Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Traveling on a Small Budget: Couch Surfing in the US and South America

Sebastian and I developed a close relationship during the 11 days I stayed with them in Peru through Couchsurfing. I slept on the lower bunk-bed, Sebastian on the upper part, and his brother and father slept in the double bed.

     When I graduated from McGill University a year ago, I did not go on to the journalism school in Halifax I had been accepted to; I did not begin an office job, and I certainly had no intentions of completing yet another unpaid internship.
I wanted to go traveling.

As I shared the excitement of my upcoming trip with friends and colleagues, a common reaction was: “Wow, aren’t you lucky. I wish I had the money for that!”.
 Forgive me for my callous ways, but I felt no empathy.
 The majority of the time, these kinds of comments stem less from one being realistic and ‘unlucky’ than from one being misinformed and unnecessarily cynical.

If you plan in advance, if you take the time to find the appropriate resources, and select the right people to help you on the ground, anyone can travel for months on end in the United States, and especially in South America on a very limited budget.

  •       Couchsurfing in the US and South America

These two Germans, Matze and Lukas, are the first people I met through
Couchsurfing. We hosted them in Montreal last summer, and still keep in
touch to this day.

 Founded in 2004, the website Couchsurfing provides a platform for its members to either “surf” on couches in the city they are traveling to, or to receive “surfers” in their home for a few nights.  In 2012, the website counted 3.6 million members. One year later, this number had reached 6 million, connecting members in 100 000 different cities worldwide.  A system of references with comments (positive, negative, or neutral) allows members to gauge the reliability of the surfer they will potentially host, or of the person whose couch they may surf on.

There is no money involved; however, there are unstated rules. It will seem very rude, for instance, for someone to arrange to couchsurf at someone’s place, to have a 5-minute conversation with the host, and to leave the next day. The vast majority of hosts want to get to know their surfers through sharing a meal, having interesting talks, and showing them around the city. Friendships are often formed, and the surfers usually tell their hosts at the end of their stay that they are welcome to their place anytime when they decide to go traveling themselves.

In San Francisco, Kevin was so generous as to prepare a delicious dinner
for his roommates and I. He also lent me a bicycle to ride around the city.
Some surfers bring small gifts upon their arrival at the home of the host (sweets from their home city, a CD, etc.); I did this for the first few places. When I ran out of gifts and money, I instead prepared a meal for my host – or various meals depending on the length of my stay.

In the United States, couch surfing was very easy and convenient due to the high number of participants in every major city. By sending 8-12 requests about a week in advance, I was almost certain to find a host. I couch surfed for 2-6 days at a time in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, and New Orleans. The only city I had trouble finding a host in was San Francisco, but fortunately my Couchsurfing host in Portland arranged for me to stay with his friend there.

Although it is not as widespread as in the US, there is still an active Couchsurfing community in every major South American city.

I couch surfed in Quito (Ecuador), in three Peruvian cities (Ayacucho, Arequipa and Cusco, but did not find any host in Lima), in Buenos Aires (Argentina), in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and in Encarnación (Paraguay). And no, I did not ever find it dangerous to couch surf in those places, not anymore than in the US. If anything, my South American hosts were even more welcoming and generous than my American hosts (who had already set the bar high). 
In Rio de Janeiro, my mom and I couch surfed at Thais and her husband's place for a week. They loved showing us around the city; here we are with Thais in the botanical garden.
   My longest stays were also in South America: I stayed ten days with my host in Arequipa (we had time to record a CD in a studio, and even traveled a few days together), another ten days with my host in Cusco (I got along very well with his kids), and almost two weeks with my host in Buenos Aires (he would leave on business trips and leave me the key to his place). I had only intended to stay a few days in all three cases, but my hosts insisted I stay longer, and I was more than happy to.

  I only ever had extremely positive experiences through Couchsurfing. How amazing it was to be invited into someone’s home (I sometimes slept on the living room couch, but most of the time I was actually offered an entire bedroom to myself!), to exchange stories about traveling and life in general, and to be inspired by alternate ways of living (see my articles 0 living expenses: living in a shack in New Orleans and Meet Hermogenes: the host of 620 couch surfers in 547 days).  I maintained contact for a long time with most of the people I stayed with while traveling.

