After our adventurous week in Cusco, Peru, an overnight bus brought us to Puno, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Situated at a height of 3,812 m (12,507 ft), it shares its waters with Bolivia. Already at the approach, we were mesmerized by the beauty of this blue mountain lake. It is so big that sometimes you cannot see the other shore! It looks like a sea, but it’s fresh water: the lake is primarily fed by the seasonally melting glaciers.
We didn’t find too much to see in Puno itself. Naturally, there is its own Plaza de Armas with a cathedral, but it was closed for renovation and the whole square was surrounded with a fence. All the interesting stuff was around the lake.
The Boat Trip on Lake Titicaca
One of the most interesting tours Puno has to offer is a day trip to the famous floating islands, where indigenous people called Uros have lived for centuries.
A taxi picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the Port of Puno. There, as if arranged just for our arrival, there was a military celebration with marching bands and soldiers. I didn’t realize we were so special 😜!
We made our way through the large crowd down to the docks filled with fishing boats, shuttles and pleasure craft, and climbed into our tour boat. Michael decided to sit behind the Captain because he always likes to see the operations and maneuvers of people piloting different vessels.
The water of this incredible lake was smooth like glass. We ran for about thirty minutes at a slow but strong speed and watched vegetation and wildlife. The other passengers aboard had small children who were obviously enjoying the ride. Finally we were arriving at our first stop.
This was a funny moment indeed: immediately, Michael noticed that our boat had no operating transmission. He mentioned it to the Captain, who turned around and chuckled to us. The Captain would simply make his approach to the “dock” made out of reeds, steer one last time and quickly shut the motor off. He definitely had this down, due to much practice!
The Uros Floating Islands
Once off the boat, we were welcomed by the locals, all dressed up in the native attire. You could see that the money from the tourists is among their primary sources of income, but they didn’t seem pushy. On the contrary, it seemed like they were proud of their unique culture and enjoyed showing it off.
And there is a lot to be proud of! The Uros people migrated to this region over 4000 years ago. When the Inca came to Lake Titicaca, they pushed the Uros away from their lands. In order to survive, the Uros first built houses over their boats and later complete floating villages out of totora reed. Talking about resourcefulness! There are about 500 families living on the islands now. Each island hosts about five families and has its own leader (or President as they jokingly call themselves).
Of course, even though the Uros people are trying hard to preserve their traditions, nowadays they widely employ modern tools to make their lives easier, such as solar panels and boat engines. I noticed, every island had a bathhouse with water barrels on the roof (I wonder though, where the waste goes…hmm)
How the Floating Islands Are Made
The President of the island where we were gave us a short, but very informative speech. He demonstrated how the islands were made from sections of dense totora reed and bound with mud. Because old reed decays, every couple of months new reeds are crisscrossed on top to ensure the stability of the mass. There was an opportunity for questions from the crowd and of course, Michael asked a question only a sailor could ask. “Do you have anchors”? The President laughed and said, “Good question”! His answer was “Yes, at least 6-10 for each island. Otherwise we would fall asleep in Peru and wake up in Bolivia!” Of course we are not talking about a Mantus or Danforth. The anchors are simple wood logs.
Later a teenage girl invited us into her little home where she showed us a veritable plethora of interesting and cute handmade items. We couldn’t resist buying a couple of souvenirs.
Totora Reed Boats
Next we boarded catamarans made of totora reed for another quick ride around the area. The boat rides are not included in the tour price, but it was not expensive at all. We were so enamored with the hospitable islanders that everyone gladly went. Interestingly enough, the local legends were always speaking of the fact that in ancient times these straw boats were used to carry the 80,000-100,000 pound monolithic stones from quarry to their final rest. As we left for our trip, the local girls stood by the boat and sang songs for our enjoyment.
Once back on the island, we took our last photos and said goodbye to these fine islanders and boarded the shuttle boat back to the mainland. When we got off the boat, we somehow lost track of our guide. So, we found a tuk-tuk (just like in Thailand!) and had a cheap quick trip back to the hotel.
In the end, we highly recommend this delightful experience! If you have enough time, treat yourself to an overnight stay, so you can really learn more about these hospitable and independent people.
As an afterthought, if you wonder what it feels like to walk around on the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, simply imagine yourself walking around on the largest waterbed you could ever imagine!!
The Portal of Aramu Muru
Most of the tourists only use Puno as a transit point before entering Bolivia and the only tour they take is to the Floating Islands. But about 40 minutes from Puno, on the road to the Bolivian border, you can find one of the best kept secrets, especially for people who are interested in ancient ruins and mysteries.
