The floating islands of the Uros

Venturing a bit inland from the Pacific we encounter the sixty or so floating islands of the Uros people of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the Bolivian-Peruvian border. They have lived for many hundreds of years on islands made of buoyant totora reeds that flourish around the edge of the lake.

If you travel there from Bolivia the tourist agency will tell you they are Bolivian and if you go from Peru they will say they are Peruvian. The Uros claim to own the lake and neither government disputes this.

According to tradition, the Uros came from the Amazon and migrated to the lake shore in pre-Colombian times. But the tribe was small and they were unable to snag land of their own so they built the islands which they could move to different parts of the lake insuring protection from hostile land-dwelling neighbors.

Most of the islands are just 50×50 feet or so, but the largest are roughly half the size of a football pitch. Each island provides spongy real estate for several thatched houses and generally belong to members of a single extended family. Some of the islands have watchtowers and public buildings, all made of reeds. The island matts are about seven feet thick and each footfall sinks a couple of inches

Until 1986, the islands were nine miles from shore until a major storm destroyed many of them and the islanders rebuilt them closer to a town. They were delighted to discover that this proximity made them a trendy tourist destination. 

The islands, boats and furniture are under constant restoration with additional reeds installed all year long. The islands themselves need to be completely rebuilt every thirty years or so. This opens the question of—how old is a thing. As we are often told, the human body changes its cells every seven years and by old age there is little of the original left but the person’s name (in fact that’s the average cell, the neurons are more or less permanent). So, is it really grandad’s same axe if it has three new heads and seven new handles? The answer is…whatever you prefer. The point here is an ancient culture has been weaving these reeds and living on the lake back into prehistory.

So often we look at colorful people with ‘old ways’ and we as outsiders really want them to keep to the traditional lifestyle because it seems like a more wholesome way to live. But simple, rural folks never seem to buy this. The Uros certainly don’t. They have solar power, outboard motors and antibiotics. They have embraced tourism because it has made their lives far more livable. The last generation survived on fish and the water plants from the lake. But life on the water at 12,000 feet elevation can be harsh so tennis shoes and warm parkas outperform reed sandals and wool sweaters which they change out of when the last visitor has left for the day.

Still, they have preserved many of their traditions not only to appeal to the Instagramers but because they have perfected a unique and lovely harmony with the lake.

Year by year the population is declining as the siren song of the city is heard even out on the lake. There are about 600 folks left and the islands have been taking quite a beating from the globetrotters and the declining population has trouble keeping up with the repairs.

So when you can, get there quick.     

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