Jeff and his girlfriend hosted me for 2 nights in New Orleans; I forgot my
shoes at his place, so he mailed them to me in Ecuador!

  • The risks of couch surfing for women traveling alone

 I have heard various stories (or rumours?) of 'couch surfing gone wrong', and of young women feeling uncomfortable staying alone with men. If they are true, it is very sad unfortunate, and I must consider myself lucky to have avoided any negative encounters.

Nonetheless, I do believe that if a woman is very careful and critical when selecting her Couchsurfing host, chances are extremely slim that she will fall upon a bad apple.

I actually only ever stayed with men aged anywhere from 22 to 54 years old – not by preference, but because the majority of Couchsurfing members are men (Jeff's girlfriend was the only female host).
I always made sure to read the full profile of each person before sending them a request, and carefully read the references left for them by previous surfers (double-checking they were written by real people).  I almost strictly stayed with people who had numerous positive references on their profile, and only stayed in places where there were neighbours close by. Finally, I would exchange various emails with the host or arrange a phone call before settling on a place.
Although I didn’t do this, it would have been wise of me to have passed on to a family member the addresses and phone numbers of the places I stayed at.

  •        If you want to couch surf, you should…

The kitchen of the place I stayed at in Buenos Aires;
my host told me to use or eat whatever I wanted
  -     Ideally be alone. It is much more difficult to find a place to stay if you are two.

  -     Speak the language of country you are traveling to: to build trust with your host, and simply to exchange conversations with them (even basics will do).

  -     First acquire references from people you can host at your place before you begin traveling yourself; hosts do look at the references of the surfers before accepting them or not.

  -     Be flexible. You may get lucky and sleep in a comfortable bed, but you may also end up on a not-so-comfortable couch and be woken up early in the morning by your hosts getting ready to go to work.
  -    Be generous. Because there is no money involved, it is imperative to show your appreciation to your hosts by inviting them out for coffee, perhaps cooking a meal for them, and simply taking the time to get to know them.

  -     Expect a shower, but not doing laundry at your host’s place. If they offer, then that is a bonus.

I strongly, strongly advise everyone to try Couchsurfing,  whether it is by hosting people or by surfing yourself when you go traveling. Staying with locals is not only economically advantageous and useful (your hosts know the best places to go to in the city), but will also provide you with a much more authentic experience than getting drunk with other Westerners in youth hostels.  

If you would like more tips or have any questions on Couchsurfing, I will be more than happy to help out, just send me an email at 

Friday, 8 August 2014

San Pedro and Ayahuasca: Recreational Drug or Spiritual Revival?

A dimly lit environment is ideal for San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies. In the bowl with the spoon are raw pieces of the San Pedro cactus, ready for consumption for a small-scale ceremony in Buenos Aires.

     When I arrived in Cusco, Peru as a Canadian tourist, I was immediately intrigued by the abundance of promotion exhibited by tourist agencies regarding “San Pedro ceremony” or “Ayahuasca ceremony or even “San Pedro ceremony – without vomiting!".
Along with excursions to Macchu Pichu, Choquequirao, or to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca (see my previous article), San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies seemed to place in the front line among the major tourist attractions in Cusco.

Instead of wondering what this was all about, I decided to try it.

At the time, I was couch surfing at Hermoneges’s place, a young father of two who worked in tourism.  When I expressed interest in Ayahuasca and San Pedro -what was the difference anyway?- he said he would arrange for me to go to Caicai (an hour away from Cusco), where a renowned Shaman, Sampi, would lead me through my first experience of Ayahuasca.

I’m still not sure if it was my mistake, Hermogenes’s mistake, or Sampi’s mistake, but I ended up taking San Pedro instead of Ayahuasca.

So what is the difference between the two? Are they plants or drugs?  What risks accompany their consumption?

