With a dry, chilly climate – temperatures frequently fall below freezing in the winter nights of July and August – PUNO is just a crossroads to most travellers, 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 icy evenings. Yet the town is immensely rich in both living tradition as well as its fascinating pre-Columbian history. It's famed as the folkore capital of Peru and renowned throughout the Andes for its music and dance.
The Pukara culture emerged here some 3000 years ago leaving behind stone pyramids and carved standing stones, contemporaneous with those of Chavín 1600km further north but still high up in the Andes. The better-known Tiahuanuco 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 settlement was conquered by the Incas in the fifteenth century and when the Spanish arrived little more than one hundred years later they were soon to discover its wealth – both in terms of tribute-based agriculture and mineral exploitation based on a unique form of slave labour. 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.