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Peru & Chile in 11 Days – Part 11 – Lake Titicaca and the Uros Floating Islands

Posted on Aug 3, 2012 by in International, Travel | 6 comments

Our Itinerary:

A Run In With Soroche

The one constant in travel, as in life, is to expect the unexpected.

After turning in early the previous night to get rested for a half day of sightseeing on the lake, we woke up to discover that Mom had spent half the night tossing and turning and running to and from the bathroom.   She had finally succumbed to altitude sickness.

We had read up enough about the seriousness of altitude sickness or “soroche” to be sufficiently alarmed and quickly tried to assess how severe Mom’s symptoms were.  Fortunately, other than a dull headache and a sleepless night that zapped much of her energy, her other symptoms were relatively mild.  She did not have any difficulty breathing (thank goodness) and did not feel faint.   We agreed to grab breakfast and re-evaluate right before the scheduled tour pick-up to see if Mom’s condition necessitated cancelling the lake excursion.

As it turned out, a light breakfast and copious amounts of hot coca tea was just what the doctor ordered and by the time the tour bus rolled in front of the hotel, Mom’s color had sufficiently returned to normal and she pronounced herself well enough to tour the lake.

Exploring Lake Titicaca

Sacred Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca was considered the holiest body of water to the ancient Inca.  According to legend, the first Inca, Virachoa, emerged from the sacred waters of the lake and was commanded by the Sun God to create the world and found human civilization.  Hence its moniker as the “birthplace of civilization.”

With this tidbit of information stored away in the back of her heads, it was thus with high hopes and expectations that we approached the lake.  The excursion, however, ended up being the single most touristy thing we would do in South America.

Pier leading to boat tour

Our Boat

Once we arrived at the dock, we were quickly ushered into an air-conditioned speedboat along with 10 other passengers.  At the helm of cabin, a local musician in street clothes serenaded the cabin with a small banjo while background new age music blared from a set of speakers at the back of the boat.   This  should have clued us in to what else was in store for us once we reached our featured destination – the Uros Floating Reed Islands.  More kitsch.

The boat ride out to the Uros takes about 15 minutes from the Puno port.  Upon arriving at the entrance to the Uros Islands, the tour boats have to make a mandatory stop at a small floating toll booth.  Here a local operator collects the requisite entrance fee and directs the boat to one of several adjacent floating islands – a practice designed to give equal opportunity for each island community to play host to tourists.

As we approach our designated island, a group of locals are already lined up at the shore and proceed to wave and serenade us with a short, playful song.  It is a colorful sight and a delightful contrast against the vivid blue waters.

Entrance to the Uros Floating Islands – Toll Booth

Serenading locals

Explaining the history of the Uros people

Finger puppets

Once we disembark, however, a surreal Disneyland-like experience commences.  First we are asked to assemble a circle around a small make-shift table and sit through a 5 minute re-enactment of how the Uros people came to live on the reed islands (using finger puppets).  Then, fresh reeds are distributed amongst the tourists and we are given an opportunity to sample the tender stalks (the same ones used to build and shore up the island we are standing on).  Shortly thereafter, our tour guide separates us into small groups and we are whisked by an eager villager to visit her hut.  Once inside the hut, the conversation turns awkward and a bit bizzare.

“What is your name?  My name is Pilar.”

When Mr. Travelbypoints answers, she quickly asks, “Jimmy, you want to try my clothes?”  He politely declines and seems eager to make leave of the small hut.  Out of the corner of our eye, we could see a TV playing in an adjacent hut a few yards away.   How do they manage to get electricity to these isolated islands, I wonder?

“Let’s go to market.  You buy something from me!” Pilar suddenly exclaims, pulling me out of my mindless reverie.

She grabs a sack from the corner of the hut and beckons us to follow her back to the center of the island.  On route she grabs a wandering local and together they plop down near our demonstration platform and start hawking their wares right out of a market scene from a Gilbert and Sullivan play.  My mom begins to back away slow, leaving me and Mr. Travelbypoints to respond to Pilar.

