The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Saint Augustine
Floating Uros Islands

The boat was still swaying gently in the water of Lake Titicaca as I reached for the outstretched hand of the young man in the colorful chullo (Peruvian hat). I wasn’t sure what to expect as I stepped from the boat onto the floating island. After only a moment though, I sensed a familiar motion. At home I sleep on a waterbed mattress that undulates slightly when I climb into bed. I had the same sensation when I stepped from the boat onto the thick layer of totora reeds.

As I lurched toward the center of the island for an orientation and demonstration of island building, my feet sank into the soft carpet of honey gold reeds. My fellow tourists and I took our seat on the long roll of dried reeds that had been strapped together with reed rope to form an L-shaped seating area. In front of us was a large sign which showed Lake Titicaca, welcomed us to the island and provided the elevation, depth, surface and other particulars of the lake.

These floating islands have been home to the Uros tribe since Pre-Inca times. To avoid the oppression and intimidation of the Collas, the Incas who dominated the mainland, the Uros isolated themselves on the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca. There the tribe of adept fishermen and hunters of waterfowl continued their culture and maintained their traditions. Initially they lived on fishing boats built out of the totora reeds that grow in abundance around the lake. Over time they built bigger boats and added reed huts as protection from the elements.

Our guide explained that the Uros later built islands atop large blocks of porous, buoyant rootballs of the totora reeds, a practice they continue to this day. Each of the families sharing an island brings one floating root block or quili. These quilis are tied together by rope then anchored by eucalyptus poles to keep the island from being washed away. The island we were on was held in place by 15 poles.

To build the islands, many layers of reeds are interwoven on top of the quilis. The Uros take about one year to build an island. Adding houses takes another year. Since the reeds on the bottom of the island quickly rot and return to the lake bottom, a fresh layer of reeds is added frequently to maintain the island and to prevent fire. Although the lake bottom may be 12 – 30 meters/about 40 – 100 feet deep, the island bed is less than two meters/6 feet deep.

Lake Titikaka island
As the bottom layer of reeds rot and fresh layers are added, houses must be lifted occasionally to avoid having them sink into the lake. The island is abandoned after 30 to 40 years when the quili rots and looses its buoyancy.
Uros Island solar panel
Each island is home to up to ten families. The spacious island we were on was home to six families. When a couple marries, a portion of the island is cut off to form a new island. The new island is increased in size by adding more of the buoyant corklike root blocks. There are 30 to 40 islands although the number varies depending on the needs of the families.

Homes on the island seem to be quite comfortable despite the lack of some modern conveniences available in the home of most European and Western visitors. Even though homes have no common electrical source, power to some homes is provided by solar panels. After spending a night on one of the islands a few years ago, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujumori convinced the government to provide 50% subsidy for the solar panels. Roofs of the homes are waterproof. However, there is no way to avoid the pervasive moisture which leads to a prevalence of arthritis among island residents.
Uros Island television
Lorenzo, one of the island’s residents, allowed us to peak inside his one room home. It was lighted with a compact fluorescent bulb attached to the ceiling beam. He had a television set, a portable radio, a matrimonial bed and another bed for his two children. The floor was covered with wooden boards. I saw only one outdoor toilet to serve all island families. I chose not to pursue the question of what happens to the waste.
Uros Island outhouse
The dress of men and women appear to serve both practicality and tradition. Most of the women wear colorful full skirted layers of clothing, made mostly of woolen fabrics, and designed to protect them from the frigid wind and damaging effects of fierce sunlight reflected off the high altitude lake waters. Setting atop their heads adorn with waist length long braids is the traditional bowler hat. While some men wear the traditional chullo with ear flaps, most of them seem to have adopted the western style baseball cap with long sleeve shirts and long pants including occasional blue jeans.

Almost every island has a fish farm. Fish, especially trout, are caught in the surrounding lake and stored in the small net enclosed area until the smaller fish mature. The matured fish are then taken to markets on the Uros Island fish farmmainland where they are sold or traded for other goods needed to sustain life on the islands such as quinoa, barley, beans, and yams. Some islanders grow potatoes in quili sections.

About 2,500 descendants of the Uros people live on the islands. The last full-bloodied Uros died in the late 50’s. Today the Uros have intermarried with the Aymara and Quetcha tribes from the mainland. Uros Island church

Islanders worship at either the Catholic or Seventh Day Adventist church on the island. Although there is a health center, islanders don’t trust doctors so they prefer their own medicines. Children attend the local elementary school but must go to Puno for high school and Uros Island schooluniversity. Deceased family members are buried in a cemetery on the mainland.

Much of the Uros tribe’s subsistence is based on the omnipresent totora reed. In addition to using it to carpet the islands, they use dried reeds to build houses, boats, containers and to make souvenirs. Clay stoves set on small quili sections are fired with dried reeds. They eat Uros bananas, the tender spongy bottoms of the reed. The reeds are an abundant source of fiber and iodine and are also good for the tonsils. They are a major part of a pregnant woman’s diet.

Chumi, the flower of the reed, is used to make medicinal tea to prevent colds. Reeds are wrapped around an injury to
absorb disease. Over 80 species of waterfowl, including ducks, ibis and geese make their homes in the reeds of Lake Titicaca as do carachi, a small perch-like fish.

In th
eir spare time, Uros women make colorful tapestries and the men make reed or balsa boats, the name used by the islanders. To take advantage of visiting tourists, residents display their tapestry, pottery, small reed boats, jewelry and other goods directly on the island bed or on cloth covered wooden planks. For 75 Sol or US $25, I purchaed a 42 X 26 inch alpaca wall hanging depicting daily life on the island and a small souvenir balsa boat with a little house on top. Even though bargaining is a way of life in Peru, I didn’t pursue the pastime with my usual vigor in my transaction for these treasures.

At the end of our visit to that island, we climbed aboard one of the reed boats for a $15 Sol or US $5 ride to another island where we met our motor boat. Before we left, however, four of the residents demonstrated their appreciation for our visit by singing two songs in their language then surprised us by singing two songs in English – “Bring Back My Bonnie to Me” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.
Uros Island totora reed boat
The ride to the next island took about 20 minutes. Our dual prow pontoon like balsa boat provided two levels of seating. Most of us climbed to the upper level for the best view. The boat was propelled by a male rower on one side and a female rower on the other side. The woman was accompanied by her daughter. Like most Peruvian mothers, island mothers take their young children along as they perform their daily chores.

As our motorboat sped away to our next stop, I looked back at the floating Uros islands and smiled in the wonder at what I had just seen. I was amazed and delighted that I had experienced, even for a brief moment, a culture that has existed for thousands of years and continues to thrive. I prayed that the strong, determined Uros tribe will again resist the encroaching outsiders and succeed in maintaining their unique culture and traditions.

If you go

The Uros islands are part of the Titicaca National Reserve, created in 1978 to preserve 37,000 hectares of marsh reeds in the south and north sectors of Lake Titicaca.

The boat ride from the Puno, the nearest town on the mainland, to the Uros Islands takes about 30 minutes. Tours can be arranged through most Puno tour agencies.
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