Today after breakfast we headed straight to our tour of Lake Titikaka, which sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia and is at the highest elevation of any lake of its size, well over 12,000 feet above sea level. The lake is most famous, however, for its floating islands, which is the whole reason we came to Puno in the first place.
The floating islands are completely man-made structures, woven out of a special reed that only grows in Lake Titikaka. There are over seventy of them on the lake, all located on the Peruvian side in the shallower part of the lake. The people who live on them are called the Uros, and they’ve been making – literally making – their homes on the lake for centuries. In fact, they believe that their way of life goes back to the dawn of time. They have their own language and their own traditions which they continue to practice today, along with a mix of Catholicism and pre-Columbian beliefs.
The islands are located about eight miles away from the docks in Puno, a quick trip for the motorized tour boats that ferry the visitors across. The islands seem to be an attraction not just for Americans and foreigners, but also Peruvian natives from other parts of the country. Our guide spent the ride explaining a bit about the islands, the people, and the history in both English and Spanish as we all looked out the windows at the sparkling lake and the mountains that surround it.
The boats approach the islands by first traveling through the marshy area where the lake is shallow enough for the reeds used in the islands construction to grow. The reeds poke up out of the water by a good three or four feet and are home to plenty of birds. They are also edible, though our guide recommended that anyone with a “weak stomach” – by which he most likely meant the gringos who can’t even drink the water – not eat any while we were there.
When the first islands came into view we all began snapping pictures like mad, even though it was only a tiny station where one of the Uros men seemed to verify that we were a legitimate tour group. As soon as we rounded the corner, however, it was like entering another world. The islands float in place on either side of a long canal, and then turn a corner out of sight. In the water between the two long rows, all manner of boats zip back and forth. There were plenty of tour boats like ours, but also small, private motor boats carrying individuals or families to a different island, or just floating while their occupants fished. But most striking of all, however, are the traditional reed canoes.
The Uros we met on our tour jokingly referred to these boats as the “Mercedes Benz” of the floating islands. They are made from the same reeds that make up the islands and the houses. Easily twenty feet from end to end, they consist of a double-decker platform atop two curved, logs-like strips of reeds. When the boats aren’t in use giving rides to tourists, the Uros hold races in them.
Our tour boat docked on one of the islands, a seemingly averaged size one about a hundred yards across with seven reed buildings and one made of what appeared to be tin. Stepping out onto the island is one of the most peculiar of experiences. The “ground” made of layers and layers of reeds that on the surface seem to be strewn about in no particular order. Even though you can’t feel the island rocking at all, the surface gives underneath your feet much more than regular ground. Looking down a your feet, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that five or six feet down is nothing but lake water.
Our group sat on some reed benches, and our guide and the president of the island answered our questions and showed us how the islands are created. The Uros make floating blocks out of the roots of the reeds, each one about a cubic foot if the examples they showed us were any indication. A stake is driven through each block, and rope is used to lash them together into an uneven, floating platform. Reeds are then stacked on top of the blocks, each layer going on in a different direction. Each island will last for about forty years, but twice a month the islanders need to add a new layer of reeds to the entire island.
The island president had everything necessary for a model of the whole process, even the houses that go on top (also made of reeds) and the moist, earthy platforms they have to put under their ovens so that the whole island doesn’t catch on fire when they cook. He then encouraged us to dig down a little into the reeds at our feet. We were all hesitant – what if water started gushing up? – but we did, and even though nothing started sinking, there was still a lot moisture. This, he explained is why the houses all sit on platforms.
The islanders had us divide into groups so that they could show us their houses. Six families live on this particular island, most of them seeming to be young couples with small children who ran around flying kites or crying to their mothers. The houses are small – only one room each – but they each have solar panels outside, and the Uros were proud to show off the fact that they have radios, televisions, and computers. As surreal as it is to see modern electronics in a traditional community on a floating island, there they are.
The islands definitely exist in a symbiotic relationship with the mainland. They have a primary school for their children, but the teachers all come from Puno, commuting back and forth each day. The islanders also depend on the mainland for most of their food and virtually all of their supplies, and they make their living mostly off fishing and tourism. After showing us their houses, they immediately set up a “mini-market” in the central open space with handicrafts.
In some ways, it’s always a little sad to see communities who depend on tourism to survive. It feels a little like they exist to be gawked at. In the case of the Uros on the island, it’s obvious that they’ve been through this routine so many times that it’s long since gotten old for them. It’s like any job that requires you to say the same things over and over; eventually “Would you like fires with that?” stops sounding like real words anymore. On Lake Titikaka, though it’s not a job, but an intrusion into their real lives. These people put on a show for us in their own home, where they live and eat and raise their children. It’s hard to imagine having to live like that.
Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem like the Uros live on their islands solely because they can make a living off tourists, but rather that the tourists allow them to continue the way of life their community values. So the tourism in that way is, I suppose, a good thing. Probably annoying, but theoretically better than the alternative.
Overall, the islands are an incredible place where people create their own worlds out of these thin little sticks poking up out of the water. They live their lives within the banks of a lake, literally a float at all times. I don’t know if it’s a testament of human ingenuity or the value of living in tandem with the natural world or what, but I was impressed enough that I actually bought a necklace even though I rarely buy handicrafts for myself. I wanted some bit of this place to take with me.