In a previous post about a visit to Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca, I mentioned the difficulty in finding local experiences (or at least, “cultivated local experiences”) while avoiding outright tourist traps. In my opinion, Taquile Island ultimately can somewhat be described as the former; however, the same can’t be said of the Uros Islands. Unfortunately, I believe that they fall firmly into the latter.
Uh oh – Was it that bad?
Don’t get me wrong – I thought it was pretty neat to have an opportunity to visit such a unique place and to get a tiny glimpse into a way of life I had never heard of before. At the same time, though, the experience left me feeling like I had just participated in something that wobbles dangerously close to the human zoo concept.
What, exactly, are the Uros Islands?
There are about 70 islands that make up Uros. The people who live here, they and their ancestors have lived on Lake Titicaca for centuries. They live on islands made from totora reeds, which grow in the lake. Every three months, the reeds at the bottom of the islands rot away, so fresh reeds are constantly added to the top. Only two to 10 families tend to live on each island. The islands technically are not floating because the roots of the reeds are anchored to the lake bed by ropes and stakes. However, if deemed necessary, the supports can be removed to allow the island to float to a new spot!
What was a visit like to an Uros Island?
When our boat pulled up to an island, the people greeted us with waves and fake smiles. Stepping onto the island was a little disconcerting as the reeds were fairly springy. After we settled down in the centre of the island, we were given a demonstration of how the island was built and an explanation of island life. I wasn’t convinced that the local people actually do live on the islands to the extent that they used to in the past. However, perhaps some still do as the islands have modern amenities such as solar panels and motor boats.
We’d arrived to Uros mid-afternoon which meant the men and children were at home. According to our guide, the men tend to hunt/fish in the morning and the children have school. Six families in total lived on the island we visited. After the demonstration, we had the “opportunity” to buy handicrafts. Again, I wasn’t convinced that the stuff was made by the ladies of the island because it was the same textiles I’d seen in other places. Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything.
We were also offered a ride on a traditional reed boat. It was a pretty neat experience but we didn’t go far and it only lasted about 10 minutes. Before we were paddled back to the island, the guy who took our group out shook us all down for a tip. It left a sour taste in my mouth. He went up to each person, one by one, and once some coins were forked over, he stood there and counted it in front each person! It was incredibly rude.
How to Make your trip to Uros Islands Palatable
There really isn’t anything you can do. It is a tourist trap, one that almost reminds me of a human zoo/museum. It was all very awkward, fake, and a shakedown of the so-called gullible rich tourist. However, if you do want go after seeing the pretty photos on the internet, I don’t blame you. I, myself, was curious and drawn in by those same photos!
I do suggest getting your own photos as soon as you arrive on an island, before everyone spreads out and the island turns into a shopping market. Also bring loose change for the boat ride which is not anything special, other than gaining the opportunity to say you’ve ridden in a totora reed boat. Finally, I suggest going to Uros Islands in the afternoon if photography is important to you – the harsh sun out on Lake Titicaca gives better light at that time. Other than that, um…enjoy?