The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands

Maybe it was because we had such a good time in the Colca Canyon. Maybe it was because I ended up so sick that we had to spend substantial cash to change our flights and travel plans back to Ecuador and missed one stop on our vacation. Maybe it is because I live with a gorgeous ocean view and have become spoiled. In any event, Lake Titicaca was the low point on an otherwise spectacular trip to Peru.

Sunrise Over the Lake

Sunrise Over the Lake

Lake Titicaca’s fame, apart from a name that sounds naughty, is as the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,725 feet (3,856 meters) above sea level. It forms a natural separation between Peru and Bolivia. The main tourist attractions are visiting the floating Uros Islands and one of the solid islands known for the handicrafts produced there. Puno is the main Peruvian city on the lake and we knew not to expect much from it. So we booked two nights in a nice hotel and planned to spend our full day on a tour to see the Uros Islands and Taquile Island.

Hotel Libertador

Our Oasis – Hotel Libertador

My highpoint of our stay came that first night. The Peruvian elections were the next day and we remembered that alcohol sales are prohibited beginning the afternoon prior to the election until the afternoon after the election. Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work for us native Wisconsinites. After confirming that the hotel also couldn’t sell alcohol (although we could have broken into the over-priced mini-bar), we were on a mission. We had some other errands to run and then asked the cab driver if he knew somewhere we could buy alcohol. He named the major grocery chain and we explained that his country’s laws didn’t permit alcohol sales. Clearly the man wasn’t a drinker, because he assured us we were wrong. To be agreeable, we dashed into the store to confirm our knowledge and asked him for a Plan B. He thought a moment and took us to the city market – a multi-block, sprawling affair – dropped us off on the corner where he would wait, and directed us to a store a block down and to the left. We set off and were overwhelmed by a typical, Peruvian market of chaos -food, clothes, sundries, probably some live chickens had we looked hard enough. We backtracked after a few rows and then realized we needed to get a grip. This was nothing new for us and we speak the language. After asking the cell phone vendor where to buy booze, we were given the same directions and found a corner stall doing a booming and obvious business. We bought a bottle of wine for each night’s dinner and were on our way. That night at the hotel restaurant, I brought the wine in my handbag and asked the waiter if they were able to open and serve it to us. He was very gracious and assured us it was no problem, but then tried mightily to get us to give up our seller. He told us how incredibly high the fines were and that he couldn’t believe we found anywhere to buy it. I couldn’t decide if he wanted to turn the vendor in or stop and buy a bottle for himself! (Yes, I recognize that this highpoint says something about me, but apart from being happy to have wine to enjoy with our dinner, the highpoint came from the fact that we actually knew about this law and could navigate everything in Spanish. It made us feel like we really had lived in Peru once upon a time.)

The next day we headed to the pier for our trip on the lake. We soon realized that we had paid way too much by booking in advance, but we got over that pretty quickly. We were ushered onto a speedboat that was closed and comfortable, particularly when compared to the Galapagos ferries. We were excited for our trip as we headed to the first stop, the Uros Islands.

Our excitement started to wane when we reached the islands about 20 minutes later. Island after island had the same scene – reed houses, a tower, a traditional boat, solar panels and colorfully garbed ladies trying to flag down our boat.

The floating ATM was a dead giveaway of the shakedown yet to come.

ATM

ATM

We eventually stopped at Khana Marka Mayku and disembarked on the squishy reed island. It was like a moon walk at a county fair. A bit unsteady, we were herded to the communal area where we were introduced to the family that lived on this tiny island and greeted with a song.

The traditional garb was bright and colorful, the people were smiling and friendly and the overview of life on the island was interesting. We learned that the island is made by first hacking though the reeds to turn them into reed-root blocks that are tied together to form the base of the island. Layers of fresh reeds are placed on top and fortified every few months with new reeds tossed on top to counteract the decay. The islands are secured to the bottom of the lake so they don’t float away, but can be up-anchored and moved. Family units live together on the islands and have communal cooking, eating and living areas and private sleeping areas. The government provided solar panels, but there was some concern over what the monthly charges would be as they hadn’t been disclosed. There were two island schools – one public and one run by Seventh Day Adventists – and a soccer field. Families rotate which islands are open for tourism.

We learned that the families mainly eat fish, birds and reeds in addition to what they buy with the money from sale of these items and the tourism trade. We were invited to try the reeds and assured by our guide that they were safe to eat. Given my subsequent illness, I think I should have passed on the reeds.

After the demonstrations and information came the sales pitch. First the women showed their lovely textiles. I am a sucker for textiles and was prepared to buy one or two to support the local economy. Before that happened, we were separated into small groups and “invited” into a home by one of the women. This is where the hard sell occurred as we were shown each of her wares and pressured to buy. It gave me flashbacks to being 20 and locked into an upper room by a Moroccan rug merchant! This time, I had cash and was happy to make a few purchases to spring our early release.

After everyone had bought a suitable amount of souvenirs, we were invited for a ride (at an extra cost) on one of the traditional boats. Most of us gamely climbed on board and Matt and I secured an upper deck seat. They women sent us off with a song and a cheesy “Hasta la vista, Baby!” shout.

Once on deck, 8-year old Israel and his pouty, 3-year-old sister Rosa made their way up top to entertain us. He told me about taking a boat to school, what he studied and pointed out the floating soccer field. He was sweet and cheerful while his sister was a terror who spent most of her time punching him. I couldn’t imagine living on an island with that little monster and wondered how harmonious their island life was. Israel ended with a song after which he and his sister hit us up for money. We complied but were later told by other tourists that they were specifically instructed by their tour organizer to not give money to the children. While I understood, I would have felt worse not giving money to Israel and a few bucks wasn’t going to matter to us while it might to them.

We were dropped off on another island for a short, low pressure shopping stop before heading to Taquile Island, about a 2 hour boat ride away. The Uros Islands were interesting, but the staged, orchestrated affair had none of the charm of our home stay in Sibayo. In Sibayo we were also offered goods for sale, but we did not feel the shake down of the island, nor were the children used to beg from us. We also were unclear: how much of this Uros lifestyle we saw was genuine and how much for our benefit? Matt and I were already toured out for the day and hoped Taquile would be a better experience as we settled in for the boat ride there.

2 thoughts on “The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands

  1. Ha! Looks like we had a similar experience. Annie reckons Uros was the world’s first offshore tax haven! They claimed they got nothing from the government, but another Peruvian pointed out that the islanders don’t pay tax. Maybe that’s changed. I was always thinkingvwhere their toilets were……. ? Great blog as usual, Peter.

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