoid taxes that only have to be paid on finished houses. A large part of the local economy lives off the black market, which is supplied with cheap smuggled goods from nearby Bolivia. Since 2009 Puno has been regarded as a special economic zone – “Zona Económica Especial” – which is intended to promote investment.

Legend has it that the first Inca, Manco Capac, descended to earth via a rock on the Isle of the Sun (“Titi-Karka”, or “Puma rock”; “karka” = stone, rock). On Quechua, however, “titi” means lead or lead-coloured and “qaqa” means rock, thus “lead (lead-coloured) rock”.

Geographically, Puno is wedged between the shores of the lake and the foothills of the Sierra, both less than three kilometres apart. As a growing city, which many migrants and rural refugees also see as a springboard to a better life, Puno inevitably grows uphill, with every halfway suitable spot being used for construction. The steeper the location, the poorer the inhabitants, whose poor accommodation is often not accessible by car.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake and at the same time the highest commercially navigable lake on earth. With an area of 8288 square kilometres, it has roughly the size of Lake Nicaragua. It is situated at 3810 m above sea level, is 194 km long, 65 km wide and has a maximum depth of 210 metres. More than 25 rivers are flowing into Lake Titicaca, but with the Desaguadero River, which carries about ten percent of the excess water, it has only one outlet. The remaining water evaporates in the bone dry air. The lake once had a much larger extension, for example the ruined city of Tiwanaku, which is now 20 km away, was originally located on the shore of the lake.

Large and small islands seem to swim in its unfathomable dark blue (the man-made ones among them actually do). Some of them are home to Inca relics or pre-Inca cultures. Despite the very low average annual water temperature of 10-12 °C, the lake is a large heat reservoir in relation to the surrounding countryside, so that potatoes, barley, maize and quinoa thrive well in the fields around the lake. The Lake Titicaca region is considered to be the area of origin of potato cultivation. The abundance of fish in the lake is an important source of food for the population but it is – like the ecosystem of the lake as a whole – threatened: On the one hand, the water level is constantly falling due to a shortened rainy season and the melting Andean glaciers from which the tributaries of the lake are fed. On the other hand, toxic wastewater from mostly illegal mines and untreated wastewater from the city of Puno are polluting the lake. Despite a less than efficient agreement signed by Peru and Bolivia in 2006 to protect the lake, the Global Nature Fund declared Lake Titicaca a “Threatened Lake 2012”.

One of the most famous attractions of Lake Titicaca today are the floating islands of the Urus. The Urus (Spanish Uro or Uros) are an ethnic group that today counts about 2000 people. Only a few hundred of them still live on 42 “floating islands” made of dried Totora reed, 5 km west of Puno’s harbour. The totora reed also serves as building material for the boats of the Urus and their island houses. The roots of the Totora plants also serve as iodine-rich food. The majority of the Urus now live on the mainland, where their cemeteries are located. Originally, the Urus began to build floating islands from crosswise layers of totora reed in order to protect themselves or hide from the warlike Incas, for example. Whenever an attack threatened, the anchorage was loosened and the Uros withdrew to the lake together with their islands. The Urus live from fishing (e.g. Andean carps and catfish), selling colorful blankets and other handicrafts to tourists and from the photographers’ tips.

Isla Taquile

The inhabitants of Isla Taquile (whose Quechuan name is Intika), now known as the ‘island of knitting men’, wear their traditional clothes in everyday life, partly for reasons of self-promotion and partly for reasons of tradition, which at least the men on the neighbouring island of Amantaní have long since stopped wearing. Women wear a white or red blouse (bayeta) made of sheep’s wool, a black scarf (chuco) on their head, a red belt called chumpi and a voluminous dark skirt (pollera).
To be able to keep up with the ‘curves’ of the Spanish women in their lace skirts during colonial times, the women of Taquile wore and wear three to five skirts on top of each other – during festivities up to 20 (!).
This obvious rejection of western fashion ideals such as the slim silhouette is paired with the reversal of gender roles, as these skirts are woven by the men.
In return, the women make the white fabric belts (chumpis) of the men. The men also wear white shirts with wide sleeves, black trousers and vests. The real sensation, however, they wear on their heads: the chuyo, a cap that they learn to knit as little boys.
The type of hat indicates the wearer’s marital status, so bachelors wear the ‘chuyo de soltero’, red at the bottom and white at the tip, while husbands wear a continuous red hat with a repetitive geometric pattern. Married men often wear a chuspa (bag to store coca leaves). Unquestionably, however, the most extravagant hats are worn by village elders (varayocs): rainbow colours with earflaps!


The necropolis Sillustani is located on a peninsula on the shore of Lake Umayo, about 30km west of Puno. Here the Colla people, who belong to the Aymara language family, buried their leaders and their clans around 1000 AD in huge stone towers. The deceased were tied up in plant fibres and sent on their last journey in a squatting posture.
Their bodies were preserved for centuries due to the dry and cold air. Often also the belongings of the deceased, valuable grave goods and food for the journey to the afterlife were walled into the Chullpa.
The twelve Chullpas in Sillustani are partly over ten meters high, mostly round and covered with a stone slab or a thatched roof. The older Chullpas are still made of small stones and clad with clay, while the younger ones consist of perfectly joined, exactly rectangular volcanic stones. The only opening of each tomb tower faces east, the direction where the sun is reborn from the earth every morning.
At 12 metres, the highest Chullpa in Sillustani and throughout South America is the “Chullpa de Lagarto”, so called because of a relief with a lizard motif in the upper stones. Although the burial towers of the Colla were built long before the time of the Incas, their construction is very similar to the famous Inca walls found in Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuamán or Ollantaytambo. It is assumed that the Incas adopted the Colla masonry technique for their earthquake-proof buildings.
Sillustani and Lake Umayo are also an excellent spot for birdwatchers and for sighting vicuñas, the rare wild relatives of the alpaca.