Ever since my 8th grade Spanish teacher taught our class about Lake Titicaca (to titters, naturally), I’ve been intrigued by the place. At thirteen, my conception of the world was still pretty limited; I never thought I’d actually go to this far-off place with the funny sounding name. Well, I recently did, and it definitely ranks up there with the most remote places I’ve ever ventured. The highest navigable lake in the world, at 12,507 feet (3,812 meters) above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia and is also the largest lake in South America. At that altitude the air is thin and crisp, the light, blindingly bright. Lake Titicaca spreads out like a vast mirage in the high plateau of the Andes. It seems like a pretty inhospitable place, yet people have been living there for a thousand years.
An absolutely fascinating “must” for tourists is to visit to the Floating Islands of the Uros (las Islas Flotantes de los Uros). Located not too far offshore from Puno, a moderately sized city in southern Peru, are between sixty-five and seventy manmade islands. Home to roughly 2,200 people, these floating islands are made from tortora reeds, a type of rush that grows native in the lake. Up to ten families live on the larger islands, while smaller ones, only about a hundred feet (thirty meters) wide, house only two or three.
To construct the islands, about three feet of the dense roots are piled high with another three feet of reeds that make up the top layer. The islands are then anchored with ropes attached to stakes driven into the bottom of the lake. Because of the water, the islands continuously rot away and must be replenished regularly by stacking more reeds on top of the layer beneath. Walking on las Islas Flotantes is as unusual an experience as you’d expect. The surface is uneven and spongy, and you hope against hope that you won’t somehow plunge through into the frigid lake below.
The Uros people lived on the shores of Lake Titicaca long before the Incas built their mighty empire. When the Incas did arrive, they moved their villages onto manmade islands out on the lake in order to elude taxes or worse—enslavement. Then, in the sixteenth century, along came the Spanish conquistadores. They, too, believed they Uros weren’t worth the trouble of “conquering.” It is for this reason that the Uros people were able to exist unfettered for so long. Over the years, the Uros traded with the Aymara tribe on the mainland, intermarrying with them and eventually abandoning their language for that of the Aymara. It’s believed that the last full-blooded Uros woman died in 1959.
The islanders use tortora reeds for everything. Besides building the islands themselves, the reeds are used in the construction of their houses, boats, beds, handicrafts and for food. It can even be used as a fever-reducer and hangover cure.
Residents of the islands wear layers of clothing made from alpaca wool to protect themselves from the bitter cold, wind, and harsh sun. Many women still wear the distinctive derby type hat and vibrantly colored skirts and petticoats.
The Uros people have learned to adapt with the times. Just because they live out on a lake doesn’t mean that they are out of touch with the rest of the world. Many of them have portable solar panels they use to power lights, radios, and even small black & white televisions. Tourism provides financial opportunities, while simultaneously challenging their traditional lifestyle. Our tour guide was emphatic that we not give any money to them; for fear that they’d come to expect handouts from future tourists and would change their way of life. Instead, he said the best way to support the Uros and their economy is to buy their handicrafts. I purchased a really cool mobile made from tortora reeds, featuring people on a traditional boat, overshadowed by sunburst and hummingbird. It’s hanging on my patio now, a reminder of this spectacular place and the wonderful people who live there.
How to get there: The most direct way to get to Las Islas Flotantes de los Uros is by flying from Lima to Juliaca, about a forty-minute drive from Puno. Our tour actually drove (via motor coach) through the Andes highlands from Cuzco. The trip was very long, but the dramatic landscapes made it worthwhile. (More about this in a future post.)
Here’s a video of one of the island’s inhabitants singing in the Aymara language:
Here are some more photos from my visit to Las Islas Flotantes de los Uros:
Have you heard of the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment in the section below!