For thousands of years the Uros people have proven to be survivors. When faced with adversity this ancient peace-loving civilization in southern Peru adapts.
When the Incas were ascendant 1,500 years ago it could have been life or death for the Uros. Their choices were stark: be subsumed by the Incas, fight and face extinction, flee the rich bounty of Lake Titicaca, or perhaps come up with another answer. Their ingenious solution – build floating islands using the plentiful totora reeds of the lake – became the answer that has defined a way of life for centuries. Their mastery of the water kept the land-based Incas at bay.
And when modern times threatened their future the Uros once again adapted. The new threat was the pressure of globe-trotting tourists. The Uros did not reject them but instead recognized a source of revenue that has allowed them to persevere.
The basic design to make a floating island, anchored to the bottom of the lake with long poles, is relatively simple. First, harvest totora reeds that grow around the shallower parts of Lake Titicaca. Dry them to reduce moisture and increase their load bearing strength. And finally, pile lots of totora roots on the surface to keep the island above water and the surface dry. Adjust the buildings as needed (also made of totora reeds). Within a week to a few months, the process must be repeated to keep the island from sinking into the lake. The depth of the island must be at least six feet to keep it above the water and to support people and buildings. And a properly constructed and maintained island can last 30 years or more.
Various articles suggest the number of floating islands on Lake Titicaca is anywhere from 40 to as many as 70. But what is clear, this is a way of life that is not easy.
Lake Titicaca holds a number of distinctions –named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, it is South America’s largest freshwater lake, one of earth’s oldest lakes, and the highest navigable lake in the world. But for the Uros, the lake offered food and game, a reliable source of fresh water, and a comfortable place to live that goes back as far as 3,700 years, according to researchers. In addition to using the totora reeds as a building material, they can also be eaten.
The body of water is approximately 118 miles long and up to 50 miles wide. Lake Titicaca has an average depth of 351 feet and at its deepest, more than 900 feet with a total surface area of more than 3,200 square miles. Lake Titicaca sits at an elevation over 12,500 feet above sea level. But the lake is under pressure. Rivers feeding it are being used more and more for agriculture and mining. Climate change has reduced rainfall, and the growing population has increased the need for fresh water. Pollution levels are worsening, as cities around the lake do not always have adequate wastewater treatment capabilities.
The lake borders Peru and Bolivia, creating some interesting dynamics. For example, sales tax for goods are lower in Bolivia than Peru, so the waterway offers smugglers a route to ferry lower-priced goods over to Peru (electronics are popular). And the Peruvians insist the fish caught in their part of the lake is much better than fish caught on the Bolivian side. It’s not hard to guess what Bolivians say about the fish caught in Peruvian waters.
The Uros have settled into a comfortable and cooperative way of life that sustains tourism and enables as many Uros as possible to earn a living. Quite simply, they alternate when a particular island is open to accept tourists on a given day. If you’re open today, you’re closed tomorrow.
While there is a school for young children, a church or two and some other businesses, life is bare bones and simple. There is no healthcare and clothes and other goods must be brought in. Only in the past few years has the Peruvian government begun to install small solar panels on the islands to provide electricity to those who live on an island full time. As a consequence many of the Uros live in town, most in Puno, the largest Peruvian city (approximately 140,000 residents) on Lake Titicaca. When they are in town the Uros wear modern-day clothes, but when they go to ‘work’ they dress in traditional garb for the benefit of tourists.
A visit to an island only lasts a half-hour or so. The cheerful residents demonstrate how they make their island, they offer a look inside their sparse living quarters and visitors have a chance to dress up in traditional garb for pictures. Much of the villagers’ income derives from sale of handcrafts and tips that visitors and photographers offer up. One or two islands have a place where the adventurous tourist can spend a night on an island.
But living on the floating islands is slowly losing its allure and a way of life is evolving into a business. Work there is hard, and for younger people, there is little or nothing in the way of excitement or entertainment. Given that many Uros live in town, city life has an increasing pull over a floating island.
No doubt the floating islands of Lake Titicaca will be around for many years to come and a trip there offers visitors a rare glimpse at a way of life that came about when a small group of people were faced with a difficult choice.
For more information about Lake Titicaca and the Uros people, visit these websites: