A Life Afloat: The Uros who Live on the Surface of Lake Titicaca
The islands' golden-brown surface gives way ever so slightly under each step, giving the disconcerting sensation that one isn't somehow treading on dry land. And that's because these islands, located just offshore of Puno, Peru, aren't land at all - they are thick matts made of reeds that float on the surface of Lake Titicaca.
More than 40 floating islands are home to the Uros, an indigenous group believed to be one of the oldest in the Andes. They make their islands from the totora reed, layering dried brown stalks over blocks of the plant's buoyant black roots.
The Titicaca Uros' distant past is a mystery. Their language died out during the last century, and they speak Aymara and Spanish today. However, genetic tests show the Uros are different from the Quechua and Aymara indigenous peoples who dominate the shores of Lake Titicaca, which sits on the border shared by Peru and Bolivia. Little beyond that little is certain. Some researchers think their ancestors were people from the Amazon who traveled west toward the highlands and eventually settled as several distinct groups in Bolivia and Peru. Those who reached Titicaca learned how to live where no one else had – the lake's surface. Their islands were an effective way to avoid the Aymara kingdoms, Inca Empire and Spanish colonizers who in turn became their neighbors. Floating in communities, living by fishing and hunting waterbirds, the Uros were relatively safe in their totora world. Not only does the reed form the islands the Uros live on, it also serves to build houses, boats and even as food.
"If there is no totora the Uros could disappear," said Jose Lujan Lujano, 43,who grew up on a floating island. Lujan Lujano runs a tourism business, but the islands he shows visitors today are different from those of his early childhood. Back then they were larger and located further out in Lake Titicaca. Change came when El Niño hit the region in the mid-80s, spelling disaster. Lujan Lujano says the lake surged so high it surpassed the islands' ability to rise, and they disappeared. Then a drought parched the area, dramatically decreasing totora growth and leaving the Uros without enough material to patch their houses and maintain the islands. On top of the stress exerted by nature, during the 80s parts of Lake Titicaca became a national park and the Peruvian government tried to crack down on hunting and fishing, which constituted the Uros' livelihood.
"We didn't live in peace. My father would go out from the island, stay away a night and come back with nothing," Lujan Lujano said, describing how government officials wold confiscate eggs and birds the Uros depended on for survival. Under so much environmental and economic pressure, many Uros rebuilt their islands closer to shore and within easy reach of Puno, the largest city on Lake Titicaca. There, a short boat ride from the city, tourism began to boom.
The Uros organize tours to the islands, give demonstrations on how they are built and sell handicrafts to a streams of tourists fascinated by the concept of lives lived afloat. As incomes from tourism increased some Uros built houses on the mainland so their children could attend mainland schools and their families could raise livestock. Some people argue that the Uros' culture is now mostly a show for visitors instead of a traditional way of life, and that most Uros live on the mainland and work on the islands. Lujan Lujano counters, pointing out that there are floating primary schools that would not be maintained if the islands were not the Uros' real home.
Vladislav Salazar of Bolivia's National Museum of Ethnology and Folklore has worked with different groups of Uros over the past decade. He notes that tourism and permanent contact with the commercial world of Puno have changed many things in the Uros' lives, but not everything. "Despite being a small group they maintain a very strong identity," he said.
In the end, tourism brings tangible economic benefits to people in a very poor region of Peru, and it also raises questions. Would a significant number of floating islands still exist today without tourism, or would many Uros have abandoned them and disappeared with their culture into the neighboring lakeshore towns? Are the floating islands more a performance of the past rather than a "real" way of life, and how much does that matter as long as the Uros control what happens? There are no easy answers. Yet in the end the magnetic beauty of Lake Titicaca and the undeniable draw of the Uros' unique lifestyle will keep visitors coming to the floating islands, and the Uros are happy to greet them.
IF YOU GO
-Puno and many populated parts of the Titicaca watershed have problems with solid waste disposal and sewage treatment, and that affects the lake. Cut down on solid waste as much as possible, especially by thinking twice about drinking dozens of small plastic bottles of water during your trip. When possible, stay at hotels that have their own sewage treatment facilities.
-Bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen as the high-altitude sun plus reflective lake are a recipe for sunburn. The sun is warm while it shines but otherwise the air is quite cold, so bring plenty of clothes to layer.
-Lake Titicaca is over 12,000 feet above sea level. Give yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude.