How touristy is too touristy?

I make no claim to be the world’s most adventurous traveler. Most of my time in Latin America has been firmly on the gringo trail, and therefore it’s no surprise that most of the places I’ve been to have been pretty well discovered by tourism. And that’s fine – most places that are touristy are touristy for good reasons, such as stunning scenery, fascinating history, lively culture or beautiful architecture, and it’s no surprise that those sort of things draw crowds.

Puno harbour

Puno harbour

Cusco was a prime example of that – it’s probably the most touristy place I’ve been to, and loved it. But at the same time as being touristy, it’s clear that the city is a vibrant, living place that has a life and personality separate from tourism. My next stop in Peru was quite different, and had me wandering at what point does touristy become too touristy?

The main attraction of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca are the Uros floating islands, which were originally constructed by Uros indians as a way of keeping away from attacks by their much more numerous Aymara and Quechua neighbours. That reason to exist has long since died out, and in fact today the islanders have intermarried significantly with Aymara, to the extent that their own language has died out.

Many other travelers I’d met told me I should skip the islands, as I’d been told it comes across as a very fake cultural experience, and that the islands you visit only exist for the purposes of tourism. Still, I had a morning to kill in Puno on my way to Bolivia, so I decided to see for myself.

Harvesting reeds on Lake Titicaca

Harvesting reeds on Lake Titicaca

The islands themselves sit a few kilometres offshore from Puno, and are entirely constructed from the reeds that grow in the lake – the islands themselves are made of layers of reeds, and all the buildings as well. The boat trip out passes through fields of reeds, from where we could see islanders harvesting them (the reeds the islands are made of need to be continuously replaced as the ones at the bottom rot away), and soon we cruising through the islands, dozens of them, and we were passed by numerous smaller boats, all made out of reeds as well.

A very friendly welcome

A very friendly welcome

As we approached the island we would be stopping at, we were greeted by a group of smiling, waving islander women, in brightly coloured skirts. They helped us off and we were seated in a circle in the middle of the island (which was no more than twenty metres across) where we were given a talk by one of the men about how the islands were made, and how they survived on fishing and hunting lake birds. After the talk, we broke into smaller groups each accompanied by one of the women, who showed us their reed houses and then showed us the various handicrafts they had for sale.

Buildings made of reeds

Buildings made of reeds

It soon became clear that essentially the islands exist solely for and because of the tourists, which was quite weird. It felt a bit like the whole thing was just an elaborate show, put on for us, which was quite an uncomfortable feeling, and increased the guilt I felt for not buying any of the handicrafts on sale. But then something strange happened. As we headed off (sailing, on a reed boat to another island – yes, it had become clear that the reed boats were also part of the tourist spectacle), the women all came to the edge of the island, to sing songs to us, first one in Aymara, and then bizarrely, in English, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’. It really could not have been more cheesy. And yet, as they did so, the women were smiling and laughing and clearly enjoying themselves. There was none of the forced smiles (or worse, full on bored looks) I’ve seen elsewhere when I’ve come across various ‘cultural’ tourist attractions. Which got me thinking. Yes, the islands may not exist any more if it weren’t for us tourists, and yes, the whole spectacle was all clearly one big show. But at the same time, if it wasn’t for us tourists, these people would probably be much poorer, or have had to move to the mainland, and may well be leading far less happy lives, like many of the mainland indigenous people I’ve seen.

Singing goodbye

Singing goodbye

So is it so bad that it’s so touristy, almost a disneyfied experience? Or does the fact that the whole thing allows them to keep some of their centuries-old traditions make it all worthwhile? I must admit I started off the trip feeling very negative about it, but the obvious fun the women seemed to be having by the end swung it round for me. Has anyone else reading this been to the islands? What did you think?

You can see my photos of Puno & the Floating Islands here.

6 responses to “How touristy is too touristy?

  1. I visited the islands almost 20 yrs ago!! Hated Puno but the islands were great and really not touristy at all. Was a really genuine experience…But times move on…jonny x

  2. I went into it feeling the same way you did Geoff….and left feeling the same as you also. I was won over by their genuine smiles and how proud they seemed of their heritage. Yes, it was all for the tourists but, in the end, it felt like the least touristy thing we’ve done.

    J and I were just talking about touristy vs non-touristy as we now are traveling through a very touristy part of Turkey. Here I get a sense that tourists are tolerated, not enjoyed. We tourists exhibit behavior that is morally wrong to the locals, and yet they plunge ahead building resorts and attractions to make the most of the situation.

    I didn’t feel that way at all in S.America – perhaps because our moral codes aren’t too far apart?

    Good luck in Bolivia!

  3. Another interesting post Geoff.

    It made me think of the floating markets in Thailand. I was travelling slowly at the time and thought I’d stay overnight to avoid the crowds I’d been warned of. My guidebook didn’t list any hotels at any price for the town so I just had to wander the streets until I found a place that seemed aimed very much at Thai merchants – my bed was a thin matt on a beautifully varnished wooden bench with a traditional Thai pillow. In the morning the market felt completely authentic right up until the first coaches from Bangkok arrived. At that moment there was a huge rush as the locals made their exit (down the canals) with their shopping done and the market transformed in moments. Fruit and veg instantly disappeared to be replaced by t-shirts and tat

  4. Haha the island women waving us goodbye with “Hasta la vista, baby” will stay with me for a long time. But you’re right Geoff, I’m smiling thinking about it.

    Jonny, bizarrely, we even managed to have a good night out in Puno – cruising up and down the main street taking advantage of the various happy hours! I think it probably helped that our expectations of Puno had been set so low…

  5. I also found th Uros islands horribly touristy – We much preferred our homestay on the LLachon peninsula with our hosts Thomas and serafina and their family – such lovely people .
    Taquile was nicer than the Uros , again caters mainly for tourists, and here We witnessed tourists commiting the ultimate low – photographing a local funeral ???
    Admitted ,it was very picturesque, but this just seemed such an intrusion .

    • Really interesting post, I too hate touristy places but sometimes … there is indeed a reason for the crowds. About to head to Peru and reading your blog has been inspiring. Nicola, I would love to hear how you got in touch with Thomas and Serafina, I would also like to organize a homestay here…

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