An immense region in terms of its history and the breadth of its magical landscape, the Titicaca Basin makes most people feel like they are on top of the world. The skies are vast, and the horizons bend away below you. The high altitude (3827m above sea level) means that recent arrivals from the coast have to take it easy for a day or two, though those coming from Cusco will already have acclimatized.
The scattered population of the region does descend from two very ancient Andean ethnic groups or tribes – the Aymara and the Quechua. The Aymara’s Tiahuanaco culture predates the Quechua’s Inca civilization by over three hundred years.
This region does think to be the original home for domesticating several hardy plants, including the potato, tomato, and the common pepper.
The first Spanish settlement at Puno sprang up around a silver mine discovered by the infamous Salcedo brothers in 1657, a camp that forged such a wild and violent reputation that the Lima viceroy moved in with soldiers to crush and finally execute the Salcedo’s before things got too out of hand. At the same time – in 1668 – the ruler made Puno the region’s capital, and from then on, it became the main port of Lake Titicaca and an important town on the silver trail from Potosí in Bolivia.
Late in the nineteenth century, the arrival of the railway brought another boost. Still, today it’s a relatively poor, rather grubby sort of town, even by Peruvian standards, and a place that has suffered badly from recent drought and an inability to manage its water resources.
On the edge of the town spreads the vast Lake Titicaca – some 8400km of shimmering blue water enclosed by white peaks. You find the unusual Uros floating islands in the lake, huge rafts built out of reeds, and home to a dwindling and much-abused Indian population.
More spectacular by far are two of the populated, fixed islands, Amantani and Taquile, where the traditional lifestyle gives visitors a genuine taste of pre-Conquest Andean Peru. Densely populated well before the arrival of the Incas, the lakeside Titicaca region is also home to the curious and ancient tower tombs known locally as chullpas: rings of tall, cylindrical stone burial chambers, often standing in battlement-like formations.
The valley down from the Abra La Raya pass (4312m), which divides the Titicaca Basin from Cusco, is known as the Corridor Quechua, referring to its linguistic predominance, and contains other lesser-visited treasures: around Ayaviri, which itself boasts impressive archaeological monuments and thermal baths, there is the forest of stones at Tinajani, plus, a further 12km away, a hillside at Tarukani where the Puyas Raimondi plants grow up to 12m high. Meanwhile, the stepped pyramid of Pukara is one of the region’s more ancient stone-built monuments dating from 1000 BC.
The lakeside stretch between Puno and the Bolivian frontier at Desaguadero is known – also for linguistic reasons – as the Corridor Aymara. Unfortunately, this sector is full of fascinating but slowly decaying colonial relics, particularly the fine churches of Chucuito, Acora, Illave, Juli, Pomata, and Zepita.
With a dry, chilly climate – temperatures frequently fall below freezing on the winter nights of July and August – PUNO is just a crossroads for most travelers en route between Cusco and Bolivia or Chile. In some ways, this is fair, for it’s a breathless place with a burning daytime sun in stark contrast to snowy evenings. Yet the town is affluent in living tradition and its fascinating pre-Columbian history. The Pukara culture emerged here some 3000 years ago, leaving behind stone pyramids and carved standing stones, contemporary with those of Chavín 1600km further north but still high up in the Andes.
The better-known Tiahuanaco culture dominated the Titicaca basin between 800 and 1200 AD, leaving in its wake the temple complex of the same name, just over the border in Bolivia, plus widespread cultural and religious influence.
The Incas conquered the settlement in the fifteenth century. When the Spanish arrived a little more than one hundred years later, they soon discovered its wealth – tribute-based agriculture and mineral exploitation based on a unique form of slave labor. Even today, Puno’s port is a vital staging point for exploring the northern end of Lake Titicaca, with its floating islands and beautiful island communities just a few hours away by boat.
Famed as the folklore capital of Peru, Puno is renowned throughout the Andes for its music and dance. The best time to experience this wealth of traditional cultural expression is during the first two weeks of February for the Fiesta de la Candelaria. It is an excellent folklore dance, boasting incredible dancers wearing devil masks; the festival climaxes on the second Sunday of February; if you’re in Puno, it’s a good idea to reserve hotels in advance (hotel prices can double).
The Festival de Tinajani, based around June 27, is set in the bleak altiplano against a substantial wind-eroded rock in the Canyon of Tinajani off the beaten trail. It’s well worth checking out for its raw Andean music and dance, plus its large sound systems; ask at the tourist offices in Puno or Cusco for details. Just as spectacular, the Semana Jubilar (Jubilee Festival) occurs in the first week of November, partly on the Isla Esteves. It celebrates the Spanish founding of the city, and the Incas’ origins legend is from Lake Titicaca. Even if you miss the festivals, you can find a group of musicians playing brilliant and highly evocative music somewhere in the labyrinthine town center on most nights of the year.
Puno is one of the few Peruvian towns where motorized traffic respects pedestrians. Busy as it is, there is less of a manic rush here than in most coastal or mountain cities. It lacks the colonial style of Cusco or the bright glamour of Arequipa’s Sillar stone architecture. Still, it’s a friendly place where sloping corrugated iron roofs reflect the heavy rains between November and February.
Puno has three main points of reference: the spacious Plaza de Armas, the train station several blocks north, and the vast, strung-out area of old, semi-abandoned docks at the ever-shifting Titicaca lakeside port. It all looks impressive, but the natural town-based attractions are few and quickly visited in the seventeenth century.
The cathedral on the Plaza de Armas (daily seven am-noon and 3–6 pm; free) is surprisingly large with an exquisite Baroque facade and, unusually for Peru, a straightforward and humble interior, in line with the local Aymara Indians’ austere attitude to religion. Opposite its north face, the Museo Municipal Dreyer, Conde de Lemos 289 (Mon-Sat 8 am–2 pm; $3.50), contains a unique collection of archaeological pieces, including ceramics, textiles, and stone sculptures, mostly removed from some of the region’s chullpas.
One block to the south, the nearby Iglesia San Antonio on Jirón Ayacucho is smaller and colorfully lit by ten stained-glass circular windows. The church’s complex iconography, set into six wooden wall niches, is highly evocative of the region’s mixed Catholic and Indian beliefs.
High up, overlooking the town and Plaza de Armas, the Huajsapata Park sits on a prominent hill, a short but steep climb up Jirón Deustua, turning right into Jirón Llave, left up Jirón Bolognesi, then left again up the Pasaje Contique steps.
Often crowded with cuddling couples and young children playing on the natural rockslides, Huajsapata offers sensational views across the bustle of Puno to the serene blue of Titicaca and its unique skyline. At the same time, the pointing finger on the giant white statue of Manco Capac reaches out towards the lake. In the northern section of town, at the end of the pedestrianized Jirón Lima, you’ll find a busy little plaza called Parque Pino, dominated in equal parts by the startlingly blue Church of San Juan and the ragged, insistent shoeshine boys.
Two blocks east from here, towards the lake, you find the old central market, small and dirty, with rats and dogs competing for scraps and beaming Indian women selling an incredible variety of fruits and vegetables. Head down to Avenida Los Incas, initially between the old rail tracks, to a more substantial street market, whose liveliest day is Saturday. Moored either in the port or sometimes at the Isla Esteves by the Posada del Inca Hotel.
The nineteenth-century British-built steamship, the Yavari (usually Wed-Sun 8 am–5 pm; for guided tours, call T051/369329; donation), provides a fascinating insight into marine life on Lake Titicaca over a hundred years ago and the military and entrepreneurial mindset of Peru in those days. Delivered by boat from England to Arica on the coast, it was designed by James Watt. From Arica, It was brought 560km by mule in over 1300 pieces. It started as a Peruvian navy gunship with bullet-proof windows but delivered the mail around Lake Titicaca. At times it has used just llama dung as fuel.
Scattered all around Lake Titicaca, you’ll find chullpas, gargantuan white stone towers up to 10m in height in which the ancient Colla tribe, who dominated the region before the Incas, buried their dead. Some of the most spectacular are at SILLUSTANI, set on a tiny peninsula in Lake Umayo overlooking Titicaca, 30km northwest of Puno.
This ancient temple/cemetery consists of a ring of stones more than five hundred years old. Some have been tumbled by earthquakes or, more recently, by tomb robbers intent on stealing the rich goods (ceramics, jewelry, and a few weapons) buried with influential mummies. Two styles predominate at this site: the honeycomb chullpas and those whose superb stonework was influenced by the advance of the Inca Empire.
The former is set aside from the rest and characterized by large stone slabs around a central core; some carve, but most are plaster with white mud and small stones. The later, Inca-type stonework is more complicated, and, in some cases, you can see the elaborate corner jointing typical of Cusco masonry.
LAKE TITICACA is the world’s largest high-altitude body of water, at 284m deep, an undeniably calming and majestic sight. More than 3200 square miles (or 8300 square kilometers) in area, fifteen times the size of Lake Geneva in Switzerland and higher and slightly more immense than Lake Tahoe in the U.S. Usually peaceful and mirror-like, the lake reflects the enormous sky on itself. All along the horizon, the green Andean mountains can also be seen raising their ancient backs and heads towards the sun; over on the Bolivian side, it’s sometimes possible to make out the icecaps of the Cordillera Real Mountain chain.
A National Reserve since 1978, the lake has over sixty varieties of birds, fourteen species of native fish, and eighteen types of amphibians. It’s often seen as three separate regions: Lago Mayor, the principal, deep part of the lake; Wiñaymarka, the area incorporating various archipelagos including Peruvian and Bolivian Titicaca; and the Golfo de Puno, essentially the bay encompassed by the peninsulas of Capachica and Chucuito. The villages that line its shores depend mainly on grazing livestock for their livelihood since the altitude limits the growth potential of most crops.
Titicaca is where the Quechua Indian language and people merge with the more southerly Aymaras. The curious Inca-built Chullpa burial tombs of Sillustani from circles close to the lake’s edge.
The artificial Uros Floating Islands have been inhabited since their construction centuries ago by Uros Indians retreating from more powerful neighbors like the Incas. Floating platform islands, weird to walk over and even stranger to live on, are now a significant tourist attraction. More solid and self-determined are the communities that live on the fixed islands of Taquile and Amantani, often described as
the closest one can get to heaven by the few travelers who make it out this far into the lake. There are, in fact, more than seventy islands in the lake, the largest and most sacred being the Isla del Sol, an ancient Inca temple site on the Bolivian side of the border that divides the lake’s southern shore.
Titicaca is an Aymara word meaning “Puma’s Rock,” which refers to an unusual boulder on the Island of the Sun. The island is best visited from Copacabana in Bolivia, or trips, even arriving by catamaran, can be arranged through one of the tour companies in Puno.
Not surprisingly, fish are still an essential part of the diet of the Titicaca inhabitants, for both the islanders and the ibis and flamingoes, which can be seen along the pre-Inca terraced shorelines. The most common fish is a small piranha-like specimen called Carachi. After swimming up the rivers, trout arrived in the lake during the first or second decade of the twentieth century. Pejerey (kingfish) established themselves only thirty years ago but have been so successful that there are relatively few trout left. Pejerey fishing is an option for tourists.
Although about 48 of these islands, most guided tours limit themselves to the largest, Huacavacani, where several Andes families live alongside a floating Seventh Day Adventist missionary school, the islands are made from layer upon layer of totora reeds. The dominant plant in the shallows of Titicaca is a food source (the juicy inner bits near the roots) for the people and the primary material for roofing, walling, and fishing rafts. During the rainy months of November to February, it’s not unusual for some islands to move about the lake’s surface.
The easiest way to get to the islands is on a short two- to three-hour trip (from around $75.50) with one of the tour agencies in Puno. Alternatively, you can go independently with the skipper of one of the many launches that leave from the port in Puno every thirty minutes (always check with the captain when they plan to depart the islands).
