Puno is raucous, decaying, and noxiously smelly. The bemired streets reek with exhaust and overflow with congestion. Trucks, taxis, and three-wheeled cycles whiz by in a continuous stream of mayhem. Navigating the skinny sidewalks requires constant concentration in order to avoid smashing into people or getting mauled over by vehicles.
Most travelers stay in Puno to see the famous floating islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. My day in Puno was just a quick stop-off so I could make it to Cusco in time for my reserved trek to Machu Picchu.
After an errand to the bus station to buy my onward ticket to Cusco, I made my way back to the center with a detour along Puno’s unimpressive coastline. It was hard to believe I was looking at the same lake that surrounds Isla del Sol in glistening blue waves and embraces the setting sun in Copacabana. The shore of Lake Titicaca in Puno is malodorous, marshy, and tainted by a layer of garbage.
A trek back to the tourist area brought the only sights worth seeing in Puno, the Plaza de Armas, its 18th century baroque Catedral, and the few adjoining blocks.
Across the street from the side of the Catedral is the 17th century Casa del Corregidor, one of Puno’s oldest residences. I thought it would be fun to tour this old stately manor, but it is now just a cultural center, art gallery, bookshop, and cafe. Sometime between the 1600s and now, it has lost its historical mansion allure.
The bulk of my afternoon was spent next door to the old casa at the Museo Carlos Dreyer, an archeological and artifact museum with tons of cool findings from the pre-Incan and Incan days and collector items from the museum’s namesake, Carlos Dreyer.
The Incas are the most famous of Peru’s bygone societies, but for thousands of years before the Incas made their appearance, a half-dozen other cultures left evidence of their existence in the earth around Puno, including monolith stone sculptures that belonged to the ancient Pucara civilization, ceramics interestingly shaped and painted during the Nazca period, and stone works carved by the Tiwanaku people, perhaps the most important predecessors to the Incas. Naturally, the museum also displays an array of Incan pottery and battle tools.
Charles Dreyer was a German painter and antiques collector who moved to Puno in the early 1900s (and apparently adopted the Spanish version of his name). Admittedly, I do not have an eye for art, but his indigenous oil paintings, sumptuous gold frames, silver jewelry and accessories, antique furniture, and hundreds of gold pieces (501 to be exact) on exhibit at his museum make me think Señor Dreyer had a very sophisticated taste in fine art.
When I exited the museum, I was dying of hunger. Around the corner from the museum is Jíron Lima, a pedestrian street of artisan stores, alpaca clothing shops, tour companies, and tourist-friendly restaurants. My grumbling stomach led me to a window table at a second-floor restaurant with a view of the disorderly rush on the promenade below. It was a perfect way to be a part of the action without experiencing the stress of the crowds.
After I gobbled down an entire ham and pineapple pizza and tried to savor the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, I went for a browse of the clothing shops on Jíron Lima.
It was really hard not to buy a colorful alpaca sweater, the uniform of all tourists in the Lake Titicaca region. Even harder to resist was laying down my credit card for gorgeous but expensive soft baby alpaca gloves. Baby alpaca wool is the most exclusive fabric in Peru because of its softness and rareness. (But don’t worry, no baby alpacas are harmed in the garnering of their wool.)
My tour of Puno concluded at the end of the street, where a French-Gothic church dominates an unexceptional plaza. After taking some obligatory pictures of the church and monuments in the middle of the plaza, I retraced my steps on Jíron Lima and headed back to my hostel for the night.
And now I’m off to Cusco, the Incan capital!