Puno is the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca. The city itself is a bit sad. The impressive colonial Plaza de Armas is surrounded by a few streets of restaurants aimed at tourists, and then the city sprawls up the hillsides, getting poorer as you go higher.
The altitude (3,830m above sea level - a good fifty-odd metres above the summit of Mount Fuji) made it very hard to do anything strenuous. I had a continual headache and often felt dangerously out of breath, even when sitting down. We managed to climb above the city to the Kuntur Wasi viewpoint one day, where there’s a huge metal sculpture of a condor. Slightly further up the hill we found a grassy plateau. Despite now being higher than Mount Kinabalu, there were two dozen locals vigorously practicing an elaborate dance.
We were continually told that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. This is only really true if you define “navigable” to mean “by ships at least as big as the ones on Lake Titicaca”, and seems to be a strangely specific claim to stake. Is being the largest lake (by both volume and area) in South America not enough? Core samples show that the lake dates back at least 370,000 years, and it may be up to 18 million years old. Its water never makes it to the sea: 90% evaporates from Titicaca, and the 10% that escapes by river to Bolivia evaporates in the fast-disappearing Lake Poopó.
There are several islands that you can visit, most interestingly the floating Uros islands, which are moored slightly outside Puno. These are continually built out of totora reeds harvested from the lake, with new reeds being added to the top as the ones on the bottom rot away. Reeds are also used to make boats, although fibreglass seems to be increasingly popular.
We kayaked out to the Uros through tiny channels in the reed beds that separate Puno’s port from the main lake. This was an excellent way to see the lake, and some of its wildlife, from close up. Once at the islands we were given a demonstration of how the islands are built, and then offered the opportunity to buy snacks or souvenirs. Susan came away with a nice pair of alpaca hand warmers for S/20, so everybody came out up on that deal.
Candlemas, in early February, is the big annual festival in Puno. There’s a large folk dancing competition, which I surmise that the dancers we saw practicing earlier were going to be part of. Sadly, we had booked our tickets back to Lima without checking what was going on, and had to leave town just before it started. Even if we could have changed the flights, though, I don’t think I’d have wanted to stay a lot longer. The lure of going back to sea level was just too strong.
Food tips: we stumbled on the Casa Grill, a Peruvian barbecue place with a signed picture of AC/DC on the wall. Excellent value, but not recommended for vegetarians. All the other restaurants we ate at seemed to be aimed at tourists and either overpriced (Mojsa) or extortionate (La Table del’ Inca). The Cafe Bar de la Casa del Corregidor, just off the Plaza de Armas, has a nice courtyard and is an excellent place to spend an afternoon when you’re all canoed out.
Logistics: the kayak tour for two was S/348 including a tip for the guide, via Edgar Adventures. We booked by walking in to their office and asking if they could take us the next day. Our flight out left from Juliaca airport, an hour away from Puno. Our hotel tried to book us an expensive taxi but we persuaded them to reserve tickets on the shuttle bus for S/15 a head. This came to the hotel at the right time but then spent almost an hour driving around town to pick up more people, so if you like to be at the airport two hours before a flight then you should leave plenty of time. Juliaca airport is small and easy to check in, and we had no problems even though we only got there just over an hour before the flight left.
Aeroplane nerdage: the air pressure at the airport is around 650 mbar; significantly lower than cabin pressure at cruising altitude. Shortly after takeoff (or possibly as soon as the engines spun up for takeoff - my iPhone pressure app isn't terribly responsive) the cabin pressure started increasing steadily, much as it does when an aeroplane is coming in to land somewhere normal, until it reached around 750 mbar, which seems to be fairly standard. Now I just need to fly on ANA again to check whether they really do have better cabin pressure than everybody else.