  •          A few important specifications

A giant San Pedro cactus grows in the yards of many
homes in Arequipa, Peru. People know it there as cure.
San Pedro (otherwise known as Cure in the Peruvian South, Huachuma in the indigenous language of Quechua, or Echinopsis Pachanoi in scientific terms), is a cactus native to the Andes. It grows in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and is legal in all these countries (or, to be more precise, it has not been declared illegal).

Archeological finds suggest that the use of San Pedro dates back to the Chavín culture, which existed from 1500 B.C to 500 B.C.  This people consumed the cactus in ceremonial settings and religious festivities, exploiting its hallucinogenic properties in order to enhance spiritual awareness and revelations.

San Pedro can be consumed in various forms: it can be eaten raw after having voided it of its spines and outer skin, and cut it into bite-size pieces (the green part is what should be consumed, the white part being extremely concentrated in mescaline, the hallucinogenic component); those same pieces can be dried in order to form a powder; or they an be boiled in water for various hours until a thick dark green liquid is obtained.
The effects – or the ‘trip’- of San Pedro will generally last 5-10 hours, depending on the quantity consumed.  
“For a first time user, I usually give one cup 20 cm in height full of liquid San Pedro that has previously been boiled for eight hours”, says Sampi, who has been leading San Pedro ceremonies for over twenty years.

Ayahuasca is quite different.  It is a brown liquid made from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi, alone or combined with DMT-containing plants such as ‘chacruna’ (Psychotria Viridis); or with the non-DMT-containing leaves of Justicia Pectoralis. These three plants can only be found in the Amazon.

Ayahuasca is considered an integral part of certain religious groups in Brazil, such as the Church of Santo Daime. This congregation integrates Christian beliefs with indigenous practices, including the consumption of Ayahuasca at any major ritual.
In a house in Catamarca (Argentina), I am preparing a piece of the
San Pedro cactus, ridding it of its spines

Having led several Ayahuasca ceremonies, Sampi recommends first time users to ingest the quantity of Ayahuasca that would fill a shot glass; to wait 15 minutes, and to consume another glass equal to the first. The Ayahuasca trip will generally last between 4 and 8 hours.

One must be aware that when taking Ayahuasca, all senses –especially hearing- are extremely accentuated. It is therefore important to be in a setting where no irritating sounds or lights will perturb the user (any alarm, cellphone ring, headlights of a car, unpleasant music, etc.).

Strangely enough, although the taste of Ayahuasca is considered by most people better than that of San Pedro’s (some even find it enjoyable), “it is much more common to vomit after taking Ayahuasca than it is when consuming San Pedro”, says Sampi (that was my case).

  •        What does one feel when ingesting these substances?   Similarities and differences

 “Much of it depends on the person’s objective coming into the ceremony”, says Sampi. “Some look for something more medicinal, others for something spiritual, others simply want to hallucinate”. 

On the organic front, both San Pedro and Ayahuasca are known to provoke a cleansing of the stomach. In either case, it is strongly recommended to fast for approximately 8 hours beforehand, and especially to avoid meat and alcohol.

“Nearly every sickness we get comes from bad alimentation”, says Sampi. “San Pedro and Ayahuasca clean up the grease, meat, or alcohol-related excesses that are stuck in our stomach and intestines, and send them downwards”.

San Pedro and Ayahuasca also purify the body through emotional release.

“Our emotions and mental states obviously affect our health in innumerous ways”, says Sampi. “These substances allow for the release of those emotions that are toxic to our body – whether they be from a memory buried in the past or from a situation the person is going through at the moment”.

Sampi is preparing a fire pit in Buenos Aires, preceding a group ceremony
where six of us took San Pedro

 According to Sampi, both substances are meant  to “bring peace and harmony to  one’s affairs”.

 “Peace to better understand our  surroundings, and harmony to clear  up doubts we may have about our  relationships, our goals, our  understanding of certain concepts…  love for instance. What is love? How  does it differ from passion? Love  includes passion. But passion does  not always include love.  San Pedro  can orient you by allowing you to  understand that certain things like  love do not have a definition: they are innate. Passion is not, it is  fleeting. It allows you to better distinguish the truth.”


