On the shores of Lake Titicaca, you'll find the city of Puno, located 240 miles from Cusco. For centuries, Inca roads linked both cities. Today, a highway allows you to follow the traces of the past. The tourist route makes stops at little-known places, like the impressive Iglesia de Andahuaylillas or the Raqchi archeological cite.
You might think that it would be difficult to be surprised after visiting Cusco, but Puno has wonders of its own, with unique lakeside scenery and vibrant cultures. You'll feel the altitude of 12,556 feet when you first arrive, but once your body adjusts, the city has plenty of charming spots to discover.
As you leave Puno, brick construction rapidly gives way to nature - endless grassy plains, interrupted by springs and small lagoons. This is the scenery on the half-hour trip to the chullpas of Sillustani, a pre-Inca necropolis. Facing the beautiful Umayo lagoon, the immense circular towers - some nearly 40 feet tall - are the tombs of ancient, mummified Colla, an Aymara people. In the mornings, which are free of tourists, silence is your best possible guide.
No visit to Titicaca is complete without a visit to the islands. The closest are the floating islands of the Uros, a pre-Colombian people who believed that totora was a plant sent by the gods. They used this type of reed to build their islands and their homes, to feed their animals, to use as fuel and to make into various objects, which are now local folk art. The floating islands actually have to be anchored so they don't drift away with a strong breeze.
After a visit to these islands, the impossible happens: Titicaca becomes even more immense. The city on the horizon and the silhouettes of the mountains remind us that we're on a lake. It's three hours by boat to Amantaní, the largest island on the lake, where we'll spend the night. A strong wind is blowing, and the sun shines above, making the waters shimmer. On the roof of the boat, there's nothing to think about. Your thoughts simply drift away.
With their heads covered by elegant black scarves that contrast with their colorful skirts, the indigenous women are responsible for welcoming guests at the Amantaní pier. The island's families are organized and rotate the responsibility of providing lodging for travelers, an example of how the local population benefits from tourism. It’s a lovely custom. I’m taken to the home of Flora Calsín. “What country are you from?” she ask me. I tell her I’m from Cusco. She nods, smiles and continues walking along gracefully.
At her honre in the community of Occopampa, the patio is full of geese, potatoes and quinoa. lt's harvest time, with greenery and flowers coloring the island scenery. Before the day ends, you'll need to make one last effort to climb Cerro Coanos to reach Pachatata, a pre-inca ceremonial center. At more than 13,500 feet, your weariness melts away before the wonder of the sunset. The last rays of the sun tint the lake in ephemeral grays and oranges until you can only see the silhouettes of the mountains.
The next morning on the pier, our farewell is filled with cheery smiles. We only arrived yesterday, but for some of us, something changed. The boat's motor fires up, ready to set out for Taquile. It's Sunday, and like every day, the people of Taquile are all decked out in their traditional garb. As they walk along the island, the men weave and the women spin wool. In 2005, the fabrics of Taquile were granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO. Just one more reason to climb the thousands of feet from sea level to reach this part of Peru. -