Long before the Inka conquered their way across South America, the high mountain lake of Titicaca was home to one of the region’s most interesting indigenous cultures. Hidden in the mists of the lake and camouflaged into the vast expanses of lake reeds, the Uros lived on their own floating islands. I’m sure when the Spanish finally arrived, the stories of the people of the lake were thought to be only myths. And yet, the Uros are far from just a myth. They still to this day have preserved their unique way of living on Lake Titicaca and if you happen to find yourself in the region, a tour of their floating islands is a great experience.
The Uros people have called this lake home for hundreds of years. While most people only visit the one community close to Puno, Peru, the Uros people actually have island communities spread throughout the lake, on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. It is believed that the Uros people first ventured onto the lake due to tribal violence. The islands themselves are the perfect defensive strategy, capable of being moved if threatened by a neighboring community.
Over time the Uros people in the region of Puno grew closer and closer to their mainland brothers, intermarrying and eventually losing their own language in favor of that of the mainland Aymara. And yet, despite the assimilation, the Uros kept main of their original traditions, most notably the floating islands.
The islands themselves are made of totora reeds found in plentiful supply growing along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Totora reed is the most important element of the Uros culture, used to build their islands, the homes that sit on top of the islands, the boats they use to fish and trade with the mainland, and it is even used as a food source and for medicinal purposes. Totora is everything to the Uros.
The actual construction of the islands is quite fascinating. Each island is first constructed with blocks of totoro reed roots. The plant forms dense root systems that create a floating layer a few meters thick called Khili. The roots are cut into blocks, floated together, and then tied to form the base of the islands. As the reeds decompose though, new reeds need to be added to the top of the island, forming layer upon layer of reeds. Each island must be constantly maintained to avoid it breaking apart and sinking and even with good maintenance, each island will only last about 30 years.
I learned all of this and saw the process up close as part of a tour of the island while visiting Puno, Peru. In the same way the Uros embraced their mainland brothers and assimilated into the Aymara culture, today the Uros have equally embraced the world of tourism. As soon as I arrived in Puno, tour operators in the bus station swooped in to sell me a full day tour of the islands. Most visitors to the islands sign up for full or half day tours though if you find the right connection in Puno, you can also spend the night on the islands in a family-run guest house.
I arrived in Puno from Bolivia and was immediately impressed by the professionalism of the tour operators here. Most offer an English speaking guide if you request one, all the boats left right on time in the morning, the guides were incredible respectful of the Uros people, and the whole experience was very educational. It was quite different that my “here’s the Island of the Sun, walk that way” experience of tourism on the Bolivian side of the lake.
For some people on our tour, the well run experience was a disappointment. Some people even claim that the Uros don’t really exist anymore – the islands are simple a cultural museum display used to rob tourists of their money. Not only is this attitude disrespectful to the Uros people, it is also untrue. Yes, the islands where tourists visit do have an artificial air to them and many of the remaining 4000+ Uros people now live on the mainland, having completely given up their nomadic floating island lifestyle. However, beyond the collection of islands near Puno, other Uros communities still remain on the lake, full time and living in their traditional ways.
This might not always be the case though and each year, as the tourism of the islands bring in money, more and more of the younger generation Uros are able move to the mainland for school. The islands themselves only have limited primary schools and as you tour the islands, you will notice a lack of many older children. Whether or not the Uros people continue to live on the lake will probably be decided in part by the tourism trade that has now developed here to support these communities.
Keep in mind though that the Uros people have survived conquering outsiders before. When the Inka arrived, the land-less Uros were seen as the bottom of the food-chain so to speak and mostly ignored by the powerful kingdom. And yet, these small floating island communities outlasted that same great empire. When the Spanish arrived, the Uros used their best defensive strategy, moving their islands and avoiding contact as much as possible.
Today, tourism has overtaken the islands. You will now see Uros men using the old watchtowers to get better cell phone reception and a floating, boat “corner store” even zips around the islands selling cigarettes and candy bars. And yet, the Uros are still here, still building their reed island homes and keeping up their traditions, as they have for hundreds of years. The Uros culture might be changing but it is not going anywhere.