Friday, October 18, 2013

The Floating Islands of the Uros (Islas de los Uros), Peru.

Of the more than 30 islands on Lake Titicaca, probably the best known are the Islas de los Uros or the Uros Floating Islands. This group of 40 or so (they are constantly changing) artificial islands made of totora reed are the home of the Uros tribe, which pre-dates the Incan civilization. The Uro islanders are believed to have originally stemmed from the Oruro area in Bolivia and to have developed their unique way of life in resistance against the conquering Collas, Incas and later the Spanish. The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive and if a threat arose from the mainland, they could be easily moved. Nowadays, these islands have become a major tourist attraction for Peru, with boat excursions from Puno. Before we arrived in Puno, we had debated about whether or not to visit Los Uros. Most guidebooks list it as one of the main thing to see when visiting Lake Titicaca. When reading about it online, the tours sounded more like a big show put on for tourists, almost to the extent of being fake. Some comments mentioned the way of life being portrayed as not being true to the way the Uro people live today, with families wearing traditional clothing while tourists are present but changing back into their jeans as soon as you go. That being said, they are floating islands and definitely not something you see every day. So we decided to make the most of our stay on Lake Titicaca and take the local ferry boat to visit the floating islands of Los Uros. After making sure Winston was exercised and settled in for a nap, we caught a taxi to the small port where all boats for the islands depart from. The hotel would have booked a tour for us but we like to do things at our own speed and had read that arranging a ride to the islands was easy. And it really was simple. With only a little negotiation, a 3 hour trip for a mere $10.00 per person, we quickly were aboard a two-story boat and headed to the islands with about 15 other companions consisting of tourists both Peruvian and foreign, and locals making their commute home. Sitting on the second story of the boat (basically the roof with a rail), allowed us to take in the beauty and tranquility of the lake as we left the sounds of the city behind. After a smooth 30-minute ride, passing several locals on small boats traversing the marsh-like surroundings of the lake, we were greeted upon entering the community by a large straw watch tower. As we landed on the first of two islands we would visit, it was an interesting sensation walking on the reeds, which felt spongy in some places and almost bouncy in others. Suddenly it dawned on me and I realized that the only thing that supported me was merely a floating mass of reeds and dirt on Lake Titicaca in Peru. I was on the floating islands of Los Uros. This small piece of land where we were all standing, approximately 100 square feet, looked as if someone had wildly spread straw all over the ground, giving it a rustic barnyard look. Scattered around this tiny island were small straw huts serving as sleeping quarters, kitchen and communal living spaces. All around me were the rest of the islands of Los Uros, very similar to the one we were on, whose inhabitants were now going about the day’s tasks. All of this was surrounded by the enormity and beauty of Lake Titicaca. After being greeted by the family that lived there, we were given an explanation, complete with props, on how the islands are made. The islands, and the locals’ famous canoe-like boats, are made from dried totora reeds that grow in abundance above the lake’s surface. Through a careful anchoring system of ropes and sticks, the islands are practically immobile – unless a natural disaster or family dispute strikes. They constantly add new reeds and straw to the islands to keep them floating, as the reeds at the bottom rot away with time. They have to add a new layer of reeds every couple of weeks. The island's 300 inhabitants continue to speak the Aymara language, an ancient language from their ancestors and they still fashion the totora reed into many products, from huts to canoes to souvenirs with many of their traditional customs and crafts remaining unchanged. Depending on the size of the island, three to ten Uros families live on each of them. Each island has a well defined hierarchy and each has a president. They do have a school system on one of the floating islands and the children row their reed boats to school. To relieve themselves, tiny 'outhouse' islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbing the waste. Before the 1960’s, most of these families had little to no contact with the outside world. Now many rely on tourism brought from Puno. The tour boats to Los Uros are on a rotation system of which island is visited, so that each family has an opportunity to share with tourists and sell their locally crafted souvenirs. After the small presentation, we were free to walk around and take photos, and had the opportunity to buy handcrafts. The reviews of Trip Advisor suggested we would be almost forced to buy something, but that wasn’t the case. We did buy a small hand woven tapestry but we were not pressured into any purchases. The trip to the second island could either be made on the boat we arrived on or via one of the traditional totura reed canoes for which there was an additional charge. However again I correct Trip Advisor who many claim this was not really an option. Not true. There were several people on our boat who elected not to pay the additional amount ($3.00) to ride in the canoe and there was again no pressure to make them. Tom and I, of course, paid the money just for the experience. On the way over, the children from the island sang to us in about 3 or 4 different languages. Very sweet and very cute. At the second island, we had the opportunity to buy lunch or more handicrafts, chat with the locals and learn about their methods of trout farming. I can only reiterate that walking on these floating islands, as your feet sink several inches into the reeds with each step, is an incredible experience. After saying a fond goodbye to the family of islanders, it was then time to leave for the return trip back to the mainland. As we slowly motored our way past these floating islands, past the reeds that support this tiny community in so many ways, I thought about the Uros. Overall, I didn’t find the experience as “showy” or “fake” as I was expecting based on the comments I had read. I didn’t feel that we were being presented anything fake, and it was an interesting day. I’m not sure if this is because we didn’t do an organized tour with a guide, but I think taking the boat over by ourselves was the best option anyway. After visiting two of these islands, talking to locals, purchasing a few handicrafts, and riding on one of the local reed boats, I was left yearning to learn more of this culture. Because of their simple and precarious lifestyle, the Incas had thought them worth little and accordingly taxed them very little. Yet the Uros, with their basic reed homes outlasted the mighty Incas with their huge stone temples and mountain-top enclaves. A basic lesson in simplicity.

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