Postcard: Puno and the Road to Arequipa

Posted by on September 4th, 2012

Four days ago I watched the outskirts of Cusco disappear in the rearview mirror of the bus. In these short few days of travel, I’ve already covered several hundred miles and visited two cities. The first was Puno, a town people visit mostly because it is on Lake Titicaca. The funny thing was, I never even got on the lake.

Buses in Peru have turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. Most buses give you the option to pay about five soles more to get a seat that is basically a pretty decent leather recliner, foot rest and all. Even with this option the price of tickets between most major cities works out to about $10 each.

Still, after about eight hours, even in nice seats, most bus rides get old. We were tired, slightly nauseous, and ready for a quiet room when we pulled into Puno’s bus terminal. Yet again we failed to realize we are getting too old for the backpacker lifestyle and opted to walk across town rather than pay $2.00 for a cab.

Puno’s main thoroughfare is dusty and lined with the kind of brick and concrete houses you find all over South America. Most of them are unfinished or crumbling and all have rebar sticking out of the roof; hope that good times yet to come will lead to the addition of a third or fourth story.

Fortunately, Puno is small and we didn’t have to walk far before we reached our hostel. It was nice and that was important because we spent the majority of our time in the city holed up in our room. For once it wasn’t sickness that kept us indoors, just some urgent work that needed to be finished.

When we did get out to see the city, we kept our explorations mostly around the main square and waterfront. Puno is a fascinating city that can’t quite seem to make up it’s mind about what it wants to be. In the city center there is colonial architecture and a pleasant walking street with decent enough restaurants. But there are also crazy multi colored houses, neon lit churches, and four story pizza restaurants that are shaped like castles.

Click on this panorama to open a high resolution version in a new page.

On the waterfront, the city’s multiple-personality disorder doesn’t get much better. At times it tries to be a trendy beach town with modern sculptures, seashell motifs, and large pedestrian walkways that are lined with cabanas and exercise equipment for locals. At other times is seems more like a carnival with gaudy swan boats, souvenir tents, and splashes of bright color.

Then there are the white luxury hotels that sit uncomfortably on the outskirts of the city. Reminders that while Puno may sit on a world class attraction, visitors who stay in world class accommodations would rather ignore it.

Whatever Puno eventually decides it is, it will likely remain just as Peruvian as it is now. Ladies still wear the traditional bowler hats, peddle cabs still roam the streets, and on Saturdays the market street is still stuffed to the gills with potato vendors.

There isn’t a lot more to say about Puno. It’s a nice enough place but without venturing onto the lake it comes off as a little unremarkable. I want to sum up the city, to give some kind of final impression I had on the bus. But as we rode out, it was still a mystery to me and maybe a mystery to itself. Oh, also there is a giant (no really, it’s huge) cougar statue that overlooks the city.

Puno disappeared quickly behind the bus but I was looking forward. In fact, we managed to score two front row seats with awesome window views above the driver. The only drawback was the air conditioning was out and our huge windows sometimes turned the front of the bus into a solar oven.

Peru is famous for its varied landscape. Our trip from Puno to Arequipa took us through some of the harshest of it. At one point we crossed a pass with an elevation close to 14,900 feet. As we moved away from the lake and into the high country where alpacas mingled with wild vicuñas, we watched open grassland turn from hills, to mountains, to deserts, to daunting volcanos, and back to deserts. Some of our views were stunning and some of it looked incredibly like parts of California’s Central Valley. The resemblance was so noticeable that at one point I asked Sonya if we should stop at the In-N-Out in Kettleman City, which I swore was on the other side of the hill our bus was climbing.

As we approached Arequipa, I was unsure of what to expect. The outskirts were hot and dusty. The houses here looked like they had been built quickly but were already losing ground to the encroaching dry lands and the volcanos beyond them. After our bus reached the terminal and we got into a taxi, we started seeing more and more of the town center. By the time we reached our hostel, I knew Arequipa was a city I was going to like (more on that next time).

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