South from Cusco to Puno.

South from Cusco to Puno.

Areas of interest:

This section covers a great deal of ground, revolving around puna and Lake Titicaca. However, we connect with Arequipa in the South-West and Cuzco in the North-East, as the map shows. The detailed trekking route around Ausangate in the Cordillera Vilcanota is available here.

South of Cuzco

A major and well-maintained road connects Cuzco with Puno, running for the most part in parallel to the railway line. Immediately after leaving Cuzco one encounters pre-Hispanic archaeological sites and colonial villages with their red-tiles roofs tucked away behind little hills. San Sebastian, for example, is located only 5 km from the city but barely visited by travellers. It is an untouched jewel of the colonial era with a church whose façade is a tangle of Baroque complexity.

San Jerónimo used to be another rather fine village - now swallowed in development - but it still possesses another Baroque church built of brick and adobe. It is, however, a stepping stone to the much finer things beyond.

The roadside village of Saylla is a gastronomic focus for the people of Cuzco, who tend to visit at weekends. Its specialties tend to revolve around pork, and it offers remarkably fine chicarrones (wurst sausages), and a special soup made from parboiled pork which is then fried and served with mote - the Cuzqueño version of choclo maize - and a sauce of lime, onion and chilli. Also available are deep fried pork skin, which is better to eat than it sounds. Just off the road but close to Saylla is an extension of the village which specialised in fortune telling. Such is its fame that people come from other countries to use the facility. The practitioners use coca leaves and a 'calavera miranda' - a watching skull - to perform their duties.

Its near-neighbour, Oropesa, 24 km from Cuzco, styles itself the National Bread Capital, claiming the best bread on Earth. You can judge for yourself, but as the huge, flat circular loaves emerge from ancient earthen ovens, the smell is certainly beyond compare.

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A few kilometres further brings the archaeological site of Tipón (3500m), which lies about 5 km off the main road and requires a walk or a 4x4 if you are to visit. The site is consequently almost always near-deserted. The track that leads to the site links to the former Inca highway, el camino Inca and passes both a pretty village and extensive cultivation. The site itself extends over 2200 hectares, punctuated by streams and springs. It is thought to have been a therapeutic centre, but was established by the Inca Huiracocha as a retreat for his Father.

There is another food-related local village - sign-posted as Tipón - whose real name is Choquepata, of "pastures of silver". This is a centre for guinea pig raising, and "cuyerías" - restaurants serving this in traditional menus - are scattered around the village. The standard recipe roasts the meat in a clay oven, and serves it with stuffed peppers, mashed potato and noodles. You cannot in honour leave Perú without eating "Indies rabbit", as the Spanish used to call it. All along the valley are specialised villages, making bread, sausages, roof tiles, grinding flour and so forth. They are embedded in rich and fertile soil, primarily given over to growing maize, with occasional lakes and areas of swampy pasture.

A further archaeological centre is found at Piquillacta, 32 km from Cuzco. This is a Wari site, and so predates the Incas by up to a thousand years. The name implies that it is a flea or gnat-ridden village, or that the people of it are of like kind. It may be that the Inca - who imposed the name - referred to the use of small stones in its construction, in place of their own more massive masonery. The site has around 700 structures, chiefly chanchas or enclosures and qolqas or barns. The better buildings - and perhaps the massive walls - were coated with a white clay, giving the city a shining aspect. Estimates are that a population of around 10,000 were supported. In Inca times, these would have been labourers, sent under the system of Mi'ita (see here) but we know little of how the Wari managed their affairs.

My eye, if not archaeological fact, suggests that people lived on two floors around a (usually sloping) central open space. The large enclosure at the lowest point of the structure was probably for wayfarers, whilst the walled lanes that cut across and around the site managed their access to it. Piquillacta is located at a pinch point on the Cusco-Puno road, and was certainly a means of managing access to the valley and perhaps a toll point. The site appears to have been purpose-built in a single act, to a reticulated design. In March, the site is alive with flowers, including a beautiful little Iris.

