It pays to shop around for a tour operator. Agencies abound and competition is fierce, leading to touting in streets and bus terminals, undeliverable promises, and prices so low as to undercut fair wages. Several of the cheaper tour agencies have reputations for ripping off the islanders of Amantaní and Taquile, with whom travelers stay overnight, and whose living culture is one of the main selling points of these tours.
Island-hopping tours, even with the better agencies, are often disappointing: formulaic, lifeless and inflexible, the inevitable result of sheer numbers and repetition. If you only have a day or two though, a reputable tour can give a good taster and insight you might not otherwise get. If you have time, seeing the islands independently is recommended – you can wander around freely and spend longer in the places you like.
Festivals & Events
Many regional holidays and fiestas are celebrated for several days before and after the actual day. Most festivals also feature traditional music and dancing, as well as merry mayhem of all sorts.
Fiestas & Folklore around Lake Titicaca
The folkloric capital of Peru, Puno boasts as many as 300 traditional dances and celebrates numerous fiestas throughout the year. Although dances often occur during celebrations of Catholic feast days, many have their roots in precolonial celebrations, usually tied in with the agricultural calendar. The dazzlingly ornate and imaginative costumes worn on these occasions are often worth more than an entire household’s everyday clothes. Styles range from strikingly grotesque masks and animal costumes to glittering sequined uniforms.
Accompanying music uses a host of instruments, from Spanish-influenced brass and string instruments to percussion and wind instruments that have changed little since Inca times. These traditional instruments include tinyas (wooden hand drums) and wankaras (larger drums formerly used in battle), plus a chorus of zampoñas (panpipes), which range from tiny, high-pitched instruments to huge bass panpipes almost as tall as the musician. Keep an eye out for flautas (flutes): from simple bamboo pennywhistles called quenas to large blocks of hollowed out wood. The most esoteric is the piruru, which is traditionally carved from the wing bone of an Andean condor.
Seeing street fiestas can be planned, but it’s often simply a matter of luck. Some celebrations are localized to one town, but with others the whole region lets loose. Ask at the tourist office in Puno about any fiestas in the surrounding area while you’re in town. The festivals we list are particularly important in the Lake Titicaca region, but many countrywide fiestas are celebrated here, too.
If you plan to visit during a festival, either make reservations in advance or show up a few days early, and expect to pay premium rates for lodgings.
There is a glut of lower- and midrange options in Puno. Choose somewhere within a few blocks of Parque Pino or the Plaza de Armas. What can appear as a short walk on the map can be full of steep hills, especially south of the plaza. There is no need to stay near the port itself as most tours inlcude pickup from accommodations.
Most restaurants geared toward travelers are on Lima. For a cheap snack, try api (hot, sweet corn juice) – a serious comfort food found in several places on Calle Oquendo between Parque Pino and the market. Order it with a paper-thin, wickedly delicious envelope of deep-fried dough.
To save a few soles, head a couple of blocks away. Many restaurants don’t advertise their menús (set meals), which are cheaper than ordering à la carte. The most commercial restaurants cater to visitors with a menú turistico, which often represents excellent value and great food, and is rarely the tourist trap you might fear. Locals eat pollo a la brasa (roast chicken) and economical menús on Tacna between Calles Puno and Libertad.
If you’re feeling broccoli or sweet-and-sour deprived, head to Arbulú to fill up at a cheap (meals S9 to S11) and cheerful chifa (Chinese restaurant). For self-catering, head to Mercado Central (but be wary of pickpockets) and the supermarket plaza across the road on Los Incas.
Drinking & Nightlife
Central Puno’s nightlife is geared toward tourists, with lively bars scattered around the bright lights on Lima (where touts hand out free-drink coupons), the Plaza de Armas and Parque Pino, where live bands sometimes play on weekend evenings.
Artesanías (handicrafts, from musical instruments and jewelry to scale models of reed islands), wool and alpaca sweaters, and other typical tourist goods are sold in every second shop in the town center. The prices are a bit better at the Feria at the port.
The hypermarket on Los Incas sells not only food but pisco, electronics and home needs.