|According to legend, this lake gave birth to the Inca
civilization. Before the Incas, the lake and its islands were holy for the Aymará
Indians, whose civilization was centered at the Tiahuanaco, now a complex of ruins on the
Bolivian side of Titicaca but once a revered temple site with notably advanced irrigation
Geologically, Titicaca's origins are disputed, although it was likely a glacial lake.
Maverick scientists claim it had a volcanic start; a century ago, Titicaca was popularly
believed to be an immense mountaintop crater. A few diehards today stick to the notion
that the lake was part of a massive river system from the Pacific Ocean.
Indian legend says the sun god had his children, Manco
Capac and his sisterconsort Mama OcIlo, spring from the frigid waters of the lake to found
Cuzco and the beginning of the Inca dynasty. Later, during the Spanish Conquest, the lake
allegedly became a secret depository for the empire's gold. Among the items supposedly
buried on the lake's bottom is Inca Huascar's gold chain weighing 2,000 kilos (4,400 lbs.)
and stored in Koricancha - the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco - until loyal Indians threw it
into the lake to prevent it from falling into Spanish hands.
Oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau spent eight weeks using
mini submarines to explore the depths of the lake but found no gold. (What he did
discover, to the amazement of the scientific world, was a 60-centimeter (24-in) long,
tri-colored frog that apparently never surfaces!)
On the Peruvian side of the lake is Puno, an unattractive commercial center settled
as a Spanish community in 1668 by the Count of Lemos. Although today Puno seems
unappealing, during the Spanish period it was one of the continent's richest cities
because of its proximity to the Laykakota silver mines discovered by brothers Gaspar and
Jose Salcedo in 1657. The mining boom drew 10,000 people to an area not far from what is
now Puno. It also brought a bloody rivalry that ended only when the ironhanded count
traveled to Puno, ordered Jose Salcedo executed and transferred Laykakota's residents to
At an altitude of 3,827 meters (12,628 feet), Puno is still
the capital Peru's altiplano - the harsh highland region much better suited to
roaming vicuñas and alpacas than to people. It is also Peru's folklore center with a rich
array of handicrafts, costumes, holidays, legends and, most importantly, more than 300
Among the latter, the most famous is Devil dance performed
during the feast of the Virgin of Candelaria during the first two weeks in February.
Dancers fiercely compete to outdo one another in this Diablada, notable for its
profusion of costly and grotesque masks. The origins of the dance have become confused
over the centuries but it is believed to have started with pre-Inca Indian cultures,
surviving through the Inca conquest and the Spanish takeover of the country, with the
costumes being modified each time.
Dance and wild costumes:
As numerous as the dances themselves are the lavish and colorful outfits the dancers wear.
They range from multi-hued polleras (layered skirts) donned by barefoot female
dancers to the short skirts, fringed shawls and bowler hats used in the highland version
of the marinera dance. For centuries the Indians in the altiplano were
accustomed to working hard, then celebrating their special days with gusto. In fact, many
of the dances incorporate features of the most repressive times for the Indians with
dancers dressed as mine overseers or cruel landowners characters that are mocked during
the festivities. It is difficult to find a month in Puno without at least one elaborate
festival, which is always accompanied by music and dance.
Within Puno, there remain a handful of buildings worth
seeing. The cathedral is a magnificent stone structure dating back to 1757 with a
weather-beaten baroque-style exterior and a surprisingly spartan interior- except for its
center altar of carved marble, which is plated in silver.
Over a side-altar to the right side of the church is the
icon of The Lord of Agony, commonly known as El Señor de la Bala. Beside the
cathedral is the famous Balcony of the Count of Lernos found on an old house on the
comers of Deustua and Conde de Lemos streets. It is said that Peru's Viceroy Don Pedro
Antonio Fernandez de Castro Andrade y Portugal - the count -stayed here when he first
arrived in the city he later named "San Carlos de Puno."
On the Plaza de Armas is the library and the
municipal pinacoteca, or art gallery and half a block off the plaza is the Museo
Carlos Dreyer, a collection of Nazca, Tiahuanaco, Paracas, Chimú and Inca artifacts
bequeathed to the city upon the death of their owner, for whom the museum is named.
One of the museums most valuable pieces is an Aymará
arybalo, the delicate pointed-bottomed pottery whose wide belly curves up to a
narrow neck. Throughout the South American continent, the arybalo stands as a
symbol 0 the Andean culture.
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Views of the Sierra:
Three blocks uphill from the plaza is Huajsapata Park, actually a hill that
figures in the lyrics of local songs and an excellent spot for a panoramic view of Puno.
Huajsapata is topped by a huge white statue of Manco Capac gazing down at the lake from
which he sprang.
Another lookout point is found beside Parque Pino at
the city Is north side in the plaza four blocks up Calle Lima from the Plaza de Armas.
Also called Parque San Juan, it boasts the Arco Deustua, a monument honoring the patriots
killed in the battles of Junin and Ayacucho, the decisive battles in the Independence War
The "San Juan" moniker for the park comes from
the San Juan Bautista Church within its limits; at its main altar is a statue of the
patron saint of Puno, the
Virgin of Candelaria. Also in the park is the Colegio
Nacional de San Carlos, a grade school founded by a decree signed by Venezuelan liberation
leader Simon Bolivar in 1825. It was later converted into a university, then subsequently
used as a military barracks.
Two blocks down F. Arbulu Street from Parque Pino is the
city market, a colorful collection of people, goods and food. Tourists should keep
their eyes on their money and cameras while here, but it is worth a stop to see the wide
collection of products - especially the amazing variety of potatoes, ranging from the
hard, freeze-dried papa seca that looks like gravel to the purple potatoes and yellow and
orange speckled olluco tubers.
Woolen goods, colorful blankets and ponchos are on sale
here, along with miniature reed boats like those that ply Lake Titicaca. Among the more
intriguing trinkets are the Ekekos, the ceramic statues of stout jolly men laden with a
indefinite number of good luck charms, ranging from fake money to little bags
of coca leaves. Believers say the Ekekos smoke and they are
often found with lit cigarettes hanging from their mouths. Those who really believe in the
power of these jolly statues claim that they only bring luck if they are received as gifts
- not purchased.
Exploring the Lake:
Puno is the stepping-off point for exploring Titicaca with its amazing array of
islands, Indian inhabitants and colorful traditions. Small motorboats can be hired for
lake trips or for catching the 13kg (30lb) lake trout that make it one of Peru's
best-known fishing destinations.
Most of the transportation is either by motorized launches
or the totora reed boats that Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl studied in preparing for his
legendary 4,300-nautical mile (7,970-km) journey from Peru to Polynesia in the reed boat
Kon-Tiki in the 1940s.
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The best-known of the islands dotting Titicaca's surface are the Uros, floating islands of
reed named after the Indians who inhabited them. Legend has it the Uro Indians had black
blood that helped them survive the frigid nights on the water and safeguarded them from
The last full-blooded Uro was a woman who
died in 1959. Other Uros had left the group of islands in earlier years owing to a drought
that worsened their poverty - and intermarried with Aymará and Quechua-speaking Indians.
But the Indians who now inhabit this island - a mix of Uro, Aymara and Inca descendants -
follow the Uro ways.