The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

You can see almost the entire island that we are going to by boat. The residents are waiting for us in their very colorful costumes.

As part of my day excursion on Lake Titicaca, Peru, I was honored to see the Floating Islands, a completely new concept to me. To this day, the Uros people maintain and live on these man-made islands, depending on the lake for their survival, and are a large tourist destination. Dragon Boat racing, an old tradition in Puno, the nearest city, is a very popular activity for tourists.

This is what they call their “fancy” taxi–the Mercedes Benz. It’s used mostly for tourists. They have small canoes for their own use.

The “Floating Islands” are small man-made islands constructed by the Uros (or Uru) people from layers of cut totora reeds, a thick buoyant reed that grows abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The Uros harvest the reeds that naturally grow on the lake’s banks to make the islands by continuously adding reeds to the surface.

There were only about 8 huts on this island and you can see that they have small solar panels. Huts today are square, but traditionally,they were round.

According to legend, the Uru people originated in the Amazon and migrated to the area of Lake Titicaca in the pre-Colombian era, where they were oppressed by the local population and were unable to secure land of their own. They built the reed islands, which could be moved into deep water or to different parts of the lake as necessary, for greater safety from their hostile neighbors on land.

They have large rolls of reeds–couches–for us to sit on as they describe their daily life.

Historically, most of the Uros islands were located near the middle of the lake, about 14 km (9 mi) from the shore; however, in 1986, after a major storm devastated the islands, many Uros rebuilt closer to shore. As of 2011, about 1,200 Uros lived on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands, clustering in the western corner of the lake near Puno, Titicaca’s major Peruvian port town. The islands have become one of Peru’s tourist attractions, allowing the Uros to supplement their hunting and fishing by conveying visitors to the islands by motorboat and selling handicrafts.

This is the chief–he’s voted into his position, but since these are typically small, family based islands with just a few inhabitants, in practice, the chief will be the leading male of the clan.

Additional information, according to Wikipedia: “The Uru’s islands are located at 3810 meters above sea level, and just five kilometers west from Puno port. Around 2,000 descendants of the Uru were counted in the 1997 census, although only a few hundred still live on and maintain the islands; most have moved to the mainland. The Uru also bury their dead on the mainland in special cemeteries.

Food is cooked with fires placed on piles of stones. To relieve themselves, tiny ‘outhouse’ islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbs the waste.”

Everyone stayed busy, even during the tourist presentation. They women worked on embroidery. None of the inhabitants wore shoes, though it gets quite cold at night at this altitiude. The ground was very spongy, like walking in a barn of loose hay. And you could feel that you were on the water. You needed “sea legs” to walk around!

If you’d like more information, I found this great article from Atlas Obscura, The Uros People of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca has small fish, a stable of the Uros’ diet. There are also Canadian Trout released into the water.
The Uros also shoot birds, such as duck, and eat eggs. The reeds themselves are edible, and contain high levels of calcium and other minerals.
This is the “mat” or block of floating turf that makes up the base of the island–it’s mostly the roots of the reeds, tied together.
When the Uros first lived on the island, they constructed boats with a small round house on them. Later, they constructed the islands to give them more room.
This is hard to see, but in the center of the island is a large hole. It’s usually covered by a pot. The hole goes all the way through the bottom of the island and served as a well. Here, the chief is throwing a long pole into the well to show us how deep it is. They did not appear to filter their water in anyway, though it is possible that they boiled or sun treated the water.
So colorful and friendly.
This is a map of Lake Titicaca. We visited the Winay uta, a small family group from the Uros tribe.
You can’t just make a big fire on a flammable island! The kitchen is just a large flat rock with this clay “stove” placed on top. A small fire is built in the base of the stove and pots fit on top for cooking.
Several of us were invited into the house. Though all the conversation was in Spanish, I understood most of it. The tiny house has a large bed, but no other furniture. Most of what you see on the side of the house is for sale.
The owner of the house explained that she and her husband lived here, but there was another, small hut for the children.
The tribe sells crafts for cash, but catches fish, birds and eggs for food and barter.
Their handicrafts are lovely.
You can see behind the hut that we are near the edge of the lake. The island is anchored, just like a boat, to the shore. Otherwise, the chief told us, they’d end up in Bolivia!
Golden in color, many of the islands measure about 15 by 15 meters (50 by 50 ft), and the largest are approximately half the size of a football field. Each island contains several thatched houses, typically belonging to members of a single extended family. Some of the islands have watchtowers and other buildings, also constructed of reeds.
This is the edge of our island, but the next one is just beside it. That island group has a very fancy tourist boat. When a family group grows too large, or their are disagreements between the group, they simply extend the island, cut it in half and go their separate ways.
To show us how they lived, the chief, with translation help from our guide, used these small scale items to show us how to build a floating mat, cover it with reeds, then build houses and live on the island.
This is the traditional shape of homes. It is tiny and people slept sitting with their legs under them to keep warm. The natives claimed their only health complaint was rheumatism–due to cold, wet weather.

