Blonde returned from Peru surprised that the highlight of her trip was Lake Titicaca and the man-made Floating Islands; home to the pre-Incan Uros people. Yes, Machu Picchu was fascinating. However, after having seen countless pictures of it, reading about it and seeing documentaries of it, it was a treat to finally visit, but not surprising.
The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca were, at least to Blonde, an unknown, wholly unexpected treat. (They were also a whole lot easier to get to than Machu Picchu!)
Across the street from our hotel, the Jose Antonio on the outskirts of Puno, we boarded a small boat that transported us the few miles to the islands. The weather in Peru had been quite moody and often downright weepy but the day we visited the Floating Islands we had blue skies and warm temperatures. Because Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,500 feet it can be a lot chillier than your normal weather expectations for lakes. Its height also gives the water a different look, a shimmering luminosity that you don’t see at lower elevations.
Construction of the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Upon arrival at the island the inhabitants welcomed us with a song which charmed us due to their enthusiasm, not their musicality. Apparently the small island does not include a music conservancy!
The island’s President, a voted on but essentially rotating term of one year, explained how the islands are constructed. He spoke in his language which is a mixture of two ancient cultures, the Uros and the Aymaras. Fortunately, our guide was able to translate or at least to make up a story that seemed as if it might be what the other man was saying!
Tótora reeds from the waters of Lake Titicaca are gathered and then layered to create the islands. The reeds have one end that resembles a scallion, tastes like watery celery, and is eaten because it contains needed iodine. The other end of the reed has a flower that is made into a tea to soothe digestive problems.
A couple times a year the island’s President orders everyone to go get more reeds to add a layer to the island. The island gradually sinks as the old reeds rot. There’s no room for a Uros slacker on the Floating Islands. If someone doesn’t do his share of the work or otherwise doesn’t get along with the other island inhabitants there’s a town meeting.
If the offender doesn’t shape up pronto then his portion of the island is literally cut off and pushed apart and he becomes his own island! With apologies to John Donne who famously decreed ““No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main……..” it would seem that the Uros do not agree. They may have missed John Donne but they must have seen Survival and learned a thing or two from the Tribal Councils. Or maybe it was the other way around.
The guide explained how the islands are staked into place in the bottom of the lake and how the reeds are laid down in crisscrossed layers. He demonstrated how they also use them to build their homes and boats. Clay ovens are used for cooking and are built far from the reed homes to protect the homes against fire. If you’re feeling inquisitive as to their plumbing, let’s make it clear – toilet facilities don’t exist in any sense you may have hoped. There aren’t even outhouses. You hop (depending on the urgency of the situation) into a boat, go to an uninhabited island and “fertilize” it. Suffice it to say that none of the visitors expressed a need for a toilet.
At one time there were about 2,000 people living on the Floating Islands in Lake Titicaca. Now there are only 7 inhabited islands on the Peru side of the lake (variations exist on the Bolivia side) and each island has between 22 to 45 people living on it.
The men make some of their living and obtain food by fishing in the lake. The women make tapestries and other handicrafts to sell to tourists and some of the men make miniature reed boats for sale. At least once a week a boat trip is made to the market in Puno to get fruits and vegetables.
Social customs on the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Marriages are arranged and the bride and groom will not be from the same island. However, with a population the size they are now options for partners are quite limited. Young people are increasingly choosing not to live their whole lives on the Floating Islands. It’s doubtful that the culture will survive another generation. The current adult men and women all have nearly identical builds and looks so the gene pool is probably due for some dilution. However, the loss of their unusual culture would be a shame.
Blonde had the disgraceful thought that a little sleeping around on market day and a gym on the island could produce the needed changes without the loss of (all) of the Uros traditions and way of life.