The Uros floating islands are perhaps the main attractions on Lake Titicaca. The people inhabiting these islands predate even the Incan civilisation, thought to have moved onto the lakes to escape other belligerent tribes. There, undisturbed by warring factions, the isolated Uros found relative peace and scraped a living as fishermen and bird hunters. To this day, the population on the islands speak Aymara, an ancient dialect. Those on the island lead a simple life; their main source of income used to be from fishing, but today, their livelihoods are very much dependent on tourism. Until recently, the only option for visiting the islands was a day trip from Puno, but recent options for accommodation on Uros have opened up the opportunity of better experiencing the unique life on these islands.
We opted for one such homestay on a floating island. We left the hotel bright and early to be taken down to the waterfront by rickshaws. A 30-minute boat trip cutting through the famed reeds then took us to Khantati Island, where we were welcomed by a very friendly family, led by the glowing personality of Cristina Suaña. An Uros native, she has won numerous accolades for her tourism initiatives by emphasising sustainable tourism, ensuring a sustainable source of income for islanders, and promoting ecological and cultural preservation of the distinctive islands.
The uniqueness of the islands is due to their construction. They are created entirely out of totora reeds, indigenous to the shallow parts of the lake. The lives of the Uros people are intertwined with these reeds. Not only are their islands constructed out of layers of dried totora and root-bound soil blocks, these ubiquitous reeds are also used in the construction of their houses and boats. The heart of the reeds are partially edible, tasting a bit like sugar cane, but we were warned against eating the reed due to the risks of food poisoning. Walking on the floating islands is a special experience. On a totora island, walking is like trying to balance on a waterbed, as the surface bounces beneath you when it is dry but is more easily compressed when wet, with every step sinking further into a seemingly bottomless layer of reeds. Many traditional Uros spend their entire lives on top of and surrounded by totora reeds.
Our day on Khantati Island was spent experiencing the everyday life of the Suaña family. These included helping with the construction of new reed huts and a brief tour on a reed boat with Cristina’s husband Victor. Amid gentle breezes and swaying winds, Victor, decked out in traditional clothing, explained the process of reed harvesting and fishing, indigenous practices that are still occasionally carried out today. Returning to the island, we also dressed up in traditional Uros clothing and had another lengthy photoshoot.
Finally, we were privy to the rare task of island expansion. To expand their islands, the Uros cut out blocks of the dense totora root system. The blocks of roots are woven together and anchored to the bottom of the lake, holding the islands in place. From these foundations, layers of dried totora are layered perpendicularly on top, and the layers are finally topped up with reed chips. It can take up to a year to construct a new island. While islands last around 25 years, new layers have to be constantly added because of rotting.
Unfortunately, that was largely the extent of our experiences on the island, and further arrangements of activities and experiences were found wanting. Perhaps this is the downside to living in such a secluded community; the hyper-relaxed pace means that one’s life on the islands revolves largely around menial and mundane tasks.
Today, their way of life is threatened by numerous sources. Trout, widely fished from the lake, is not indigenous to Titicaca; in fact, the species found in the lake today was introduced from Canada. Thriving trout has in turn led to overfishing by commercial fishermen, and the resulting pollution has led to decreased numbers of endemic fish species. A second problem is the growing number of tourists, which has caused increased pollution and sewage problems. These have resulted in increasing environmental and health problems which threaten the way of life of the Uros.
The Uros floating islands also present one of the most conflicting sides of this form of ecotourism. Our trip to the islands felt contrite and forced throughout. In particular, we were visited by families from neighbouring islands touting reed-related and weaved souvenirs. Rather than feeling as though we contributed to their livelihoods, I was left feeling uncomfortable without an authentic understanding of the Uros’ lifestyles. Cultural tourism provides one of the only means of income for the Uros, but at the same time, cultural tours and encroaching technology have irreversibly altered the traditional way of life, forcing many into hawking merchandise just to survive.
In an age where authentic floating island life is becoming increasingly uncommon, most islands have their own motorboats and radios, and some islanders even commute in from Puno to pretend that they lead their daily lives on these islands. It is clear that cultural tourism has inadvertently placed a strain on traditional ways of life, forcing indigenous people to “put on a show” for the sake of tourism. The end result is an experience that leaves much to be desired on both sides.
All in all, we would probably recommend not staying more than half a day on the Uros floating islands. While interesting at first, the lack of activities was more suited to those who prefer a more laid-back lifestyle. In particular, we struggled to see why the tour guide provided by Edgar Adventures was necessary for our homestay. This was partially redeemed by the wonderful hospitality and joviality of Cristina, and to know that most of our money had gone to Cristina’s family for the development of sustainable tourism, rather than a tour agency, was comforting.
We departed the islands the next day and transferred to Juliaca Airport, about an hour away from Puno. From there, we took a short flight to our next destination Cuzco, the ancient capital of Peru. Our travels around Puno and Lake Titicaca were somewhat of an interlude on our journey from La Paz to Cuzco. While it was certainly curious to experience some aspects of the traditional way of life, the growth of tourism threatens and moulds what “authentic” life truly means today.