Spiritually, San Pedro and Ayahuasca tend to diverge.

“The most basic way I can describe it is this: San Pedro is like smoking marijuana but at a million revolutions stronger; and Ayahuasca is like having a glass of Pisco but at a thousand revolutions stronger”, says Sampi.

 From my personal experiences (although I must say I know San Pedro much better than Ayahuasca, and still have much to learn about both), as well as interviews I gathered over the last few months, I came to the tentative deduction that Ayahuasca is a much more sensory and individual experience, more prone to hallucinations. San Pedro, on the other hand, provokes thought, which people choose to share or not with others during the ceremony. It generally incites conversation among attendants, but is also conducive to silence among others. It makes people reconsider their beliefs, doubts, feelings, worries, and life philosophies.

  • Nature’s revival…or accepting “God”
An inspiring landscape on the walk towards Choquequirao, a set of ruins from the Inca period

“A common trend among those who try San Pedro is a sense of increased proximity to Nature”, says Sampi.
“It isn’t rare to see someone go look closely at a flower, start touching it, even talking to it.”
“I always recommended taking San Pedro in a natural setting. Ayahuasca is probably best to take indoors, because even the sounds of the outdoors can frighten some people”.

An enlarged awareness of the power of Nature and our dependency on it is indeed one of the elements that struck me the most and had a lasting effect on me from my experiences with San Pedro. 

I remember crying the first time I took San Pedro. I could not believe -and thought it such a disgrace- that I had let myself become so distant from Nature over the last 20 years; and completely underestimated its importance in my life, and in the well-being of all living things on Earth.

This is something I already knew deep inside; but with San Pedro, this awareness rushed to the surface of my thoughts and emotions, stronger than ever, making up for all the years of my unconscious denial of this reality.  I realized that verbally praising nature and enjoying it on the odd camping trip was not enough: I needed to get closer to it, to learn its secrets, its remedies. I needed to protect it, in any way I could, from those who are destroying it with waste, pesticides, seesaws, and nuclear radiation.

The statue of San Pedro (Saint Peter) in the parish of San Pedro Gonzalez Telmo in Buenos Aires -
it is said that the cactus San Pedro was named as such because when he betrayed Jesus, Simon received a crown of spines, similar to those of the cactus. He then became Saint Peter, who supposedly holds the keys to Paradise.
Another commonality among San Pedro users is the unprecedented acceptance of “God”. 

I put it into quotes because when I mention this word in public, it almost inevitably has a religious connotation to it, and is so often associated with the Church.  Instead, when I mention “God”, I am referring to a higher being, whatever he/she/it may be,  -He knows me, I do not know Him- one who takes on differing names from one culture to the next, but who always remains one and the same; omnipresent and all-powerful.

I started my trip to South America as a stubborn Atheist. I came back convinced of the existence of God –while keeping a safe distance from any form of organized religion. I am not sure to which extent, but I do attribute a big part of this transition to San Pedro.

“I have seen many people who didn’t believe in God –or the universe, Allah, call it what you want– take San Pedro and, usually several times later, alter their own beliefs and gradually come to believe in God”, admits Sampi.

Senses refined

Bruna has had various experiences with Ayahuasca in Brazil

Ayahuasca also had a lasting effect on Bruna.

“I have a lot of respect for Ayahuasca. It can be a tool for a better understanding of the truth. We come to realize that we see and feel everything through our own senses - and sometimes take this for the truth, which is a problem.  Ayahuasca incites us to give more value to other perspectives than our own”.

“It was like an awakening of my senses; I was much more in touch with my own body. I could also better distinguish my thoughts from my emotions. As a person who thinks a lot, it allowed to put my thoughts aside, and to focus on my feelings instead of running away from them”.

  •       Drug or entheogen? The risks of taking San Pedro or Ayahuasca
Drug or entheogen?

“I don’t like to call it a drug”, says Bruna.  It is an entheogen: it is something that we already have in our body, and these substances just accentuates our receptors”.   
“It also depends on your definition of ‘drug’.  Ayahuasca and San Pedro are practices that have been going on for thousands of years.”