Now let’s board the tourist boat! for 20soles, I got a 20 minute boat ride and met some lovely people from Mexico and Bolivia!
A view from the top of the boat, to the adjacent island.
The ladies even sang to us as we sailed off. Their last words were “Hasta la Vista, Baby!”
This is the Seventh Day Adventist Primary school. I am surprised at how many churches I saw of this denomination in Peru. I’ve rarely seem them in other parts of the world.
Here are some of the “dragon” boats.
Aren’t they colorful?
The tourist boat took us to another island, where we could get some refreshments. This is our boat, docked along side.

Coffee? Tea? Coca leaves?
This island DID have a water filtration system. I wasn’t able to inspect it closely, but it did seem to have at least a course filter and a sedimentation section.

Puno, Peru

This is taken from my hotel room on the 10th floor. Puno is situated between the shores of Lake Titicaca and the mountains surrounding the city. There is less than two miles of flat land between the shores and the foothills, which has caused the growing city to continue to expand upwards onto the hillsides.

Puno is the first city I really had trouble breathing in. But the problem wasn’t air pollution. It’s the altitude. It’s located at 3,830 m (12,556 ft). I woke up at least three times in the night just because I needed more air. Just standing up made me breathless.

Another shot from my hotel window.

Puno is in southeastern Peru, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It is the capital city of the Puno Region and Province with a population of approximately 149,064 (2014 estimate). The city was established in 1668 as San Juan Bautista de Puno. Puno has several churches dating back from the colonial period, built to service the Spanish population and evangelize the natives. While most of the area are professed Christians, the pre-conquest ideas about the cosmos still run strong.

But honestly, I can’t tell you much about the city because I only spent the night there. The day was devoted to an excursion on the lake.

Sunrise over Lake Titicaca, from the restaurant on the 17th floor.
Sorry about the glare from the window.

According to Wikipedia: “Puno is located at such a high elevation, it experiences more extreme weather conditions than would be expected for its tropical latitude. The average annual temperature is about 8.4 °C and the weather never gets overly warm. During the winter months from June to August, night-time temperatures usually drop well below 0 °C. At this high altitude, the rays of the sun are very strong. Most of the annual precipitation falls during the southern hemisphere summer, with the winter months being very dry.”

We got into Puno the night before, so I didn’t get to see much of the city. Early the next morning, we got on a boat for an all day excursion around the lake.
We had an excellent guide. He showed us that the lake, surrounded by mountains, was seen by the natives as being shaped like a puma. How did they know that?
Lake Titicaca (Spanish: Lago Titicaca, Quechua: Titiqaqa Qucha) is a large, deep lake in the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru. By both volume of water and surface area, it is the largest lake in South America. It’s about the size of Puerto Rico. Notice the city of Puno in the distant shore.
It is often called the “highest navigable lake” in the world, with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters (12,507 ft).
Reeds and other aquatic vegetation is widespread in Lake Titicaca and the native population build almost everything from them including clothes, boats, houses and mats.
Five major river systems feed into Lake Titicaca. In order of volume, these are Ramis, Coata, Ilave, Huancané, and Suchez. More than twenty other smaller streams empty into Titicaca. Despite this, the lake has only a relatively small river running out of it. It’s virtually landlocked and most moisture is lost by evaporation. Since 2000, it’s also clear that the lake level is falling.
The lake has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated.
The lake has an average surface temperature of 10 to 14 °C (50 to 57 °F).
Canadian trout were released into the lake, as well as other high altitude bodies of water. You can dine on trout at almost any area restaurant, especially trout ceveche.
It was a very comfy boat.
This is an area school. It’s only accessible by boat.
This is another school.