Puno is the natural stopping point for travelers making their way through Peru into Bolivia. Some travelers use it simply as a way to facilitate their border crossing, others take the time to explore the city. Sally and I decided to stay two nights and see if we could entertain ourselves.
The options are fairly limited but there is one appealing option of exploring the floating islands. Lonley Planet had a vague and conflicting opinion of the experience, pretty much leaving it a toss of the coin as to whether you were going to enjoy the tour or not. Our hostel set forth two options for viewing the islands, a full day (6 am – 5 pm) or a three-hour tour. There was also the option of doing an overnight stay with a family but given our limited Spanish, we decided against that. We decided it would be better to be left wanting more, rather than spend the additional eight hours of our life wishing for lightning to strike us dead.
The tour was outlined by our hostel: Pick up from the hostel, boat transport to the island, an English-speaking tour guide, experience the island, and return. All for the low price of 20 soles each ($8).
Our driver to Lake Titicaca was 20 minutes prior to punctual. It didn´t bother us, as we were waiting for the tour. But it did grab the attention of our two English tour partners who were in the middle of lunch. We drove the six blocks to the lake and piled into a boat powered by a lawn mower engine that saw its finest days well before disco died. Thirty-five minutes later we found our selves amidst the collection of floating islands of Uros. The exact construction of the islands was later explained to us by the ¨president of the island¨ (The guy in charge of the seven families living on the island). They carve up the root system of the reeds into massive soil/root blocks. They tie them off to create a 8-12 block buoy system and then cover the blocks with reeds about 5 feet deep. The reeds need to be replaced or covered again every 15 days.
The boat pulled up to one of about 75 islands, each island consisted of about three to seven families and about the size of a camp ground. The tourists were separated into two groups, those that speak Spanish and the Gringos. We spent the next three minutes being told about the islands and its people by our tour guide. The president’s wife then showed us her house and tried her best to push her textiles and carvings at a special price, reserved only for her friends. Sally, myself and the two English guys took a quick look around the island (this takes about 2 minutes) then began to wonder where the additional two and a half hours of the tour were going to be spent.
After about ten minutes of being left to ourselves our tour guide called us over to explain how each individual island is made. This quick explanation was then followed by being prompted to get on the families reed boat. The boats they make have about a one to two-year life span. This particular boat was close to the 18 month mark and was already being replaced by its predecessor (about half way done). As we stepped onto the boat we realized just how sea worthy our boat ride to the islands really was. The four of us made our way to the top of the boat and I remarked that I would be getting down if the rest of our group decided to board (concerned the entire boat would crumble under the weight). I went to disembark the vessel and our guide stated the family wanted us to all stay aboard so they could sing us a song.
The four variations of row your boat were preformed with the most unenthused, don´t give a shit attitude, I have ever seen, my sixth grade self would have been impressed. Just as the choir wrapped up their performance our guide uttered something about a six soles donation to the family. It caught the four of us a little off guard as we thought the family compensation was included in our ticket price. Before we had a chance to ask our guide about the “donation” our boat was pushed away from the island and began floating away from the reed pile. The president’s son was up top with us and tantalizing our ear drums with his repeat performance of row your boat. The off pitched, ear piercing, rendition was enough to make all of us consider swimming the remainder of the trip. He finished his performance with a hand shake for each of us and then extending his hat for a tip. The uncomfortable stare down was one the boy was quite accustomed to winning and unfortunately did in this case as well, after about three minutes of uncomfortable silence.
Ten minutes later we were roping our way into a much bigger island comprised of restaurants and places to stay. As we anchored in the president came up the stairs to great us with his hat extended and told us all the boat ride cost 10 Soles. Not a suggested donation, not an option, ticket price bitch, now pay up. I forked over 10 Soles for the two of us and was met with some unpleasant Spanish. I expressed to him that we were not aware of any additional fees when we booked the trip and our guide told us a donation was sufficient. He told me again we had to pay for the ride, but this time the ticket price was down to six Soles he stated giving his hat a shake. Now I spent a couple of weeks in D.A.R.E class (didn´t graduate) and I know five ways to say NO (or was it seven?) but I don´t think this guy is going to buy “I have to go home now, my mom is calling me” or take a suggestion to go play baseball instead. But thankfully I`m experinced enough in the world of pushers (strictly from the movies Mom and Dad) to know the one excuse that always seems to work… I have no more money. It might take one or two times expressing this fact, but that shit is fucking bullet proof. No excuse, no explanation, just the simple fact that I am tapped out. There is no rebuttal left for your opposer. They either have to attempt to check my pockets (not going to end well for the president) or except the fact I don´t have any cash. Thankfully for the group, who undoubtably wanted a ride home, the president accepted that I was a broke and gave up.
As we stepped off the boat onto the island we had about 30 seconds to remark to each other how uncomfortable the experience was, before we were greeted by the restaurant owner. In our face, stating we are friends, and letting us know we have an hour until our boat is headed back to Puno, come eat at his restaurant.
That was it. We no longer fucking cared. We posted up on a bench and spent the next hour staring out at the lake, avoiding the high pressure sales attempts from the restaurant owners.
Obviously we are not ignorant to the way the system is set up. Sitting on the bench for an hour gave us the opportunity to come to the conclusion that the “tour company” takes a majority of your cash and the locals are left to beg for whats in your pocket. If we had been aware that this was the way the “tour” was going to go we would have brought extra cash, our hunger, and tolerance for the situation. It was the ambush of hats out, lip tucked, and I am not taking no for an answer situations, that frustrated us.
The floating islands are great for what they are. We are glad we checked them out and have to say there is no plans of making it an annual event. Would we recommend it? Only after giving a full run down of what to expect.