The Floating Totora Reed Islands

A local rowing her reed boat around Uros
A local rowing her reed boat around Uros

After being thrown a curve-ball upon arrival in Puno (altitude sickness kept me hostel-bound yet again) I conjured the energy to take a boat trip across Lake Titikaka – the world’s highest lake that isn’t frozen over.

At about 12,500 feet above sea level, it’s pretty magnificent with beautiful clear blue waters and tranquility you won’t find elsewhere. There are numerous islands in the middle of the lake – and I had the opportunity to explore both Uros and Taquille.

The Uros islands are floating and are artificially built with totora reeds. We were greeted by the natives, who explained in Quechuan (which was in turn interpreted in Spanish and English) how they built the islands and a bit about how they lived.

It’s pretty impressive how islands have been built – firstly they dig out the roots of the reed growing throughout Lake Titikaka by diving below into the cold waters. They cut sections out and then using sticks and string, tie all the roots together and pile on the totora reed, layer upon layer. In the wet season they replace the reeds every couple of days to keep it strong. The roots themselves stay in tact for around 30 years.

They tie the island down with about 10 anchors from different points of the island with string, wooden rods and rocks. This stops the island from floating away into Bolivian waters!

A miniature model of how the islands are built
A miniature model of how the islands are built

In Uros, the water level is only around 18 metres deep, but in the middle of the lake the water level is as deep as 200 metres. Uros was once located around 2 hours away from Puno by boat, however to encourage tourism they pushed the island closer so now it’s only 20 minutes away by boat. The islands are primarily dedicated to tourism now: it was a little set-up but at the same time rather educational. I guess the locals have to make a living for themselves somehow!

In some cases, islands have been cut in half – perhaps if the neighbours had a falling out? They just cut through the island, including the roots, using a large serrated machete. The reed huts on the island need to be rebuilt every year, as they begin to weather. Inside, each hut contains a small bed and living space (some even had televisions powered by a somewhat misplaced solar panels outside the hut!).

Uros: the floating reed islands in Lake Titikaka
Uros: the floating reed islands in Lake Titikaka

Eleanor Tan is a researcher and blogger for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.

Eleanor

Eleanor is a user experience designer from Melbourne, Australia who is taking a short hiatus from everyday life to experience Peru and volunteer with Karikuy. Having travelled throughout Europe and Asia she thought it was about time to hit up South America and find out what all the fuss is about. She won't be seen without her camera and loves people watching, when she can get away with it.

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