One of the highlights of my recent trip to Peru was a visit to the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, a fresh water mountain lake located in both Peru and Bolivia. At 12,500 feet above sea level, it is the largest lake, by volume of water, in South America: 118 miles long and 50 miles wide.
What are the Floating Islands?
The floating islands are inhabited islands, man-made by piling many layers of totora reeds, a cattail type rush, onto the natural mats of totora roots that detach from the lake bottom and use the oxygen in the root mass for buoyancy.
The islands, about fifteen feet thick, are anchored with ropes attached to sticks drilled into the lake bottom. Because the reeds at the bottom rot quickly, the tribe has to add new layers of reeds to the top at least four times a year. The surface of the islands is uneven and thin, and it feels similar to walking on a waterbed.
There are about forty islands. The number varies depending on the native people who live there. As family groups form, they make new islands. There is even one island for raising pigs.
Who inhabits the Floating Islands?
The Uros (Uru people) are descendents of a pre-Incan society who, in the early fifteen hundreds, fled to Lake Titicaca to escape Incan conquest. Other sources say they fled from the Spanish. Either way, when they reached the lake, they built and lived on reed boats until they discovered they could fashion the reeds into inhabitable islands which could be moved for defensive purposes. After nearly five hundred years, the Uros are still there.
Today's islanders are the descendant of marriages between the Uros and the Aymara Indians from the mainland. The 1997 Peruvian census counted 2,000 descendants of the Uros, but only about four hundred live on the floating islands.
Tribuna, currently the largest island, is about the size of an American football field and is home to thirty-five families (150 inhabitants). The houses are congregated around two open spaces: one with a tiny church and a health center, and the other serves as a soccer field. The smaller islands, around 9,000 square feet, may have only two or three families living there.
The Uros have twice as many red blood cells as the norm, an adjustment for living at the high altitude, but constant exposure to the freezing water gives them frequent respiratory infections and rheumatism. Life is simple, and the reeds provide shelter, sustenance and transportation for their residents. They use the reeds for everything: boats, cooking fuel, food, medicine, housing, you name it.
Education: There are at least two schools on the islands including a traditional grammar school and one run by a Christian church. Older children and university students attend school on the mainland in nearby Puno.
The Uros want their children to have better lives. Most prefer to send them to the private school, at $150 a year, rather than the state school, where the teacher rarely shows up.
Diet: Their food consists mostly of birds and fish from the lake, which they cook over fires built on piles of stones so the island doesn’t catch fire. They also raise pigs and cultivate potatoes in shallow soil laid over the roots that support the island, and once or twice a week barter on the mainland for fruits, rice, and sugar.
Economics: Although content with their way of life, economically the islanders make a meager living primarily by fishing and selling handicrafts in Puno and to the tourists who visit the islands.
Tourism has increased since the 1990s as the result of government reforms and contributes significantly to the Uros’ economic base.
Money earned for the items sold goes, in part, to the person or family that produced the item and part for community needs. Our guide indicated that much of the tourist trade money is used to buy solar panels (which cost about $3,500 American dollars) to run the television, computer, and other electronic devices, all of which are paid for and shared by the community. We saw those kinds of electronics in one of the huts on the island we visited. .
Families: The Uros are family oriented. Free lance writer Miranda France says, “Either because of their isolation or their poverty, the Uros pay less attention to courting and marriage rites. Most islanders live together for several years before marrying in church."
Uros women are confident that the partnership is secure once children have been born, and marriage is not that important. I found that in many descriptions of the pre-Incan civilizations and in their legends, and our Aymara tour guide confirmed this.
Today, islanders tend to marry other islanders, but traditionally they choose a partner from a different island (i.e. a different family). Weddings are big celebrations, and they will move several of the islands together and make a larger area to accommodate the festivities, which go on for three day. With lots of music, dancing and heavy drinking, all at the expense of the groom’s family, it isn't uncommon for an occasional dancer to fall through the reeds and have to be rescued.
An important side-function of wedding celebrations, when the families from all the islands unite, is the forming of new couples. The younger people meet there and often have a sexual interlude. If the girl becomes pregnant, the couple will move in together and a new family is formed. Single mothers are unusual. Although they shoulder some social stigma, their real worry is becoming financial burdens to their families.
Miranda France also writes that “Most women would like to control their fertility, but birth control remains an enigma, although contraceptives are available in mainland pharmacies. There is a cultural avoidance of knowledge on the subject."
Uros men fish around the islands at night, but also go on three-day fishing trips once a week. The women rise at dawn and draw water from the lake, then spend the day washing clothes and dishes, untangling fishing nets, and making woven sheets of totora for new huts. Once or twice a week, they go to the mainland (in reed boats) to barter for supplies.
Clothing: Like most Peruvians in the Andes highlands, the islanders wear many layers of clothing, mostly woolen, as protection against the cold, the wind, and the sun. Because of the altitude, the exposure to the burning rays of the sun is the highest in the world.
The women wear their colorful skirts longer here because have huge legs. High blood pressure is a big problem among the island women, in part because of the lack of exercise. Most still wear the distinctive derby type hat. They have one for special occasions and another, for every day, to keep the sun off. They love bubble gum and like to keep a supply stored in the rims of their hats.
The future of the floating islands
I wonder about the future of the floating islands and the Uru people. While most of the islanders remain because it is the way of life they know, they are exposed to other lifestyles. Many of the children go to school on the mainland and some to the university. One of the teenage girls I talked to wanted to become an interior decorator.
Sooner, rather than later, the young people will leave these islands for a more modern way of life on the mainland. What, then, will happen to the floating islands and the Uru people? While it would be a shame to lose this unique culture, it would be unreasonable (maybe even inhumane) to expect them to continue living such a hard life when they have other choices. I consider myself fortunate to have visited this unique culture. In the future, it may not be there to visit.