Most of the year, Puno itself is a rather bleak and unimpressive place if you don't count its enviable geography. The main attractions in Puno are outside the city: the communities of Lake Titicaca and the ancient Sillustani ruins. What there is to see in Puno doesn't delay most visitors for more than a half-day or so. However, if you stumble upon one of Puno's famously colorful festivals, you might want to linger.
The large Catedral (cathedral), on the west side of the Plaza de Armas at the end of Jirón Lima, is the focal point of downtown Puno. The 18th-century baroque church is large, but no great shakes; the elaborate exterior is much more impressive than the spartan, spacious, chilly interior. Also on the main square is the 17th-century La Casa del Corregidor, Deustua 576 (tel. 051/351-921), purportedly Puno's oldest house, with an impressive Spanish balcony; it now houses a very nice "cultural cafe" and is the best spot in town to take a breather. Nearby, the Museo Municipal Carlos Dryer, Conde de Lemos 289, is the town's principal (but small) museum. It has a decent selection of pre-Inca ceramics and textiles, as well as mummies with cranial deformations, but the collection is not very well illuminated. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 7:30am to 3:30pm; admission is S/5.
For a superb view of Lake Titicaca and a vantage point that makes Puno look more attractive than it really is, climb the steep hill to Mirador Kuntur Wasi and Huajsapata Park, about 10 minutes southwest of the main square. On top is a blazing white statue of Manco Cápac, the legendary first Inca and founder of the empire. Back down below, Jirón (Pasaje) Lima is a pedestrianized mall, chock-full of shops, restaurants, and bars, that runs from the Plaza de Armas to pretty Parque Pino, a relaxed square populated by locals just hanging out. Puno's seedy central market is 2 blocks east of here, and it spills across several streets. While unattractive, it's a realistic look at the underbelly of the Peruvian economy. Beyond the railroad tracks is a mercado de artesanía (artisans' market) targeting tourists with all kinds of alpaca and woven woolen goods, often much cheaper those than found in Cusco and other cities. (Try on the sweaters, though; they rarely seem to fit as well as you'd expect.)
South America's largest lake and the world's highest navigable body of water, Lake Titicaca has long been considered a sacred place among indigenous Andean peoples. The people who live in and around the lake consider themselves descendants of Mama Qota, or Sacred Mother, and they believe that powerful spirits live in the lake's depths. According to Andean legend, Lake Titicaca -- which straddles the modern border between Peru and Bolivia -- was the birthplace of civilization. Viracocha, the creator deity, lightened a dark world by having the sun, moon, and stars rise from the lake to occupy their places in the sky.
Worthy of such mystical associations, Lake Titicaca is a dazzling sight. Its deep azure waters seemingly extend forever across the altiplano, under the monstrously wide sky. Daybreak and sunset are particularly stunning to witness.
Massive Titicaca has been inhabited for thousands of years. Totora-reed boats roamed the lake as early as 2500 B.C. Titicaca's islands -- both man-made and natural -- are home to several communities of Quechua and Aymara Indians, groups with remarkably different traditions and ways of life. Visiting them and staying overnight on one of the islands if you can is certainly one of Peru's highlights and one of the most unique experiences in South America.
The most convenient way to visit is by an inexpensive and well-run guided tour, arranged by one of several travel agencies in Puno. Although it is possible to arrange independent travel, the low cost and easy organization of group travel don't encourage it. Even if you were to go on your own, you'd inevitably fall in with groups, and your experience wouldn't differ radically. You can go on a half-day tour of the Uros Floating Islands or a full-day tour that includes Taquile Island, but the best way to experience Lake Titicaca's unique indigenous life is to stay at least 1 night on either Taquile or Amantaní, preferably in the home of a local family. Those with more time and money to burn may want to explore the singular experience of staying on private Isla Suasi, home to little more than a solar-powered hotel and a dozen llamas and vicuñas.
Titicaca's Antique British Steamship -- Nowadays, fleets of tourist boats set out daily for the floating and natural islands of Lake Titicaca. The oldest ship to ply the world's highest navigable waterway, the Yavarí, built in 1862 in Birmingham, England, today sits inactive on the shore of the lake (outside the Sonesta Posada del Inca hotel). The restored steamship, which was originally shipped as a kit to Arica, Chile (and then carried by mule over the course of 6 years to Lake Titicaca), sailed Titicaca for 100 years. It has now been converted into a small museum and bar. The ship is owned by a foundation, Asociación Yavarí. To arrange a free visit with Capt. Carlos Saavedra and his crew, call tel. 051/369-329, visit www.yavari.org, or stop by the ship on most afternoons.
Say What? -- The undeniably exotic name Titicaca might cause giggles among some schoolchildren, but the name isn't derived from Spanish: It's a hybrid of the local native languages Aymara and Quechua. To locals, Titicaca might mean "Sacred Lake," but in fact titi means "cat" in Aymara, while caca means "the sacred rock on the island of the sun" in Quechua.
Fun with Language & Geography -- Lake Titicaca, which covers some 3,200 square miles and is South America's largest lake, is more or less evenly shared by Peru and Bolivia. Yet Peruvians are fond of claiming it is in fact more like a 60/40 breakdown, and there are maps that label the lake with "Titi" covering the Peruvian half and "caca" designating the Bolivian half.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.