Lake Titicaca sits like a huge ink stain across the altiplano between Bolivia and Peru. Foreign tourists flock there to visit the Isla del Sol, the mythical birthplace of the sun and the Incan civilisation. A much more kitsch tourist experience, however, can be found just five kilometres offshore from the Peruvian city Puno.
The Islas Flotantes de los Uros, or the Floating Islands of the Uros, are between twenty and forty natural islands consisting of several metres of detached soils and roots that form bobbing mats in the water.
The island inhabitants, the Uros-Aymara people, grouped this buoyant earth together to form enlarged islands and heaped a metre or so of dried native reeds called totora on top to form a solid, if slightly spongy, ground. Finally,they anchored the mass so their location wouldn’t move during wet season. And then they set up home.
They have lived a relatively peaceful life for centuries, undisturbed by the mainland Incan warriors and close to their main source of food; fish.
I took a boat tour from Puno across to the islands one crisp, sunny day to see what it was all about.
As we neared the islands, our eyes were assailed by a community of straw. The houses, the ground – even the ornate boats, the only form of transport between islands – were made entirely of totora. The Uro-Aymara women, wearing traditional skirts, hats and jackets of fluorescent oranges, pinks and greens, stood ashore waving enthusiastically as our boat approached.
I soon learned why they were so enthusiastic as they cleverly exploited what was for us the novelty of their lifestyle to extract a large amount of plata (silver, Spanish for ‘lots of mullah’ – you can read about the etymological origins here) from us in exchange for woven artwork and clothing.
Despite the success of the tourism industry and the relative comfort of their lifestyles (each reed hut was lavishly equipped with solar panels and cables to power their 1980s television sets), these people were most likely the last of the generation of island inhabitants. Their children had to attend secondary education in Puno and eventually moved there to be closer to friends and to live more modern lifestyles.
It was difficult to tell how much of what we witnessed was authentic and what was simply a tourist farce for the purposes of extracting more money from these wealthy naive gringos.
As we bobbed on the waters in a traditional boat from one island to the next, I expressed my appreciation for the ornate hull. The boat rower patted the reeds and boasted: ‘Coca Cola!’
One thousand and five hundred empty plastic coca cola bottles were keeping us afloat, disguised in layers of reed.
Yet one was still able to appreciate the original traditional lifestyle of these once-secluded peoples, and the novelty and uniqueness of their circumstances (not to mention their photogenic location!) was well worth the three hours and twenty Peruvian soles ($8) for another fascinating experience.
Want to see more of Peru?
Peru has got so much more natural, cultural and history beauty, it’s easy to spend weeks here. Here are just some of the other adventures you can undertake: