The Lonely Planet: Bolivia travel guide starts with “12 Top Experiences” of the country, with number five (Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca) stating, “You can easily spend four days here, tracking down forgotten Inca roads to small archaeological sites, removed coves and intact indigenous communities. At the end of the day, take in the sunset with a cerveza (beer) from your ridge-top lodge.”
Like any top-notch travel guide, it summarizes the essence of the area, encouraging any expert traveler to complete the perfectly-calculated trip – long enough to soak in the area without wasting time that could be spent at the next site.
Needless to say, the Isla del Sol of Lonely Planet is not the Isla del Sol I visited. Admittedly, I only stayed for about three days and even spent part of one of those days hiking the most popular trail on the island. However, my stay was spent with one of those “intact indigenous communities” that’s idealized by travel guides, Ch’alla Centro. It’s a communitarian Aymara village, meaning that although most residents speak Spanish from the local school, the primary language is Aymara. All the land and farming is owned by the entire community, only divided amongst families to divide the labor, not “profits”. I lived with a family with six children, all under the age of 12 and I spent the majority of my time helping the family: playing with/occupying the children, planting seeds on their farming terraces, and helping on the boat as they pulled in their fishing nets.
Sure, this community seems to offer exactly what the tourists visiting the local hostel seem to be looking for: a view into the indigenous lifestyle. However, many tourists likely don’t realize what effects their own arrival has on these “intact” villages. In a conservatively-dressed Aymara village, a few tourists wander the beach wearing tank tops, short shorts, and sometimes bikinis. Interrupting the daily lives of residents, they stop by asking where Isla del Sol is (literally the name of the island they’re standing on). They bring trash onto an island that has to use boats to bring it back off. These effects are also nothing compared to Ch’allapampa, the northern village that has become the tourist center of the island, boasting a beach filled with hostels and small restaurants, beer on every corner. In this village, there are much fewer families left that still participate in local agriculture, livestock, and fishing. Their livelihood now relies only on providing tourists with their ridge-top hostels and cold cervezas (beer, in case you have spent zero time in a Spanish-speaking country and have no desire to interact with the community other than to demand alcohol). Their “intact” indigenous community has dispersed from communitarian ideals to individual tourist businesses.
As with everything, tourism is a mixed bag. Some argue that the effects of tourism on Isla del Sol aren’t as profound as I’ve painted them and that some amount of cultural degradation is inevitable. Tourists visiting the upper mountain trails (purposely designed to route tourists away from the villages) have to pay to enter the trail, which is then divided amongst the island villages to support community projects and their schools. There are efforts to reduce cultural degradation and it’s unlikely that Isla del Sol will see a large enough influx soon to force Ch’alla Centro into crisis. However, an influx could relatively easily push the rest of the Ch’allapampa culture away from traditional values into idealized performances put on to entertain tourists.
I also have concerns for the future of the community concerning environmental changes. My family in Ch’alla Centro relies on planting, fishing, and livestock (primarily sheepherding) to support their lifestyle. Too much or too little rain could remove a third of their livelihood, pushing them into hunger. The same could happen with increased pollution in the lake (which is considered extremely sacred by most of the Andes region). Again, I see a community that normally functions quite successfully on its own terms at the mercy of other people and other cultures.
My visit to Isla del Sol was another profound experience that left a permanent mark on me, making me question the value of tourism and “seeing” other cultures. In reality, any travel experience requires serious reflection on how your behavior affects the local culture, whether it be a rural village or a European city. Inconsideration can leave cause ripples and waves of harm to local communities.
What’s more, our lifestyles in our home communities can also have effects on the other side of the world. This is especially an important point for myself. It’s easy for me to point a finger at inconsiderate tourists on the island, but my own carbon footprint and its effect on climate change has a much grander impact on the world. However, I do think that I’ll rely a little less on idealized travel guide descriptions for what are the best “experiences”, both for me and for local communities.