The lake called Lucre or Huacarpay lies close to this site, at 3200m. This has a strange legend associated with it: that the land of a princess called Qori T'ika (Gilded Flower) was suffering drought. She declared that she would give herself to whoever could bring water to her people. Three young men presented themselves. Two of them built aqueducts, which failed to work. One, of local origin, dug wells so well that he exceeded the Princess's request. However, he did it so well that he drowned the town, which stood where the lake now lies. Curiously, there are indeed three ruined aqueducts, but only one of them actually gets all the way to Piquillaqta.

Rumicolca lies very close to Piquillacta and probably performed a similar, if ceremonial, function. It is a beautifully-constructed Inca site, consisting of two flanking walls and a central slab, fufilling the same role as a triumphal arch. It marked the entrance to Royal Cuzco, managing access to the empire's heart.

Andahuaylillas (3200m) is 40 km from Cuzco. The name means "copper-coloured pasture". The chief attraction to an otherwise pretty but nondescript village is the church of San Pedro, rather grandly known as the "Sistine Chapel of the Americas". It was built over an Inca temple in the Seventeenth century. Externally, it is a rather simple construction. This emphasises the surprise that one receives when one enters. The walls of the high interior are either covered with gilded woodcarvings, with murals or with large (3m x 4m) oils in the Cusquena style, celebrating the life of St Peter. The paintings and woodwork are shiny with gold leaf, and the altar piece and flanking structures are 10m or so of elaborately carved, gilded wood. The roof if covered with a blue-gray naturalistic frieze. The overall affect is very striking, the more so if you time your viist to avoid the custodian's evidently pressing luncheon. You are neither permitted to photograph within the church and nor are there pictures available to purchase, so this extraordinary artefact is little known to any but those who visit it.

Urcos is 45 km from Cuzco, and has two hotels of reasonable quality and banking facilities. The road to Puerto Maldonaldo in the Madre de Dios jungle joins here. [More on this route here.] This makes the town busy with traffic. The pleasant Plaza de Armas, with its odd church, is alive with commerce. The monument to Túpac Amaru in the centre of it is a tour de force. At least two good restaurants look down over the square, which makes a fine backdrop to what proved an enormous luncheon. The jungle road leads first to Ocongate and thus to the trekking route in the Cordillera Vilcanota. This tough trek is described here. The town is also the end of the run made by short-range buses from Cuzco.

The Cordillera Vilcanota as seen from space. Laguna Sibinacocha is the lake in the centre of the image.
North is to the left, making this image around 45° skew to the regional map, which is shown immediately below.

A less attractive town called Sicuanui lies around 140 km from Cuzco, and is of interest because it provides an alternative route into the Cordillera Vilcanota, in this case running up to Lago Sibinacocha. Normal vehicles have difficulty with this road, particularly in the rains, but the views on approach and from the lake itself are fine.

Prior to this, Raqchi (125 km from Cuzco, 3500m) offers another important archaeological site. The temple of Wiracocha, the great creator god, is the centre piece of what must have been a major ceremonial Inca settlement. The building uses volcanic stone and fine mortar, repeating a 40° trapezoidal theme. The temple itself is constructed in a distinct style, being built with cylindrical columns. It is about 90 m by 25, with 12 m walls.

Closer to Puno

The highest point on the road is La Raya (4312m), a pass which is notorious amongst cyclists who compete in the Lima-to-Cuzco rally. There is a fine view of rocky outcrops and the rolling puno. There is a lookout point, where local people sell their handicrafts. The villages of Santa Rosa, Chuquibambilla y Ayaviri mark crossroads and market-towns on the way.

Click here to see a series of images Ayaviri is a provincial capital and it marks the end of the wild, high country through which the road has been traveling. Tinajani cañón (4,100m) lies 12 km away. Pojpojquella, again quite close to the town, has hot-springs that have a pre-Incan therapeutic heritage.

Closer to Puno, although a mild diversion from the main road, lies Azángaro, which has a vast church with ornamentation more appropriate to a metropolitan basilica than a rural parish church. It was built around 1620, burned down and refurbished in the 1750s. It has a grandiose baroque altarpiece. An equally monumental church exists 8 km away, at Tintiri. This is a supposed to be a replica of the Parisian cathedral and comes complete with catacombs. The remains of Cancha Cancha are close by, and show the ruins of the Pucará culture. It offers monoliths carved as snakes and puma's heads.

