I don’t know about you, but finding the balance between seeking out local experiences and avoiding tourist traps can be hard. Especially when most of us are “just” tourists when we leave home and may not have friends/family in the places to which we travel. For us, it can be very difficult to avoid “cultivated experiences” as we’re generally not privy to opportunities that would allow us to just insert ourselves into a community’s life.
I always have this thought when I travel to an area where the culture is very different from my Western/North American life. I find it fascinating to see how other people live, learning about their history and traditions, and getting that re-affirmation that my way of life is just one of many. Sometimes I think I may have missed my calling as an anthropologist…
A tourist’s visit to Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca, Peru can avoid “tourist trap” levels but it is still a “cultivated local experience”. While the fact that the community on Taquile is in complete control of the tourist experience is a great one, you can’t get away from the fact that they still will only be showing you a tiny sanitized fraction of their way of life. So while I do recommend a visit Taquile, recognize that you’ll only see the superficial and this is a crafted experience put on by local people who are essentially running a business.
A Little Bit about Taquile
Taquile lies 45km offshore Puno in the Lake Titicaca and is home to over 2000 people. The island itself is pretty small as it is only an area of 5.72km2. The highest point on the island is 4050m above sea level, so it is possible to feel the effects of altitude while here!
There are two things I found interesting about Taquile. The first is that they have developed a community-based sustainable tourism system, one that ensures funds stay on the island rather than ending up in non-Taquile hands. Their tourist offerings include home stays, cultural activities, items for sale, etc. Their general economy is also community-based, including prices for things being set by the community.
The other thing I found interesting about Taquile is that in 2005, the island and its textile art were declared “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Taquile’s residents are famous for their high quality hand woven textiles and handicrafts. Interestingly enough, knitting is performed fairly exclusively by the male population and the female population takes care of spinning and dying wool as well as weaving. Yet more evidence that gender norms are totally a social construct…
My Experience on Taquile
Our trip to Taquile started with a boat ride across Lake Titicaca, a pretty sight as the deep water glittered in the sun. Wanting to feel the wind in my face, I climbed to the roof of the boat, spending about 20 minutes. I enjoyed the solitude, the wind, the strong sun, and the fact I was finally on Lake Titicaca, something I’d wanted to do since high school Spanish class.
Soon enough, we arrived at the shores of Taquile. We meandered a well-maintained stone path, passing by several small farms. It was all very idyllic and beautiful but I couldn’t help thinking that this must be a tough life both because farming is always tough, and because of the constant influx of gawking tourists.
Eventually, we arrived at a house where we met about eight or so local people – we all shook hands before sitting down to our “cultivated local experience”. The fun part was learning about their weaving and knitting traditions, learning about the natural plants they use in everyday life (building materials, a toothbrush plant, a plant use as detergent, plants used for natural medicines, etc), and learning the meanings behind the hats all males wear (white hats for boys up to age five, red hat for married men, another when single or widowed, and rainbow hats when someone is a leader/ex-leader).
Then came the not so fun part of the cultivated local experience, one that threatened to take it to “tourist trap” levels: music and dance. They played us traditional music and did a traditional dance, all while wearing semi-traditional clothes (one guy had a hat that had fake long braids attached to it, for some reason, others had fake feathers in neon colours). To my dismay, after they did an example of a traditional dance, they started pulling tourists up to join them! Initially, I thought I’d escaped but as the dance was in a circle, one of the pan flute players yanked me up as he came around a second time. I think my sister had fun laughing at me and taking photos, none of which I’ll show you, lol.
After the painful dance was over, our hosts set up a little display of textiles and handicrafts for sale. All were made on the island by various families. They weren’t cheap and the price is set by the community so there really isn’t much bargaining to be had. However, it is cheaper than buying the textiles or handicrafts on the mainland and also, you know that your money is going to the artist directly when you buy on Taquile. Same idea for eating on the island – you know the money is going to the family who hosted you. In return, you get to witness the performance of a traditional prayer and to eat a traditional lunch (seasoning isn’t high on the list so while very fresh, it was also bland).
Do I recommend a Trip to Taquile?
If you’re in the area of Lake Titicaca, I do recommend coming out to Taquile. Just understand that it is a “cultivated local experience” and all you’re getting is a seriously superficial look at a unique culture and way of life. I do recommend going with a small company or on your own to minimize the “fake”. Also, remember to find the pretty archway and admire the sparkling deep blue lake – and if you’re lucky, a clear day will also reveal snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake!