I could have left Lake Titicaca on November 5th feeling satisfied — nay, overjoyed — with our time there. So far, Zoe and I had stayed in a unique and beautiful lakeside hotel, and explored the colorful and rural areas surrounding it. But there was another treat awaiting us — catching the final, jubilant day of celebrations for Puno Week. The day’s main event was a procession honoring Manco Cápac — who appearantly rose from the depths of the lake to found the Inca empire — with a procession from the floating islands of Uros to the harbor of Puno, followed by your typical festival trappings like parades, dancing, fair food, and llama sacrifices.
What? Are you telling me llama sacrifices are not part of the typical fair fun in your hometown?
Like so many truly worthwhile travel activities, this one required a criminally early morning wake up. Our early arrival left time to visit the floating Uros Islands prior to the start of the procession — a must-do for any visitor to Lake Titicaca. We did things a little differently than usual, though. Rather than join one of the cheap tour groups leaving from Puno Harbor, Titilaka arranged a private boat to take us to the Uros Islands and then shadow the Manco Cápac procession, all for a mere $25US each.
It was an affordable luxury, but we were quick to learn one of the downsides — none of the islands wanted us! They were much more eager to welcome large tour groups with multiple potential handicrap-buyers, rather than just us two. Finally we did find a family willing to host us, but the buying pressure was strong.
Uncomfortable shopping pressure aside, it was an unbelievable experience. Just walking on these squishy, man-made reed islands was a trip — they really had some bounce! The islands were originally formed by the Uros people hoping to escape their aggressive neighbors and avoid paying taxes, and eventually developed into a vibrant floating community.
Skeptics say that the islands are no longer truly inhabited, and that the so-called residents arrive by boat from the mainland every morning and put on the show in order to keep the tourists happy (and buying). I have to say certain evidence did seem to point that way — there was no food or evidence of recent cooking in the “kitchen,” and the bedrooms showed no possessions whatsoever — not even a single change of clothes. That didn’t dampen my experience, as regardless of realities of today, this is at the very least a living history museum of the Uros islands of yesterday.
Plus, we got to dress up in fun outfits. Travel win!
Next up was the main event — the aqua-parade towards Puno Harbor. The methodical beating of drums was punctuated by the occasional blow of a low-register shell horn, setting the rhythm for the snail-like movements of the endless procession of reed boats. It truly sent a chill down my spine to be in the middle of it.
The procession was long and slow and eventually the narrow channel of the harbor forced us to pull behind, followed by the coast guard pushing us at bay as we crept closer to the harbor. But those moments when we were right in the heat of it will not leave me anytime soon — it was the explosion of sound and color and light and tradition that every traveler dreams of finding on their wanderings.
It wasn’t over when we reached Puno. At the harbor, the crowd welcomed reenactment actors wild applause and enthusiasm, and a party that was already in full swing. Paparrazi-like photographers swarmed around the brightly-costumed Manco Capac incarnate as he made enthusiastic speeches in Quechua. Anxious to get in on the action, we bid adios to our boat driver and hopped onto the pier and into a throbbing crowd, pulsing around a lively parade.
Having planned our itinerary expressly to include this celebration, I was surprised to count less than ten Westerners in the throngs of people we slowly pushed our way through. We eventually gathered around the main stadium, where we stood baking in the sun and drowning in the sweat of the people next to us. Though we couldn’t follow much of what was going on, we did understand what was up when we saw a baby llama being paraded in front of the crowd.
As soon as we saw blood we decided we’d had enough.
We walked around the lively fair-like grounds for a while, sampling treats like churros (delicious) and a pink-foam-like dessert (atrocious) for just a few pesos each. We were both chastised by cranky locals for brandishing our cameras, hence the lack of photographic evidence.
Eventually, the heat got the better of us and we decided to head back to our hostel for a quick shower before checking out the parades in the city center. However, we quickly concluded that our pedi-cab driver was abusing some sort of substance, as he refused to return my map and instead gleefully drove us directly into the heart of the parade, down streets that were very clearly closed to all but pedestrians. We were mortified, but the kids we displaced were more than thrilled to ham it up for the camera in my lap.
We eventually exited the pedi-cab doubled over in laughter, and at that point decided to ride out our festive moods and enjoy as much of the parade as we could until our exhaustion got the better of us.
We stopped often to watch the kidlets twirl with various degrees of enthusiasm in their colorful costumes. The dance troupes got older throughout the day, ending with the most elite adult groups, but we cut out somewhere around pre-teens for a shower and a nap back at the hostel.
When we emerged around dinner time, we found a restaurant with a view of the plaza so we could watch from a lazily seated position. Though things were meant to wrap up officially around six, it was pushing ten when we made our way to bed and the streets were still pulsing with life.
If a photo of a festival is worth a thousand words, I think each second of video must be worth about a million. Many thanks to my temporary assistant Anders for cutting together this video for me — he’s a fantastic editor (and cheap too — he only charged me one sandwich!)
Celebrating Puno Day was one of the highlights of my visit to Peru. I hope after virtually coming along with me, you can understand why!
Do you seek out festivals when you travel? What’s the best one you’ve ever attended?