Returning to the main road, Pucará (4000 m) was the source of this culture. It flourished from 400 BC to 300 AD, holding land from Cuzco to Arequipa and some way into what is now Chile and Bolivia. The name of the capital city means "fortress", which probably gives a hint as to the nature of the culture itself. Kalasaya, the ceremonial centre, is not far from the town. It covers around 500 hectares, and the local people use it to celebrate the rites of Hatun Ñakac each June 13th. The young of the region come together to dance and re-enact the human sacrifice which typified the culture. The own also has a pretty church of San Isabel, and a museum of the Pucará culture. There is a thriving ceramics industry, making "toritos de Pucará". These are little figures of bulls (and sometimes churches and other images of power) which are attached to the rooftree of houses so as to ward off lightning an devil spirits.

Yet closer to puna is Lampa (3890m), which styles itself as the Pink City. It gets this name by dint of the use of pink paint, with which the inhabitants are evidently pleased. The church of Santiago Apóstol is a spectacular colonial church with a 35m tower constructed of Arequipan sillar.

Click here to see a series of images Buses leave from here for Sandía, and thence to the ceja de selva that abuts on Madre de Dios and Bolivia. The road is dreadful, but visitors enter a world of biodiversity which is essentially untouched, at least by industrial hands. A trip to Sandía takes around 8 hours (if all goes well.) People driving 4x4 should be sure to take fuel, spares, a guide and their courage in both hands. Sandía is enclosed by mountains and, despite being a regional capital, it is quite small and without architectural merit or much by way of accommodation. The region is, however, bursting with ecological interest and it is for the birds, orchids, butterflies and the like that a very few foreigners come to it.

Juliaca (3830m) is the next stop on this long road. It has the regions airport, good communications and very adequate hotels. A local saying is that whilst puna dances, Juliaca advances, and there is a focused commercial determination to the town that has much to do with smuggling across the border from Bolivia. The market is replete with fake Gucci shoes and Rolex wristwatches. Next to these, women wearing their traditional bowler hats sit knitting traditional alpaca sweaters. There is not a lot for the traveler in Juliaca, once they have showered, relaxed and set their laundry in train. The local people party ferociously at their many fiestas, and such events invariably go on all night. I recall one event where the hillside caught alight from a firework, and stone-drunk figures were seen staggering around at 03.00, trying to put it out.

Sillustani is the largest necropolis (city of the dead) in the world. It lies between Juliaca and Puno, and is around 11 km off the main road. Taxis will easily take you to it. The site covers 150 hectares, dotted with around 90 chullpas. These are 12 metre stone towers, put up over millennia by the local inhabitants and adopted by the Incas. Locals also call them ayawasis.

The towers are circular in section and conical in elevation, so that the top is wider than the base. Inca versions use dressed stone, whilst the earlier towers are rougher. These towers are widespread wherever the Aymara peoples flourished, sometimes made of stone and sometimes of earth. Bodies were elaborately prepared, and then placed inside these structures, often in multiple stories. It may well be that these stone towers were the equivalent of family mausoleums for the wealthy. Sillustani is particularly striking because of the backdrop of the Umayo lake.


Puno brings with it the waters of Lake Titicaca. Visitors in February will see the town at its finest, when the extraordinary events around the patronal of the Virgen de Candelaria is celebrated. We devote a section entirely to this spectacle, below. puna can be reached by road from the coast or Arequipa, or from Cuzco. It is also on the train line. There are daily flights from Lima and Arequipa to Juliaca, above.

Human settlements around Lake Titicaca have a long history. The people around the shores of the lake speak Aymara, and see themselves as fundamentally distinct from the Quechua, let alone the rest of the world. The Aymara spread across Bolivia and down into both Chile and Argentina. They were and to some extent still are organised into local groups, such as the Colla around Puno, the lake-side Lupacas, Pacajes and Azángaros. Twelve such centres of authority existed when the Inca subdued the region. Residual rivalry between these groups may explain the almost ludicrous over-construction of churches at the historical focus of each of these groups - at, for example, Azángaro, as described above. Around quarter of a million people in Perú still speak Aymara as a first language.

