Dating back to Incan times, the indigenous Uros people have lived on Peru’s floating islands of Lake Titicaca. At 3,820 meters (12,530feet), on the western shores of the highest navigable lake in the world, hunting, fishing and bartering goods has long filled the days of the Uros who left the mainland to protect themselves from the hostilities of their rivals, the Incas and the Collas.
Today the floating reed islands of Peru, just 6kms (4 miles) from Puno, have the double faced tribe of tourism to combat.
Peru’s floating communities include 70 islands created completely from native totoro reeds of the shallow waters of Lake Titicaca. The dense root system of the reed forms the base of the island. Creating an island is an ingenious, albeit arduous task.
The initial steps involve cutting squares from reed beds and lashing them together until they become an interwoven living foundation. The reeds then are piled horizontally on top to create a floor system which feels somewhat like walking on marshmallows. As the reeds rot they require continual reinforcement. (Remember this the next time you complain about your own home renovations.)
If the grouping of families on an island has difficulties with another family they are ‘cut off’ the island in the literal sense and set adrift to start their own new community.
The 2000 lives of the Uros people and their floating islands are completely intertwined with the totora reed. Not only a building material for their islands, but for constructing canoes and a staple of the diet, apparently remarkably good for dental hygiene. Used for medicinal purposes, the totoro has been a cornerstone of life on Peru’s floating islands for centuries.
Legends tell of the Uros people existing before the sun and that lightening would not harm them, nor could their lives be ended with drowning. Living in a spot where one can fall though one’s own floor and into a lake, let us hope this is more truth than mythology.
Picking up any guide book or perusing a travel website when planning a trip to Peru, one would be hard pressed not to glimpse an intriguing photo of Peru’s floating islands. Tourism has brought keen visitors in droves with money to purchase handicrafts made by the Uros women. In turn the ever growing tourist flow challenges the traditional lifestyle.
Why is tourism a challenge for Peru’s Floating Islands?
Anthropologist Arrufo Alcantara Hernandez, director of the faculty of social sciences at the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno explained to National Geographic, “The issues facing the people living on the floating islands are multifold. The waters of the Uros have been over fished by commercial fishermen, tourists are affecting their traditional culture and sewage from Puno is causing environmental and health problems.”
The totora reeds now grow shorter, whether it be from sewage or pesticide use on the mainland. With shorter reeds for reinforcing the islands, more work is required to keep the islands afloat. Should the reeds disappear the floating islands will in turn cease to exist.
The guide explains the impact of dietary changes as fast food has become available. With more time being spent on entertaining tourists, the maintenance of the islands, and there is much to maintain, is given less time.
The Uros people of Peru are extraordinarily friendly and keen to show how their reed islands, their homes and their handicrafts are created.
As the group sang us farewell, their last song being ‘My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean’, I couldn’t help but feel the negative side of tourism that I am a part of. Perhaps it is my imagination but as I stepped off the waterbed like island it seemed to sink just a bit farther under my weight.