Indeed, we should take a closer look at the definition of ‘drug’.  The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘an illegal and often harmful substance (such as cocaine, LSD, heroine) that people take for pleasure’. 

Above is the 'baby' form of the San Pedro cactus
 I personally don’t see either San Pedro or Ayahuasca as fitting this definition. When  consumed in controlled quantities (hence the need for a guide or at least very clear written directions for first-time users), these substances in themselves are not harmful in anyway way. The worst that can happen is vomiting, which is unpleasant, but not dangerous.

Moreover, while many tourists will try San Pedro or Ayahuasca for recreational purposes (recall what Sampi said about those who 'just want to hallucinate'), we must remind ourselves that indigenous cultures consider these plants as an integral part of their long-standing traditions and spiritual rituals - not for simple 'pleasure'.
Like Bruna, I see these plants as entheogens. According to the online Oxford dictionary, an entheogen is “a chemical substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes”.
In my view, this definition perfectly describes the true nature of San Pedro and Ayahuasca.

In terms of addiction, San Pedro -and Ayahuasca to a lesser extent- are so absolutely repulsing to the taste that I highly doubt anyone could ever become addicted to this substance. One has to really want to experience the effects of San Pedro in order to endure the taste of it. (Some mix it with bread, chocolate, anything to mask its taste, but this method is not recommendable because it increases the risk of indigestion, which is otherwise minimal in the case of San Pedro).

Furthermore, there are numerous cases of drug addicts who were cured of their addiction through several sessions of San Pedro.
In Buenos Aires in 2013-2014, the Peruvian agency Pachamama Ayni organized with the help of Sampi San Pedro ceremonies that were specifically targeted at the ‘Paco’ (cocaine) addicts of Buenos Aires, in a country where 10 weekly deaths are associated to cocaine.

The risks

Similarly to marijuana, consuming San Pedro or Ayahuasca can lead to unpleasant, even dangerous situations if taken in the wrong circumstances. Consuming them in a noisy, public, overly dark environment with complete strangers are obviously conditions anyone should avoid.  In Cusco, following the spiked interest in spiritual ceremonies among tourists, many local Peruvians have decided to learn a few words of Quechua and the next day declare themselves a Shaman capable of leading group ceremonies.  At 100$ a head, these false guides are making enviable profits, especially when cramming thirty people into one ceremony.

Sampi with a San Pedro cactus. Sampi outspokenly criticizes Peruvians who
declare themselves 'Shamen' from one day to the next.
Western tourist should never have to pay more than the equivalent of 125$. If the agency charges you more than this amount, go to another one. Be aware that they already charge South American tourists only a third of that price.

Incidents have even happened when “Shamen” have tried to abuse women during ceremonies, or to steal money from attendants – the jail in Cusco holds a few of them.

Do not be seduced by advertisements for “San Pedro & Ayahuasca ceremony without vomits!”.
This suggests that the Shaman is mixing the plant with other substances that are likely not to be trusted.  Moreover, nausea is sometimes an inevitable part of the experience, and goes away very quickly.

I am not attempting to discourage tourists from signing up for San Pedro or Ayahuasca ceremonies. To the contrary, I strongly recommend it: done in the right circumstances, these experiences are extremely valuable for personal growth and will likely have a positive, long-term impact on your life views, or even lifestyle.

 This is simply a warning to all foreigners to be extremely careful when selecting the tourist agency, as well as the Shaman– the majority will do you no harm; but the good ones are rare. 

Women should be especially careful to enter a ceremony with at least one male friend; and try to look for a Shaman previously recommended by trusted others (you can even do this through Internet reviews).

I have known Sampi for about a year now, and have assisted in several San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies he has led both in Cusco and Buenos Aires. He travels to Arequipa a few times a year to handpick San Pedro and bring it back to Cusco where he currently leads ceremonies.

To arrange a San Pedro or Ayahuasca ceremony with Sampi, you may contact him directly at .

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Uros of Lake Titicaca: Life on a Floating Island

A view of the Uros, the floating islands on lake Titicaca which spreads over Peruvian and Bolivian territory
April 3rd 2014.  Puno, Peru.
Winter is starting here.

