Home To Ancient Cultures…
Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, a gigantic, shimmering inland sea covering 8,500 square kilometres, is the highest navigable lake in the world, averaging 3,810 metres above sea level.
In addition to this claim to fame, the lake throughout history has fed and nourished many ancient cultures, particularly the Uros, the people of the floating islands who have made Lake Titicaca their home.
So for our last stop in Peru, we took a boat trip out onto Lake Titicaca and visited the floating reed islands of Los Uros for an insight into traditional Andean life.
Sailing out onto Lake Titicaca.
Setting off from Puno on the Peruvian side of the lake.
Entrance to the National Park area for Los Uros.
Our first glimpse of one of the Uros floating islands.
We visited the Waca Wacani Community.
The Importance Of The Totora Reeds
The Uros islanders use Lake Titicaca to fish and hunt birds, and also live off the plants that grow in the lake.
Locals rowing home to their island.
More importantly, the Uros people have built the very foundations on which they live using totora reeds which grow in abundance in the lake, creating in effect ‘floating islands’ from binding the reeds together and layering them in a particular way.
Our guide explaining how the totora reeds are carefully layered on top of their roots to construct a ‘floating’ island.
As the reeds rot from the bottom, the layers of totora must be replenished each month to keep the top dry and firm.
Wayne sat on a totora reed seat.
The totora reeds have many uses. The bottom is naturally sweet and can be eaten raw. The reed can also be peeled and used to cleanse the skin.
The totora reeds are peeled ready for tasting.
Sampling the totora reeds. Actually quite tasty!
The ingenuity of these people is remarkable as they have adapted to their environment using the totora reeds to also make their houses, boats and a number of crafts which they then sell to tourists to provide them with some extra income.
Family homes made from Toyota reeds. The houses can be lifted and moved around the floating island. Roofs have to be replaced twice a year.
Our guide shows us a model house and explains how they are made using the totora reeds.
Reeds used imaginatively to make decorative hanging mobiles.
A model construction of the floating island used by the guide in his explanation.
Tourism – Good Or Bad?
Visiting the floating islands and the outcome of the experience is controversial. Authentic reed islands do exist but there is evidence of tourist overkill. We felt like the island we visited was a ‘floating souvenir stall’ as families made a bee-line for us to buy one of their handicrafts.
Beautiful hand sewn tapestries to buy.
Floating souvenir stall.
More colourful mobiles for sale.
Hand made tapestries and trinkets.
Showing a mobile.
Of the estimated 40 floating islands, only about 15 are regularly visited by tourists, therefore we understood why there was a hard-sell approach for handicrafts as the islanders are extremely poor and rely on the tourist dollar. We were told our money would support families with buying medical supplies and school equipment for their children, which made it all the more difficult for us to resist buying anything.
Children playing on the island we visited.
It was clear that an enormous amount of time and effort had gone into producing the handicrafts, particularly the fantastic hand sewn tapestries that were on offer. So in the end we came away with a beautifully embroidered cushion cover depicting life on Lake Titicaca.
Daily life at Waca Wacani.
Hard at work. Hand sewing one of the many tapestries for sale.
The finished product. A fantastic hand sewn tapestry depicting life on Lake Titicaca.
After an explanation about the island from our English speaking guide, for an extra fee, we were also offered the chance to sail on the lake in a traditional reed boat.
One of the many traditional reed boats taking tourists out on Lake Titicaca.
Despite the ‘floating souvenir stall’ aspect of our visit, our overall experience was OK, although less authentic than what we had expected.
Tourist overkill? Lots of reed boats around the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca.
It was interesting learning about how the floating islands are constructed and finding out about the traditional way of life of the Uros people.
Ladies in traditional dress living and working on the floating island who sell the handicrafts.
However, if we had more time we would have preferred to have gone to an island further away from the tourist trap of Los Uros for a more authentic experience of a traditional living, agrarian community.
That being said, the people who we met in Los Uros were pleasant, friendly and welcoming and didn’t mind us taking photographs./p>
The community sing a traditional song to welcome us to their island.
Try A Home-Stay
I guess we have to accept that tourists shape the places they visit and for better or worse, communities react accordingly. Our number one tip if you are visiting Lake Titicaca is to do some research and try a home-stay for at least one night on a lesser known island.
After our wonderful home-stay in the rural village of Raqchi, we feel doing this will be a more rewarding experience that will help you gain a deeper understanding of the communities and Andean traditions of Lake Titicaca, as opposed to a tourist screen.
Have you visited Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side? Is it similar/ different to what we experienced from the Peruvian side? Let us know what you think!