Only six hundred Uros Indians live on the islands these days, and most of these are a more recent mix with Quechua and Aymara blood. Many of you may meet live on the mainland, only traveling out to sell their wares to the tourists; most are a mixture of the original Uros and the more prominent Aymara tribe. When the Incas controlled the region, they considered the Uros so poor – almost subhuman – that the only tribute required of them was a section of hollow cane filled with lice.
Life on the islands has undoubtedly never been easy: inhabitants must go some distance to find fresh water. The bottoms of the reed islands rot so rapidly that new matting has to be constantly added above. Islands last around twelve to fifteen years, and it takes two months of collective work to start a new one.
Two genuine – non-floating – islands in Titicaca, Taquile, and Amantani, are peaceful places that see fewer tourists, around 25–30km across the water from Puno, just beyond the outer edge of the Gulf of Chucuito. Amantani is the least visited of the two, has fewer facilities, and costs slightly more to reach by boat.
Daily boats for Taquile leave Puno at 8 am, returning by around 5.30 or 6 pm, while they usually go for Amantani at 9 am, producing between 4 and 4.30 pm; as usual, check with the captain for the time they plan to depart the islands. You can go on an organized trip with one of the tour companies, but the agencies use the same boats and charge at least twice the going rate. The sun’s rays reflected off the lake can burn even well-tanned skin, so it’s good to protect your head and shoulders during this voyage.
The launches tend to be aging wooden boats with engines from old North American cars, like the 1962 Dodge, which belongs to one of the island captains. Most boats return after lunch the same day, but since this doesn’t give you enough time to look around, many visitors prefer to stay a night or two in bed and breakfast accommodation (from about $25) in islanders’ homes. The only way to guarantee a place to stay is to book in advance through one of Puno’s tour agencies; if you arrive on spec, you could ask the relevant island authorities or talk to the boat’s captain, and you may be lucky, but don’t bank on it. Sleeping bags and toilet paper are recommended, and the host islanders appreciate fresh fruit and vegetables.
The island of TAQUILE has been inhabited for over ten thousand years, with agriculture being introduced about 4000 BC. Some three thousand years ago, the Pukara culture settled it and built the first stone terraces. The Aymara-speaking Tiahuanaco culture dominated it until the thirteenth century when the Incas conquered it and introduced the Quechua language. In 1580, the island was bought by Pedro Gonzalez de Taquile and came under Spanish influence.
During the 1930s, it was a safe exile/prison for troublesome characters like former president Sanchez Cerro. It wasn’t until 1937 that the residents – the local descendants of the original Indians – regained legal ownership by repurchasing it.
The Comunidad Campesina de Taquile has at least eight operation boats and sells tickets for rides to the island directly from the port in Puno (daily, from 7 am). However, most passengers are locals, and tourists are very welcome. Approaching Taquile, perhaps the most attractive island and measuring some 1km by 7km, it looks like a substantial ribbed whale, large and bulbous to the east, tapering its western tail end.
The island’s horizontal striations are produced by significant amounts of ancient terracing along Taquile’s steep-sided shores. Such terraces are at an even greater premium here in the middle of the lake, where soil erosion would otherwise slowly kill the island’s largely self-sufficient agricultural economy, of which potatoes, corn, broad beans, and the hardy quinoa are the main crops. Taquile could become like the main floating island without good soil, depending almost exclusively on tourism for its income.
The island has two main ports: Puerto Chilcano Doc (west or Puno side of the island) and El Otro Puerto (north side, used chiefly by boats of tour agents because it has a more straightforward and equally panoramic access climb). Arriving via Puerto Chilcano Doc, the central heart of the island does reach by some 525 grueling steps up a steep hill from the small stone harbor; this can easily take an hour of slow walking. When you’ve recovered your breath, you will eventually appreciate the spectacular view of the southeast of the island, where you can see the hilltop ruins of Uray Kari, built of stone in the Tiahuanaco era around 800 A.D.
