This story was originally published in our November/December 2023 issue as “Floating in the Clouds” Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this.
Stepping onto one of the Uros islands in southern Peru can be like walking into a bouncy castle. Your feet sink a little into the soft ground, which shakes slightly when a speedboat passes by at high speed. That’s because this land is actually floating – in South America’s largest lake, located 12,500 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.
Hundreds of kilometers south of the famous ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, dozens of artificial islands dot the surface of Lake Titicaca, situated along the border of Peru and Bolivia. The real floating city made of roots and reeds currently houses around 2,000 residents.
For visitors, the structures demonstrate a living version of pre-Columbian engineering that is much more accessible than the Inca citadel to the north. For locals, they constitute the literal basis of their cultural identity, which they have packaged into a unique and otherworldly tourist destination that is now an integral part of their economy.
No one knows exactly how old the culture of Titicaca Island is. Oral tradition holds that it was established by the alleged ancestors of the Uros people, the Urus. These ancestors are known as one of the first major ethnic groups to settle in the Andes, migrating from the Amazon perhaps as early as 3,700 years ago. They initially lived on the banks of Titicaca, but took refuge in the lake’s labyrinthine reedbeds when the Incas came to power in the early 15th century.
The Urus couldn’t have asked for a better hiding place. Even today it is practically impossible to reach the islands without a guide. Fortunately, boating and kayaking are available for anyone who wants to visit. Sipping Peruvian coffee or mate de coca – a drink made from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca), which reduces altitude sickness – visitors on day trips get a glimpse of the history, culture and engineering of the Uros. They are also persuaded to buy miniature bracelets, necklaces or caballitos de totora, a toy version of the traditional boats used by Titicaca fishermen. Although the souvenirs (and the assertiveness of some vendors) may seem commercialized and uncomfortable, these tourist exchanges have become the main source of income for most islanders. Overnight stays can offer visitors a more immersive alternative.
Today’s locals build their islands the same way their distant ancestors built theirs: from totora, a giant reed native to South America and found throughout Titicaca. Every year, the Uros harvest fresh roots from the lakebed. The roots are then gathered into floating bunches and covered with piles of dry reeds stacked 6 feet high. This complicated craft has been passed down from generation to generation since before the collapse of the Inca Empire in the 16th century.
Nelson Coila Lujano, who lives on the island of Utama with his wife and three children, describes an idyllic childhood growing up on the lake: “I listened to birdsong and had a deep appreciation for the water, the sky and the sun, because they kept us safe, healthy and happy.”
His neighbor, who goes by the host name Helmer on Airbnb, paints an equally charming picture. “When I was younger, I thought the whole world was made of freshwater and totora,” he says. Helmer is one of many islanders now renting out rooms in their flotilla through Airbnb. The reservation service offers a more personalized experience than group tours, allowing guests to spend time with a host family and see the islands from their perspective.
It’s difficult to say how many islands there are in the lake, partly because the islands are periodically dismantled and rebuilt, and partly because their residents are constantly moving between the water and the Peruvian mainland. Most estimates hover around 70 to 80, although Coila Lujano claims there are as many as 120 spread across the 3,200 square mile expanse.
The average island measures 21 by 32 meters and is shared between three to eight different families. Each is connected to the lakebed via a network of ropes and anchors. Its fluid, improvised structure dictates every aspect of the Uros’ social life: young couples seal their love in special romantic boats made of totora, and when two families fall out, they can cut off their part of the island and relocate it elsewhere on the island. territory. community. Previously, islands were moved around the lake to avoid the Incas; nowadays, they follow the ups and downs of the tourism industry.
Day trips to the islands include explanations about daily life, encouragement to purchase handicrafts and demonstrations of island building techniques. (Credit: Milton Rodriguez/Shutterstock)
When the Incas expelled the Urus from the coast of Titicaca, they were forced to abandon agriculture. Without access to land, their descendants continue to survive primarily as hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fish, birds and eggs found in the lake. They also trade meat and vegetables with merchants in Puno, a city on the west coast.
Life on the islands poses many challenges, including limited access to clean water. For centuries, people drank directly from the lake, running the risk of contracting parasites and waterborne bacteria such as E. coli. Hospital visits were common, especially among children and the immunocompromised.
