In October 2022 we visited the Uros communities on their floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. I wondered why would their ancestors chose to create and live on floating islands, when there’s so much open land altiplano surrounding the lake. It seemed like a challenging existence.
According to legend, the Uru (or Uros) people originated in the Amazon region and migrated to the area of Lake Titicaca in the pre–Columbian era, where they were oppressed by the local population and unable to secure land of their own.1 Another source added that the Uros people considered themselves the owners of the lake and the water and that they had black blood because they did not feel the cold.2 A third resource said the island settlements was originally defensive; if a threat arose, the floating islands could be moved to a safer location. Recent genetic studies on the Uros people suggest that they may be descendants of these first settlers to arrive in the Lake Titicaca area about 3,700 years ago.3
So that explained why they started living on floating islands but left me wondering why they still live there. Local conflict seemed a thing of the past.
When we visited the Uros people, they demonstrated how they construct their islands and what their lives are like today. The construction part was fascinating. They cut chunks of the thick, buoyant root balls of the totora reeds which grow in the shallows of the lake edge. They then tie these together and cover them in layers of the reeds. They periodically add new layers as the bottom layers rot away. Many of the islands measure about 50 by 50 feet and we visited one larger one that was about half the size of a football field. Walking on them felt like walking on a straw-covered waterbed.
The first island we visited had four or five small, one-room houses surrounding a central communal area. The people living there were related families, and worked together on many things. After demonstrating how they built both the islands and their reed boats, they invited us into the house of the presenter’s family. There was room for just two beds—about the size of our double beds. One was for mamá and papá and the other for their three children. There was a small open area inside, but we got the impression that most of their living took place outside. It must have been difficult in winter weather. The houses were up on platforms because the damp cold rising from the reed beds can cause many health problems. Our hosts shared that privacy is difficult to find, so when a couple wanted to have intimate together, there was a small special boat that was easy to hide in the reeds. The wife smilingly added “three trips to the reeds was enough for me.”
I got the impression that they preferred living on the lake, taking their reed boats or small motorboats to other islands, or to Puno for shopping or school. But that might have been the story for the tourists. I couldn’t tell. I also discovered that historically most of the islands were located near the middle of the lake. But in 1986, after a major storm devastated the islands, many Uru rebuilt closer to shore, which is how we saw them on our visit.
I can see how the freedom of living on an island that is tethered to a long eucalyptus pole—able to move if you don’t like your neighbors—might be attractive. But all the other activities of daily living might be very difficult. Overall, the trip was like something out of a National Geographic article. And I’d highly recommend adding a trip to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca to your bucket list or to your next trip to Peru or Bolivia.
- Foer, Joshua (February 25, 2011). “The Island People: The seventh hidden wonder of South America”. Slate. Archived from the original on October 7, 2016.