Looking to the west, you may glimpse the more extensive, slightly higher ruins of Hanan Kari. Upon climbing the stairs, you’ll be met by a committee of locals who delegate various native families to look after particular travelers. There are around thirty indigenous Taquileños tourist guides, many of who now speak English, so it’s not essential to book a visit to Taquile via a travel agent in Puno. The quality can be just as good or even better by arranging a visit to Taquile directly with the islanders: first, the boat trip from the port and, on arrival, your accommodation and, if required, guide services.
This way, you can help keep the economic benefit of tourism at Taquile itself. There is no grid-connected electricity on the island, though there is a solar-powered community loudspeaker and a growing number of individual houses with solar lighting; it’s, therefore, a good idea to take a flashlight, matches, and candles.
There are no hotels either, though a few small stores sell souvenirs, mostly weavings, and a few places to eat around the small plaza, notably the Restaurant San Santiago (7 am–7 pm), where fish and chips and honey pancakes are the specialties.
Although they grow abundant maize, potatoes, wheat, and barley, most of Taquile’s population of 1200 people are also weavers and knitters of fine alpaca wool and are renowned for their excellent cloth. You can still watch the locals drop-spin, a common form of hand-spinning that produces an ideal thread for their particular fabric. The men sport black woolen trousers fastened with elaborate waistbands woven in pinks, reds, and greens. The women wear beautiful black headscarves, sweaters, dark shawls, and up to eight skirts at the same time, trimmed usually with shocking pink or bright-red tassels and fringes. You can tell if a man is married or single by the color of his woolen hat or Chullo, the former being all red and the latter having white; single men usually weave their own Chullo. The community authorities or officials wear black sombreros on top of their red Chullos and carry an office staff.
Like nearby Taquile, AMANTANI, a basketweaves island and the largest on the lake, has retained some degree of cultural isolation and autonomous control over the tourist trade. Of course, tourism has affected the local population, so it’s not uncommon to be offered drinks, then charged later, or for the children to sing you songs without being asked, expecting to be paid.
The ancient agricultural terraces are excellently maintained, and traditional stone masonry is still practiced, as are the old Inca systems of agriculture, labor, and ritual trade. The islanders eat mainly vegetables, with meat and fruit as rare commodities, and the women dress in colorful clothes that are distinctly woven.
Two small hills dominate the island: the Temple of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the other is the Temple of Pachatata (Father Earth). Around February 20, the islanders celebrate their main festival, with half the 5000-strong population going to one hill and the other half gathering at the other. Following ancient ceremonies, the two halves celebrate their origins with traditional and colorful music and dance.
The only available accommodation is staying in an islander’s house though plans to build a hostel. There are no restaurants, but you can buy basic supplies at the artesian trading post in the island’s heart.
There’s no particular reason to stop in JULIACA; in many ways an uninspiring and geographically very flat settlement, but at the same time, it’s hard to avoid. This beauty is the first town out of Puno towards Cusco, less than an hour away across grassy pampa. The wild, flat, and relatively barren terrain here makes it easy to imagine a straggling column of Spanish cavalry and foot soldiers followed by a thousand Inca warriors – Almagro’s fated expedition to Chile in the 1530s. Today, much as it always was, the plain is scattered with tiny isolated communities, many of them with conical kilns, self-sufficient even down to kitchenware.
If you come by air to Titicaca, it’s Juliaca airport you’ll arrive at, even if Puno is your destination. You must pass through Juliaca en route if you’re going by road or rail to Cusco from Puno or anywhere along Lake Titicaca. It’s less than half an hour by colectivos or taxi from Puno, inland from the lakeside, and not an inviting town, looking like a giant but down-at-heel, desert-bound work camp.
However, some good artesian stalls, shops on the Plaza Bolognesi, and excellent woolen goods can be purchased extremely cheaply, especially at the Monday market. The daily market around the station is worth browsing and sells just about everything – from stuffed iguanas to second-hand bikes.
South to Bolivia
The most popular routes to Bolivia involve overland road travel, crossing the frontier either at Yunguyo or Desaguadero. En route to either, you’ll pass by some of Titicaca’s more interesting colonial settlements, each with its style of architecture.