Puno was probably first settled by the Aymara-speaking Tiahuanaco culture (800 to 1200 AD). This had a profound influence on other cultures in the region, chiefly through its religious practices and its exports of ceramics and textiles. The lake is, of course, the highest extensive body of water on the planet, and is the source of many legends. One of central importance to Peruvian history is that it coupled with the sun to bring forth Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, who founded the dynasty that unified Perú under the Incas.

Although the Tiahuanaco culture had all but faded when the Inca emerged in strength, it retained enough force to resist them and - unlike other centres of influence at the time - the conquest was violent, rather than a process of diplomatic absorption. The same spirit of resistance informed the local reaction to Spanish settlement, with the immediate rebellion of Túpac Amaru and the Eighteenth century Víctor Vilca Apaza both spreading out from Puno. An early Twentieth century rebellion against exploitation - the Ruma Maqui - came from the same roots. As an example of long local memories, there is an island in the lake called Taquile which was granted to one Pedro Gonzáles in 1580, and whose inhabitants became his bondsmen. They were sold innumerable times before the island became a prison in the Twentieth Century. After 1937, the land was offered for sale by the government as land parcels. Families scraped together the money needed to purchase the exact same lands which they had held four hundred years previously. They have resettled it, weave now-famous fabrics in the traditional style and have reverted to pre-conquest habits insofar as they are able to do so. (There is more on Taquile below.)

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Puno is an agricultural centre, producing over 12% of the nation's potatoes on only 3% of the land. It also leads in the scarlet quinua, yams and beans. Ancient systems of irrigation are employed. A scheme which now exists only in a few isolated patches once created huge (hectare-sized) rush mats, which were covered with earth and floated out into the lake, there to grow crops. Pumps have proved easier to use. But inhabited floating islands still exist and can be visited. More on this as well, below.

The visitor will also be struck by the number of animals being raised on the puna. This region is probably Peru's strongest producer of wool, meat from llamas and sheep, and to a lesser extent, from cattle. Fishing in the lake is an important local source of food, but is very much conducted along traditional lines. The local population eat well, but three quarters in the region fall below Peruvian standards for measuring poverty. There are around three doctors for each 10,000 inhabitants.

The food of puna is distinctive. Fish (naturally) and potatoes figure strongly in this. Trucha is not the true trout but a native lake fish, usually served fried with potatoes which have been pre-boiled in spiced water and then deep fried. This is often called suche frito. Huatia is a mixture of potatoes and yams baked under a bank of earth, in a special oven called a curpa. It is usually eaten with white cheese.

Canchacho is roast kid, basted with wine, lemon and peppers. Chairo is a soup made from dried veal, green beans, fresh potatoes and a local specialty, chuño negro a dried black potato. Sweeter things include quesillo con miel, which is a white cheese that has been deep-fried and then covered in honey. Calorie city!

Music has a rich local tradition, chiefly vocal but often accompanied by the quena, a flute made from a reed, the antara or pan pipes, making the breathy sound that many associate with the Andes, and the sicu, which is a scaled-up model of the antara. The largest instrument is the pincullo, a recorder-like device up to two metres in length. It is often soaked overnight in beer or distilled spirits before being played.

Dances are distinctive to the region.

The ayarachi is a sad, slow dance expressing the testing life of the altiplano. The Choq'elas is a longer dance in three movements. The first evokes the ancestors and the spirits of place ("apus".) The second speaks of rounding up vicuñas and the third of their capture.

The Diablada Puneña is unique to the puna festival of Candeleria, discussed elsewhere. It ties together around 150 smaller sections of dance, "opening up the doors of Heaven and Hell." The steps have ritual meaning, which lies under the surface display of devils attacking a solitary Archangel. Dancers wear masks of enormous complexity, and often body covering which completely conceal the wearer. These masks and costumes have evolved with modern materials and over time, but their roots are firmly pre-Hispanic and pre-Christian. Many show the influence of tribal war costumes, of local deities and of demonised Spanish soldiers. There are many photographs of these in the section which is shown below.

The Pandilla Puneña is a popular dance found at almost all pre-Lenten carnivals. It is something into which all can enter, and men and women join in spontaneously in a complex choreography.

Sicuris de Taquile is an ancient dance in which 24 harpists play out a rhythmic, halting tune to an accompaniment of drums. Female dancers wear feathered hats and brilliant colours. The dance is performed as the crops sprout, intended to ask Pacha Mama - the Andean goddess of the land and all things female and domestic - for support.

La fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria is less an fiesta than and explosion of enthusiasm which occurs in early February. Superficially, the colourful processions and massed bands resemble carnivals all over Latin America and the Caribbean. Closer inspection, however, shows this to be an altogether darker, deeper experience, with heavy reference to the traditional magical practices of the region.

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The festival goes on for eight days, preceded by nine days of warm-up. These early stages are primarily Catholic-syncretic (here for more detail) and involve the rich decoration of the church of San Juan in the capital. The chapel of effigy of the virgin "mamacha Candelaria" is given particular splendor and people visit it attentively.

The major festivities get underway with an orgy of processions, dances and displays of faith. No distinction is made between day and night, and drink flows more than freely. Costumes are extreme, to the extent of hiding the human form altogether. Dances vary enormously, by the focus is the "diablad", which shows the fight between good and evil. Myriads of devils (in much the best costumes) confront solitary sword-bearing archangels.

The origins of this event are clearly pre-Christian and the result is, to a degree, post-Christian in its emphasis on magical events. The Christian thread begins with the revelation of the Virgin Mary to miners at Laycacota in 1675, whereby various miracles attended on the figure at Puno.

Alacitas is celebrated on May 3rd. People bring miniature effigies of houses, cars, money and other desirable things to the church at puna for a blessing. The event is celebrated by dances and processions, but with nothing on the scale of Candeleria.

The anniversary of the founding of the city is celebrated on 4th November. The day is given over to dancing troupes, chiefly from the various schools, so this is a children's day and not an adult release, as is Candelaria. The legend of the emergence of Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo from the lake is played out. There is a massive fireworks display in the evening, best seen where reflections from the lake double the spectacle.

The towns of Chucuito and Llave celebrate their patronal - dedicated to Santa Bárbara - on 4th December. This is combined with a massive fair of craft work.

Juli and Huacullani celebrate the Fiesta de la Inmaculada Concepción on 8th December. Local dances, candle-lit processions and an altogether more intimate atmosphere are created.

The sights of Puno

The Cathedral is located in the Plaza de Armas. It is closely related to that of San Luis Potosi, the (in)famous Mountain of Silver in Bolivia. It was constructed in the Eighteenth Century in a hybrid style, essentially baroque with Cuzqueño flourishes. The facade is decorated with carvings of local curative herbs. The interior is relatively simple.

The church of San Juan is, in many ways, a stronger force in the religious life of puna as it is the housing for the Virgen de la Candeleria, discussed above as the subject of the Candeleria festival. As well as being the focus for a major cult, la Mamita del altiplano is also the Patron of Puno. (The links and overlap between worship of Pacha Mama and of the Virgin Mary deserve further anthropological study.) The church itself is a adobe construction of modest origins, probably built around 200 years ago and refurbished in the Nineteenth Century. It is located in the Pino park.

The Balcón Conde de Lemos is located next to the Cathedral. The Conde de Lemos was sent to puna to put down a rebellion in 1668, which he did with great brutality. This building was his centre of operations.

The Cerro Huajsapata is a little hillock on top of which a monument has been built to Manco Capac, the founder of the Inca state. The viewpoint gives rather fine views over the lake, and is worth the short walk East of the town. Legend has it that this mound has caves under it, with passages connecting to Koricancha, the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco!

Around Puno

Chucuito is an ancient town that lies around 18 km from Puno. It has a site of considerable archaeological interest in Inca Uyo or Ullo. (This means "Inca penis" in Aymara, the local language.) The temple was focused on fertility, and the entrance is guarded by twin phalluses. There are a further ninety of these inside the building, clustered around a central and much larger carving. Women with difficulties with conception were supposed to sit on the smaller ones during suitable rituals.

Lake Titicaca as seen from space. North is the left.

Chucuito also has a pleasing church and a fine view of the lake - altogether a good day's excursion. Taxis and collectives make the connecting trip with regularity.

Acora is 33 km on the road to Desaguadero. Its church is unusual, but the real attraction is a further five kilometres on, at Molloko, which offers another cluster of round and square chullpas or burial towers.

