Lake Titicaca, despite its mirthsome name, is an impressive beast. Not only is it the largest body of water in South America, it also holds the title of being the highest navigable lake in the world, whatever that means. If that isn’t impressive enough, Lake Titicaca was also long considered the origin and centre of the cosmos by the Incas, and consequently, was one of their most sacred sites. Despite the Inca civilisations being long gone, a relic of that time remains. The Floating islands of the Uros people are certainly one of the continents most impressive curiosities.
I use the word curiosities because the origins of the islands are a slight anthropological mystery. It is not certain how long they have been there or why the Uros chose the centre of Lake Titicaca for their home. It is thought that hundreds of years ago, the Uros were forced to move on to the water to escape the aggressive expansion of the Collas and Incas onto their land. Here, they built islands from layer upon layer of the abundant totora reed and lived peacefully, unmolested by their expansionist neighbours, carving out a living by fishing the lakes frigid waters and hunting for birds. The Inca considered them too subhuman to conquer and even the Spaniards left them alone, thinking of them as dirty and primitive. In fact, they have a rich culture that, due to others contempt, has managed to survive. Today, almost 1,200 Uros still live on 60 islands that lie on the water just 7km east of Puno.
We left the winding, cobbled streets of Cusco in a shroud of darkness the previous evening, aiming to arrive in Puno at dawn. Now, I’ve taken fair few night buses in my time – I’m not one to turn down the opportunity to avoid paying for a night in a hostel while sorting my transport all in one fell swoop – but this may have been one of the worst night bus experiences I’ve had. That’s no fault of Bolivia Hop, who provided the service. Far from it. They were both accommodating and professional.
Around 20 other intrepid travellers shared my plan, including the most inebriated Irishman I have ever had the pleasure to witness. He quickly vomited on the UNESCO accredited cobbles of the former Inca capital before stumbling aboard, whipping off a shoe to reveal a mangled foot, oozing with blood. After a few minutes of hollering and yelling, he promptly fell into a booze-induced slumber that was punctuated by a steady flow of snores and farts. He spent the night keeping other passengers awake by squealing in his drunken stupor and leaking blood on the coach’s floor and seat fabric. Apparently, he was making his way to La Paz to work at Loki Hostel. I made a mental note to avoid that particular accommodation when I arrived.
Puno itself isn’t much to look at. You can’t help but wonder if it would see any international visitors at all – or even exist – if it wasn’t for its proximity to the lake or Bolivian border. Made up of Clusters of low-rise, exposed breeze block houses – some of them painted but most left bare – lining the dusty streets, it was practically silent when we arrived at sunrise. We stepped from the bus, bleary-eyed, to refuel on coffee and omelettes in a cafe. It was more an empty warehouse with a few pieces of patio furniture scattered around, the owner setting up a small gas burner in the corner in order to feed our group of hungry backpackers, than an actual restaurant. Luckily the promise of breakfast failed to stir the Irishman from his slumber and we left him to sleep off the previous night.
Until relatively recently, the floating islands were located 9 km from the shores of Puno. It was far enough from that not many tourists bothered to visit. In the mid-80s, a huge storm devastated the islands, forcing the Uros people to move closer to the relative safety of Puno.
With the proximity to land came visitors. A lot of them. It is thought that around 200,000 people hop on the tourist boats each year to make a short stop at the islands, trying to catch a glimpse of their way of life. Despite the Uros being wary of entertaining guests at first, they soon saw the benefits of tourism, hawking crafts and trinkets to visitors. There is now even the option of spending the night on the islands in semi-traditional huts. Some people have lambasted this perceived ‘Disneyfication’ of an entire culture but from what it appears to me, it gives the Uros a way to continue living the way they do with the added security of the tourist dollar.
Although the commercialisation is rampant, their culture remains distinct and unique. Further from Puno, accessible through a maze of small channels by small boats are a number of settlements where islanders there continue to live in a relatively traditional fashion. Even on the more tourist orientated islands, people still live a simple existence, sustaining themselves with the lake’s bountiful supply of fish.
Each island is tiny, around 10 to 20 metres in length, containing several thatched houses – typically belonging to members of a single extended family – and occasionally a watchtower. That isn’t to say that the Uros are against modern technology; motorboats were moored alongside the more traditional reed canoes and each hut had a solar panel jutting from its exterior. Inside we found a group of kids huddled on the bed watching kung-fu movies on a small, old tv/DVD combo.
The islands themselves are a masterful exercise in rustic engineering. Stepping onto them feels a little strange as they give way with an elastic bounce underfoot. They are created entirely from layer upon layer of the buoyant totora reeds that grow throughout the shallow regions of the lake which are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. The lives of the Uros are forever entwined with the totora. Not only are they used for building land, they are used in the construction of houses, boats, archways children’s swing sets. They are even eaten but trust me, the savoury sugarcane like taste isn’t one I’ll be yearning for anytime soon.
We were greeted by women in traditional dress a took a seet on the reeds as a village elder talked us through what life is like on the islands a little of their history. all the while the women sat close by, weaving small models of toys and people from the reeds. It can be fairly hard to communicate – most people do not speak English or even spanish. The Uru legend says that they descend from’pukinas’ who spoke Uru and that they are the rightful owners of the lake. They have historically called themselves Lupihaques, or ‘Sons of the Sun’. Gradually, the Uro language has died out, as have the pure-blooded Uros (there is a myth that the Uros have black blood because they did not feel the cold) due to intermarriage with the Aymara-speaking indigenous people. Nowadays, they all speak Aymara.
The islands rotate their hospitality services on a daily basis with the elders deciding where tourists can visit. Each day, half of the islands allow visitors, while the residents of the other half return to a normal life of hunting, fishing, and making handicrafts.
It is a difficult situation. Tourists crave authenticity but would be unhappy to arrive and be met with people just living out their usual lives. They want a slight show of traditional clothes, music and behaviour that is no longer such a big part of the Uros culture. It is a dilemma that many indigenous cultures are facing, especially ones that survive mostly off the voyeurism of the outside world; trying to maintain traditions while embracing modernity. The Uros have managed to find a middle ground, realising that putting on a slight show and commodifying their culture, they are also able to maintain it on their own terms. With tourist money coming in, the children are able to attend school in Puno to study hospitality and languages, eventually bringing the knowledge back to the islands to help bolster their money making potential.
I left the islands feeling like we had been sold that ‘Disneyfication’ but genuinely astounded with the history and uniqueness of what I saw. There is no place quite like the Islas Uros and if this commodification of their culture means that they are able to preserve it for future generations, then good luck to them.
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