The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.

Puno, a small town in Peru. Situated at 3827 meters above sea level. It’s rather chilly uo there. I go to bed with a jacket and go jogging in the morning to defrost.

The people here don’t care about the 3827 meters. The ocean is far away. Besides, they have their own sea, right on their doorstep: Lake Titicaca. They call it a lake because you can drink the water, but it’s as large as the sea. Like 15 Lakes Constance, 47 Districts of Columbia or 107 Guernseys.

Looking for the train station, I follow the railroad tracks. Instead, I find the harbor. Doesn’t make much difference, I guess, steam locomotive or steamboat.

One of the ships is about to sail. Its horn roars. A man on deck calls out to me: “Do you still want to get on?”

“Where are you going?”

“To the Uros.”

Oh. A floating convention of urologists, then. All right, maybe I can sponge a free prostate exam. I get on board seconds before the gangway is pulled from under my feet.

But it’s not completely free, because Hernan, who is apparently something like a tour guide, relieves me of 70 soles (= 20 dollars). Never mind, I’ll eat more from the buffet to make up for that.

Hernan, who can read minds, says: “Lunch on the island is an extra 20 soles.” Alright, the prospect of an island puts me in a generous mood. Hernan introduces me to his sons: Lionel and Cristobal. The boy with the name like a soccer player is wearing a tracksuit of the German national team. Talking to the children incurs no extra charge.

It turns out to be a beautiful, sunny day. The kind of day that looks much warmer in photos than it is in real life. But at least there is no storm. The ship chugs through calm, waveless water. When you have a lake like this on your doorstep, you really don’t need the sea. (Only the Bolivians keep making a big drama, ever since they lost access to the sea, instead of being happy about owning half of Lake Titicaca.)

We are sailing through reeds. Or rather through a channel that leads through the reeds. So straight that it must have been artificially constructed. Like in Venice.

At a checkpoint made entirely of reeds, the boat slows down. Hernan hands down a stack of Peruvian soles and we are allowed to pass. No canal without a canal charge collection checkpoint.

“Now we’re in Uro territory,” Hernan explains.

“Once they lived on land, but when the Spanish came and forced the native population to work in the silver mines, the Uros fled onto the water.” Ever since I was in one of those mines myself, I can sympathize.

They built ships out of reeds and lived on the lake from then on, undisturbed by the Spaniards. (At the time, Europeans didn’t yet know how to swim.) After they realized that the Spaniards weren’t leaving anytime soon, they built entire islands out of reeds. Floating islands. With reed huts on them. I don’t know how they don’t sink, but they do look pretty.

“Originally they had their own language, Urukilla, but then it mixed with Aymara and eventually died out,” Hernan continues. That’s sad, but better the language dies than the people. The Romans don’t derive any benefit from everyone still speaking Latin, after all.

On the other hand, if more people died out, it would be better for the environment and the sea level would not have risen to over 3800 meters already. But for this complaint, the Uros are the wrong target. There aren’t really that many of them. About 1200 Uros on 87 islands, Hernan says.

Now their population is holding steady, he says, because they have two to three children per family, not all of whom stay on the islands. “Fifty years ago, each family would produce a soccer team as offspring.”

Ah, that’s why the floating soccer field is deserted now. Or maybe no opposing team wants to compete on such shaky ground.

We dock at a relatively small island. Six simple huts. And a tower, for communication with the other islands, using smoke, flags and mirrors.

I’m beginning to realize that I’ve joined a tourist cruise and that the 25 or so passengers will now harass the poor family on their little island. But the island does not sink. The ground is pleasantly soft and gives way with each step. And there is always a slight swaying. I would love to lie down and fall asleep.

But I have to pay attention, because now the island chief is explaining something. Five families live on his island. If there were ever ten families, then new living space would have to be created in the form of a new island, explains the man driven by an expansionist urge.

No problem, he says, there are plenty of totora reeds. They get them from the national park. He builds a small model of an island, fast and simple, poof poof. But because the water attacks the reeds, the island has to be renewed every three months. While living on it. It’s like changing the engine of a car while driving.

Speaking of cars: The island chief is quite proud of his two boats. A small one and a large, splendid one. “These are my Volkswagen and my Mercedes-Beng,” as he calls it.

They also have solar panels. For TV, radio, light. It’s definitely smarter than lighting a campfire.

What’s the rifle for, I ask, hoping for stories of pirate raids or the fight against colonialism.

“I shoot birds,” he says martially. He likes his role as defender, protector, breadwinner and leader of the small island. When we leave, I will ask for his name and won’t be surprised in the least that it is Adolfo. The other islands can be glad that he hasn’t invaded them yet.

Particularly sought after is a type of bird whose name I didn’t remember. Because of their large eggs. For omelets. In a corner of the island, I find only one dead bird. Apparently starved to death. With a last desperate cry in its beak.

When Adolfo casually mentions that reeds are edible, I can’t help myself. I haven’t had breakfast.

Tastes like celery. It would be monotonous, but in an emergency, I could eat my way through an entire island. Oops, now I forgot to wash my hands between touching the dead bird and the reed stick. Happens every time.

Adolfo invites us onto his boat. The big one, the “Mercedes-Beng”. And suddenly, from every corner and every hut, children come running, wanting to get on the boat.

