Lake Tetecaca, Peru: Tourist Trap or Freedom?

On the collectivo boat to Isla Tanquile, the mood is mixed. It's the cheapest option, so while half of the boat is filled with nervous travelers, the other passengers are local Peruvians who either live out on the island or in the port city of Puno. The locals lackadaisically gaze out past the golden reeds floating atop the impossibly blue lake water. They somehow look comfortable and demure in the starched and neon-colored traditional clothing they wear--the men in formal black and white with a floppy triangle hat, the women in a-line skirts and long black shawls. They use their clothing as natural props against the unusually strong sun, but they are unfazed by the high altitude that is currently affecting the foreigner side of the boat. 

Only a few of us foreigners speak Spanish, so when we stop at the Uros Floating Islands, there is some confusion. The locals stay on the boat while the foreigners are ushered onto the crunchy--not entirely solid--reeds that make up the islands. Each layer of reeds becomes cracked and wet each time someone steps on it, forcing the families that live on them to replace each layer every three months to prevent sinking into the freezing cold water. Still, that doesn't stop our boat captain from sitting us down on stacks of rough reeds, because we are going to learn about their way of life (like the difference between "traditional" houses vs. "modern" houses: square vs. circular shapes of reeds, respectively). At the end of the speech, well-choreographed women storm in, claiming 2-3 foreigners for themselves and taking us to their individual huts. 


"This is my home," says the woman, holding back the curtain to her reedy one bedroom, furnished with one mattress, a pile of blankets, and a government-made calendar. The curtain closes after just a moment, the tour having ended. She continues her memorized syllables: "These are the crafts I make. What do you want to buy?"

She wants 100 soles ($33 USD) for a blanket that is sold for 30 soles ($10 USD) on the mainland. I quietly escape back to the boat captain. "This is the boat to Isla Tanquile, isn't it?" I ask. He smiles and says we will leave for the island in a few minutes after "purchases have been made." I use my background as a jaded New Yorker, a thrifty backpacker, and the fact that I look so young and poor to allow myself to escape without too much pressure from the Uru people. The other foreigners are forced to buy pillowcases, small recreations of llamas, and blankets that they don't want to the cries of "you buy for my family" and "I need food for my family". 

This site claims tourism is only a fraction of the artificial islands' incomes, and men are not seen on the island because they are fishing all day. I, however, saw an equal number of men and women...and a surprisingly small number of children. Do they actually live on these islands? Do they make enough money off tourists alone to live quietly with electricity, schools, and developed hospitals? Does this lifestyle, originally conceived to avoid slavery from the Incas and abuse from the Spanish, still exist because the people actually want to sustain it? Or have visiting tourists unwittingly enacted a modern version of incarceration upon these people, who will continue to live without many modern conveniences, and limited means, and an underwhelming education because their current lifestyle is what brings in their livelihood? 

Laden with over-priced craftsmanship, we finally were allowed to leave for Tanquile Island. The locals, still waiting patiently on the boat, were fully accepting of the fact that this detour was a way of life on their journey home. It it a necessity that happens on the way to Tanquile Island, so that tourists can support the Uru people on their highly impractical, but absurdly beautiful, islands.