Lapping up Lake Titicaca
Itinerary: Puno > Lake Titicaca, Uros floating islands + Taquile > Bolivian consulate > Copacabana via Yunguyo
A beautiful setting for a border crossing.
To be fair, Lake Titicaca is a fantastic attraction on its own, but I’d be lying if I said my visit wasn’t part beauty, part business. Beauty first.
I arrived in Puno via a freezing (as most are) overnight bus from Cusco, and fortunately I sleep like a baby in transit because I immediately booked a day tour of Lake Titicaca upon arrival at my hostel. On the itinerary: the Uros floating islands and Isla Taquile.
The floating islands of Uros are man-made in the ancient tradition of carving out and binding together blocks of soil to serve as the platform, and then collecting and stacking the totora reeds found in the shallow waters of Lake Titicaca, which serve as the spongy floor as well as building material for the homes and structures. Walking on the islands feels like tramping across a thick bed of hay, except with the potential surprise of having your foot plunge through to water — yes, there was at least one semi-concealed hole.
Hundreds of people live in Uros today, organized into island communities. My tour group had the pleasure of listening to the community president explain the tradition of the islands in the native language. We were also invited to peek into the one-room houses with mattresses of reeds and colorful skirts hanging from hooks on the walls. Some of the islands have recently received solar power through a government program, so you can spy the occasional small TV in some of the homes.
As we gathered for a ride in the impressive reed structure — a cross between a Norse ship and banana boat — we were sent off with a few songs sung by residents in various languages, getting cheers and smiles from travelers of the native tongue. From my Lonely Planet reading, I knew to expect the commercialization of the islands, although I will admit I still felt a little awkward by the vaguely Disneyland feel of the visit. That said, it was nonetheless a fascinating experience.
Following our floating island visit, we ventured across the placid blue waters of Lake Titicaca to Taquile, a more remote island with its own interesting culture and tradition. My tour group made the peaceful ascent up the nice stone walkway, reaching a nice vantage point of the island and surrounding water. (No problem coming from the Inca Trail, but fairly high elevation for someone coming from lower altitudes.)
We encountered local men wearing floppy woven hats resembling the classic Scrooge night cap. Later our guide explained that hats of red-and-white pattern indicate the man is single, while the pink-and-purple hats are worn by married men. Similarly, women wearing bright colored skirts are single, and married women wear dark red or black skirts. As a wedding gift, women make a wide belt for their husbands, sometimes even weaving in their own hair, which is traditionally worn in long braids. Apart from this marriage rite, the weaving is left exclusively to the men, an interesting cultural quirk that flies in the face of domestic stereotypes.
We enjoyed a nice lunch in the family home of one of the residents before returning to the boat for the journey back to Puno.
My second day is the city was solely devoted to the business of securing a Bolivian visa, which despite my anxiety, was a surprisingly smooth process (details below). The following day, I made the voyage to La Paz, crossing the border at Yunguyo and continuing to Copacabana. The latter half of the journey was quite beautiful, with more views of the lake and a fun channel crossing where the bus was loaded onto a rickety wooden barge while we passengers piled into a small boat for a small extra charge.
Lake Titicaca was a peaceful conclusion to an activity-packed tour of Peru and a nice segue to my quick sprint through Bolivia.
Next Stop: La Paz, Bolivia
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
Securing Bolivian Visa
Fortunately the requirements are not some vague, veiled bureaucratic jungle gym — they’re quite nicely listed here. To make the process easier, you’ll want a computer with a good internet connection and a color scanner/printer; I was able to do this with my laptop at my hostel, but there are also tons of internet shops and printing services around Puno.
- Sworn Statement — simple electronic form to be completed online, which generates a PDF to print and sign.
- Valid passport for at least six months with blank pages for the visa sticker.
- One (1) picture, full color passport size — I actually just had a black-and-white picture roughly the right size on regular printer paper, and it worked fine. (You don’t necessarily need to get real passport pictures done.)
- Hotel reservation’s copy, or invitation letter from relatives or friends including the city/address and staying period — I just typed up my tentative itinerary and printed my Hostelworld booking confirmations. (Just make sure you opt for the flexible reservation fee so you can adjust bookings as needed once you’re in the country!)
- Flight ticket or the tour itinerary, simple copy — I was traveling overland via bus and was able to book tickets through Tickets Bolivia and Tickets Online Argentina. Generally I prefer to book travel as I go, but for the sake of proof-of-entry-and-exit, having confirmed buses made the visa application process smooth. Conveniently, you can adjust your Bolivia bus bookings by contacting Tickets Bolivia customer service 24 hours prior to the trip, but Tickets Online Argentina will charge a change fee for any changes to your reservation.
- The last Checkings, Savings or Credit Card Statement (you may cover the Account number ) — this is to demonstrate proof of financial security; I was able to easily pull down an account statement from my online banking portal and then digitally redacted the account numbers.
- Visa fee of $160.00 USD — you will take this money to the nearby bank, where they will provide you a receipt of deposit.
Logistics — Confusingly there are multiple addresses online for the Bolivian Consulate in Puno; the office is at Cajamarca 664, Puno, Peru, an easy two blocks from the main Plaza de Armas. It is closed on weekends and only open 8AM-4PM Mon-Fri. A line forms, and the processing takes a few hours, so it’s best to go earlier in the morning. You’ll drop off your paperwork, and the staffer will walk through the checklist to make sure you have everything. Then he or she will provide you a slip of paper to take to the BCP bank just off the main Plaza de Armas on Jr.Lima, Puno, Peru (follow the pedestrian street behind Scotiabank). You’ll wait in line to deposit the $160 visa fee and receive the bank receipt, which you should take right back to the consulate. Once you’ve finalized this last bit of paperwork, your application will join the stack of others and be processed in a few hours. I posted up at Cafe Bar de la Casa del Corregidor, located right across the street from the Puno cathedral, and then returned to the consulate at the agreed-upon time to pick up my passport and fancy new visa sticker.
What I DIDN’T See
Isla del Sol is widely regarded as the pièce de résistance of Lake Titicaca, a large island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca that offers nice hikes, wholesome homestays and is believed to be the birthplace of the sun god in Incan religion. My decision to miss out on this highly recommended locale was largely due to a tight timeline (having made plans to meet family in Buenos Aires), but I was also informed by fellow travelers that the Peruvian islands are very similar.
I also only spent a few hours in Copacabana on my way to La Paz. Although potentially a little more quaint than Puno, Copacabana had a similar vibe; if you’re staying in one of the two towns, you can save time by skipping the other.
Border Crossing from Peru to Bolivia
I booked a ticket through Tickets Bolivia from Puno to La Paz, which took us through the border checkpoint at Yunguyo. We were let out on the Peru side to be stamped out of the country and then walked the short distance across the border to the Bolivian office to be stamped in. (You can leave your luggage on the bus.) The whole process took less than 15 minutes having already gotten my visa in advance. To note: the border is only open 8:30AM-7PM, and Bolivia is an hour ahead of Peru — good to bear in mind when booking transport.
After border control, we continued to Copacabana where I had an hour or so to wander around and change buses to La Paz. As with most Latin American transit, the timetable is lax, so anticipate arriving a few hours after the expected time (i.e., don’t book a flight or another bus ride the same day).
Puno: Bonny Hostel — the staff is what makes this place great; they are super helpful in booking tours or providing advice. The rooms are comfortable if a little cramped, with ensuite bathrooms with hot showers. Nice breakfast included and decent kitchen facilities for cooking. Small storage lockers for valuables. Laundry is sent out and quite pricey, so probably best to hold off.