THE UROS FLOATING ISLANDS OF TITICACA
This giant lake is one of the most important in South America, found at the southern border of Peru with Bolivia sharing almost half of the body of water. The word “Titicaca” translated from Aymara actually means “puma rock”. Titicaca is considered to be the largest lake in South America by volume and boasts the highest altitude for a navigable body of water. It’s higher than Machu Picchu, so the air is thin, and it’s definitely too cold to swim there.
It turns out there are plenty of reasons to visit Titicaca. One of the biggest draws is a group of islands that are probably different than any place you’ve ever been. They’re man-made and called the Uros Islands, named for the Uru legendary people who inhabit them.
These floating land masses are made entirely of river reeds that grow in the lake. The root system of the reeds is naturally buoyant, and new reeds are constantly being scattered over the top of the lake’s surface so that when the old ones get waterlogged, the new ones keep the island afloat. It’s a strange concept for us land-dwellers—living on an island of floating grass—but the natives have been doing it for hundreds of years. Originally the locals could move their island if there was a conflict with another tribe, but today the islands are connected to each other and anchored to the bottom of the lake.
To visit the islands, you can grab one of the small ferry boats that run continuously back and forth from the nearby coastal town of Puno or set up an inexpensive excursion that gets you a guide and a lift to the ferry. There’s a small service fee for entry to the Uros Islands themselves, where you’ll see reed boats sailing around the shores, their banana-shaped hulls looking ever-so-slightly alien, with strange, painted animal heads—also fashioned from reeds—jutting from the front of each vessel.
You’ll be greeted by the Uros native people upon arrival and invited to disembark. Stepping onto the island feels a bit like walking on a straw covered mattress. Just a few feet below you is the lake, the reeds under your feet the only thing separating you from its icy depths. Most of the islands are made up of just a few families who live in straw huts. Though technology is visibly absent, there are often a few solar panels to provide the residents with electricity at night, which also allows them to watch the single local TV channel.
The inhabitants explain how their island is created and maintained in a sort of “show”. This also includes some time to buy handmade textiles from the Islanders. Using props constructed from the reeds, the residents demonstrate how they live, with special insight into what they eat and how they cook without setting their floors on fire. After a couple of dances, the locals sing a song and you’re permitted to check out their homes and even pose for a selfie with one of their typical dress. One of the most interesting things about the Uros is their dependency on the reeds, which are used for food, medicine, boats, furniture, fans, souvenirs—and, of course, to add on to the island itself. Almost everything in sight is constructed from these plants. The resident chickens and assorted farm animals walk around as if living on a pile of weeds is perfectly normal. You won’t see any cattle though; they’re likely to fall through the straw or eat the island.
After you’ve checked out the village, you’re invited to board the massive reed boat for a sailing trip past the neighboring islands, most of which are roughly the same size and tied together much like moored ships. The large, community-owned boat is powered by two heavy oars that are nearly impossible to for newcomers to steer or row with. The locals sit or stand on the long reed pontoons that curve from the back to propel the boat. Most of the islands have no more than four or five families, so the entire town turns out to sing goodbye to you in their own language. At the end of your boat tour, a ferry zooms ahead to pick you up on a different island. All in, the entire tour of the Uros Islands can be done in around three hours, and it’s doubtful you’ve ever seen anything like that.