While traveling in Peru when I was climbing up the Colca Canyon near Arequipa, a traveler friend from the US asked me which place in Peru did I want to see next. I had heard about Puno and Lake Titicaca from the hostel people so I blurted out, maybe Puno. She said that she had heard that there are not many things to do in Puno, and most travelers skip visiting Puno; she was going straight to Cusco.
When my friend said that most people don’t travel to Puno, I felt thrilled. Though I have been to both offbeat and touristy places on my trips, Peru is a country with some of the coolest and remotest places to see which I definitely wanted to explore. While feeling unprepared to visit Cusco and join the mass of tourists who crowd the city hoping to see Machu Picchu, I booked a bus ticket to Puno.
Puno and Lake Titicaca were two of the coolest and most cultural places in Peru. While Lake Titicaca is one of the largest and highest lakes in South America, Puno is a small city that thrives on its bank. Though both the places are situated in the high Andes at an altitude of 4000 meters, they are not short of life.
By visiting Puno and the many manmade and natural islands on Titicaca, a traveler or a historian can get a deeper insight into centuries-old Aymara and Quechua civilizations that have thrilled on the banks of Titicaca, which is a special place for both Peruvians and Bolivians religiously. But apart from understanding the culture and visiting the ruins of ancient Incas and other dynasties, you have a lot more to do in the altiplano region. One can see the sun go down the deep-blue waters of the lake, walk in the endless countryside, stay on the remotest islands, and eat heartful.
The altiplano geography and hilltop huts, the glistening blue waters of the ocean-like lake, the humble indigenous people, and the many peculiar islands that I visited blew my mind with their simple way of living and ingenious style of surviving.
Though I visited Cusco later, and here is my comprehensive travel guide to Cusco.
Must Read: Backpack Peru with my mammoth cultural Guide.
Now let us dive into some of the existential questions about Puno, Peru and Lake Titicaca.
Where are Puno and Lago Titicaca?
Puno is a small city in Southern Peru situated on the banks of Lake Titicaca also known as Lago Titicaca(lago is the Spanish word for lake), which is the highest navigable lake in the world.
Lake Titicaca is located in the high altiplano basin in the Andes on the border of Peru and Bolivia. The right leg of Titicaca cuts through (almost) the West of Bolivia and the left leg sits in South Peru.
Here are two Google maps to show you the Lake Titicaca and Puno in respect to the rest of South America.
The altitude in Puno and Lake Titicaca is about 4,000 meters.
Why is Lake Titicaca so special that everybody who travels to South America keeps talking about it?
Lake Titicaca is the largest, highest, and deepest lake in South America situated in the high Andes at the border of Peru and Bolivia. Now apart from these geographically unique characteristics, legends say that Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of the Incas, the rulers who ruled over the largest empire in South America before the Spanish invaded.
The Andean indigenous communities even believe that the sun and the moon were made on the islands of sun and moon on Lake Titicaca(in Bolivia side) by God Viracocha hence the lake is religiously significant for almost the entire Peru and Bolivia who worship natural gods. They say that religious spirits still live at the bottom of the lake.
Many more fascinating stories revolve around the lake which is said to be in the shape of a puma hunting a rabbit. These historical and mythological tales along with the thousands of year old civilizations that have been inhabiting the banks and islands of the lake, speak ancient Aymara and Quechuan languages, live in their indigenous styles most of the times without any power or machinery or cars, construct their own floating islands (about which I will talk later), the stunning countryside circumscribing the lake, terraced roofs cultivated with potato and corn, sheep and cow grazing on the steep hillsides, azure-blue water of the lake, and the mighty snow-capped Andes visible in the distance makes Titicaca one of the best places to visit in Peru and Bolivia.
General FAQS about Lake Titicaca, Peru.
What is the altitude of Lake Titicaca?
Elevation of Lake Titicaca is 3,800 meters, almost as high as the popular Chandrashila Peak of the Himalayas where most of the Indians go for their first Himalayan trek. If you have been to Chandrashila, you must remember how low the oxygen pressure is at that height. Now imagine if you had to live at that altitude, wash clothes, cook, walk around, climb, sail, farm, run, and live your regular life but with just lesser oxygen. Now it seems like I have started to talk about the Spiti valley of Himachal.
How big is Lake Titicaca? How deep is Lake Titicaca, Peru?
Twenty-seven rivers flow into Lago Titicaca to make it the largest lake in South America. The lake goes as deep as 280 meters and the surface area is about 8,300 square kilometers, a little less than Cyprus.
How many islands does the Lake Titicaca have?
Titicaca has almost 42 islands spread between Peru and Bolivia.
