The Uros floating islands are a group of more than 80 man-made reed platforms constructed in the middle of frigid Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Thousands of Uros, a pre-Inca civilisation, still lives today on those floating villages to maintain an ancestral culture which they share happily (and for some money) with visitors from all over the world.
As we arrived early at Puno, we boarded one of the first morning boats for a 30-minutes ride from the port to the main Uros archipelago. We passed dozens of artificial islets inhabited by the ancient Uros tribe, each structure accommodating a group of one to ten families. Since always, the Uros have subsisted by fishing, hunting wild birds and gathering bird eggs. Today the "floating" communities rely increasingly on the growing Peruvian tourism by selling trinkets to tourists.
Their unusual lifestyle has changed little since the Inca civilisation. The "people of the lake" have maintained their distinctive customs but the modern world is catching up. Progress and technology are slowly reaching them as they multiply their contact with the mainland. Solar panels complement their basic huts. Wooden boats with outboard motors are used for fishing. Kids leave every day the islets for schools on the mainland. Metal roofs are replacing the traditional ones made of reed.
Our motorised boat approached a tiny islet, and we disembarked as indigenous women welcomed us with huge smiles and local songs. Walking on the Uros floating island felt a little bizarre. It was unstable and kind of spongy. We weren't on the boat anymore nor were we on the dry land.
The Uros woman invited us to explore the different huts used as bedrooms, kitchens and communal buildings. The structures were humid and cold. With no heaters, we couldn't imagine how they could live all year long in such hard and inhospitable environment.
We sat around our guide and learned about the Titicaca ancient inhabitants and the Uros floating island. Urus have for centuries isolated themselves on the lake to escape the Inca and Colla cultures, the Spanish conquistadors and later the Peruvian government. First, they survived on fishing vessels made of cut totora, a reed that grows abundantly in the shallow of the Lake Titicaca. The boats turned into bigger platforms constructed using the same buoyant material. They erected simple huts and sometimes watchtowers on the biggest structure and lived isolated from the world in peace.
The construction process hasn't changed for centuries. The dense roots of totora are cut into large squares and are used a foundation to support the platform which is made of layer after layer of thick totora. The islands are anchored but can be moved if needed. Handy if you get into a fight with your neighbour. The self-fashioned islands take weeks to build and need continual maintenance. The reed keeps rotting from the bottom and the indigenous people need to keep adding fresh layers of dried up reeds on top.
The plants are used to build everything and anything on their islands including furniture and handicrafts. Plus, the inside white part is part of the islanders’ diet. We tried it. The bottom part of the fresh reed wasn’t so bad to taste. Like the coca leaves, totora has various medicinal properties such as iodine supplements or treating wounds.
For 10 extra sol, we jumped into a reed raft decorated with two puma heads at the prow. We glided to a neighbouring island before heading back to Puno, leaving behind a sublime scenery and a fascinating culture.
The Uros floating islands were a unique and "authentic" travel to the past. Of course, the Uros floating islands were touristic and highly commercialized. The community has found a new way of subsidence. But if our money allows them to maintain their ancestral tradition, a respectful tourism can be all bad. By the way we visited the unusual habitat earlier in the morning, and we had a more intimate experience as the hordes of tourists were still sleeping in Puno.
Have you been to the Uros floating islands? Did the commercialized factor bother you? Did you go early in the morning to avoid the tourists? Please share your thoughts and comments below.