Despite the chilly morning wind, hundreds of tourists are standing at the main port of Puno, anxiously waiting for the 8 am 200-person boat, which will give them a three hour tour of Los Uros, the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, nowadays one of the main tourist attractions in Peru. 

On the other side of the city, my friend and I are waiting near the shore for a small wooden boat which will take us to the same islands; to the exception that we will stay there one week instead of three hours.

I have the incredible luck of traveling with a paparante of the Uros.  Paparante, or “grandfather” in the native Aymara language, is a much-respected designation attributed to elders who have offered a significant contribution to the history, traditions, or life conditions on the islands.

Eva and her aunt navigate the boat they use to
commute from the island to the city

As it turns out, the friend I am traveling with, Sampi, has been visiting and staying on these islands ever since he began traveling at twelve years old.   Seven years ago, he was nominated paparante of the island María. 
Sampi really does treat the residents of the islands like family: he brings food and medical supplies at every visit; shares with them his knowledge on medicinal plants; and leads groups of tourists there, purposefully generating an income for the islands.

The small boat arrives, paddled by a woman in her thirties with a red skirt, hat, and long black braided hair.  An older woman is sitting at the back, seemingly in her sixties, dressed in the same fashion as the first.
The younger woman jumps off the boat and comes to greet us.
-“Hola, paparante!”, she exclaims while extending her arms to hug Sampi.
-“Hola Eva linda!”, responds Sampi as he puts his arms around her. “De cuanto tiempo! Como va la isla, todo bien?  Y con la otra isla que tal?”.

As Sampi attempts to find out about the state of the island and its neighbourly relations, Eva simply smiles and shrugs, gives a quick neutral answer, and changes the subject.

From left to right: Rosario, Eva, and Olga, awaiting tourists in their
 traditional wear
Two years ago, the island for which Sampi has been nominated paparante became the ground for an unprecedented conflict between the two families who co-inhabited it.  One family had recently built a restaurant (the source of the money required for the investment remains a mystery to the other family to this day), which grew increasingly popular with tourist agencies; and which eventually brought in a significant, but imbalanced revenue to the island in favour of this family. 
One dispute led to the next and a few months later, it was decided that the Law of the Saw would be applied.
 In other word, the island (made uniquely of piled-up layers of totora reeds, a tall grass-looking plant that grows in the lake) would literally be cut in two with the help of a saw: one half for one family, and one half for the other. The first would keep the name of Maria, the second would take on the name of Eva Maria. 
End of the dispute.

The shape of Lake Titicaca reveals a feline chasing a rabbit
       The current situation is a long shot away from the state of peace, solidarity and harmony which pervaded this region in the beginnings of humanity, recounts the legend.

      According to it, the very first humans lived in the Andes under the protection of the all-powerful god Apu. The Apu ensured that the humans always had food, shelter, and protected them from wild animals….but under a single condition: that they do not climb the sacred mountain.

But the devil encouraged the humans to disobey the rule and climb up the mountain. Furious and disappointed, the Apu sent pumas down the mountain to devour the humans; after which the pumas turned to stone.  It is said that in the face of such disgrace, the Sun God Inti cried for forty days and forty nights until his tears inundated the valley, which became known as Lake Titicaca.

This legend would explain the etymology of the name given to this lake: in Aymara, “Titi” is “feline” and “kaka” is “stone” or “mountain”. Astonishingly, an aerial view of the lake reveals the clearly defined shapes of a feline chasing a rabbit.
View  of Lake Titicaca at sunset from Eva Maria island

 Jumping forward a few centuries.

Those who inhabit the islands today are overwhelmingly Quechua and Aymara people.  There are about forty islands with 2600 people living on them.  During his time as president, Fujimori had installed solar panels on some of the islands, so that at least a few gained access to electricity.  Additionally, the islands that have the most success with tourism now have the means to install electricity.

The island I am staying on for the week has no electricity (but the island with the restaurant next door does).
There is no Internet connection, but many households are equipped with cell phones, especially in cases where they have children going to school or university in Puno, the city nearest the lake shore.