What is the best way to see Lago Titicaca?
The best way to see the Lagoe Titicaca is to get onto it.
Is Lake Titicaca worth visiting?
I have written a whole travel guide on visiting Puno and the Lake and you dare ask me this question? Jokes aside, Lago Titicaca is a magical place and is totally worth visiting. But if you have two weeks on your hand, then I would say spend one day in Puno and visit one island of Lake Titicaca to get an idea of the place.
If you travel to Bolivia, you can also visit the lake from there. I have written about visiting Lago Titicaca and Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side in my Copacabana travel guide, the Bolivian establishment on the banks of this humungous lake.
Recommended Read: Travel Bolivia, my comprehensive travel guide.
But what to do in Puno, Peru? Is Puno worth visiting?
Although travelers argue and the internet says that the town of Puno in itself is quite cumbersome and scruffy and one should go there only to escape to the lake, I would suggest that if you have time you should explore Puno, too. This calm city is a fusion of the Aymara and Quechua cultures, offers great food, people live at a relaxed pace, a gorgeous countryside surround Puno ready to be explored, and in the evenings you can walk to the Lake Titicaca and eat fried trout at the bank.
Let’s see what you say after reading my list of places to see in Puno. (Needless to say, Puno is the best way to explore Lago Titicaca, Peru.)
Top things to do in Puno and Lake Titicaca —
Visit Sillustani Burial towers or the Ruins of Sillustani near Puno—
I took a guided tour to Sillustani as I wanted to understand the story behind these pre-Inca cemeteries. About an hour ride’s away from Puno city center, the large towering chullpas or funerary towers standing high (some of them even 40 feet) on a steep climb next to another lake definitely looked impressive.
The story that until the late 1400s the Qolla warrior community used to tie their dead family members in a fetal position and saved them in uterus-shaped tombs with food and special personal belongings inside these chullpas surprised me even more.
Preserving the bodies of dead family members was part of the culture of Peru. And even places like Nazca in South Peru also have cemeteries and burial grounds dating as old as 200 AD century where bodies were wrapped in cotton and resin to protect them from decay.
The views on the way to the ruins were spectacular, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the lush mountainous and agricultural landscape.
As we were coming back, I saw a train run past by while the sky was adorned with a gorgeous rainbow just stretched across behind the Andes. A sight to remember indeed.
I booked the tour from a local agent, but if you want to pre-book a half-day Sillustani tour that would also support the locals as it would be managed by a local guide, go here.
Walk around and admire the old buildings and sites of historical importance in Puno city —
The best way to know any city is to walk around in it.
You are visiting South America so you would definitely start your journey by visiting the Plaza de Armas or the main square, then take a look at the large18th-century Baroque cathedral at the Plaza, stroll on the cafe and restaurants-stuffed Jirón Lima, admire the old La Casa del Corregidor which is said to be the oldest house in Puno and has the most precious Spanish balcony, chill in Parque/Park Pino, visit the Puno market or the mercado de artesanía to shop around for the most exquisite Peruvian alpaca wool items, and admire the British-made ship Yavarí which is the oldest ship to sail the waters of Titicaca.
You can also go Kayaking with a Peruvian who would happily crusade through the waters of the mighty Titicaca with you.
Climb up to Mirador(viewpoint) Kuntur Wasi to see Puno from a bird’s eye —
Though people say that this place is not safe, I took a taxi up to the hill with a travel friend for I didn’t know about the safety issues back then. We climbed up the more than a hundred stairs (though you can even take a taxi to the top for around 8 soles) to arrive at the giant statue of the condor.
The city of Puno being cradled by the blue Titicaca looked stunning from up there(the feature image of this article perfectly shows that). If you want to continue your walk, you can stroll further into the countryside from the top.
We were walking around there for hours, met local construction workers who offered us a local drink, and were almost getting too happy about our little trip when a group of gangster dogs started barking and followed us.
A guy shouted at the dogs from his rooftop, another lady ran behind them with her own dog and saved us. But the gang of dogs followed us again as if they had something in mind. I started picking up stones to hit the dogs when the ferocious dog of the farmer lady who had helped us previously came running to us, fought with the other dogs, and saved us from getting bitten.
The lady was so sweet and simple that when I hugged her to thank her she shied away and couldn’t stop giggling. I know people all over the internet say that part is notorious for taking away foreigner’s stuff, I didn’t even feel a hint of it.
Admire the Fertility temple of Chucuito near Puno—
I am only mentioning this temple for if fertility temples exist somewhere, we should see them. You can take a taxi to the Andean village of Chucuito and visit the temple and observe some Peruvian village life.
