Puno, Peru: visiting the unique floating islands on Lake Titicaca
If you’re going to Arequipa from Copacabana via bus, you’ll have to change at Puno, so you may as well make a day of it and stay at least one night, maybe two. Puno is a small but vibrant town on Lake Titicaca, and although its fame comes from the nearby floating islands of the Uros, the town itself makes for a very pretty stay (whilst not being too marred by tourism).
Visiting the Floating Islands of Los Uros
The Uros are a fascinating community who first started building islands out of blocks of reeds packed together in the middle of the world’s biggest navigable lake in order to escape the pillaging of the fearsome Incas. To this day, their islands are still made in the same way, as are their huts, though they have managed to modernise with the installation of solar panels and motor-powered boats. The people of Los Uros are only around 30-40 minutes from shore, so they have regular contact with outside cultures regardless of tourism.
Still, we were torn as to whether we would go and visit the Uros islands. Visiting indigenous tribes is usually both a tourist trap and a human zoo, exploiting people on both sides of the transaction. However, after talking to other people we met on the road that had been, we were reassured that it wasn’t a circus show. We were offered tickets for a boat ride plus visit to a family island for only 25 pesos from the bus driver on our way from Copacabana, so took the plunge. At least in the low season, the place is in no way overrun with tourists, and we didn’t feel cringey being there.
Each boat company goes to a different island, each island being run by a family with 5-7 huts, so nowhere gets overwhelmed. When you arrive on the island, you are shown around by the family themselves, after they demonstrate how they built their island using reeds. Although the families do get a cut from the boat company, they also take this opportunity to eagerly show you their wares on sale – blankets, jewellery, scarves, wooden statues; you name it. You are then offered a ride on a traditional boat to the next island for an additional 10 soles each. The next island is more of a communal one, which is run by several different families and includes a small coffee shop and several shops for handmade souvenirs.
For the equivalent of £5 it was very good value for us, and we didn’t get any impression that the community resent or feel embarrassed by us being there; they were extremely friendly and proud to teach people how they live. That being said, we were very selective with the kinds of photos we took; not wanting to intrude by sticking cameras in kids’ faces or through people’s windows.