How do islands made of reeds stay afloat while holding houses and people? This is a question that has long brought backpacks to Puno, a city based on the shores of Lake Titicaca. This destination is the gateway to exploring Peru’s Floating Islands, known as Uros.
Situated between Lake Titicaca and the mountains, this humble city and its habitants revolve around the prestige of the lake. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and borders Peru and Bolivia. Titicaca is a freshwater lake, which is fed from a variety of rivers and glaciers from the surrounding Andes Mountains.
The Uru people that live on the floating islands maintain a traditional lifestyle away from the mainland. They have shunned modern technology (mostly – although arguably this is changing!) and live off the land.
There are approximately only 62 artificial islands that still exist, with each island home to communities no larger than 6 families. A visit to the floating islands is a window into a survivalist culture, one that has existed since pre-Inca times.
The floating islands of Uros are located around 5 km (approximately 3 miles) from Puno and sit at a whopping 3810 metres above sea level. This means that the nights can get very cold, yet it is still possible to burn in the heat of the day. Don’t forget to drink lots of water and chew coca leaves whilst you’re exploring!
Where to Stay in Puno
Inka’s Rest B&B – Popular with backpackers, Inka’s Rest is a relaxed hostel that has been established for over a decade. The great staff are on hand to organise tours for you and they also offer fab restaurant recommendations. This hostel has everything a backpacker needs including breakfast, bar, free WiFi and laundry services. Dorm prices start at 39 soles $11USD.
Bothy Backpacker Hostel – This popular Scottish themed hostel is in a good location, has a secure entrance and offers WiFi, luggage storage and breakfast. It is a great option for backpackers who already have an overnight tour to the islands booked, as you are able to leave your luggage there and return the following day. The prices are reasonable, with a dorm bed starting at 32 soles (approx $9USD).
Kantaya Hostel – This clean, lively hostel is located just 3 minutes from the main plaza and has breakfast included. Bicycle hire is available and there is also free WiFi. The communal area is great for meeting other backpackers over a game of pool! Dorm beds start at 27 soles per night (approx $7USD).
Cozy Hostel Puno – Located in the city centre, Cozy Hostel is a backpacker favourite. Dorm rooms and privates are available and all come inclusive of breakfast. There are free towels and toiletries available for guest use. It has a super friendly vibe and is a great place to meet other backpackers. Prices begin at 32 soles (approx $9USD).
Titikaka Wasy Lodge – Although not technically located in Puno, Titikaka Wasy Lodge is an accommodation choice you will never forget! Situated on one of the Uros islands and family-run, a stay here guarantees insight into the local culture. Pick up and drop off is included in the price. It is a more costly option for backpackers, with double rooms starting at 205 soles (approx $58USD).
Things to Do in Puno
Visit the Floating Islands
You can’t go to Puno without taking a trip to the floating islands. For travellers short on time, there are plenty of day trips available which will take you to a couple of islands (these change daily to share the income from tourism between all of the locals).
Usually, on these trips, you will meet the island chief or president, who will explain how the islands are built and maintained. The Uru people also welcome tourists to take a quick ride in their personal reed boats (sometimes for an additional fee depending on your tour) which they usually use for fishing, transport or to visit other neighbouring islands.
Day trips are easy to arrange from your hostel and online and usually leave around 7 am, finishing at approximately 5 pm. However, there are options to explore further afield and stay in local homestays. These are arguably better if you want to do more than scratch the surface.
Whilst it is common to hear travellers say that Uros is a tourist trap, these traditional reed islands are something which has to be seen to be believed. Of course, the sudden influx in tourism has changed life for those that live on the islands, however, this does not make a visit any less interesting or authentic.
It is important to remember that by visiting Uros, you are literally contributing to the degradation of the islands so visitors are advised to be generous when it comes to handicrafts. This is some of the main income for the locals and goes directly towards island maintenance.
Explore Taquile Island
Located a two and a half hour journey from Puno by boat, Taquile island is inhabited by the Taquileño people. It is governed by a local council and the island residents still speak their own dialect.
Visitors to Taquile island will usually get a lesson of how the Taquileño people live on the island. They have their own traditional food, dances and clothing which is fascinating to learn about. Homestays make up the vast majority of accommodation on the island.
