Lonely Planet describes Puno as “the jumping off spot for Lake Titicaca and a convenient stop for those traveling between Cuzco and La Paz. But it may just capture your heart with its own rickety charm.”Well, we’re traveling between Cuzco and La Paz, and we want to see Lake Titicaca (in part because it’s just so much fun to say). So far, so good, makes sense to try Puno for a few days. Alas, though, my heart was left uncharmed.
Part of the problem is that while the city of some 150,000 people sits right on the lake, you wouldn’t know it from the downtown area. There is a port that we walked to, but even then all you see is a reedy area and the Bay of Puno, hemmed in by two peninsulas separating the bay from the big lake. And the city just doesn’t have anywhere near the grand colonial architecture we’ve become used to from San Cristobal in Mexico, through Antigua in Guatemala, and Arequipa and Cuzco in Peru. Admittedly, those are some pretty high standards, but I guess our standards have gone up.
Interestingly, pretty much everyone describes “contraband” as one of the major industries in Puno. The proximity to Bolivia means that cheap tax-free goods are smuggled across the border and sold here. I never had the sense that those goods necessarily included drugs, but rather they were the more mundane goods that people use more regularly.
Another problem with Puno is that Lonely Planet strongly recommends against one of the sites I’d have most liked to have seen. The city – sitting at about 12,500 feet above sea level – sits wedged between Lake Titikaka and the foothills leading up to Andean mountains. You’re supposed to be able to climb up a couple of the hills for spectacular views of the city and lake. As Lonely Planet puts it, though, “… as assaults and robberies have been reported (even by groups), it’s not recommended to visit them unless there is a drastic improvement in security.” So we didn’t climb the hills.
The one “must see” sight near Puno is the Islas Uros, the floating islands of the Uros people. Back before the Spanish invasion, the Uros were under attack from the Incas. Discovering that the Incans couldn’t swim, they went a few kilometers out in the relatively shallow bay and started building floating islands made of the abundant totora reeds that grow in abundance in the lake. They cut a bunch down, lay them flat on a section of floating root stock, then lay another layer on top, and then another layer, and on and on until you can walk on it. Then they build houses on it. To keep them from floating away they’re anchored by tying the island to a stake driven into the lake bed. They build tiny “outhouse islands” near the larger islands, letting reeds, roots, and eventually the lake handle the waste. Live there while you fish and avoid the Incas and then eventually sell trinkets to fascinated tourists. And they’re still there today, perhaps 2,000 of them, hundreds of years later.
So out we went. Just when you thought you’d seen all the bizarre ways of life the world has to offer, you stumble on one more. We thought we were avoiding a tour and just taking a ferry out there, but discovered that no, indeed we were trapped on a bit of an annoying tour. It was cool seeing people living on these floating islands and how the reeds serve for everything; the flooring, the houses, the boats, toys, you name it. They even eat them. We did stop in a little café for some tea, though they also served food, beer, and sodas. Just a bunch of people eking out their lives and avoiding the Incas on artificial islands on Lake Titicaca.
Cool, but not really worth spending a couple days there. Fortunately we had a couple days, though, because my pinched nerve was acting up pretty significantly and I needed to go back to a clinic. The hotel recommended a tourist clinic nearby and at first I was pretty pessimistic. The doctor just didn’t seem to have anything more to offer than the three doctors I’d seen in Cuzco and it seemed all I was going to get was something to address inflammation. Near the end of our interview, though, he suggested maybe I should see a neurologist. Sure, I thought, but would I have to go to Lima or something to do that and schedule it weeks in advance? Oh, no, the doc told me; he could be here in 20 minutes.Sure enough, 15 minutes later this short round gnomish guy walks in. He’s got a heavy limp, likely the result of childhood polio, which meant, to my great benefit, he’d had to learn to work with his brain rather than his body. He asks a bunch of good questions and then scoots over to me to run a bunch of tests, pushing here, pulling there, testing my strength and reflexes and all that. “The good news,” he says through a translator (note that French hospitals in a big city like Poitier don’t have translators, but this little clinic in Puno does), “is that there is no nerve damage. There’s nothing really wrong. Chances are your body remembered the last pinched nerve you had and just seized up when something went a little wrong. The pain is real, but now you’re so tense and stressed out that you can’t relax your muscles to let the pain go away. It’s nothing that a little muscle relaxant won’t solve.”
So he gives me some pills to take morning and night for three days and then a different set of pills for the next 10 days. At first it was like a miracle; after a few hours all the pain was gone. Since then it’s come back in modest doses, but nothing like the first two weeks and seemingly fading away. I’m in love with that little neurologist.
For Lake Titicaca and the floating islands, then, Puno was sort of meh. For visiting with a gnomish neurologist, though, it was a big success. We’re trying to get a full Titicaca experience, so next stop is a small island in the northeast section of the lake.