“Buy!  You buy something from me!  What do you want to buy?” (Exact words, I kid you not.)

Quickly, we pick up a few trinkets each and hand them to her, eager to finish the transaction and find a quiet space to rest on the island.  Pilar is visibly disappointed when we turn down her suggestion of a US$100 tapestry and seems unmoved when we confess that we simply do not have enough room in our luggage to carry back a bulky piece.  She regroups, however, when she spots another group of tourists coming in the distance and she quickly says her good-byes and rushes off to greet them.  Mr. Travelbypoints and I are left to stare stupidly at each other in sudden relief.

Uros Reed Boat

Uros School House


Class in session

The rest of the time on the island proceeds in a blur.  There are add-on excursions like a short ride on a traditional reed boat, a visit to a local school house (where kids enact a class in session) and some time for us to wander the island.  When the time comes for us to head back, the three of us are one of the first to board.  This time, rather than grab a seat in the interior, Mom and I head to the upper deck, eager to breathe in the fresh air and contemplate the lake quietly in the open.

“How are you feeling?” I ask my mom as I simultaneously reach into my backpack from my pouch of dried coca leaves.

“The fresh air helps. I feel much better,” she responds and grabs a small pinch from my hand before I can stuff her mouth with a much larger handful.

Coca Leaves

Together, we say a prayer of thanks and offer up a small handful of coca leaves to the lake.  Thankful that we were well enough to travel on this excursion and had the opportunity to experience the lake together (no matter how kitschy).

“Where to next?” my moms asks, her energy level sufficiently recharged by the fresh air.

Next up – Sillustani.


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  • Tiffany

    Poor Mom!  I’ve been following your Peru posts as I prepare to take my Mother-in-Law to Peru this fall, and really all the details!  Do you feel that the trip down to Lake Titicaca was worth the logistical/health challenges?

    • Hi, Tiffany!  If you have a short time to spend in the Lake Titicaca region, I’d probably recommend you skip it.  For us, having less than one full day for sightseeing and having to make sure we made our flight later that same day meant we were very limited in our tour options.  As you can tell, we were less than enamored with the Uros excursion.  If I could go back and do it again, I would probably have skipped the Lake Titicaca segment and instead spent an extra day exploring the ruins around Cusco.  Bear in mind that if your mother-in-law has a reaction to the altitude in Cusco, it will likely be worse in Lake Titicaca.  Prior to our trip, a friend went on a similar itinerary just weeks prior and reported that a male friend (in his early 30s) had to be airlifted to a hospital from Lake Titicaca.  He had experienced some symptoms in Cusco as well but those were mild.  So definitely err on the side of caution and consult a physician prior to your trip if you have concerns about the altitude.  Good luck with your trip planning!

  • Bluecat

    wow!  so sad it is to find that a place that you imagine as untouched is, in reality, quite touristy.   we had the same experience in east africa this summer—you really can’t blame the people for exploiting the tourists but it shatters the illusions that all of the travel journals and magazines want you to believe.   bottom line is that it is hard to find someplace that is still “genuine”

    • Hi, Bluecat – good to see you again!  You’re absolutely right about not blaming the locals.  After all, it is the presence of tourists that creates such a situation in the first place – oh the irony!  We travelers are a varied folk and we all travel in search of different things and for different reasons. And at the end of the day, what is “kitsch” for some can be a wonderfully authentic experience for another, and vice versa.  

      • Bluecat

        I guess I have a lower tolerance for places that used to be authentic but now are only around because of the tourist trade.   They can still be enjoyed to some extent, but just not for what they used to be.   (San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, for example…)

        • This just means the burden falls on us to find the cool, still-authentic places and visit them before the mainstream catches on.  That being said, Machu Picchu – totally lives up to all the hype!  It’s a reminder to me to keep my expectations in check in both directions 😛

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