By R.S. Gompertz
Puno, Peru isn’t pretending to be a tourist town. Puno is a hard-scrabble brick and rebar town hunched like a red condor above Lake Titicaca. The town has a provisional, unfinished frontier outpost feel to it.
Puno is not the place to visit for art galleries, lavish cathedrals or colonial architecture. Aside from a pleasant waterfront, the museums are average, the churches are bleak, and the two main plazas are nice but hardly worth the effort it takes to get here.
The reason to visit Puno is because it’s Peru’s capital of folklore and it deserves the reputation. But if you pass through between fiestas like Carnival or the weeklong celebration of the Virgin of Candalaria, the best thing you can do in Puno is get out of town.
Puno’s practical proximity to the ancient archaeological sites like Sillustani, llama-trod expanses of the high plateau and the amazing islands in Lake Titicaca is a reason enough to visit this ugly peddle-boat duckling of a town.
Puno is fascinatingly diverse, a place where you can hear Spanish, Quechua and Aymara spoken in the streets. It’s residents are tough and resolute. While I stopped regularly along its sloping streets to gasp for altitude-deprived oxygen, Puno’s squat, stoic Andean women in traditional dress soldiered uphill with mysterious loads on their backs and felt derbies on their heads.
Driving around Puno is the art of the near-miss. Lanes are mere suggestions. Car horns caw like crows. Noisy moto-taxis gun their engines and everyone honks defensively as there are no stop signs at the intersections and precious few stop lights.
Puno triggered the sort of uncomfortable self-reflection I pretend to seek while traveling. Why did I have such a strong reaction to its rough aesthetic? Am I just a gringo snob looking for an architectural petting zoo to impress my Facebook friends? Would I rather take smartphone pictures of shiny artifacts than face the true grit of village life?
Sure. Guilty as charged, but why is Puno so shambolic? Given the spending from thousands of fiesta celebrants and tourists, Puno should shine. It’s streets, infrastructure, welfare and schools should be the envy of the nation. Instead, it’s a lakeside backwater. It would be interesting, possibly dangerous to follow the money to better understand how much of it remains in town.
I got the impression that people in Puno didn’t care enough about my impressions to make corrections. My polite questions, observations and big ideas were shrugged away. It’s their town, a work in progress, and besides, neighboring Juliaca, where the airport is located, is worse. Carve out a life, send your kids to the best school you can, and don’t fight City Hall.
Besides, if you don’t like it here, Bolivia is just across the lake. (Local joke: when they drew the border through the lake, Peru got the “titi” and Bolivia got the caca.)
Puno could preside over Titicaca like a radiant gem instead of a pile of spilled red LEGO blocks. Someday, when all the bricks are set and the mortar is dry, maybe it will.