Our boat skimmed along the water, the early morning surface of Peru's Lake Titicaca so still it looked like glass. The surrounding Andes Mountains stretching seemingly right to the waters edge, serving a stark reminder of our location at the roof of South America. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at an elevation of 3,812m (12,506 ft). The air is thin, the sunlight intense and the temperature cold.
As we made our way to the centre of the lake, our captain set a course for a large series of structures. Nearing closer, I saw they were islands — made entirely of reeds. We passed by a few of these man-made reed islands complete with half a dozen single-level reed homes. Between the islands, small banana-shaped reed boats zipped along, the water becoming a busy highway.
Our captain slowed the motor and effortlessly, from having done the same manoeuvre a thousand times, slid up to one of the largest islands. Quickly, a few local men went to work securing our boat to their floating home.
On South America’s largest lake, the ancient Uros communities still live on islands made entirely of reeds. The Uros are a pre-Incan people, and, according to tradition, they are believed to be descended from a 1,000-year-old town that originally owned the lake and all its water. Living on floating reed islands became a way of life due to its strategic defensive benefits — they could easily move the islands to avoid threats. Some of the large floating islands even have reed watchtowers to keep an eye out for potential attackers.
These small communities make a livelihood from fishing, selling their handmade reed crafts and trinkets, and showing the occasional traveller around their floating town. Totora reeds are used to build both the islands and the buildings that sit on the them, as well as the boats the Uros use for transportation and fishing.
Stepping off our boat and onto an island, I looked down at my feet waiting for the water to push through the reeds and begin pooling around me. But the surface was dry; constructed of layers upon layers of reeds looking similar to thatching from a roof. The surface was soft, yet firm to walk on. Asking our guide about the construction, he explained that it was in a constant state of repair as the reeds deteriorate and need to be replaced. As we walked through the island experiencing how the Uros people live day to day, we were greeted by each family. The kids came running out to curiously stare at the strange visitors. The mothers, daughters and sisters gathered in their brightly coloured outfits and broad-brimmed hats to sell us their reed handicrafts. And the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons proudly showed off how they built their homes, buildings, boats and islands from the reeds growing in Lake Titicaca.
The Uros still live much as their ancestors did — that is, off the land. Life is slower and quieter, and revolves around the seasons. They spend much of their time building their islands , and are often fishing and making crafts to sell. Though, in modern times they are now bringing in supplies from the mainland and are in closer contact with the communities that line the shores of Lake Titicaca.
As we walked through this town seemingly frozen in time, I did notice a few pieces of evidence of the modern world creeping in. The occasional home had a solar panel and a few families had chosen to forego their reed boats for modern motorboats.
It has been a few years since my time on Peru’s floating islands with the Uros. It was refreshing to visit a culture that embraced its traditional way of life; determined to preserve how they live and their unique floating islands. But on my next visit, I may find people on mobile phones checking Facebook and taking selfies. I hope the truly unique reed islands of Peru and the ancient culture of the Uros can withstand the onslaught of modern times.
Visiting Peru’s Floating Reed Islands
The floating islands of Lake Titicaca can be visited from both Peru and Bolivia. The easiest point of departure is Puno, Peru. A trip can be arranged with a local guiding service.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Peru encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here..