14th March 2020

Are Uros Floating Islands A Tourist Trap?

Uros woman holding tapestry on Uros floating islands
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

What are the Uros floating islands?

The Uros floating islands can be found on Lake Titicaca, the lake of superlatives! Lake Titicaca is not only South America’s largest lake, it’s the world’s highest navigable lake! Lake Titicaca is home to many Incan stories and legends – so not only is the lake beautiful, it’s an important landmark to understand about the Inca culture.

The Uros are an indigenous group within Peru and Bolivia who live on self-constructed floating islands. Nobody is quite sure how or why the Uros ended up living here, but it’s thought that they used the floating islands as a means of defence from the Inca and Colla cultures.

The islands are constructed by continually layering totora reed (which grows naturally in the lake) to create a solid structure which is over 2.5m deep. Despite the fact the islands take months to build, they can be moved to escape threat (they are moored to the lake bed with sharp sticks and rope). As the roots of the islands begin to rot, they replenish the reeds on the top layers – the logistics of these islands is seriously impressive, especially when you consider that the original islands were formed in the exact same way many years ago.

While the Uros people traditionally fish and hunt birds to feed themselves, they now also rely on the tourism industry to supplement their lifestyle.

RELATED: If you’re interested in visiting Lake Titicaca, it’s definitely worth visiting the Bolivian side too. Read about my time on the incredible Isla Del Sol!

Uros house and boat

How do you reach the Uros floating islands?

The easiest way to access the islands is from Puno, a well-connected town in Peru.

I was travelling with Peru Hop from Copacabana in Bolivia, but there are plenty of bus services from elsewhere in Peru. BusBud is the easiest way to check bus routes/times and book tickets; however, if you are on a budget, it’s worth seeing if you can book tickets at the bus station for less than you would pay online.

From Puno, to reach the Uros floating islands, you will need to book a tour with a local operator. I recommend using Get Your Guide or Find Local Trips to find and book tours.

I was short on time so booked this 2-3 hour tour. If I could redo my experience, I would potentially opt for a longer tour to try and get a deeper understanding of the Uros culture and see more areas of the floating islands. There are also options to stay overnight in a homestay on the floating islands which certainly sounds like an experience!

Traditional Uros woman

My Experience

I arrived in Puno late at night and headed straight for my hotel (The Real House) which was nothing special but certainly comfortable enough for one night!

The one thing I noticed that evening was how many video gaming cafes Puno has! It was interesting to see all of the local boys and men entering video game cafes rather than a pub or bar – a much more social gaming experience than in the UK where gamers sit in their own homes (albeit playing together online).

The next morning, I wandered around the main centre of Puno. Exploring Puno doesn’t take long as the town is fairly compact. There isn’t much to see or do in Puno. If the Uros floating islands weren’t so close by, it wouldn’t be a town that I would have bothered to visit; so I spent some time relaxing outside a local café, enjoying the good weather.

I booked a half-day tour of the Uros floating islands for the afternoon. After being picked up from my hotel, we jumped on a boat and started sailing through the totora reeds; I lucked out weather-wise, the sun was shining and both the sky and water were gloriously blue.

Stepping onto a floating island for the first time is exciting. It takes a little while to feel completely at ease walking on the bouncy floor of rotora reeds. Our first stop was an inhabited island where we were given a cultural demonstration by our tour guide. He explained how the islands were made and how the people live, which was truly fascinating. It’s safe to say that I’ve never seen anywhere similar to the Uros floating islands elsewhere in the world!

After the demonstration, we were split into 3 smaller groups before being welcomed into each house on the island by the owners. The houses are also made from totora reeds, so are interesting to look around. For the most part, each house has a mattress to sleep on, clothes and few other amenities. One house had a very old, tiny television inside and the owner was so proud to show us! Meals are generally cooked on a small communal fire on the island and are sourced by fishing in the lake or keeping birds to lay eggs.

After being shown the various houses on the island, we were led to a small “market stall” where the locals tried to sell us arts and crafts (the items on sale are the same as you will find on the tourist stalls in Cusco/Lima etc.) – the sales pitch was fairly aggressive and I ended up buying a llama shaped keyring as a souvenir for my sister. To a certain extent, it felt like the locals weren’t going to let us leave the island without purchasing something – most of our group purchased an item or two.

We were then shimmied back onto the boat to move onto a communal island. The locals were grabbing each one of us by the arm to take us on their traditional boat at an extra cost – I (and most others) declined their forceful offer (while the boat was impressive, I simply didn’t have the cash with me – rookie mistake), to which they made it very clear that they were not impressed.

The communal island is equally impressive and had shops and even a restaurant, all made from natural materials. After being shown round the communal island, we headed back to Puno for the evening where I got dinner with two lovely girls from the tour before catching an overnight bus to Cusco.

Uros floating islands
Uros floating islands scenery

Are the Uros floating islands just a tourist trap?

I had heard mixed reviews from other travellers, so tried to go into the experience with an open mind.

The islands were been moved closer to the shores of Puno after a devastating storm in the 1980s. Now that the islands are more accessible, tourist numbers in recent years have soared – the commercialisation of the islands leaves me wondering whether it is ethical for us to continue visiting these islands?

To me, at times, the tour felt like a human zoo with outsiders (tourists) encroaching on other human’s land and property purely because we are curious about their way of life. Has the essence of this indiginous culture been lost? Are their livelihoods being turned into Disneyland?

It is safe to say that I didn’t feel completely comfortable with my experience; but for the most part, I couldn’t put my finger on why. I suppose the answer lies somewhere between me being a privileged traveller peering into someone else’s home to the sheer desperation of the locals to make as much money as possible from the experience.

The desperation for money suggests that the locals receive a very small percentage of the tour costs – is it right that a tour agency can invade the Uros people’s privacy and keep the majority of the proceeds?

The human interaction is limited given that the Uros people do not speak English or Spanish. What little interaction we had with the Uros was somewhat agitated, with the Uros people upset if you didn’t want to pay for additional services and tourists becoming unsettled by the persistence to spend more money.

A tour guide that I later spoke to in Cusco explained that many of the islands which tourists are taken to are purely for tourism purposes and there are islands further away from the mainland where the locals continue to live their traditional lifestyles, which is somewhat reassuring.

It’s also clear that these indigenous people still live traditional lifestyles, simply supplemented by the newfound tourist activity. The money made by tourism has led to some fantastic developments on the island, including the use of solar panels which reduces the risk of fires on the islands. The increase in money also means that the younger generations are able to travel to the mainland for school, improving their prospects for the future.

You could go round in circles arguing the good and bad. Are the Uros floating islands just a tourist trap? I simply don’t know the correct answer.

If the Uros people are able to use the money created from tourist activites supplement and potentially preserve their culture for future generations, then good on them!

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