Visit the Islands of Los Uros, Puno, also known as the Floating islands in Lake Titicaca —
The lady tour guide with whom we had gone to the Sillustani ruins suggested us to visit the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca. I asked her what was so special about these Uros islands that she wanted me to send there before visiting her family in Amantani (yeah we talked about that). She said, Isla de Uros or popularly called as floating islands are man-made islands. Uru people cut the totora reed from the bottom and the sides of the lake to construct these reed islands.
When I requested her to explain to me a bit more, she said I should visit the Uros to see myself. I booked a two-day and one-night tour to Isla Los Uros, Isla de Amantani, and Taquile islands for this was the best and only way to visit the Uros islands.
When out speedboat arrived near the floating islands, I was dumbfounded to see golden islands only as big as a hall and housing multiple thatched huts. Everything seemed to be made of a dry leaf.
The tourists got off, and the extended Uros family, the owner of that particular island, showed us around their homes, explained how the islands were made with the buoyant totora reed that Titicaca is full of, showed us around in their boat made of reed, again, and even demonstrated how they pulled the totora out of the waters of the lake to use it later to build their huts, islands, and boats.
One might wonder that what prompted the Uru or the Uros people to shift to the deep waters of the giant lake when they could have instead lived on the land. Legends say that the Urus migrated to Titicaca Perú from the Amazon, but the locals didn’t let them live in the villages near Titicaca. So the Uros built reed islands, floated deep into the lake, and moved around safely. Talk about a smart solution.
Even the storm of 1986 that destroyed most of these floating islands didn’t deter the Uros and even today almost 1200 of them stay on an archipelago of 60 golden islands in the western corner of the lake near Puno.
I know the idea to visit these islands sound touristy but I am glad that I went. For otherwise, I would have never understood how these Uros people have been living for hundreds of years by putting up makeshift islands on a giant lake.
See the men knit in Isla de Taquile, Puno (Taquile Island, Puno) —
Peru for its expert male weavers who produce textiles of remarkable quality.
Then the tour took us to the Taquile island which was a narrow and long island. Taquile island is known throughout Peru for its community tourism practices, that is members of the 2000 or so people of Taquile jointly run the tourism and keep an eye to not let it become too touristy. That is why we couldn’t stay for a night on the island at the islanders prefer day tourists and have a limited number of homestays for night stays thus keeping control over the swarm of tourists.
These 2000 or so people, also known as, Taquileños have occupied this small island since 1970.
The Quechua speaking population is world-famous for their UNESCO recognized handicraft textile and knitting art in which the men of the community are trained since age 8 and grow up to master it. Women only make yarn and weave. The island runs on tourism, farming, fishing, and handicraft income.
Stay in the Isla De Amantani, Puno —
Amantani is a motor, machine, and hotel free island on Lake Titicaca.
I stayed with a host family on the Amantani island which houses only about 4,000 people.
The island was fairly small, and soon as we have arrived we were taken to hike the Pachamama hill of the temple of the mother earth that the Quechua-speaking islanders pray to.
You might also want to go to the Pachatata hill which is comparatively ignored for the views are spectacular from both.
Like all the other hill slopes that rise up from the lake, Amantani island’s hills are also all terraced and farmed. Potato, wheat, corn, and vegetables are the main things that the Amantani people cultivate.
We had no lights and dined and slept in starlight or under flashlights. but some of the homes have started to get solar panels, maybe by the government.
I don’t remember if our host family had any solar panels or not but we definitely walked to the nightly dance with a torchlight after dressing up in traditional Peruvian clothes. Though the dance is a touristy activity — dressing up local, listening to traditional music, and dancing with the locals, drinking beer — we had fun with the families. I danced with my host mother, and she laughed like a little girl when my skirt, which she wrapped around me, started to loosen up.
So maybe you don’t want to go to the islands as visiting Amantani island is a typical activity in Lago Titicaca Puno, but you can also think of it as a way to support the local community. And it is up to you how touristy you make your visit. Stay casual, maybe practice a few words of Spanish so that you can speak with the family, and help them out in their daily life.
Hey, it is all about getting to know each other. Isn’t it?
If you are limited on time, do consider this two-day tour which starts from Puno and takes tourists to all the three islands of Uros, Amantani, and Taquile island. This way you would have a genuine local experience but you wouldn’t have to spend time arranging the visits.
One of the best things to do in Puno, Peru: Visit some remote islands on Lake Titicaca —
I won’t tell you where I went but I can say that Lago Titicaca has 42 islands, some of which are in Bolivia and the rest are in Peru. But most of them are accessible from Puno.
