Lake Titicaca’s Uros Islands are home to a thriving traditional culture. The islands, and pretty much everything on and around them, are made of dried totora reeds using techniques dating back hundreds of years. One of the reasons the culture thriving is heritage tourism.
The people living on the islands receive a great number of visitors, the vast majority of whom come on day trips out from Puno. The families alternate days on which they host visitors on their island so that everyone benefits.
Perhaps more interesting than a relatively quick day trip to the islands is an overnight trip. We were fortunate enough to spend two nights this past summer with Christina. She and her extended family have created a homestay on their island. What we saw and learned there was fascinating, in more ways than one. Everything is made of totora reeds, houses, floor, benches, even a chess set. Our time there began with an explanation of how the island is built and maintained, how the houses are made, how the boats are made, how food is traditionally cooked, and so on.
During the evening, after a delicious dinner, Christina and a few members of her family came into the dining house. They sang a few songs for us, in Spanish, French, Japanese and Aymara, their local language which is slowly dying out. Then, very clearly and eloquently (fellow travelers translated for us), she thanked us for coming and told the story of how she got started in the hospitality business and what it has come to mean for her and her family. Several years before, two travellers from the Netherlands had suggested that Christina arrange for guests to stay overnight. She thought about this idea and decided, in the best entrepreneurial spirit, to give it a try.
She went on to say she has learned a lot over the years, from friends and visitors, such as how to prepare food safely, what visitors like in terms of comforts (hot water bottles in the bed at night!) and necessities (toilet and hand-washing facilities), and has thus created a thriving business. Unbeknownst to her, she was listed in Lonely Planet, which she discovered once visitors started flocking in.
With the money she has earned, she is putting her children through university: one is studying to be a chef, the other hospitality. She is also sponsoring the education of several other family members and island children and has become a leader in the community.
While on Christina’s island, we met a woman volunteering with French charity Association La Runa who comes each year to distribute toothbrushes collected from school children back in in France. We went with her to the local school to help distribute them. Teeth brushing instructions were given via “assembly”, the children standing at attention in rows. Multiple references were made to “la isla de Christina” as the storage point for additional toothbrushes and instructions.
It became crystal clear that tourism has given Christina, her family, her neighbors, and her community a bright future.