Aramu Muru (another name is Puerta de Hayu Marca) is a structure, carved into a face of a granite rock. The shape resembles a gate or a façade of a building. The size of the Gate is about 7 meters wide and 7 meters high. On the bottom of the structure there is a T-shaped opening, roughly 6 feet high, where an adult person can easily fit. On the back wall of the opening, in the middle, you can see a strange circular depression, somewhat of a “keyhole”.
The Gate of the Gods, as locals call it, was discovered in 1996 by a tour guide, Jose Luis Delgado Mamani, who was simply hiking in the area. Soon after the discovery, the place awoke interest of many archaeologists and researchers. However, it is still surprisingly unknown among mainstream tourists, so there is a chance you’ll be there completely all by yourself!
Why Is It Called Aramu Muru? The Legend of the Golden Disk
There were no organic materials found near the structure, so unfortunately it was impossible to properly date it. However, many legends surround this place, the most known of which is the legend of Aramu Muru.
It talks about a priest of the Coricancha temple in Cusco, named Aramu Muru. He was fleeing from the Spanish invasion in 1533, trying to save the biggest treasure of the Inca – the Golden Disk.
Originally the Golden Disk came into the possession of a young Quechua man named Pachacutec. A face inside the disk said to him: “I am Viracocha. Don’t be afraid. You will win many battles and will become a great leader”.
All these promises came true. Pachacutec became a great Inca Emperor, who transformed the city of Cusco and built Machu Picchu. Even now, on the main square of Cusco, you can see his golden statue, with a Golden Disk on his chest.
After Pachacutec’s death, the magical device stayed in Qoricancha (or Coricancha in other transliterations) up until Aramu Muru escaped with it. Moving south and hiding in the mountains, he finally reached the Hayu Marca region. There, he met a group of Inca priests who were the guardians of the Gate of the Gods. During a ceremony performed at the Gate, Aramu Muru placed the Golden Disk into the “keyhole” on the door. Unexpectedly, the Disk opened the Portal. Aramu Muru walked into it, never to be seen again. Since the original name of the Portal is unknown, based on this legend, it acquired the name of Aramu Muru.
This legend is further supported by the fact that no matter how the Spanish tried, they could never find the legendary Disk. It disappeared without a trace.
The Rumors Among the Locals
Before we saw Aramu Muru with our own eyes, we somehow thought that it was far in the mountains, away from civilization. This is not true. There are villages all around the legendary Gate. The surrounding vegetable fields are slowly creeping closer and closer.
But there are many rumors among the locals that the place becomes active at night, even now. The villagers talk about strange lights around the Portal and tall shiny figures moving towards Lake Titicaca. There have apparently been cases of strange disappearances through the years, including children. The local Quechua and Aymara people are afraid of the Gate and don’t let their children near it.
As it often happens, people worship what they fear. Every year, on winter solstice (in June), they hold a great celebration. A shaman sacrifices a llama on a stone in front of the Gate, the locals drink, dance and pray. They believe, the Gate of the Gods is indeed a portal to a different dimension, a gateway to the spirit world and the realm of the gods.
The Energy of Aramu Muru
They say, the best way to feel the energy of Aramu Muru is to walk into the doorway, spread your arms and press your hands onto the opposite side walls. Then lean towards the back wall, touching the circular “keyhole” with your belly. Some say, after standing like this for a while, they achieve a connection and start seeing stars, columns of fire and hearing weird rhythmic music. I didn’t hear anything, to be honest. All I could feel was the dampness and coldness of the silent stone and smell bird poop. There are a lot of birds nesting in the folds of the sacred door. Puerta de Hayu Marca didn’t open for me…
But even though I couldn’t connect to the otherworld, I must admit that the whole location definitely possesses strong spiritual energy. I sat on the stones for a long time, thinking about the secrets it contains.
CHECK OUT SOME MORE FASCINATING THEORIES ABOUT ARAMU MURU
At the end of your visit, don’t leave without taking a walk around the neighboring hills. There are several hiking trails through the surrounding forest of red granite rock crests. They are really unusual and fairytale-like and form natural grottos, arches, bridges and even sculptures! Hiking there might be quite challenging due to lots of ups and downs, but it’s utterly rewarding.
How to Get To Aramu Muru from Puno
There are plenty of tours, both shared and private, but I hear a lot of complaints that the tour guides don’t dedicate quite enough time to Aramu Muru.
