A trip that made my heart sink: the floating islands of Uros, Peru

The floating islands culture of Uros is a unique settlement in Peru, stemming from when the local people set out onto Lake Titicaca to escape other warring peoples. They created boats, and eventually entire islands and houses out of buoyant totora reeds that grow rapidly in the lake, and today there are over 80 islands on the lake, anchored to the bed of Titicaca so they don’t float all the way to Bolivia. Every two weeks, the people chop more reeds and carpet the entire island again, continually replenishing the top as the reeds rot away on the bottom.

The soft, white base of the reeds are also edible, apparently a little like banana, although we tourists weren’t recommended to try it, as it can be rather a powerful laxative for the uninitiated.

We heeded the warning of other reviewers and our guide book that the Uros islands have been shockingly commercialised, so we arranged a one day tour of Uros through our hostel for 25 Soles each, hoping this to be less exploitative all round. This included pickup and dropoff at our hostel, and entry to the Uros islands.

Here’s how it went down. First island: nice impression. Ladies and children ran to meet our boat, saying welcome and helping us onto the islands. We then sat down and had a short but interesting talk about how the islands were created and what they do to maintain them.

After that we had free time, where we were taken by the hand by the ladies and kids and invited into their homes to see how they constructed their houses out of reeds etc. It started to get touristy when our lady insisted on us putting on traditional clothing and having our photos taken all dressed up. This kind of thing just doesn’t appeal to me and nearly always makes me feel tacky and awkward, but she seemed happy so we did it anyway.

Then came the hard sell. We were shown lots of handicrafts and beads etc and there was a lot of pressure to buy. I had already decided I liked the tapestries they wove about daily life and I bargained for one, eventually paying 60 Soles when they are 50 on the mainland (although probably machine-made). She originally asked for 100! Ah, gringo prices…  This island was very friendly, though, and the kids were sweet, maybe trying to ‘cute’ us out of more money, but whatever, it was fun.

Next we were taken to another island. We had the option of going in the boat we’d come on, or using a reedboat built by the local people. We paid another 10 Soles each (!) for a ride on this boat, but it was just shunted along by a motorboat behind it. No-one with us to explain anything or talk about the craft or the area, it was a bit of a waste of money really.

Second island: Dear oh dear. This is where we got bored. The purpose of this island was apparently nothing more than to sell food and drink to tourists. I don’t think anyone actually lived there. The other three people in our group bought something to eat but we wanted to save our money so we just got water. Our guide had totally lost interest by this point and wandered off behind the bar of one of the cafes, chatting to the owner and saying nothing to us. We then proceeded to wait for nearly an hour, not getting any information, no-one talking to us, just waiting for the other guests to finish their food. We had an interesting talk among ourselves but we learnt nothing about Uros there. James had a wander a few minutes before we left and found a freshwater fish farm which he said looked interesting, but he was then called away, no-one showed it to us.

Then we were taken back by motor boat to the mainland.

In total, not counting the 75 Soles (!) we spent on souvenirs, this two hour trip cost us 80 Soles (just under £20) for two people – money which, on balance, could have been better spent elsewhere. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but bear in mind that our daily budget in Peru should be far less than it would be at home.

It is true that there is nothing quite like the floating islands culture elsewhere, but we came away feeling that we had been taken advantage of, that we had little impression of exactly how that culture is, and even worse, that we were just another boatload of tourists shunted in and out again, contributing nothing but gringo money. Tourism like this appears actually to weaken these indigenous cultures, rather than supporting them, and this was particularly galling when we had made effort not just to rock down to the port and jump on the next boat, but to try and make an informed choice, reading up and asking our hostel for advice.

True, I would rather give my money to a local artisan than pay a mainland shop’s overheads, but seriously, how much of the Uros culture will be left in five years? Or ten? The tourism exploitation argument is one that goes round and round…we all want a great travel experience, but at what price? Local people want to make a living, but at what price? Who’s exploiting who?

We have now visited Lake Titicaca from both sides of the Bolivia/Peru border, and our experience in Puno was far, far, better than our 24 hours in Copacabana. We may have come away from Uros with a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, but everyone we met, both on the islands and in the town itself, was friendly, smiley, and helpful – the polar opposite of Copa, so that’s something, I suppose. Whether all that proves is that they know which side their bread is buttered is up for debate, but I think the reason I haven’t been overwhelmed by either experience of Lake Titicaca is just that it has passed the tipping point. Barely anything we saw on Uros or Isla del Sol felt particularly close to “the real thing” and it makes me wonder if the writing is on the wall for traditional Titicaca culture.

 

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