Chucuito to Juli
CHUCUITO, 20km south of Puno, is dwarfed by its intensive hillside terracing and the huge igneous boulders poised behind the brick and adobe houses. Chucuito was once a colonial town, and its central plaza retains the pillory (Picota) where the severed heads of executed criminals were displayed. Close to this, there’s a sundial erected in 1831 to help the local Aymara people regulate to an 8 am to 5 pm workday. The base is made from stones taken from the Inca Templo de Fertilidad, located behind the Hotel Taypikala, which remains Chucuito’s most significant treasure. Inside the temple’s main stone walls are around a hundred stone phalluses, row upon row, jammed within the temple space, ranging like seats in a theatre. Some of the larger ones may have had particular ritual significance, and locals say that women who have difficulty getting pregnant still come here to pray for help on the giant phalluses. Also, on the plaza is the Iglesia Santo Domingo, constructed in 1780 and displaying a feeble image of a puma.
Crossing the Bolivian border
Yunguyo–Copacabana. The Yunguyo–Copacabana crossing is the most enjoyable route into Bolivia unless you intend to stay overnight in Copacabana (or take the 3hr Puno–Copacabana minibus). You’ll need to set out quite early from Puno; the actual border (8 am–6 pm) is a two-kilometer walk from Yunguyo, although taxis are usually available. The Bolivian passport control, where there’s usually a bus for the 10 km to Copacabana, is a few hundred meters from the Peruvian border post.
The best Hotel in Yunguyo is the Hostal Residencial Isabel, San Francisco 110 (T014/856084), which has hot water but only communal bathrooms. You can change money at the Banco de la Nación at Triunfo 219 and 28 de Julio. Still, several Casas de Cambio and street Cambistas nearby usually offer better rates and deal in a greater variety of currencies. Still, it would be best if you changed only enough to get to La Paz, as the rate is poor. Several bus companies run services from Puno over these routes: Empresa Los Angeles has twice-weekly buses to Desaguadero ($6; 3hr); Tour Peru runs daily to Copacabana ($8; also, 3hr) and La Paz ($17; 7hr); Altiplano buses also go most days to La Paz ($15); Collector runs to La Paz via Copacabana daily for around $13; and San Pedro Express runs daily to Yunguyo ($13; 2–3hr), Desaguadero ($7.50; 3hr) and Copacabana ($9; 3hr). From Yunguyo, some buses connect with a minibus service to Copacabana, then a Bolivian bus to La Paz.
Copacabana’s cheap afternoon bus service to La Paz takes you through some of the basin’s most exciting scenery. At Tiquina, you leave the bus briefly to carry a passenger ferry across the narrowest point of the lake, the bus rejoining you on the other side from its ferry. Once across the lake, it’s a four- to five-hour haul to La Paz.
The Desaguadero Crossing
Very little traffic now uses the Desaguadero Crossing over the Peru–Bolivia border; it’s less attractive than going via Yunguyo but has the advantage of passing the ruined temple complex of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia. If you do want to travel this route, take one of the early morning colectivos (6–9 am) from Jr Tacna in Puno to Desaguadero ($7; 3–4hr); you’ll need to get a stamp in your passport from the Peruvian control by the market and the Bolivian one just across the bridge. If you arrive here by bus, it’s a short walk across the border, and you can pick up an Ingravi bus to La Paz more or less hourly ($7; 4–5hr), which goes via Tiahuanaco.
Money can be changed on the bridge approach, but the rates are poor, so purchase only as much as you’ll need to get to La Paz. It’s not a very friendly town. There’s a conspicuous abundance of rubbish on some streets, but a few hotels are all primary and not particularly clean; the Hostal San Carlos is probably the best, with a hot shower option. Similarly, I can recommend a few restaurants, but the Pollería El Rico Riko, close to the border crossing, is not bad.
