The road between Cusco and Puno
There are two ways to travel to Puno, the main Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca – by air or by road.
The closest airport is in Juliaca, the capital of the province, situated 27 miles (43 km) from Puno (45 minutes by bus). Direct flights connect Juliaca with Lima and Cusco.
Most travelers go by bus. There are several good bus companies that operate the 250 miles (390 km) route between Cusco and Puno. The trip takes 8 hours, and some bus companies include stops at various interesting archaeological sites and little towns along the way.
What to see along the route
Located 12 miles from Cusco, Pikillaqta is a large Wari archaeological site.
The Wari was a major civilization that flourished in the central Andes of Peru and its coastal areas from about AD 500 to 1000.
The site was discovered in 1927 by Justo Román Aparicio, a native of the town, who excavated the complex. He found 40 little sculptures made of turquoise, that are now exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Cusco.
Pikillaqta may have been a religious and administrative center of the Wari. It was occupied from about 550 to 1100 AD; after that, it was abandoned, with much of its architecture incomplete. Fully carbonized beams and burnings on floors suggest it was deliberately set on fire.
The site is formed by a large patio and 18 niched halls, whose function was probably ceremonial as well as ritual, as they match up with other Wari sites.
Uncovered were burials with 4 nearly complete skeletons and 10 skulls. One male skeleton was aged 35–45, had a healed fracture from a blow to face, a cranium deformation and a gum disease. Out of the 10 skulls found, one had cranial deformation and another had three healed trepanations.
With no rivers in the area, the water was obtained from a lagoon situated one mile out of town. To bring it to Pikillaqta and its agricultural terraces and fields, canals, reservoirs and aqueducts were built.
The entrance fee is included in Boleto Turístico.
Situated 25 miles from Cusco, the village of Andahuaylillas is famous for the Andean Baroque church of San Pedro Apóstol, called the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Andes.’
Built by Jesuits in the 16th century over a pre-Columbian huaca (a sacred site), the church boasts a dazzling display of colorful murals of the Cusqueña Art School, a coffered painted ceiling of Mudéjar influence, and an ornate gold-leaf altar inside.
To merge the two different belief systems into one, the murals incorporated indigenous symbols and local characteristics – the beautifully decorated gold altar, for example, has Inti, the Inca Sun God on top, portrayed as a gold disc with rays and flames. Jesus is represented with brown skin, Mary and the other saints are dressed in colorful Quechua clothing. The entrance fee to the church is S/15.
Situated 70 miles from Cusco, Raqchi is an Inca archeological site sitting on a prominent ridge, that overlooks the surrounding valley.
The complex consists of several areas, each with a specific function, enclosed by a large dry moat and a 2.5 miles long perimeter wall.
The most prominent structure is the Temple of Viracocha, an enormous, two-story roofed structure that measures 302 by 84 feet. It consists of a central adobe wall of 60 to 65 feet in height, flanked on both sides by a row of eleven columns. The foundation is made from carved stones, the rest from adobe.
The temple is said to have been built to a deliberate design – on entering any of its two doorways, the passage is blocked by tall pillars that have to be walked around in a zig-zag manner. It was probably designed this way to express certain aspects of Inca cosmology.
Before the Spanish came, destroyed most of the site and built a catholic church on its remains, the Temple of Viracocha is believed to have had the largest single roof in the Inca empire, that stretched some 82 feet on each side.
On the eastern side of the complex, there are 152 round colcas set in parallel lines, each measuring 33 feet in diameter. These storehouses were used to hold grains as well as pottery, woven cloth and military equipment. Some of them have been reconstructed.
Enclosures or barracks form another sector, comprising of a total of 22 houses. The site contains an artificial lake, fed by a spring through two sets of stone fountains. The entrance fee is S/10.
Situated 120 miles from Cusco, the La Raya Pass is the highest point on the route, with views of Andean snow-capped peaks and glaciers in every direction.
Located at 14.000 feet, the pass marks the divide between the Puno and Cusco regions, it is the natural border between the two provinces.
The Pass is located in a typical natural zone known as puna. Puna is a type of grassland of the Andean Altiplano, whose flora mainly consists of ichu, Peruvian feathergrass used as fodder for alpacas and llamas, and fauna of llamas, alpacas and wild vicuñas.
Most bus companies make a toilet stop here; there is a small craft market on the side of the road.
Situated 180 miles from Cusco, Pukara is a small town and an ancient archeological site that dates back to 1,800 BC.
Composed of 9 pyramids of various shapes and sizes, it was an important administrative and religious center. There is a small museum located next to the Plaza de Armas that contains the pre-Inca clay artifacts and sculptures found on the site.
Pukara is known for the production of earth-colored pottery, and especially for the ceramic toritos (bulls), often seen perched on the roofs of Andean houses for good luck.
Their history comes with the arrival of the Spanish, when bulls became part of local festivals. In these festivals, the animals were decorated with bright colors, and to go wild, spicy powder was blown into their noses (that’s why they’re represented with their tongues out).
The little statues are often decorated with spirals that represent the spiral of life (a belief that what you give will come back to you), and are perched on roofs in pairs as a symbol of two opposites generating balance. They can be purchased at local markets.
Situated 27 miles from Lake Titicaca, Juliaca is the largest city and commercial center in Puno region. It sits at 12,549 ft above sea level, and has a population of 276,000.
Juliaca is known by many names – as ‘the city of winds’ due to its location on a high plateau, as ‘the city of contraband’ due to its cross-border trade of cigarettes, gasoline, tennis shoes and electronics, or, quite recently, as ‘the city of garbage’.
Juliaca is not recommendable to go, unless, of course, you’re a smuggler.