I think, the best way to visit is by yourself, because you can be free to take your time and enjoy Aramu Muru as long as you’d like. To get there is easy: first you need to find the Terminal Zonal of Puno.
Here it is on the map:
The terminal is the departure point of all the regional colectivos (shared minibuses) going south. Just ask around for a colectivo passing through “Aramu Muru”. Show it on the map if the driver doesn’t understand. Finally you will locate the right car. The cost is 5 soles.
Aramu Muru is situated along Highway 3S, the same highway that runs to the Bolivian border. I was using the GPS on my phone to make sure we were on the right track. But if you don’t have GPS, just pay attention to the town signs. You will pass a rather big town called Ilave. Then, about 20 minutes later you pass a village called Santiago Mucho. Right after, you will see some strange rock formations and a gravel road on the right hand side. That’s where the colectivo will stop to let you out. Follow the road and in about five minutes you will reach your destination. There are a couple of local ladies selling souvenirs and a small hut with a rather bored security guard. It costs 5 soles to enter.
When you are ready to go, simply go out to the road and flag a colectivo (some tour vans will also stop to give you a lift).
The Fertility Temple
If you have some time on your way back, hop off in a village called Chuchuito, the home of an interesting Fertility Temple, Inca Uyo. There, across the ancient stone floor, you will see a lot of phallic symbols of all shapes and sizes. Even though it was proved to be a hoax (they were added to the temple in the modern times to attract tourists), it’s a curious place to visit. We surely had a ton of laughs and didn’t regret stopping by!
If you are planning to go from Peru to Bolivia, there is one more reason to stay in Puno. Most of the tourists from other countries can enter either visa-free, or they have to organize their visas in advance in their country of residence.
When I was looking for the info about the US citizens, there were several places online that stated that you can either apply at the Bolivian embassy or simply get your visa at the border, provided that you have all the necessary documents:
- 6 month validity remaining on your passport
- 2 copies of passport information page (there are comments that sometimes they want color copies, so make both kinds just in case)
- 2 passport photos
- Evidence of a hotel reservation
- Detailed printed itinerary of your time in Bolivia (they are pretty picky about this one, so do write it up day by day
- Exit ticket out of Bolivia
- Photocopy of bank statement (in our case, after some persuasion, copies of the front of our credit cards were accepted)
- Special immigration application form. Has to be printed, the hand-written applications are not accepted
- US $160 per person in cash. The notes have to be in perfect condition. The officials literally study them under a microscope, so when preparing the money, ask your bank for newer crispier bills.
Of course, we had it all! However, due to some unrest in Bolivia at that time, Peru Hop decided not to cross at the usual border in Copacabana. Instead, they went to the border at a small village called Desaguadero. This nearly cost us our trip to Bolivia!
There is usually not so much traffic through this border. So, when we arrived, we were told there is no officer on premises who is authorized to issue visas. We were being sent back to Puno! It took us about three hours of stress, persuasion and jumping through a million of hoops. Finally, with the help of all the Peru Hop staff we managed to get in… But then we asked ourselves a question: how could we have avoided this?
Here is the answer.
If you didn’t get your visa in your home country, you can pretty easily get it in Puno. The Bolivian embassy in Puno is located downtown, right next to the Plaza de Armas. You may spend half a day there, but your border crossing will be a breeze and the whole bus will not be angry with you for having to wait! 😉
Here is the address of the Bolivian Embassy in Puno: Cajamarca 664, Puno 21001, Peru.
Where we stayed and in Puno
Puno is not as spoiled by tourists as Cusco, so the accommodation prices are a quite a bit lower. We chose a very nice hotel called Sol Plaza and it had everything we wanted: an excellent breakfast, soft and comfortable beds and a squeaky clean bathroom. They also provide oxygen tanks if you start feeling bad.
As for the food, we were so tired from everyday activities that we decided not to look for anything special and had a pizza at a small place next to the hotel. For some reason, there are a lot of good pizza places in Puno!
So, after two productive days in Puno, Peru, we were quite ready to explore a new-to-us country, Bolivia!
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2 thoughts on “What to Do in Puno, Peru: Lake Titicaca, Uros Floating Islands, the Portal of Aramu Muru and a Better Way to Get Your Bolivian Visa”
the reed boats on the lake are the same reed boat the Egyptians built. Interesting transfer of boat building skills
Truly! How could they know if supposedly there was no communication. Someone must have taught all of them.