Many centuries ago, the Andean nation known as the Uros adopted a unique strategy to protect themselves and their families from attack. They constructed reed islands on the icy waters of Lake Titicaca, building their homes and settling their families on these structures.
The descendants of the Uros continue to live on a cluster of over forty of these fascinating floating islands.
The Uros people – also known as the Urus – pre-date the Incan civilization, and may have Polynesian ancestry. Their descendants are thought to have come from the area around Lake Uro-Uro, which is now in Bolivia, and called themselves “kot-suña” – people of the water. Over time, they intermarried with the local Aymara population and adopted their language.
The Uros use the totora, a type of cattail-like reed that grows in the shallows of Lake Titicaca, to build their islands and homes. Each island consists of up to 2 metres of knitted totora reed mats, which are woven together and then anchored to the bottom of the lake using sticks.
The decaying bottom layer of reeds produces gases that help keep the islands afloat. New layers of reeds have to be added to the surface of the islands every few months, compensating for the reeds lost to decomposition.
The larger floating islands are home to up to ten families each, whereas some of the smaller islands are only about 30 meters wide and can accommodate only two or three homes. An advantage to this arrangement is that the reed islands can be moved or expanded as needed. It’s said that in the event of family disputes an island may even be cut down the middle to form two new islands.
The Uros use bundles of dried totora reeds to make their famous balsas, or boats. These are similar in appearance to the crescent-shaped papyrus boats once used in ancient Egypt.
Some of the boats feature elaborate cabins, complete with arches that provide welcome shade from the sun. These too are made primarily from the totora reed.
The totora reed is the foundation of Uros culture in more way than one. In addition to using it as a building material, they rely on it for food and for various medicinal uses. Eating the iodine-rich roots of the plant prevents goiters and the reeds can be brewed to make herbal tea. A wrap made of the reeds is thought to absorb pain, and the white part of the plant is split and applied to the forehead to cool a fever.
The Uros are reliant on Lake Titicaca to provide them with edible fish, including the native ispi, carachi and catfish. They also hunt birds and keep various domesticated animals, both on nearby land and on their islands. For example, they use tethered cormorants to catch fish for them, and keep ibis for their eggs.
Today the descendants of the Uros and their amazing islands are an important part of the Peruvian tourism industry. The floating islands have been moved closer to the town of Puno, making it easier for tourists to visit them. Tribuna is currently the largest of these floating islands.
Income from tourists supports the families who live on the islands – who even have their own school and church.
Some of the islands feature totora reed sculptures, making them easier to distinguish.
Walking on the floating islands causes the reed layers to sink slightly with each step. With larger numbers of tourists visiting the islands, this means that the reed layers break up faster than they did in the past. Those who live on the islands have to continually gather and dry the totora reeds, and add new layers of reeds to their islands to keep them from disintegrating.
You can visit the Uros floating islands, which lie within the Titicaca Natural Reserve, from the lakeside town of Puno. It’s typical to combine a trip to the floating islands with a visit to to the Island of Taquile. Be careful when walking on the reed islands – it’s not uncommon for a foot to go through a thin patch in the reeds and into the icy waters of the lake.