Day 13 — Islas Flotantes de los Uros

Wednesday — April 15

On our way to breakfast, we found the tile pathways in the garden wet from the overnight rain. The overcast skies gave every indication that there was more wet stuff to come. We could easily deal with the chill in the air by wearing our layers, but rain would put a real damper on our day on Lake Titicaca. As it was only 6:00a, we crossed our fingers, hoping the weather would clear before long and continued onto the dining room. The breakfast buffet was quite extensive; plenty of choices, both hot and cold, to provide us with a filling meal to start the day.

Casa Andina offers an extensive breakfast buffet.

There are numerous options for cruising Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake (about 12,500 feet (~3,810 m) above sea level). They range from organized tours by reputable companies to impromptu tours by independent boat owners. My pre-trip research had suggested that an organized group was the way to go. With that in mind, although we’re not a fan of group tours, I had asked Vidal to book us on the “Remote Taquile and Uros” tour offered by All Ways Travel.

Before leaving us the day before, Percy had told us that Veronica from All Ways would be by to pick us up at 6:45a, but that we would be joining another company’s tour because no one else had booked with All Ways for the same date. Having read that the practice of co-mingling tours, especially during the shoulder season, is quite common, this did not come as a complete surprise.

Our itinerary today includes the Floating Islands of the Uros and Taquile Island.
(the green star marks Sillustani, which we hope to visit tomorrow)
(map compliments of the All Ways Travel website)

What did come as a surprise was seeing Vidal’s smiling face when we went to the lobby to meet up with Veronica. He’d gotten on a bus as soon as the strike was over the day before and traveled overnight to join us in time for our cruise. We were delighted to see him and appreciated the extra effort he had made to keep his commitment to us. On the way to the boat dock, he told us about his journey, which included frequent stops where the passengers joined the bus driver to clear the road of boulders and other debris so that they could get through to Puno.

We arrived at the dock under a slight drizzle. First to board the 24-passenger motorboat that would be our transport for the day, we had our pick of the seats. It wasn’t long before the rest of the group showed up with Walter, our official guide for the day, and we were off to Islas Flotantes de los Uros (the Floating Islands of the Uros).

We get our pick of the seats on the motorboat.

The ride across Puno Bay to the Uros Islands was a smooth one. On the way there, Walter provided an ongoing commentary about Lake Titicaca, the floating islands, and the people who inhabit them.

This Google Earth image shows the floating islands located in an arm of Puno Bay.
(also note location of Casa Andina Private Collection and the Yavari)

The man-made floating islands are constructed from the totora reed. The pre-Inca Uros people created floating islands originally to protect themselves from the attacks of their aggressive neighbors, the Incas and the Collas. Today, the 2,000 or so descendants of the culture continue the practice to a certain extent (a good number of them have abandoned the old ways and now live on the mainland).

The islands are formed by harvesting the totora reed and bundling them together into rafts offshore. They are anchored by ropes tied to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake, which is quite deep — about 50 feet (15 m) at the offshore island we visited. Once the island is formed, buildings are constructed — also of the same totora reed. The upkeep of the islands is constant. As the bottom layer of reeds rot, a new layer is added — about every three months. After 30 years or so, a new island has to be built and the old one is abandoned to mother nature. Each island/raft is home to an extended family. If there’s a falling out amongst family members, they simply saw off a portion of the raft and float off to create their own little island nearby.

One of the Floating Islands of the Uros.

When we arrived at the group of islands located in an arm of Puno Bay, we stopped at a guard tower where the captain of our boat received instructions on which island to visit — in this way, not only is over-crowding of visitors eliminated, but each island gets to make money by selling their wares and providing totora boat rides.

We tied up to Tata Inti, our designated island, to a chorus of kamisaraki greetings — “hello” in Aymara. Having been taught the word by Walter, we responded with equal enthusiasm. (The original language of the Uros people has been lost.) Walking on the island was akin to walking on a sponge, with the reeds giving slightly with each step. Having read that it is not unusual to put a foot through the reeds, we were especially careful — taking a dunking in the ice-cold waters of Lake Titicaca would not have been a good way to start off our visit.

A “we were at the Uros Islands” photo op.
(photo by Vidal)

As a group, we were led to a circle of totora reed benches, which the women were hurrying to cover with blankets since the recent rain had drenched the seats. In the amphitheater of sorts, the “president” of this family group demonstrated how the reed islands are constructed. He completed his presentation by placing miniature reed houses on the totora raft he had created, pointing out that the first to be added is always the “president’s house.”

The president demonstrates the building of a floating island.

As the demonstration concluded, the light drizzle that had let up briefly started to fall again. Unfazed, we walked around the island; climbed the watchtower for an aerial view of the area; peeked into a home or two that the islanders were eager to show us; checked out the goods they were selling — yes, we did buy a little something to support the local economy.

Tata Inti and some of the other Uros islands from the watchtower.

This young woman was eager to show me her home and her “baby.”
(photo by Vidal)

Totora reed trinkets make up the bulk of the goods sold by the islanders.

Had the drizzle not turned into a full-blown downpour, we would have spent more time exploring the island and might have even taken a ride on one of the totora boats. Seeing as how we were not going to get much more out of this visit, I suggested to Walter that we move onto the next part of our itinerary and, weather permitting, make another stop at the floating islands at the end of the day. Since most of the group had already sought the shelter of the boat’s cabin, he was amenable to that suggestion. We thanked the president for his hospitality, bid him jakisiñkama (goodbye), and boarded our boat to continue our day on Lake Titicaca.

Next Up: Day 13 — Isla Taquile

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