We have travelled all night by bus from Cusco to Puno. Little by little we have climbed the Andean heights to get to the Lake Titicaca floating islands with the indigenous reed community. This is where the Uros island people live. The ride has been surprisingly comfortable with reclining seats and blankets. Due to a safe and steady driving on the winding roads we have, against expectations, managed to get 4-5 hours of brilliant sleep.
It is cold air that awaits us when leaving the bus. Temperatures go below the freezing point at night at this time of the year. They actually do not differ more than 6-7 degrees from the average temperatures during the Andean summer nights.
Where to stay at Machu Picchu/Cusco? Andino Hotel at Machu Picchu Hot Spring, Panorama B&B at the town market, Cusco Hotel Boutique 800 m from Cusco main square, Tariq Hotel Boutique in the heart of Cusco.
When walking out on the pier and boarding the boat to take us to the floating community, our footsteps break the fine layer of ice on the ramp. With a bit of luck temperatures will rise another ten degrees during the next hours. Due to the altitude and the sunny sky it may actually feel quite warm even in winter!
However, we are prepared for the probably coldest morning on our South American trip. The day before we have acquired colourful knitted hats as well as gloves for the occasion. Now we are finally off for the most awesome indigenous culture – only a short distance from the shore.
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The Uros people that live on the reed islands in the western part of Titicaca are the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia. The Incas forced them onto the lake some hundred years ago. In the beginning their homes were simply the mere reed boats, but with time they initiated construction of the artificial reed isles.
Traditionally, everything is made of the plentiful totora reeds growing in the lake. Their homes, their furniture, their canoe-shaped boats with animal heads are all plant products. It is a community with deep roots in a unique native culture. Still today the Uros continue their long-established lifestyle on the Lake Titicaca reed islands. They are, though, to some extent influenced by the outside world. For example they do take advantage of modern technology such as solar panels, plastic materials and motorboats as well as of the opportunity to get financial support from tourism.
The numerous islets, the houses and the traditional boats are constantly renewed with freshly harvested reeds. The plant material used in the constructions tends to rot after a while and must be renewed. In the past the floating reed villages were situated further out on the lake, but a devastating storm forced the residents to relocate their mobile community closer to the shore. Today each floating island on Lake Titicaca is inhabited by several families – up to ten families live on each.
Immediately, when we set foot on the ground of the capital isle, we notice the difference. Our shoes sink a bit down in the soft, spongy and humid rush bottom of the reed island in insignificant motion. The chief Uro of the enclave explains to us that the kernel of the island is about 3 m (10 ft) deep. It is attached to the bottom by ten solid anchors. In this way it remains in place, relatively to the mooring of the other isles. He demonstrates how they work with the totora and we see for ourselves how they have recently covered part of the ground with greenish fresh reeds.
To a large extent the native people of the Uros islands eat what they can catch in and hunt on the Titicaca lake. To impress us the spokesman fetches an enormous rifle which he uses for shooting ducks! A few steps from there some of the elder women are producing handicrafts which they display to the tourists visiting.
The capital island even has a restaurant and a shop where you can get your passport stamped with the stamp of the Uros floating islands! The shopkeeper is curious and wants to know where we are from and if we have participated in the FIFA World Cup. He tells us that one of the other isles in particular stands out by having a radio station installed as part of its amenities.
Being among the first visitors in the morning arriving at the Uros floating islands, we enjoy the remarkable silence. Moreover, we get the opportunity to see how the islanders get ready to leave by boat. Some apparently head towards the other islands or to Puno to do some trading. In other cases they go harvesting or bring harvested reeds back for the necessary reparation works.
- The Uros enclave consists at present of 120 man-made islets.
- The residents today also take advantage of modern amenities such as plastic bottles, motor boats and solar panels.
- The climate at the lake is Andes climate with cold nights and relatively warmer and dry days, even in winter.
- Another culture, the Tiwanaku people, is believed to have lived on Lake Titicaca long before the Incas and the present Uros population.
Many visitors find the visit to the floating villages on Lake Titicaca extremely touristy with activities entirely set up for the tourists. Fortunately, that is not the only side we get to see. Anyway, we are also presented with a couple of women’s handicraft for sale and we see how the islanders offer cultural reed boat rides for a fee.
The morning visit reveals some of the household chores and daily routines. A family with children is about to leave and they all jump eagerly onto the boat and set off. Younger children attend school on another island in the functioning local community. However, beyond primary school the children have to go to the mainland to continue their education.
On the way back to Puno we come across more local boats. People come and go in their boats doing errands on other Uros islets or even in Puno. There is a busy flow of boats targeting the lake shore, and we see with our own eyes that it is still a living community.
However, researchers predict that we probably are seeing the last generation living traditionally on Lake Titicaca. The younger generation will most likely stay on the mainland as they get a better education and have a lot more opportunities there. Apparently, tourism also gradually outcompetes some of the necessary maintenance works of the original islands. Therefore the floating community will most likely not continue to exist to the same extent in the future.
- You can get a Bolivia Hop one-way ticket from Cusco to La Paz with stops in Puno on the Peruvian side and in Copacabana on the Bolivian side.
- The bus leaves Cusco in the evening and it is minimum a 24-hour trip. On arrival in Puno at 6 a.m. you get the opportunity to take a 2-hour boat tour to the Titicaca Uros islands. The bus will wait for you in the port. In case you want to spend more time in Puno and/or on the islands, you just stay overnight in Puno and take the bus one of the following days. Likewise, in Copacabana, Bolivia Hop gives you 4-5 hours to explore the tiny town or go to the Incas’ mythic Isla del Sol, before continuing to La Paz.
- The overnight trip is pretty comfortable with reclining seats and blankets, enabling the passengers to get some hours of good sleep. The bus staff will help with the border crossing in Copacabana, which can sometimes be a bit bureaucratic and stressful.
‘Lake Titicaca Floating Islands and the Uros People’
See: How to Travel Light
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