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Why you might want to think twice about Lake Titicaca

Written by Chris Bladon | 10th September 2018 |

Category: Opinion, Peru, Places

Peru lake titicaca unidentified women in traditional dresses welcome tourists in uros island

The world's greatest salespeople are on Lake Titicaca

“It’s not the price, I just don’t think the eye-popping primary colours and the disconcerting features of Viracocha would mesh harmoniously with the muted neutral tones of our small Georgian cottage in Hertfordshire.”

She wasn’t getting it.

“250 soles?” I shook my head. It might have seemed to her like I was testing her powers of negotiation to the limit, but I really didn’t want her metre-long weaving, impressive though it was. “225 soles and a free replica reed boat?” My neice might like the boat but “no gracias, lo siento”. I really did feel sorry – for her, for me and for the whole Uros experience. How on earth did we end up here?

“I made them all myself.” It was a claim I doubted and which did nothing to pique my interest. But the eyes held such an expression of forlorn hope so as to not so much tug at the heartstrings, but to positively yank them from their arteries. I think it was at this point that we both realised we’d gone down a dead end street and both needed a safe route by which to exit the situation with our dignity intact.

I thought of asking our guide, whose name has long since escaped the clutches of my memory, but whose prior advice lingered much longer. “These people are quite poor and tourism is their only means of income, so it would be wonderful if you’d like to buy something and have a ride in their boat”.

You little devil – it only dawns on me now that you were the warm up act.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

"The sun shone brightly, the wind whipped around my ears and the rhythm of the water hypnosited me - no lazy adjectives or pointless facts can capture that moment."

We were standing on one of the many floating tortura reed islands of the Uros archipelago. To the west rose the bland edifices of Puno, the defacto capital of Peruvian Lake Titicaca. It’s a place so out of keeping with the mesmerising Andean landscape. To the east was the expansive beauty of the crystal waters from whence we came. The day had started with the sublime and was now descending rapidly into the ridiculous.

There is a particular vocabulary usually applied to Lake Titicaca which seduces and intrigues. The waters are at once sapphire, sacred and shimmering. Its islands are tranquil, timeless and terraced. I can verify that these are all accurate, but fall short. Then there’s the obligatory fact that must always be wheeled out that (as you already know) Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world.

That too is accurate, but frankly who cares?

Has ever a fact so hopelessly failed to encapsulate the singular appeal of somewhere so special? All it does is hint that you should probably be prepared to encounter the effects of altitude sickness. I didn't give it a second thought during my time here. Please feel free to scoff the next time you read it. If we ever propose that as a reason to come here, then go ahead and shame us.

I find the adjectives of little help too. Necessary as they are to paint a picture, they too fail to properly describe the extraordinary sense of contentment which accompanied my early morning boat ride across the lake. The sun shone brightly, the wind whipped invigoratingly around my ears and the rhythm of the silky blue waves hypnotised my thoughts. To misquote a favourite Jack Johnson song of mine “I took a video that I don’t like to look at.” It does nothing to put me back in that moment.

Lake Titicaca is an extremely beautiful place. It is wholly natural, delicate and rustic. I hate using the term ‘time-capsule’ but it feels like we could be at any point in history, save for the hum of the engine of course. It has the power to humble even the most well-travelled of passers-by. It is this moment which transports me back and elicits thoughts of liberation and carefree abandon with such clarity.

A timeless moment in the serenity of Lake TiticacaA timeless moment in the serenity of Lake Titicaca

When taking nothing but photos is not enough

"Taking photos and leaving nothing but footprints is all well and good - but what about the memories? The stories? The questions?"

Stepping off the catamaran and onto terra firma broke the spell. I should first say that Taquile Island is an utterly beguiling place (even more so once us tourists had left I imagine) with panoramas of patchwork potato fields, crimson tin rooftops and that sapphire, sacred, shimmering water stretching across the horizon. Through the scene wind rudimentary paths trodden, one assumes, for centuries by no one but the islanders themselves. Nowadays some 40,000 annual visitors undertake the long climb to the small settlement at the top of the hill. Despite the high altitude, we have it easy.

Our arrival coincided with the weekly delivery of the island’s grocery shopping, piled high in brightly coloured and heavily loaded crates. There are no roads nor cars on Taquile, these goods must be carried up one-by-one by people who would be collecting their state pensions in the UK. I’m pretty sure they have not retained such impressive physical capacity on a steady diet of Coca Cola, chocolate and crisps. These are for tourist consumption, along with the colourful handmade hats, gloves, scarves and weavings for which the island is known.

So what’s the harm I hear you ask. It’s a valid question. Our tourist dollar has long since been an accepted currency of exchange for a spot of harmless cultural voyeurism. In their unique customs and devoted adherence to a strict self-policing code of conduct, there is much to admire about the Tequileños and many stories to be told. But it’s that last point that is the salient one – how can stories truly develop on a two hour ‘summiting’ of the island before we are whisked off again to be separated from our soles on the Uros islands? “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” is a noble concept, but a painfully superficial one too, even to someone so dedicated to the pursuit of photography as me. What about the memories? The stories? The questions?

