Titicaca is a vast lake – the highest navigable one in the world – and has some 90+ islands, but Uros Islands are the ones everyone first thinks of. These are the iconic floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and its principal draw.
The first impressions are that the Uros islands are unique, magical and truly surreal places, albeit ones that have become heavily tourist-ified. Some people I know have complained to me that (a) you only get a fleeting glimpse of the lifestyle of the people here, and (b) it’s all a bit patronising, with well-to-do tourists going ‘wow, look this incredible way of living they have here’ before then leaving after a few minutes.
If you can put your cynicism aside, and realise that, actually, you’re supporting these people by visiting them (not all of them welcome visitors, which is fair enough really, and so you just stay away from them), then the floating islands are indeed an experience not to be missed. The reeds that make up the island are spongy underfoot but totally secure, and the self-sufficient way of life of the Aymara people that dwell here is reflected by the fact they have built these islands from literally nothing.
We had a demo of how tetora reeds are constructed through layering, replenishing from the top as they rot from the bottom, with the underwater foundations slotted in place like giant pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, before finally being anchored in place to the bed of the lake. It apparently takes a year for this construction process to be complete, and of course, maintaining it is an ongoing process.
The name ‘Uros’ translates as ‘shy’, and is the name the Incans gave to the peaceful indigenous people who sought to make a home here as a means of escaping their war-mongering neighbours. Today, the people who greet you are very friendly and hospitable, and it is a privilege to see a traditional way of life that now incorporates modern conveniences whilst steadfastly clinging to many traditional practices.
Sadly, this way of life is showing signs of diminishing, as the younger generations are being gradually lured by the bright lights of Puno and beyond. How this will continue to play out in the decades to come remains to be seen, but they will be around for the foreseeable future, and unless you are cynical about how tourist-friendly it all is, it’s definitely something you should check out in Peru.
Another popular spot to visit on the lake is the gorgeous, sun-soaked, Mediterranean-like Taquile Island. Surrounded on all sides by the brilliant blue water of Titicaca (you can also see Bolivia from here on a clear day), the lush, verdant slopes and tranquil pace of life makes for an appealing retreat indeed. The Taquile people themselves are also generous with their hospitality, and we passed many smiling locals enroute to our destination of a remote village on the side of the island away from the main landing bay, thus enabling us to avoid the bulk of the tourists!
At the village itself we learned a bit more about the customs and traditions of the Taquile people. Here, the hats you wear have a particular significance with regards to your social standing, and indeed, can be a marriage deal maker or breaker! It is said that if a boy who is looking to attract a girl has a hat which, when filled with water, leaks then it’s a sign he is lazy and no good, and that she will reject him! So make sure you get your hats in order, lads.
The Taquile people treated us to a traditional dance in traditional gear, before then serving us up a delicious, authentic meal made with fresh ingredients and cooked in a traditional way. This suitably fuelled us up for one last walk to the highest point on the island before a descent back to our waiting boat and a return to the much busier streets of Puno. That it felt like a return to a hyper-grounded normality said it all really: a decidedly unique experience – despite what the naysayers declare – and one not to be missed!