The municipality of the Uros
The islands are more organized than they look. Each located on separate islands are three elementary schools; one general hospital; a small municipality; and even a cemetery.

But despite the improvements made over the years – often with financial support from the government- , life on the islands remains difficult.

The first obstacle is one often over-looked by tourists: the extremely harsh climate on the lake.
Tourists only visit the islands during the day, when the sun is shining and temperatures can rise up to 25 °C.  But as soon as the sun goes down, an icy cold penetrates up to various layers of clothing one is wearing, and there is no other option but to take refuge inside the little straw houses (far from being appropriately insulated) and under woolen covers.

Daytime is not much better: when the sun rays are at their strongest, they burn the skin of the people, despite their dark pigmentation.
“Before, it wasn't like this”, says Eva. “We could stay out all day and not burn our skin. Now we have to wear hats and long sleeves or else we get burned”.
Candelaria grinds wheat grains with the help of a half-circle-shaped rock

It isn't just an impression. Over the past few decades, a depletion in the ozone layer has been detected over this region of the Andes. In fact, a scientific study executed in 2009 by the University Santiago de Chile concluded that “the depletion strip has its lowest total ozone over the Andes Mountain Range”. 

The economic situation also constitutes an everyday struggle for many families.

 Until recently, the residents would exchange whatever aliments they grew on the islands (vegetables, potatoes, etc.) for rice, quinoa, and barley from nearby producers.  But the recent hike in the price of quinoa (its price rose by 86% only in 2013, according to a business article focused on Peru), due especially to North Americans’ new-found avidity for the much-hyped grain, has incited quinoa producers to instead sell their product on urban markets.

As a result, island residents must now buy cheap starches such as rice or pasta in Puno, and compliment their diet with fish they catch and birds they hunt. On most islands, meals are prepared in clay pots over wood fire.
Faced with this situation, many men of households have opted to find employment in the city, some even moving there altogether, leaving the islands to be managed by the women.

A totora boat especially built for tourists arrives at the island

Tourism helps.

On an organized rotational basis, agencies bring tourists to visit each island about once a week.  On this much awaited-occasion, the women put on their traditional wear, smile widely, give a quick tour of the island, and anxiously proceed to presenting their hand-made crafts to the visitors -mostly embroidery and jewelry-, hoping to obtain the highest price possible from the ignorant tourist. 

-“Thirty dollars! But I don’t have that much money!”, says a young American tourist hoping to buy a tapestry for his mother.
-“Yes you have. Ask your friend.”, casually responds Eva.

“I do what I have to in order to feed my family and pay for my daughters’ education”, says Eva, mother of three daughters. Es muy difícil. A while ago, we had such little income that I became depressed for about a month. Sometimes, we live sol by sol. It’s not like North Americans who receive a monthly salary and from there, can easily divide up their expenses”.

Eva and Candelaria had fun dressing me up in their traditional wear
Despite these difficulties, the Aymara women always find a way to entertain themselves. Together, they go and gather totora reeds (a perpetual activity necessary in order to replace the older decomposing layers at the bottom of the island floor), make embroidery, wash clothes, grind wheat, cook meals, and of course, giggle about their husbands and related intimate activities.

 As a gringa, I was initially treated by the women on the island more as a North American tourist than a friend of the paparante. But after a few conversations (thank God I spoke Spanish!) we bonded over common values, and simply as women – a bond so quickly ignited, yet surprisingly durable, one which I believe only us women are able to form among each other.

Sampi helping the Aymara women prepare a medicinal herb mixture to cure
their knees swollen from exposure to the cold
With more and more children leaving the islands to go to school in Puno, often times settling there for good, I wonder for how long life on the Uros will maintain its momentum. With tourism truly benefiting only a few select families on the islands, it seems as though those made better-off by the industry will stay, and those who do not benefit from it will gradually move to the city.

So if, as a tourist, you go visit these islands, ask your tour guide to visit the islands that receive the least tourists - they will know which ones. Or if you would like to spend a few days there, send me an email at and I will put you in contact with Sampi.