Puno is one of the larger cities in Peru and (allegedly) the folklore capital of the country, but it isn’t somewhere to go as a destination. Sorry, Puno, you have your charms but we are really just here to see your pretty cousin, Lake Titicaca.
But Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands of Uros are so worth experiencing that you may find yourself in Puno someday. We’re here to give you a basic heads-up as to what to do when that happens.
The first thing to do is to stay outside of town. It will be quieter, cleaner and, if you stay, as we did, at the Libertador you will have beautiful views of the lake.
However, if you stay outside of Puno you should make the effort to come to town. You will see a grittier culture than in the more touristic cities in Peru. But not so gritty that you can’t get a good meal, buy some sweaters and have some fun!
Puno was founded in 1668 and is a regional capital in an agricultural part of Peru. It never knew anyone was expecting it to develop additional charms so it sort of let itself go. But there’s something oddly refreshing about that. It’s kind of like someone who knows everyone else got a facelift and is wearing Spanx but says “Screw it. I like sweatpants and I don’t care if I get pimples from my Little Debbies. Take it or leave it”.
If you take a cab into Puno you will most likely be deposited at the end of the main shopping thoroughfare for tourists. They have the usual collection of alpaca sweater stores and souvenir (all mostly alpaca related in one way or another). Be careful that, as one person in our group said, you aren’t buying “maybe alpaca” instead of “baby alpaca”!
But this is an area noted for its traditional arts, including weaving. So, if you know how to recognize quality, you have a good chance of paying less in Puno than you would in Lima or Cusco.
Bargaining in shops is perfectly acceptable but less dramatic than in, say, Asia. If you can get 20% off here you’ve done exceedingly well.
So do some shopping and have something to eat afterwards.
A certain Blonde who lives in Florida, yet purchased enough alpaca sweaters to leave a lot of naked alpacas, enjoyed Bago fish in roasted rice with pesto sauce at the establishment below. She also enjoyed wine to dull the memory of purchasing all of those sweaters.
Because Blonde’s travel companion, Alternative Brunette, had also purchased, by this late point in our trip, an extensive sweater collection it was necessary to go in search of a cheap suitcase to bring our goods home.
Oddly, saying things such as “Donde esta el fake Wal-Mart?” was not very productive. Generally (Blonde has a lot of experience with this) it only takes wandering a street or two off the main drag and you can find a suitable suitcase purveyor. So we turned down one street.
Switching into higher level linguistics we tried “Donde esta coffee es muy bueno?” and had better luck. We were steered (somewhat literally) to a dazzling pastry shop which also sold “muy bueno” coffee.
We drowned our confusion in excellent coffee and valiantly resisted the pastries.
Then fortune granted us a favor in the guise of a woman, probably in her 30s, and not wearing traditional Andean dress. Blonde knows a possible English speaker when she sees one and got the needed information as to where to go to buy a cheap suitcase. It actually involved a fairly short cab ride as it was not near the tourist area.
When we got there things weren’t looking all that chipper.
We had been sent to the Mercado Bellabista. It is a hodgepodge of cheap clothes, poorly constructed suitcases, suspect electronics, resistible food and, well, it basically is a Wal-Mart!
It would probably be fair to say that Blonde and Alternative Brunette were oddities in this market. Everyone else was clearly local and not trying to solve the First World problem of transporting home too many sweaters they didn’t need!
The next morning we left Puno to fly back to Lima. Although we did not have our faces pressed sadly to the glass to catch our last glimpses of Puno, it did leave us with some good memories!
And we left Puno to deal with a sudden shortage of alpaca sweaters.