If you get on a boat on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, you're almost guaranteed to stop at the world famous Uros floating islands. Only a 20 minute ride from Puno, these islands are the most popular stop on the lake. I'll admit, I was curious to check it out – what exactly is a floating island? After visiting them, I think they would be better off sinking.
That's a little harsh. I was actually pretty fascinated by the ingenuity and functionality of these islands.
Uros islands are made of many layers of reeds and reed beds, free to float in the lake and attached only to the sea bottom by a handmade rope tied to a rock. Almost everything on the island is made out of reeds – houses, beds, chairs, boats, etc. They even eat the reeds! Originally built as a refuge from hostile cultures on the mainland, people have been living on these man-made islands for over 500 years.
Unique, interesting, impressive – yes. Responsible tourist destinations – no. A visit to the islands feels more like a cross between a poverty tour and a time-share sales pitch. 30+ floating islands are tied together, side-by-side, each with their inhabitants waving frantically at passing boats to encourage a visit to their pad. Boat captains decide on an island, and drop off passengers for a 20-minute stop. If passengers are lucky (or if they paid top dollar), there is a short presentation on the history of the islands. And then the real purpose of the visit – high-pressure sales of “local” wares. Visitors are invited into the homes of islanders and shown handicrafts, garments, blankets, trinkets, and other souvenirs. Guides, boat captains, and locals are almost forceful in requesting that guests buy these items, siting that this is islanders' only source of income. After kicking out some cash, tourists are loaded back on the boats and swept off to other islands.
Now, I am the first person to encourage travelers to support poor communities by purchasing their crafts and clothing. The problem with Uros is that there is a complete lack of authenticity on these floating islands, and that doesn't deserve my support. Roughly 30% of “islanders” actually live on the islands – the rest just boat out to them from Puno in the early mornings. The wares sold on the islands are rarely produced on the islands, but rather in Puno, or worse yet, across the border in Bolivia. On the islands, many reed structures have been built (arches, viewing platforms, shrines) only to attract tour boats. The visit is short and superficial, encourages no interaction aside from sales, and is an inaccurate representation of the people, lifestyles, and culture of what Uros used to be. And, I hate being guilted into buying things!
Despite all of my criticisms of Uros, the Peruvians are still doing better than their Bolivian neighbors. A stop to some floating islands during the return ride from Isla del Sol (Bolivia's most popular Titicaca island) is a disheartening experience. These “islands” are simply wood planks covered by a layer of reeds, and held up by plastic buoys. Talk about a lack of authenticity. At least no one was claiming to live on them.
Fortunately, there are some floating islands on Lake Titicaca that still preserve the traditional way of life. Visiting them is difficult and expensive, but perhaps that's a good thing.
High volume community tourism is a very difficult and delicate balancing act. Have you got the islands of Lake Titicaca on your bucket list? Here's what you might expect from a local homestay.
The Yanapana Foundation is a local NGO dedicated to supporting the communities along the Salkantay Trek, and many of its projects are focused on small business development for women-run cooperatives.