Puno, on the Peruvian side of Titicaca (which I learned actually means “Gray Puma” – no idea why) is actually really different from Copacabana. The town, of course, is way bigger than Copa. It’s a city, more or less. And the lake itself is very different, with lots of vegetation (which of course makes the floating islands possible).
I was sick in Puno, and as I mentioned before, all alone in the new Point hostel, which was a deathly climb up a huge hill from the city. Something that wouldn’t be fun if you were in good health, but is like torture when you’re sick. I left the hostel only to eat and to do my half day tour to the Uros Islands. Otherwise, I slept.
The Uros Islands are some “floating” islands out on Titicaca. I decided to take the half day boat tour to the islands. While the tour was in some ways interesting and informative, it was also unbelievably touristy and money-oriented. The guide was friendly enough, and we sat and talked in a mix of Spanish and English on the boat ride out to the islands. I’ve found that Peruvians are much more likely to approach you and start conversation, often wanting to practice their English. Already in my first day and a half in Peru I experienced this with the reception guy at my hostel and with the guide on the tour.
At the islands, they make you all sit on these little rolled up reed benches and they begin a presentation. The guide explains how the islands are made and how they “float” (using the mucky stuff the reeds grow out of, then piling a meter or three of reeds on top). It’s very kitschy, and his helper native islanders quickly set up a little mock island, complete with mini houses, people, and boats. We are also allowed to try eating the reed (called tortora), which they use for basically everything — eating and cooking, building, anything else you can imagine.
Then the informative lecture turns into a sales pitch. They pass around little boats made out of tortora that “would be perfect to set on your table at home and keep fruit in.” Then they explain the history of the islands using “beautiful textiles that would look wonderful on your wall at home.” They end with the natives singing a few songs, first in their own language (Aymara), then Spanish (where they go around shaking everyone’s hands), then an attempt at “Row row row your boat.” Very special, indeed.
Of course then we are giving free time to wander around the island — which is absolutely tiny. What they really mean is free time to go buy things from all the people sitting around next to a table full of jewelry and textiles and silly like trinket souvenirs. If they see you walking around without a bag of goodies, they will come up to you and grab your arm, trying their best to force you to buy something. They then offer a ride on a tortora boat for 10 soles, and do the same forced sale if you aren’t getting on.
I was so sick and miserable by that point, I just got back on the regular boat and managed to avoid most of their prodding. Then it was on to another island for about 20 minutes of more sitting around, waiting to leave because the novelty of being on a floating island had worn off. I did run into all the people from Copa on the second island, but I wasn’t in the mood to chit chat much so we just said quick hellos.
Perhaps my being sick jaded the experience some, but I’d have to say that I’m not sure the tour to the Uros islands is really worth it. Yes, you learn a few things and it’s cool to see them and walk on them for a minute (it’s not like they move or anything, it doesn’t feel much different from regular land), but beyond that it’s not great unless you are looking to toss some money away on random souvenirs.
My experience in Puno was a bit further jaded by my “friendly” hostel worker. I was so sick, I couldn’t really do much of anything and he took advantage of it. I didn’t even care at the time, but it’s still kind of hard to accept when someone is so unbelievably friendly but still rips you off. I was too sick to go to the bus station to buy my ticket to Arequipa, so he said he would get it for me. He told me it was 40 soles, which I knew was way too much, but I accepted the price anyway. The kicker was that he so “kindly” also paid for my exit fee from the bus terminal…three times, actually, so that he could put a sticker over the three places that the the price appeared on the bus ticket. Like I’m that stupid. I knew I was paying more than the actual cost, it just took peeling back one sticker to see that I was paying 15 soles more ($5).
Again, I don’t even care really because I was so sick, it was worth the extra cost to have someone do it for me. But the fact that he tried to hide it and act like he was getting me “only the best” and all this BS was the annoying part. But I’ve put Puno behind me, because Arequipa is amazing!