See the Sillustani Burial Towers
Regardless of if you have already seen Machu Picchu or not, this burial ground is still worth a visit to fill an afternoon. The cylindrical towers (which are actually tombs) are pre-Inca and the site itself is hugely interesting. If you happen to be there towards the end of the day, make sure you stick around for sunset!
Stay overnight at Amantaní Island
Perhaps the lesser-visited island compared to Taquile, Amantaní is the place to go if you are looking for a deeper insight into indigenous culture around Puno.
The vast majority of travellers visit only the floating islands so whilst tourism has found Amantaní island, it still holds a lot of its original charm and authenticity. This is another popular spot to stay overnight and recommended for a taste of local life.
Hike up Condor Hill
The main lookout, ‘Mirador de Kuntur Wasi’, has a nice view of the city over the rooftops and across Lake Titicaca. The hike is a bit steep but the 500 steps are worth it to have a bird’s eye view. Remember your altitude sickness medication (if necessary) as it is a tough hike! Alternatively, it is possible to grab a taxi to take you to the top.
Party at Fiesta de la Candelaria
At the start of February (usually between the 2nd-12th), one of the biggest and best carnivals in South America takes place in Puno. This festival sees the joining of Andean religion alongside the Catholic faith as they come together to celebrate the Virgin of Candelaria.
If you can plan your visit to coincide with the festival it is well worth it, Fiesta de la Candelaria was named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014.
If you are heading to the city for the celebrations, it is highly recommended that you book accommodation and tours in advance as it is one of the busiest times of the year. The city is filled with dancers, musicians and spectators, many of whom are drinking and dancing themselves! Trust us when we say Peru knows how to party so don’t miss this!
Kayak on Lake Titicaca
How many people can say that they have kayaked on the highest navigable lake in the world? Not many is my guess! Have a chat with your hostel to find out where to rent a kayak from. Tours take around 3 hours and cost 125 soles (around $35USD per person).
Marvel at the Catedral de Puno
Situated between Parque Santa Rosa and the Plaza de Armas is the 18th-century Baroque style cathedral. The richly decorated structure is best admired from the main square and is by far the most impressive building in the city.
Where to eat in Puno
Of course, any budget savvy backpacker knows that the best place to find cheap eats is in the local markets. As soon as you get away from the Plaza de Armas, the price of food drops dramatically and around the market, you can expect to pay around 3 soles for a set lunch.
Located in the city centre, this is THE place to go if you are yet to try alpaca steak! Whilst it is a little expensive compared to other local options, it is a nice treat if you’ve spent the day exploring the Uros Islands by boat. Don’t miss a refreshing Pisco Sour here – any excuse right?!
A must-visit for vegans and vegetarians alike is the Loving Hut. The set lunch menu costs 12 soles and is delicious! Usually, it consists of a soup, main dish plus salad, drink and dessert.
By Bus – Overnight and day buses leave hourly from the main bus terminal. Bookings are usually not essential as there are numerous bus companies that offer 1st class or economy options to other popular tourist destinations in Peru such as Cusco, Arequipa, La Paz. Remember to book in advance if you are visiting from the 2nd – 12th of February.
It is also possible to go to and from Bolivia from Puno. Popular destinations include Copacabana and La Paz. If you are crossing the border at Puno, remember to bring cash as there are no ATM’s in the area near immigration.
Where to go next?
Cusco: Everybody’s favourite Peruvian city and the jumping-off point for visiting Machu Picchu is only 6 hours away. Take a scenic day ride or hop on an overnight bus for a quick and easy journey.
Arequipa: Peru’s white-washed picturesque city is only five and a half hours away by bus. Don’t miss this picturesque city which is far more chilled than Cusco and Lima. From Arequipa, it’s also easy to visit Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon on a day trip.
Copacabana: The Bolivian city on the other side of Lake Titicaca is approximately two and a half hours away (although include an hour depending on the traffic at the border crossing into Bolivia). This spot is popular as many backpacker’s first stop in Bolivia. Grab a day trip to Isla del Sol to explore another of Lake Titicaca’s islands.