The Floating Islands of Titicaca

Why visit a freezing cold lake at the top of the Andes? Because you've never seen islands like these.

By Bill Wiatrak September 21, 2016

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Women in traditional dress welcome visitors to the Uros Islands.

Mention Titicaca almost anywhere except South America and you'll likely get a snicker. This giant lake is one of the most important in South America, found at the southern border of Peru with Bolivia sharing almost half of the body of water. The word "Titicaca" translated from Aymara actually means "puma rock," though it's doubtful you'll find any pumas in the area these days. Titicaca is considered to be the largest lake in South America by volume and boasts the highest altitude for a navigable body of water. It's higher than Machu Picchu, so the air is thin, and it's definiteky too cold to swim there. So, why go?

It turns out there are plenty of reasons to visit Titicaca. One of the biggest draws is a group of islands that are probably different than any place you've ever been. They're man-made and called the Uros Islands, named for the Uru people who inhabit them.

When I say man-made islands, I'm not talking about Dr. Evil kind-of-man-made islands that have "sharks with laser beams attached to their heads." These floating land masses are made entirely of river reeds that grow in the lake. The root system of the reeds is naturally buoyant, and new reeds are constantly being scattered over the top of the lake's surface so that when the old ones get waterlogged, the new ones keep the island afloat. It's a strange concept for us land-dwellers—living on an island of floating grass—but the natives have been doing it for hundreds of years. Originally the locals could move their island if there was a conflict with another tribe, but today the islands are connected to each other and anchored to the bottom of the lake.

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The banana-shaped boats of the Uru people are made from the same reeds that create their homes.

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To visit the islands, you can grab one of the small ferry boats that run continuously back and forth from nearby coastal towns Puno, Taquile and Amantaní or set up an inexpensive excursion that gets you a guide and a lift to the ferry. There's a small service fee for entry to the Uros Islands themselves, where you'll see reed boats sailing around the shores, their banana-shaped hulls looking ever-so-slightly alien, with strange, painted animal heads—also fashioned from reeds—jutting from the front of each vessel.

You'll be greeted by the Uru natives upon arrival and invited to disembark. Stepping onto the island feels a bit like walking on a straw covered mattress. Just a few feet below you is the lake, the reeds under your feet the only thing separating you from its icy depths. Most of the islands are made up of just a few families who live in straw huts. Though technology is visibly absent, there are often a few solar panels to provide the residents with electricity at night, which also allows them to watch the single local TV channel.

The inhabitants explain how their island is created and maintained in a sort of "show"-slash-infomercial for crafts that the islanders sell to tourists. Using props constructed from the reeds, the residents demonstrate how they live, with special insight into what they eat and how they cook without setting their floors on fire. After a couple of dances, the locals sing a song and you're permitted to check out their homes and even pose for a selfie with one of their colorful costumes. One of the most interesting things about the Uru is their dependency on the reeds, which are used for food, medicine, boats, furniture, fans, souvenirs—and, of course, to add on to the island itself. Almost everything in sight is constructed from these plants. The resident chickens and assorted farm animals walk around as if living on a pile of weeds is perfectly normal. You won't see any cattle though; they're likely to fall through the straw or eat the island.

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The island's inhabitants create colorful handiwork, which can also be purchased by tourists.

After you've checked out the village, you're invited to board the Urus' massive boat for a sailing trip past the neighboring islands, most of which are roughly same size and tied together much like moored ships. The large, community-owned boat is powered by two heavy oars that are nearly impossible to for newcomers to steer or row with. The locals sit or stand on the long reed pontoons that curve from the back to propel the boat. Most of the islands have no more than four or five families, so the entire town turns out to sing goodbye to you in every language they can muster. I was particularly moved by their version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. At the end of your boat tour, a ferry zooms ahead to pick you up on a different island.

All in, the entire tour of the Uros Islands can be done in around three hours, and it's doubtful you've ever seen anything like it. Almost every photo you'll take looks like a South American version of Gilligan's Island, save for, of course, the TV antennas.

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