With the Uros people on Lake Titicaca
Have you ever imagined yourself on your private island, away from the cares of the world, self-sufficient and paying no tax? That particular dream has been the reality for the Uros people, who have been living on South America’s Lake Titicaca for thousands of years.
A hardy lot, the Uros moved into the middle of the lake, which straddles Bolivia and Peru, to avoid the pesky Incans, who were busily subsuming other civilisations. They built boats and floating platforms on which to live and kept out of the way of the Incas.
They kept clear of everybody, actually, until 1986 when a huge storm devastated their homes, prompting many Uros to relocate closer to the shore. In doing so, they lost their splendid isolation and were discovered by tourism. Adapt and survive, however.
We get a glimpse of their culture and lifestyle when we board a boat from the Peruvian port of Puno early one September morning and motor gently northwards across Lake Titicaca, which at nearly 4000m above sea level is easily one of the highest in the world and so large it’s more like a sea. It’s a gloriously sunny day, sky and water vying for the most brilliant blue.
Having cleared Puno there is little in the way of built environment to be seen; instead our guide points out the birds and waterfowl, and the ubiquitous totora reeds that are so necessary to the Uros people. These reeds are what they use to make their floating islands, boats, houses, floors and furniture. It seems to be everything but a source of food. But, wait, the root is rich in iodine and can be eaten, used for pain relief and tea.
We are also told how to pronounce “Titicaca”, surely a word that has caused much amusement in many a schoolroom. All the emphasis goes on the last syllable. Titica-CA! So, now we know.
In less than an hour, some of the islas flotantes hove into view, brightly painted double-hulled boats with animal-head prows moored alongside. Women in traditional dress, all bright reds, pinks, yellows and blues, wave in welcome and a short while later we set foot on to the floating island of Suma Uro.
It feels spongy, a bit like walking on a water bed. But, as people live, work, eat and sleep here, clearly we are not going to sink. We take in the reed houses, the watch tower, which these days is ornamental rather than functional, the outdoor cooking area on a stone slab (you wouldn’t want to start a fire here) and meet Francisco, el presidente of this particular 13-strong community.
The Uros speak the ancient native American language of Aymara, but Francisco speaks Spanish and our guide translates and so we learn how the reeds are cut, tied and formed into metre-high blocks, tethered together and anchored, and how another metre’s worth of reeds is laid on top before the reed houses are built on an extra platform of reeds.
The islands, and there are somewhere between 50 and 80 spread right across the lake, average about 15m x 15m and last about 25 years. Don’t like your cousins or your neighbours? Easy. Build your own island. Bowls containing locally caught fish are passed around. Birds, waterfowl and duck eggs are part of the traditional diet around here, as is quinoa. A relatively new “superfood’’ to western cultures, Peruvians have known about quinoa, and its seemingly endless varieties, for centuries.
“Is that a solar panel?” Indeed, it is. The Uros are keen to protect their culture but are not averse to technology. The Peruvian government has provided solar panels, which provide enough power for a television or radio, to those families who live fulltime on the islands.
And while the traditional reed boats are functional as well as picturesque, there are a few little runabouts on the water, providing a more efficient if less eco-friendly way of getting into town.
Francisco proudly shows us his house, obviously the best in Suma Uro, and very comfortable and cosy it looks, with its pink-and-red striped blanket on the bed (I notice reeds under the mattress), a large decorative mobile overhead and sole electric bulb hanging from the roof. There are a few little kids around, shy but curious. “Where are the older children?” They are at school. “There is a school on the islands?” It turns out there is, although a lot of the older children are taken to school in Puno. There is also a Seventh Day Adventist church and a radio station.
We make our spongy way around the reeded surface of the floating island, checking out the neighbours and, of course, the retail opportunities. This is the trade-off. We get to see how the Uros live and they get to sell us the blankets, hats, model boats and trinkets that look, mostly, just the same as all the other local handicrafts that are on sale on the mainland.
It’s not a hard sell, but the women’s smiling faces are hard to resist and the replicas of the traditional boats are spectacular (although there is no way they would get past Australian Customs.)
For the princely sum of 10 Peruvian sol ($4) we are rowed around the islands on one of the traditional boats and Francisco’s smallest daughter comes along for the ride. Other tourist boats are on the lake now. Not all the floating islands are open for inspection, perhaps as few as 10, and those that do use a rotation system so everyone shares the spoils.
We spend about 40 minutes on Suma Uro and there is an air of a “living museum” about the experience. The craft involved in building the islands and their infrastructure is remarkable, as is the endurance of the Uros people, but how much longer will this unique culture endure?
As Francisco tells us, a lot of the young people feel the lure of Puno and Lima, especially those who want to study at university. The most recent census counted 2000 Uros, of whom only a few hundred now live on the floating islands.
As we head to our next destination, the island of Taquile (5.7sq km; population 2200; ground, solid), we pass islas flotantes with plastic sheeting instead of reeds on the roofs of houses. It can’t be easy to live here in the rainy season, or when winds blow the islands from their anchors. Even in September, the night temperature drops to 7C; in February the range is from 0C-8C.
Late in the afternoon, after we’ve tested our lungs at high altitude on a trek up and around Taquile, our boat docks near the small village of Llachon, still on the shores of Lake Titicaca but back on mainland Peru.
This is a community homestay, courtesy of the amenable Calixto and his smiling family. Compared to Suma Uro, it is luxury indeed.
We make our spongy way around the floating island, checking the neighbours and the retail opportunities
Floating islands on Lake Titicaca, top; Uros woman on a reed boat, above left; a colourful welcome, above right; vibrant handicrafts, below