It’s as busy here as on the canals of Venice. And everything because of the bloody tourists. Just like in Venice.

We cross over to the main island of the Uro territory. There are stores, restaurants, even lodgings for tourists. And for one sol, you get your passport stamped. All on a billowing patch of reeds. One storm, and the capital city is gone.

And there is a public telephone. In case you need to reach the children who live too far away for smoke or mirror signals.

Hernan would like to give smoke signals, too, because we have to move on. Strict schedule. So, back on the motorized ship and further out into the lake.

I am sitting next to Ryan from Alaska. He is with the Seventh Day Adventists and proudly points out a school run by his sect on one of the floating islands.

“We are represented in over 200 countries,” he says proudly, as if it was a business. Well, maybe it is.

One can only hope that Adolfo will soon turn his rifle on the invaders. The audacity of Christian missionaries to show up in areas where the population has been slaughtered, enslaved and raped by Christians really deserves a salvo from the shotgun.

But you don’t want to hear my angry rants, you want to listen to Hernan’s information-packed explanation. So: We are heading to the island of Taquile. Almost like Tequila, but not related in any way.

The terraced fields are the first thing you notice about the island. They protect the soil from erosion. It clearly works, as can be seen from the fact that many islands without terracing have disappeared. Atlantis, for example. The Solomon Islands and the Maldives are next.

The terraces date back to the time of the Tiwanaku. They ruled the island before the Inca. Well, actually before the Kolla, but after those came the Inca. This reminds me that I have wanted to write about the Tiwanaku, as I once visited their capital. Which is also called Tiwanaku, you can see it in the southeast of the map above. Southeast is in the bottom right. So, if you want to hear from the Tiwanaku, let me know. But first, let’s get back to Taquile, or you’ll get anxious with impatience.

Taquile was the last place in South America to be conquered by the Spanish. It was not until 1580 that they took the island, which at that time was part of the Inca Empire. The Spaniards wanted to show who was boss and banned traditional Inca clothing. Instead, the inhabitants of the island had to dress like Spanish peasants. They still wear this costume today and present it as “traditional,” even though it was the imposed clothing of the colonizers.

Clothing is important on Taquile in two ways. Beyond the obvious, I mean.

On the one hand, the island lives on textile production. All over the island, you see women and men weaving and knitting.

Secondly, Taquile may only be entered wearing a hat. The archways that guard the entrances to the inhabited parts of the island make this unmistakably clear.

The head coverings worn by Taquileños give all kinds of information. Depending on their shape, color and angle of wear, they indicate whether one is single or married. Whether one has a baby. Whether the baby is a boy or a girl. Whether one holds an office in local government. Whether one is looking for a girlfriend or not. And so on.

Of course I respect the local culture and wear a hat myself. Hopefully not indicating anything that I don’t want to indicate.

The island has some peculiarities to offer. In the 1930s, the islanders pooled their funds and bought all the land from the state. And then the land was distributed among the resident families somewhat equally. Okay, not quite the October Revolution. But at least a small land reform.

When tourism became more important than agriculture, socialist ideas finally prevailed. People organized themselves as cooperatives and vowed not to build large restaurants or hotels. Rather, each family was to profit from tourism. If you want to stay overnight on Taquile, you simply come by boat (also run by the cooperative from Taquile) and tell the reception at the wharf how many nights you want to stay. Then you will be assigned to a family that is currently hosting. Thus, everyone takes turns with the tourists.

The stores selling textile products also belong to the cooperative. Every producer can offer his or her products there. The prices are set jointly. There is no haggling. Anyone who is caught letting tourists bargain the price down, or who sets up a small stall himself, has his products removed from the stores for two weeks.

Because socialism is known to form better human beings, the 2000 or so inhabitants don’t need any police. The prison has been sitting empty since 1937.

The table is empty, too, because before lunch comes art. Enter Ricardo. With hat, guitar and pan flute. He has apparently been active in the tourism sector for some time, because he speaks German quite well. Or he is the foreign minister of Taquile, and music is just his side hustle. A side hustle that, Hernan sternly informs us, is not included in the total price. After my last bill sails away, I fervently hope that the return trip to Puno is included in the price.

On the other hand, it’s quite nice here. Too bad I’ll probably never be invited for cat sitting. Because – another rule from the time of the Tiwanaku, Kolla and Inca – cats and dogs are forbidden on the island. After all, there were no cats in South America before the Spaniards brought them. That’s probably why Peruvians have no problem eating cats.

The return trip to Puno takes three hours. For the children, that means six hours of traveling to and from school every day. Enough time to get their homework done.

Suddenly, an explosion rips through the air. Black smoke rises. Probably some error in the chemistry homework.

I better put away the cigar I was about to light.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Peru, Photography, Travel, Video Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

  1. Pingback: Auf schwimmenden Inseln im Titicaca-See | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Mary Carney says:

    Fascinating! I have to go there.

    • And I have to there again!
      It’s beautiful, interesting, and such a tranquil and serene part of the world.

      Each time I write about Lake Titicaca, a dream pops up that I have harbouring for years: To walk all around the lake, visiting the different communities, villages, people and islands – and write a book about it.

  3. Edward Allen says:

    Great article Andreas! Pretty funny too.

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