Machu Picchu had been on my bucket list for a very long time, as was viewing the macaw clay licks in the Peruvian Amazon basin, but I knew little about the floating islands of Uros. Luckily, Lisa, my travel consultant at Holbrook Travel, suggested a few days in the Lake Titicaca area and the floating islands of Uros as an extension to our trip. I’m so glad she did; it’s an experience not to be missed! We stayed at the Hotel Libertador, situated on a private island on Lake Titicaca a few miles from the town of Puno. Every room has a wonderful view of the lake and with my binoculars I could see the islands in the distance.
After breakfast, we walked down the steep steps from the hotel parking lot to the boat launch for our tour to the islands. Descending the stairs my lungs acknowledged that we were at a higher altitude than even Cusco or Machu Picchu. At over 12,500 feet, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America.
Recent studies associated with the National Geographic’s Genographic Project indicate that the ancestors of today’s Uros people settled in this area of Peru about 3,700 years ago. Repeated invasions by various groups, including the Incas and Spanish conquistadors, drove the Uros to establish an existence on the lake, building large floating islands. The totora reed, which grows abundantly along the lake, became the cornerstone of their lives. These floating reeds form the basis of their islands, and the reeds are also used to build their boats, houses, furniture and handicrafts. Approximately 2000 people inhabit over 100 floating islands, maintaining the same way of life as their ancestors did, centuries ago. Today, tourism also funds their lifestyle, and we were one boatload of such tourists, headed off to learn more about this unique way of life.
The lake was calm and the bright blue sky was dotted with clouds as we sped through the waterways between the reeds. The multiple boats transporting tourists alternate to the various islands so that each family has an opportunity to earn some money.
My first impression of “our” island was the riot of bright colors – from the bright yellow arches of reeds and reed boats to the hot pink and neon green skirts of the women as they lined up along the shore to greet us. Before we had even docked, the youngest village member hopped on our boat and smiled through the window, then helped tie up our boat.
It was the first time I disembarked from a boat that the land felt less stable than when we had been at sea. Our shoes sunk 2-4 inches in the reeds at each step. I felt as if I was walking on a huge, squishy sponge as we made our wobbly way to a semicircular “bench” of woven reeds.
The head of the family here gave a demonstration on the construction of these floating islands. The dense roots of the totora reeds interweave to form a natural base that serve as the main flotation and stability devices of the island. The Uros hand-saw large blocks of these roots that are then tied together and anchored. Multiple layers of cut reeds are then placed on top. The resulting structure is about 6 – 8 feet thick.
Constant maintenance is required, as the reeds start to rot away and disintegrate, and new layers must be added. Islands that receive a lot of tourists must replace the reeds every few weeks or months, depending on the weather, but if well maintained, an island can last up to 30 years.
The Lake Titicaca ecosystem has provided the Uros with everything they need. In addition to building with the reeds, the totora roots are also used for nutrition and medicinal purposes. Fish in the lake provide the main source of proteins and eggs from the local ibis and cormorants are also collected.
Traditional fishing boats of reeds are similar to dug-out canoes. Brightly painted boats with large animal-head prows are used mainly for tourism now, and we are given a choice of which we would like to try.
We visit a second island to learn more about family life on the islands. One family lives here – the mother and father with their children, spouses of the married children and a few grandchildren. They live a traditional life here with the aid of a few modern conveniences. Solar panels provide electricity and their boats are powered by motors when not transporting tourists. A nearby island houses the elementary school for the area; secondary students travel to the mainland for school. One of the young adult women is attending university in Puno, majoring in hospitality and tourism.
We visit individual houses and learn more about their daily life. The woman of the house also explains some of their native dress and customs. Pom poms attached to the braids are only proper for married women to wear. “Engaged” couples live together for a period of time, and only after it is determined that they will make a good life together are they officially married.
The women also show off their intricate woven and appliquéd fiber handicrafts, and most of us purchase at least one treasure to take home.
Before we leave our home visits, we are given traditional clothing to try on, and it is a colorful, smiling group that poses for a picture with our new friends.
The Uros people we meet seem to be maintaining a fair balance of preserving their traditional way of live and adapting to modern society. At least some of the young folks are intent on using higher education to help their families manage the influx of tourism in a beneficial manner. I do wonder how long it will be before the younger generations reject these traditions and prefer to enter into an urban life away from the islands. I feel lucky to have been given this chance to visit and learn about this unique culture that has existed for centuries.