Puno is a bit of a dump.
Perched on the sparkling blue shores of Lake Titicaca (a name people have sadly grown tired of giggling at), it’s a slump of ugly buildings wrapped around ugly streets, all pavement and decaying "Hotel" signs.
At the centre of Puno is a small main plaza with a medium sized cathedral. This plaza is connected to a public park with another cathedral (this one painted yellow) via a vaguely boulevard-ish street full of shops selling alpaca clothes and boat trips to tourists.
At the bottom of the city, there is a bus station and a port. The bus station brings travellers to Puno. The port sends them to Lake Titicaca. In the meantime, they can soak up the sketchy atmosphere that permeates the streets.
The lake is very pretty, though. You have to give it that.
Peru owns 60% of Lake Titicaca. The other 40% belongs to Bolivia.
From the Peruvian side, tours abound to the famous Floating Islands, inhabited by the Uros people. These are tiny settlements built on yellow totora reeds, drifting in the middle of the lake. It's a lifestyle that was adopted by the Uros hundreds of years ago; they fled to Lake Titicaca to escape the expanding Inca Empire.
The islands are miraculous feeds of construction--reed platforms with soil bases, anchored in the river by wooden pikes--but these days they entertain a different kind of invasion. Tourists frequent certain of the islands, bringing cameras and often tour guides. There’s something unnerving about the way a guided visit to the isles begins with the inhabitants being prompted (somewhat awkwardly) to explain their culture, and quickly transitions into various attempts to sell the tourists trinkets.
Meanwhile, on the Bolivian side of the river, the gorgeous Isla De Sol lies waiting, a three hour boat trip from the city. There, you can spend a day hiking across the island, soaking up the stark beauty of its yellow sands and matchstick trees. The island is divided into three local communities, but there's plenty of stunning, empty space in between to walk across.
While Peruvian tours offer the chance to spend a night with a local family on one of Lake Titicaca’s islands, staying a night on the Isla De Sol is more of a do-it-yourself affair; there are plenty of hostels waiting, if you want them.
That’s Bolivia versus Peru for you. One of them has frills; one of them, less so.
Copacabana should, by all rights, be a bit of a dump.
It’s a small beach sprawl full of unfinished buildings and nigh-deserted streets. In the main marketplace, there are stalls where women sell huge bags of nuts, and men sell raw meat. It’s Bolivia, away from the comforting tourist infrastructure of Peru, and into a country that feels instantly stranger and wilder.
And yet, Copacabana feels like a relaxing place to hang out. There’s a laid-back atmosphere radiating outward from the beach, where visitors indulge in activities ranging from speed-boat rides to water-zorbing. A viewpoint at the top of the city (complete with religious shrine) affords a fantastic view of the harbour, and it’s a scenic walk up stone steps to reach it.
As overused as the word “Bohemian” (currently the go-to-phrase for describing Tom Baker’s 70s wardrobe), it feels like a good fit for Cobacopana. By rights, it should be a much less agreeable place to spend the day than the comparatively richer and more built-up Puno.
But that isn’t the case at all.
Somehow, it appears, being over the border has done it good.
>Lake Titicaca is positively freezing at nights right now. In fact, when I was in Cusco, I saw a Peruvian news program reporting (with alarmingly dramatic background music) that the Puno region has been so cold, baby Alpacas are dying.
>While they do feel a bit like a human zoo at times, boat trips from Puno are nevertheless very pleasant--in particular a visit to the tranquil island of Tequili, which feels far less touristy than the Floating Islands.
>At the viewpoint at the top of Copacabana, there is a religious shrine, full of candles lit by locals. There’s also a stall from which you can purchase little model houses.
On the way back down the steps, men with bowls of incense offer to take the little model houses, and bless them in smelly smoke. It’s a ceremony, to bring fortune to one’s home and family.
Bolivia is going to be an interesting country, I think.