As one who lived the first seventeen years of his life in Cleveland, Ohio, I am well aware that some places come as a major disappointment to travelers. Cleveland was usually referred to as “The Mistake on the Lake” and, parodying the Chamber of Commerce motto of “The Best Location in the Nation,” “The Worst Location in the Nation.” And on the old Dobie Gillis TV show, wasn’t that hippie Maynard G. Krebs always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.
Well, Puno is one of those cities that gets no respect. A major entrepot for goods being trucked from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa. It is also one of Peru’s major centers of indigenous population, including both Quechuas and Aymaras.
If you take a look at the books written by travelers, you get a pretty dim view of the place. Paul Theroux (The Old Patagonian Express) and Christopher Isherwood (The Condor and the Cows) didn’t even give the place a chance: They arrived at night and left that same night on a boat bound across lake Titicaca for Copacabana, Bolivia. Since there are now no boat crossings to Bolivia—unless one is on an expensive catamaran tour—that option no longer exists.
When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 1970s (Three Letters from the Andes), he didn’t have much good to say about the place:
There was little for the eye to feast on outside. Puno is an assembly of corrugated iron roofs, sidings and goods yards sprawling round a church like a Gothic mud pie. We picked our way through the debris and squatting Aymara Indians—treading softly lest we tread on their dreams—to a ramshackle lacustrine port where an old steamer lay at anchor, brought piecemeal overland long before the railway, so that each plate was cut down to the weight a mule can carry, and sometimes a llama, then welded and riveted together again on the lake shore.
Fermor describes being met at the train station by a gaggle of unruly Aymara porters “seizing our luggage and bickering and punching each other all the way across the tracks to the repellent Ferrocarril hotel,” which had mislaid all the partys reservations.
Some years later, Michael Jacobs (The Andes), had this to say about Puno: “Neither of us was keen to stay any longer than necessary in Puno, which looked, under bright sunlight, even uglier than I had remembered it. The sun accentuated its resemblance to a waste tip of dirty brown boxes washed up by the lake.”
In Cut Stones and Crossroads, Ronald Wright damns the city with faint praise: “Puno has improved: I’ve found a hotel with hot water and a restaurant with hot food.” In The White Rock, Hugh Thomson considers Puno a “‘one-nighter,’ if that.”
Given all that bad publicity, I am sure that I will enjoy Puno. There isn’t much to see in the city proper (or should I say improper?), but there are the burial towers at Sillustani and the Islands of Taquile and Amantani in the middle of the lake. Plus, I will be trying to outlast the soroche I am sure will overtake me there at the elevation of 12,500 feet. Hey, nothing can surprise me: I’m from Cleveland.