South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
An ancient Andean people thrives in fragile, reed-built floating villages on Lake Titicaca
The Uros maintain a traditional livelihood with hunting, fishing and handicrafts
Lake Titicaca, located at an altitude of 3,800 metres in the Andes mountains between Peru and Bolivia, is the world’s highest navigable lake. In 1978 the government in Lima created the Titicaca National Reserve to protect 35,000 hectares of marshes off the shores of the lake near the southern city of Puno. These marshes, split into hundreds of islands by narrow waterways, attract a wide range of birds, fish and fauna, as well as being home to the Uros tribe, whose ancestry predates the Inca civilisation.
Today the Uros live among the local Aymara people, who make up the majority of the population of both southern Peru and northern Bolivia. According to David Sauna, president of the Uros community, “the Uros people are totally integrated with the Aymara community and speak their language”. However, the Uros have managed to retain their independence and lifestyle by living on 93 floating islands, which they build and maintain from totora reeds, some five kilometres off the coast and accessible only by a 20-minute boat ride from Puno.
An Uros girl outside her home
The tall totora reed grows in the shallow waters near the shores of the lake. The roots of these reeds are cut into chunks and when dried, roped together until they form a large mass. They are then anchored with poles driven into the bed of the lake. Layers of reeds are stacked one on top of the other across the surface to create a base upon which the Uros construct their small homes and communal buildings.
The platforms feel sponge-like underfoot but these islands have a lifespan of around 20 years. Should there be disputes between families living on the same island it is easy to cut a single home off and float it to another island.
The Uros population numbers around 3,000 with up to 10 families on each island. The region is divided into two zones: the Rio Willy with around 370 families, or 2,200 people (where tourists are permitted); and the Ccapi sector, with 105 families and 1,050 people (where privacy is protected).
One of the smaller floating villages on Lake Titicaca
Given the small scale of the homes – tent-like structures usually consisting of a single open-plan room – cooking takes place outside on stone slabs laid on to the reeds to protect them from catching fire. Traditionally the Uros’ livelihood has come from fishing and hunting wild birds in the marshes using spears made from reeds but while they still row reed rafts, it is not uncommon to see them in wooden boats with outboard motors.
The climate can be harsh. Although the daytime temperature rarely exceeds 18 degrees, the sun is extremely strong, and nights are cold, often dipping below zero during the summer. The Uros dress accordingly and are known for their colourful woollen costumes.
The local population is accustomed to the high altitude and have hearts and lungs that are slightly larger than people who live closer to sea level. Visitors who are not used to the mountain air often find breathing more difficult and are advised to eat lightly, drink plenty of water and walk slowly. Coca maté tea and coca leaves, said to alleviate altitude sickness, are free in most hotels.
Tourism has developed during the past few years with boatloads of people visiting the islands from Puno. Not only have the Uros picked up a few words of English but they know how to negotiate the price of traditional handicrafts and charge a small fee for inviting visitors into their homes.
The Uros, in their fragile, reed-built homes, have survived and maintain their culture while adapting to life in the 21st century. As Sauna explains: “They preserve their traditional occupation of hunting, fishing and harvesting and play a role in protecting the ecosystem of the lake. So long as the Uros live on the islands their culture will not disappear.”
Puno is a five- to six-hour coach journey from Cusco. Alternatively there are flights from Cusco and Lima to Juliaca airport, a 30-minute drive from Puno. An overnight train service runs several times a week from Puno to Cusco for the more adventurous. There are regular ferries to the floating islands from the port of Puno.
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