EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a series of stories from our work and travel in South America December 2009 through February 2010. Every effort has been made to provide updated information.
After an amazing month of visiting Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, it was time for us to head south toward Bolivia. Luckily, our route would take us by scenic Lake Titicaca.
Lake Titcaca sits on the Peru/Bolivia border and is the world’s highest navigable lake for commercial traffic. At, 12,500′ the climate is cold and dry, and living conditions are challenging. Indigenous people inhabit several islands worth visiting in the lake. One of the more interesting sites is the floating islands of Uros.
They are called the floating islands, because they are actually floating islands, built from reeds cut from the shallow areas of the lake. The reeds are piled high enough that they float, with the downside being that they become waterlogged and need to have more reeds piled on. Walking on the island feels like walking on a large water bed.
Originally built for defense from mainland invaders, the islands are now a major tourist attraction. While there are many day trips from Puno to Uros, some of the Aymara families have added food service and huts for overnight stays. We made contact with a local family, who met us at a dock in town and took us to their island, Khantati. Each family lives on their own island that they have built. The huts, boats and lookout towers are all built using reeds harvested from the shallow areas of the lake.
There is no denying that much of what a visitor sees is done for the benefit of tourists, however a visit still offers a glimpse into a disappearing, way of life that depended on small gardens and the lake’s fish. In addition, a stay on one of the islands benefits them directly. Sustainable tourism has now taken the place of sustainable agriculture and fishing. Try to book directly with one of the families. If you go through a tour agency in town, the island families see very little of your fee. Details for direct contact are below.
During our two day visit, Victor Vilcas and Cristina Suana demonstrated how the reeds are bundled and dried and how they are used for structures and boats. They have also made compost for a small vegetable garden and have a small pond for raising trout.
A memorable late afternoon rain and lightning storm rolled across the lake while we were there in late December. The Vilcas family was horrified to see me climb to the top of the watchtower to photograph the storm. The lightning bolts were not close, and it wasn’t until the storm passed that I realized that the entire island was flammable.
No wonder Cristina screamed, “Aiyyeeeeee – rayo (lightning)” every time she heard a loud clap of thunder.
Don’t miss the Uros Islands if you visit Lake Titicaca. Contact Cristina (Spanish): email: firstname.lastname@example.org cell phone: 951695121
Or contact them through their Facebook page.