From Bolivia to Peru
The procedure is just as straightforward for anyone coming into Peru from Bolivia. One difference is that a customs and passport check occurs before the exit barrier when leaving Copacabana. Now and again, Bolivian customs officials take a heavy line and thoroughly search all luggage items.
About two-thirds of the way between Puno and Juli, you pass through the village of ILAVE, where a significant side road heads off directly down to the coast for Tacna (320km) and Moquegua (231km). Ilave is quite an important market town, has a large Sunday market selling colorful clothing and coca leaves, and hosts a few shamanic fortune-tellers. The city also has a surprisingly large and modern Terminal Terrestre, where all the buses from Puno stop and where it’s possible to catch services to Tacna and Moquegua on the coast. A large Plaza de Armas hosts a statue of Coronel Francisco Bolognesi, hero of the Arica battles between Peru and Chile. At the same time, half a block to the south, the ancient and crumbling Iglesia de San Miguel has an impressive dome and belfry. If you want a place to stay, the basic Hostal Grau is bearable on the plaza at Jr Dos de Mayo 337. For food, try the Pollería Ricos Pollo, Jr Andino 307, towards the market from the plaza.
After crossing the bridge over the Río Ilave, the road cuts 60km across the plain towards Juli, passing by some unusual rock formations scattered across the altiplano of the Titicaca basin, many of which have ritual significance for the local Aymara population. The most important of these is the Gateway of Amaru Muru. Doorway-like alcove carved into the rock and said by indigenous mystics to serve as a dimensional link to the ancestors, a belief shared by new agers, who view it as the Andean “stargate,” a kind of link to non-earthly beings and other worlds.
A few kilometers from the Amaru Muru rock is the relatively large town of JULI, now bypassed by a new road but nestling attractively between gigantic round-topped and terraced hills. Juli is also known as Pequeña Roma (Little Rome) because of the seven prominent mountains immediately surrounding it, each of them of spiritual significance to the indigenous inhabitants regarding earth magic, healing, and fertility. Perhaps because of this, the Jesuits chose Juli as the site for a significant mission training center, which prepared missionaries for trips to the remoter regions of Bolivia and Paraguay.
The concept they developed, a form of community evangelization, was at least partly inspired by the Inca organizational system and was highly influential throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Jesuits’ political and religious power is reflected in the almost surreal extravagance of the church architecture.
Fronting the sizeable open plaza is the stone-built parish church of San Pedro, marked by its intricately carved Plateresque side altars. Constructed in 1560, it has an impressive dome, and the cool, serene interior, awash with gold leaf, is home to many superb examples of Cuzqueña school artwork. Behind the altar, there’s a wealth of silver and gold, the woodwork dripping with seashells, fruits, and angels.
In front of this church, you’ll often see local shamanic fortune-tellers. Across the plaza from here is the amazing-looking Casa Zavala (House of the Inquisition), with its thatched roof and fantastically carved double doors, which is also known as el carcel (“the Prison”). Juli’s numerous other churches display superb examples of Indian influence, mainly the vast brick and adobe Iglesia San Juan (Mon-Sat 9 am–5 pm), with its mestizo stonework on some of the doors and windows.
Cold and musty but with a somewhat surreal interior, due in part to the play of light through its few high windows, this church was founded in 1775 but is now an excellent museum of religious art and architecture, which handsomely rewards the interested visitor. Of the few hostels here, try the basic Hostal Treboles on the central plaza or the Hostal Municipal on the left as you enter the town from Puno Road.
Twenty kilometers on lies the historic town of POMATA, with its pink granite church of Santiago Apóstol, built-in 1763 in a prominent location overlooking the lake; outside the church is a circular stone construction known as La Glorieta. Crumbling today, it’s still the site where local authorities meet for ceremonial purposes.
Pomata’s name is derived from the Aymara word for “puma,” You’ll see the puma symbol all over the fountain in the Plaza de Armas and outside the church. If you happen to be around the area in October, try to get to Pomata for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Rosaria on the first Sunday of the month, a splendid celebration with processions, music, and folk dancing, as well as the usual drinking and feasting.