Lake Titicaca – Visiting the Floating Uros Islands
On our first morning in Puno, we found that the clouds were hanging low and grey, and that it was a cold world. We had come prepared for this sort of weather, so our spirits were high as we walked towards Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca. Cold weather is quite the norm in the Lake Titicaca area because the cold winds that blow over the lake result in an average temperature, in the warm months of the year, of 10-14 c, (50-57F). Having warm clothing is a must.
Given the wet weather, we found no other travelers at the dock, and yet tons of empty cabin cruisers were available for hire. Thankfully, this meant that we might have the Lake Titicaca islands all to ourselves.
We did a little back and forth negotiating, secured a boat, and then hoped that the torrential rains would stop.
As the docks of the harbour were left in our wake, a grander view of the hills and town of Puno came into view, cloaked in a grey,threatening sky.
Lake Titicaca is a mountain lake, and by the volume of water it contains, it is considered South America’s largest freshwater lake. It is also the world’s highest navigable lake, sitting at an elevation of 3,812 m (12,507 ft).
Lake Titicaca shares its’ shoreline with both Peru, on the west side, and Bolivia, on the east.
The artificial islands which we visited are the home of the Uros people, and they were quite striking when we first caught sight of them…unlike anything we had ever seen before. Although we visited only two sets of islands, there are a total 44 groups of artificial islands located at different points on Lake Titicaca.
The Uros islands are made of totora reeds, which grow in the shallow parts of the lake. The Uros Indians harvest the reeds and then use the stalks to build their islands, their homes, their hats, and some of their boats. In this photograph, the Uros ladies of this island were buying produce from a grocery boat that circulates amongst the islands.
The original purpose of these floating islands was to help the Uros people defend themselves. Whenever there was a pending threat, they just moved their island.
The reeds on the undersides of the islands break down very quickly in the water, so the Uros people add new reeds to the tops of the islands. Each island can last up to 30 years. As we found out, when walking on the islands, your feet sink into the soft reed surface.
Throughout history, the Uros people have always built watchtowers like the fish-shaped one we saw here. The watchtowers in the past were used to alert villagers of the threat of invasion by the Inca.
A huge Polynesian-styled totora reed boat was under construction by a group of Uros men at the first island village we visited.
With a lot of complicated weaving, pulling, pounding, and happy determination, the builders brought the massive boat to life.
While Bob continued to watch the earnest work of the Uros men, a Uros woman showed Jean some of her colorful wares.
Bob was given permission to board a reed boat that was tied to the community’s floating island. Being an active sailor, he was very impressed with how solid it sat on the water. Although Bob took note of the massive platform at the stern of the boat, he didn’t scale it.
The people on this island were all very charming, and even on this cold wet day, the baby looked very warm and content in the arms of this caring woman.
This beautifully dressed child greeted us with a wave. We learned that she and the other older Uros children of this island go to school on a naturally-formed island nearby.
Even the young children are given responsibilities. One young girl minded a baby on her back even as she worked at cleaning fresh totora reeds. The Uros people also eat the tenderest sections of these reeds, in addition to using them for building. The world of the Uros villagers is very basic. There is no electricity, no form of heat, and medical care, if needed, is only available on shore. And yet, for all these so-called hardships, the children appeared very happy, and a great sense of humour was demonstrated by the adults.
A quiet moment standing on a boat.
This bird stood stock-still as we snapped a picture. The role of the bird remained unknown, but the Uros people do hunt birds for food. Cooking is done on open fires that are built on stones to protect the reed floor of the islands.
On our way to another Uros island, we passed by the Uros school, which the children from all islands attend. For medical care, all the Uros islanders must travel 30 minutes by boat to the hospital located in Puno, on the lake’s edge. We also learned that all Uros people are buried together in a graveyard on dry land.
The second island that we toured was Isla Kamisaraki, which is home to a wooden church, a small market, a restaurant, a telephone and even a very modest hotel.
The hotel is called Kamisaraki Inn and Lodge, and it is like no other Inn that we have seen. It consisted of teepee-like structures constructed from reeds.
Each “room” had a wooden door and contained 2 reed beds spread with woolen blankets. Prior to this trip, we had never heard about this Inn, but as active outdoors people who like to do back-country canoeing and camping, this would have been a logical choice for us. Maybe next time…
We have spent a lot of time hunting for a telephone in many distant lands, but this was a first…a reed telephone booth, on a floating island made of reeds, in the middle of a lake. And with all the known hassles of cell phones these days, this remote phone actually worked!
On this Uros island, we had a chance to watch a woman carefully crocheting designs on a blanket.
I loved this man’s hat! And the work on the green and orange quilts was simply amazing.
One reason I liked his hat was because I actually wore one myself! Bob bought mine from a woman in Berlin, Germany, who was making them in a market there. In this market on Isla Kamisaraki, I was very impressed with the necklaces that this young Uros woman had made. The villagers on every island rely heavily on tourist dollars to help sustain their lifestyle.
While visiting Isla Kamisaraki, another market boat arrived and began to sell bread and other types of wares to the ladies of the island. As the young girl raced around and enjoyed the moment, I remarked about the contrasting pale yellow colour of the island’s surface against the vibrant colours and intricate detailing of the dresses and clothing that they all wore. Every colour of the rainbow was very much in style.
An intricately etched gourd, made to resemble a tall shore bird, became the object of desire for Bob. It became one of our many keepsakes. I loved the colours of this girl’s clothing and the brilliant yellow brocade on her neckline, upper arms, and wrists. I noted with surprise that everyone in her family had the same detail on their clothing.
Although I do not know, I wondered if the pattern denotes a family line?
With our three hours coming to an end, we headed back to Puno, passing by two more outstanding reed boats moored at island’s edge.
Despite this being a damp, drizzly, overcast sort of day, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time meeting the Uros people. Their way of life and island settlement is so unique! It was a thrill to meet them.
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