It’s why scheduled group excursions are such a turn off for Pura.

The grocery delivery on Taquile IslandThe grocery delivery on Taquile Island

Have you ever been to a human zoo?

"Did we want to pose for a photo with their clothes on? Oh sure, then you can come round mine and pick something out of my wardrobe to wear. We politely declined."

From the “harmless voyeurism” of Taquile we are now in the human zoo of the Uros Islands. As our boat plots a course through the archipelago, entire families dash out of their tortura reed abodes to wave a hearty welcome to the latest boat-load of foreign visitors. Only on closer inspection, upon seeing the whites of their eyes, does it dawn on me that the frantic waving is less of a greeting and more of a desperate plea for us to anchor up at their floating enclosure. Sorry, today’s not your lucky day I’m afraid. I never thought I’d feel like this here.

We alighted onto the spongy surface of an unnamed Uros reed island. Strip away the tourist traffic, the makeshift market stalls and the scripted spiel and there’s something quite remarkable here. The very notion that you can live off such an improbable foundation with such a fierce commitment to an increasingly impractical way of life is crazy.

Or so it seems.

Colourfully dressed islander hoping to beckon us forthColourfully dressed islander hoping to beckon us forth

We’re given the welcome introductions and the demonstration showing how the islands are constructed. These are carried off with the polish that only daily performances to a captive audience can apply. Then each couple is paired with an islander and led off into separate homes. Our group of four is split into two.

Divide and conquer. Double your money.

We are then shepherded into a tiny reed home and given the grand tour. My eyes were drawn to the radio and mobile phone tucked away in the corner. It jars nastily with my preconceived image of their quaint time-locked lifestyle, diluting the purity of the word I concocted for them. How dare they? No, how dare I entrap them in a bubble for the sake of a good story or because it upsets my sensibilities? It did make me wonder how they charge them up though.

“Would you like to try on our traditional dress for a photo?” Sure, then maybe next Tuesday you can come round mine and pick something out of my wardrobe to try on for size? I smiled and politely declined. She looked upset. Don’t encourage such charades I want to tell her. Instead I ask her about schooling (undertaken in Puno), how long she’s lived here (all her life) and, what I most want to know, if she really likes living here. She was hardly going to say no. I might have asked her if she likes us tourists invading her personal space, but I was about to get the answer anyway. What’s that saying about a fool and his cash?

There's no escaping the clutches of an Inca God

I asked how much the cushion covers were. 180 soles apparently - £40. I suggest we look around and see what her neighbours are selling. “No you have to buy from here. They are with their own people.” My god, there really is no escape.

I cast a worried glance across to our fellow travellers and receive a look of desperation that confirms that they share out current predicament. The longer we procrastinate, the more the price falls. Several attempted departures are corralled. Our guide offers no olive branches. We submitted to the laws of the game and pondered who we could get away with giving the cushion case to. I still get shivers every time I see Viracocha grinning devilishly whenever I visit my mum.

There really and truly is absolutely no escape.

Uros islander selling her weavings on Lake TiticacaMy Uros nemesis - in the end we called it a draw

So what's the conclusion?

"We don't want to judge the Uros peoples, but we do want to be honest and not Photoshop anything out which lacks authenticity. This is why we dislike scheduled group tours."

As I reflect upon my surreal visit to the Uros, it strikes me that we need not be the judge, jury and executioner. So what if they hop on a ferry back to Puno as soon as the last tourist boat bounces out of view? And so what if they have gotten the art of separating foreign visitors and their soles down to a tee? We all need to earn a living in this world and their opportunities are few and far between.

We don’t mean to judge them therefore. But what we can do, and what we feel a great sense of responsibility for, is to be honest with you. To not brazenly Photoshop out the parts of the experience which left us feeling cold. To not trick the more inquisitive and dedicated traveller into situations devoid of authenticity. We hate scheduled group tours, scripted performances and one-size-fits-all day trips. This isn’t what we like to share.

We know many will leave Lake Titicaca feeling overjoyed at the insights they have gained into these exotic cultures. We know that young children will have their imaginations fired by the vivid imagery and fantastical tales told here. And we all still hold a special regard for what is at times a movingly beautiful place. There’s no better way to cross between Peru and Bolivia, via the charming lakeside town of Copacabana, with its splendid whitewashed church and its array of unique Aymaran customs. It might not have inspired the Barry Manilow song, but it did inspire the Brazilians to name their most famous beach after it.

So we’ll keep looking for ways to steer you away from the standard tours and towards some of the quieter pockets of Lake Titicaca. But we will also endorse other parts of Peru, where beautiful scenery, traditional communities and little changed ways of life are not a recipe for exploitation and standardisation.

We value your precious holiday time too much for that.

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