Talk to a tour guide and ask him to send you to an unknown island where he might have a family. Or make friends with locals and they will take you to their extended family which might be staying in one of the farthest islands.
I visited one such island. The family’s teenage children and I waded through the giant Lake Titicaca on their tiny houseboat, torrents of rain beat down on us, the cold wind slapped us throughout the two-three hour-long boat ride, the urgency to pee made me want to leave all social etiquette, and when we arrived at the island instead of running straight to the bathroom, I got mesmerized by a beautiful little Peruvian girl who took my heart away.
How is the weather in Puno, Lago Titicaca?
As both the places are at a height of 4,000 meters, the wind is cold and nights generally gets chilly. I visited Lage Titicaca and Puno in February, which is the Peruvian monsoon and summer. But the weather was never that hot, and we always had to wear a jacket. In the heavy downpour of rain, Puno was a delightful place. The weather was cold. But during day time the city got hot and sunny but never so much that you have to walk around in t-shirts.
But I have heard that in the months of July and August, before the extreme winters, the sun is strong.
You also need to take care in Puno because the altitude is high. If you are planning to visit Puno from another sea-level city, take it slow. Rest and sleep well, drink a lot of water, go low on alcohol, and take a few days to acclimatize. Drink a lot of coca tea and eat coca leaves.
I have written all about handling the altitude in Peru in my travel guide to Peru.
Where to stay in Puno, Peru?
I stayed in the Cozy hostel in Puno and had a marvelous stay. Delicious breakfast of omelet or scrambled eggs, toast, bread, butter, and jam, fruits, juice, and unlimited coffee and coca tea throughout the day made this place my favorite. The location is perfect as the hostel is near the plaza and the street goes straight to the lake. They even have a big lively common room with a television and a kitchen to cook all that you want.
I had also stayed for one night at the Pacha hostel and I promise you I have never stayed in a worse place. Though Pacha hostel has good reviews, the staff was not helpful, the breakfast sucked, and the rooms were empty almost giving a melancholic feeling.
How to get to Puno, Lake Titicaca?
If you are looking for a life-time train journey, take the Orient Express that runs three times from Cusco to Puno and charges more than 300$ one-way. They say that it is one of the most picturesque train journeys in the world.
I arrived in Puno by bus from Arequipa and the journey took me about 8 hours. I have already written in the Peru travel guide and you must have read it that the buses in Peru are fantastic. You can also take a bus from Copacabana or Cusco. Choose between the cheap local buses that stop a lot, more expensive and direct comfortable buses, and expensive tourist buses that stop for sightseeing in between.
A lot of travelers also cross into Puno, Peru by taking a bus from Copacabana or La Paz, Bolivia.
The nearest airport is an hour outside of Puno in Juliaca from where you can take a shared taxi or bus to Puno.
Via ferry across Lake Titicaca from Copacabana. Though I have not tried this option, I have heard it is possible to cross into Peru via ferry from Bolivia. Ask a local or at your hostel. Keep some change for the ferry.
Related Read: Peru travel visa guide for Indians.
What to pack for Puno and Lake Titicaca?
- Warm jackets for men and for women.
- A rain jacket – When I was in Puno in March, Peru’s rainy season was at its peak. If you are heading to Peru in the monsoon, do yourself a favor and get a rain jacket.
- Yoga pants for women and for men – For hiking around the hills around Puno and on the remote Titicaca islands.
- Hiking socks for women and for men.
- A hat for the sun – Too much direct sun at those heights isn’t good while hiking.
- Strong sunscreen – Andean mountains can be pretty sunny, and you would burn in a minute
- Lifestraw water bottle – This reusable filtered water bottle comes with an inbuilt filter, and you can fill it anywhere. A filter water bottle is essential for you cannot drink tap water everywhere in Peru.
- Good hiking shoes for women and good hiking shoes for men – A must-have.
- Flip flops
- A travel towel – Carry a light travel towel like this one for it will save you a lot of space.
- Flashlight – Please don’t go without this one.
- A day hiking backpack – As there are plenty of places to walk around Puno, you would definitely need a sturdy backpack to take for the day with you. I used to stuff this day pack with basic medicines, rain jacket, water bottle, bananas, wallet, power bank, and other essentials.
Of course, other regular clothes like undergarments, t-shirts, and whatever you like. But these are the most important things you would need on the island. For a detailed list of things to bring to Peru, please see my Peru travel guide.
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Excited to see Puno and Lake Titicaca now? If you have any questions about what to see in Puno or Lago Titicaca, please let me know in the comments. I always reply.
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