Peru’s ephemeral floating islands, golden-hued and gracefully delicate, appear like a mirage in Lake Titicaca. But their origins, paradoxically, reflect the strength and tenacity of the native people who created them.
The Uros people, an ancient indigenous Peruvian tribe much older than the Incas who built Machu Picchu, migrated to Lake Titicaca 3,700 years ago. The astute Uros outsmarted the Incas who pushed into their territory many centuries later by hiding in the totora reeds that grow profusely along the shore of Lake Titicaca. The highest navigable lake in the world, it straddles Peru and Bolivia at 12,500 feet above sea level.
Yet, the Uros couldn’t remain hidden in the reeds forever. They eventually layered bundles of the dried buoyant reeds to create floating islands nine miles from the shore. The Uros anchored the islands with rope to eucalyptus posts secured in the lakebed, making them movable, if necessary, to escape the wrath of hostile invaders. The totora reed—a cattail-type rush with thick roots supporting the top layer—became the foundation of their entire culture, providing structure, transportation, and financial sustenance.
Not only did they outwit the Incas and survive, their descendants still live in reed houses on several dozen floating islands to this day.
For an otherworldly experience of the Uros culture, surrounded by steep Andean peaks and the blue glacial-fed waters of South America’s only large freshwater lake, make your way to Puno, Peru’s central port town on Lake Titicaca. Visitors can book a package or go at their leisure to the islands; options range from a 30-minute guided boat ride and lunch on an island to an overnight or weekend homestay.
When stepping off the boat, don’t be surprised when your feet sink between 2 and 4 inches or when you feel the springiness of those layered reeds instead of firm ground underfoot. Women in bright-colored full skirts step forward to greet and welcome you into their way of life, with customs such as air-drying fish, ground-baking Andean bread, and preparing a traditional soup of potato, onion, garlic, and fish in big black pots. Clay ovens must be set on a base of stones to ensure that reeds don’t catch fire and burn down the island. You may also receive an invitation into one of the communal homes for a visit and a chance to dress in a traditional costume for photos.
An interpreter will tag along to translate because most Uros people speak only Aymara—an endangered native language—while a few know Spanish. The island chief will also make an appearance, and he or another gentleman will explain how they cut the reeds with a spear-like knife on the end of a pole and add a new top layer of bundled reeds to the islands every two weeks as the bottom layer breaks apart and floats away. It takes them 18 months to build a new island, which must be done every 30 years, and three months to weave a balsa, their crescent-shaped boats used for transportation and fishing. Their homes must be reinforced regularly. More recently, the Uros incorporated recycled plastic bottles into the bundled reeds for increased buoyancy and lifespan, and to reduce plastic pollution. Each island typically contains several thatched-roof houses, which tend to belong to members of a single extended family.
While their lifestyle roughly mirrors that of their ancient ancestors, the Uros enjoy some basic modern advancements and comforts. Homes stay a bit dryer with corrugated metal roofs. Islands are solar-powered, and some inhabitants have mobile phones and television sets. Shower buildings have water-heating cells and hot-water boilers that provide warm water. Small outhouse islands with toilets are located where the ground roots help absorb the waste. Other islands house schools so children now have an opportunity for an education that their ancestors didn’t. A nearby natural island, Taquile, has a Uros-run FM radio station that plays music several hours a day.
The women weave textiles for clothing, and they spin and dye yarn but do not knit. Knitting is considered men’s work and is a highly prized talent; a marriage blessing is dependent upon a man’s knitting skill. Very self-sufficient, the Uros depend on barter to acquire most of what they need, trading birds and eggs for supplies on the mainland. They do earn money from fishing, but 80 percent of the Uros economy is based on tourism. Since they receive very little money from tour groups and boat tickets, they supplement their income by selling their reed handicrafts to tourists. Consider purchasing a handmade knitted hat, decorative textile, totora-woven toy, or basket, as this is an important boost to their economy. If you don’t see something you want to buy, you can always leave a donation.
Puno is easily accessible from a number of locations. It is less than 60 minutes by plane to Juliaca from Cusco, followed by a onehour drive to Puno. Visitors can also drive eight hours directly from Cusco to Puno, with views of high-desert mountains and farmland worth the journey. A scenic train ride from Arequipa to Puno takes five hours. From Lima, it takes two-and-a-half hours for the flight and drive. For any overland transport, it’s best to arrange a transfer via your hotel concierge or the official tourist information and assistance service at peru.travel/en/useful-data/iperu, 511-574-8000 or WhatsApp 511 944492314.
In Puno, you can book a guided day trip to the islands or take a taxi to the port and buy a ticket for an unguided boat that visits two islands. If you don’t go with a tour that includes lunch and a guide, you can buy a boat ticket at the port in Puno. And even if you go on your own, you can purchase lunch on an island at a simple restaurant.
Looking for an adventure diffused with culture and history? Add, the magical and mysterious floating Uros islands of Peru to your bucket list.