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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.