The turn of the millennium brought the arrival of new technologies. Several islands now have biosanitaries that use worms and microbes to break down waste, as well as filtration systems that purify lake water by sifting it through layers of increasingly fine sand. Solar panels, first installed in the 1990s, now generate enough energy for simple electronic equipment such as lamps, telephones and black-and-white televisions. With few refrigerators or stoves, food is cooked over open fires made from dried reeds and wood – a risky venture, considering that almost everything on the islands, from the houses themselves to the ground where the inhabitants walk, is flammable. It’s no news that fires started. When they do, the Uros can do little but sit and wait until firefighters arrive from Puno, a trip that can take up to 30 minutes by boat during the day, and even longer in the dark of night. In 2022, an incident that began with a stray spark destroyed more than 25 acres of reeds. Fortunately, no one was injured.
But once a year, the Uros intentionally set fire to their islands. According to Sayda Coila, a tour guide who works at the Iguana Hostel in Puno and whose parents were born and raised on the lake, this is Titicaca’s equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture, which aims to replace rotting reeds with new vegetation for harvesting during the rains. season, which runs from December to March.
Without soil to support agriculture, the Uros people continue to subsist on fish, birds and eggs from the lake, just as their ancestors did. Today’s Uros also trade with the continentals. (Credit: Vergani Fotografia/Shutterstock)
Equals instead of subjects
If the advantages of living on artificial islands do not outweigh the disadvantages, they at least outweigh them. “There is no noise,” says Coila Lujano. “Our houses don’t use padlocks because there is no theft. In difficult times we survive by hunting. These are the blessings of being born in the highest lake in the world.” Until recently, he continued, people rarely wore shoes because they rarely visited the mainland.
Currently, the Uros maintain a good relationship with the population of Puno and other places. But it was not always so. For years, their political opponents, often anthropologists and academics from the universities of Puno and Lima, have challenged the ethnic legitimacy and origin of the Uros people, claiming that the current islanders are related to the ancient Urus in name only.
This opinion was – and to some extent continues to be – shared by locals such as Augusto Salcedo Parodi, an architect based in Puno who claims that the culture became extinct when the last person to speak the original Uru language died in the early 20th century. “Later,” he says, “others learned to create artificial islands with totora and turned the lake into a money-making machine.”
The islanders denied this, and in 2013 they were supported by genetic research. An effort called the Genographic Project — led by researchers at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and San Martin de Porres University in Lima — revealed that many islanders share genetic characteristics with the Uros peoples of Peru and Bolivia, but are genetically distinct from other indigenous peoples. in the highlands of South America. The DNA results, published in Plos One, were celebrated by the Uros, and for good reason. In the Andes, proving a differentiated identity is the most effective way for marginalized communities to guarantee their political and civil rights. “We always ask ourselves if we are Uros or not,” Julio Vilca, mayor of the Uros of Titicaca, told anthropologist Michael Kent at the time. “Proving that we are Uros will help us in our fight.”
Before the Genographic Project, the Uros were at the mercy of the Reserva Nacional del Titicaca, a Peruvian government agency created in 1978 to regulate tourism on the lake and islands. Now, proven by genetic data, the Uros can interact with National Reserve employees as equals and not as subjects. And they no longer have to pay any taxes.
The future of the islands is once again up in the air. Dependent on tourism, the Uros have suffered from travel restrictions due to the pandemic. Then, just as Peru was reopening, nationwide protests and airport closures followed the arrest of President Pedro Castillo (accused of rebellion and conspiracy) in December 2022. Puno became a hotbed of anti-government protests, which derailed the Uros economy to such a degree that islanders struggled to buy school supplies for their children.
More recently, the unrest appears to be subsiding. This has reignited opportunities for visitors to wander through a totora reed forest and encounter the living communities of Lake Titicaca, which feel truly separate from the historic sites that remain frozen in time.
Schedule your visit
Transport: Lake Titicaca can be reached by bus from Lima or Cusco, both of which have international airports.
Accommodation: Visitors can stay in Puno or book a room on one of the floating islands through Airbnb. Staying on an island gives you the opportunity to meet the locals, creating a personal experience different from a shorter group tour.
Torres: If you stay in Puno, you can access the islands via boat tours or kayaking. Guides can be booked at hotels and hostels in Puno. If you stay on an island, typically your host will act as your guide.
Activities: Depending on your tour guide, you can explore the islands, learn how they are made, talk to the islanders about the islands’ history and culture, and shop for clothes and crafts. Although the Uros may be persistent in selling their products, these sales remain one of the main ways they make money.
Duration: One day is often enough time to see the islands, although longer stays allow for a more immersive experience.
Altitude: Lake Titicaca is 12,507 feet above sea level and it is estimated that 4 in 10 visitors suffer from altitude sickness. You can buy medicines at pharmacies or order coca tea at hotels, hostels, cafes and restaurants. Coca tea, in addition to coffee, is served on the islands.