Ilave is a newly-built commercial town which, at 65 rough kilometres from Puno, is attractive only to enthusiasts for church architecture. The two churches are Seventeenth and Eighteenth century. A little further, however, lies Juli, the provincial capital of Chucuito. This has attracted fanciful names such as "the little Rome of America". (These refer to the density of churches: the Rome of the Vatican, not the Emperors!) The view over the lake is excellent, looking out over the scattering of tiny fishing boats that fill the little port.

The church of San Pedro was completed in 1576. San Juan de Letrán is also ancient, as are Santa Cruz and La Asunción. Unhappily, the last two are dilapidated and lack of funds has so far hampered conservation. This is a remote and poor region.

Lake Titicaca is, of course high (3810m) and large (8400 square kilometres.) It is nearly 200 km long and varies in width from about 65 to 225 km along its length. It is never more than 227 m deep and usually much more shallow than that. The silt bottom and rush-grown shores harbour a host of wildlife, however, and a significant part of the lake is now a national park. The park encompasses 26 islands (and the populations who live on them) and much of the reed-beds on which the local ecology depends.

The totora ( Scyrpus totora) is the characteristic rush that lines the lake, growing up to 4 m tall. It is the source of everything from matting to boat-building material for humans - and as the former basis of floating potato fields and the current underpinnings of artificial islands! - and some sixty other kinds of bird live in close association with the totora.

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The Reserve is divided into two sections, one near Puno, the other - wider and more clogged with rushes - called Ramis. The puna section includes the island of Esteves and the cape of Capachica, which has sandy beaches suitable for both bird watching and - for the hardy, given the water temperature - swimming. The Ramis area includes the Sunuco and Yaricoa lagoons, and the islands of Toranipata, Huacani and Santa María. There is much wildlife in the area.

The islas de los Uros begin only 6 km from Puno. They offer one of the oddest adaptations to a harsh environment on the planet, for these are floating, inhabited islands, made entirely from woven rushes. There are about fifty of these, supporting a population of nearly 2000 people. These people claim to be descended from the Kot-suña, amongst the most ancient settlers in the Americas. These people lived in the open and did not feel cold, being perhaps similar to the peoples of Tierra del Fuego, seen naked and living in the open during the Antarctic winter by Charles Darwin. The community weave themselves a new island every 60 days. The men specialise in fishing when not weaving islands, and the women weave cloth and knit.

The Taquile island is, by contrast, made of solid geology and is around 6 km long. It is to be found 35 km from Puno, supporting about 1500 people who live in completely traditional ways. Their clothing and way of life harks back to Inca times if not before. They live by the three Inca precepts of Ama Sua (do not steal), Ama Quella (do not lie) and Ama Llulla (be vigorous). The local community court tries people who break these precepts and deports them to the mainland if found culpable. The inhabitants are, however, welcoming to foreigners and provide restaurants in which local food is served. Many of the local people do not speak Spanish.

The island of Amantaní is only a few kilometres from Taquile, and most combine a trip to the one with a journey on to the other. This supports four thousand people on an area of about nine square kilometres, but nevertheless manages to sustain a good cover of Eucalyptus. This is a hilly island and so offers good views over the lake. There are temples to the moon and Earth deities Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata. There is also a cemetery of mummies and stones carved in the manner of the Tiahuanaco culture. There is no accommodation o the island, although it is possible to stay in the houses of the local people, who are happy to take in paying guests. As discussed elsewhere, these communities are shy but extremely cooperative with those who offer them and uncomplicated and unpretentious face. They are, however, peoples shaped by hard centuries and they do not take kindly to exploitation, to noisy or presumptuous groups, or to those who accept their hospitality and then ignore them. This is a very important fact to understand, as we have indicated in the section on personal safety. If you aim to get close to these communities, do so on their terms and make sure that the relationship is reciprocally useful and welcome before you make advances. To fail to do this - right across the Southern puna - can be the last act in your holiday plans.

To Arequipa

One can come to or leave puna directly, by way of Cuzco, Bolivia or Southern Perú. There is a good road to Tacna and another, almost as good, that goes 388 km to Arequipa. This last goes past some of the major volcanoes - Misti (5825m), Chachani (6075m) y Picchu Picchu (5664m) - and the Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca, described elsewhere but famous for its flamingos. There are regular bus services.