Peruvian Lake Provides A Simpler Life

SEPTEMBER 22, 2009

Wahyuni Kamah

For those who crave stunning natural scenery and fascinating culture, a visit to the floating islets of the Uros people on Peru’s Lake Titicaca should not be missed, as the journey to the highest navigable lake in the world is both challenging and unforgettable.

The lake sits by the city of Puno on the Callao plateau, an arid highland in the Andes. The region is part of Peru’s highest terrain so it’s no surprise that the temperature is freezing cold and dry, especially in the early mornings and late afternoons.

The Inca Manco Capac International Airport in Juliaca is the nearest access point to the lake from the Peruvian side of the border. As I arrived early one morning, the chilly air outside the airport stung my body, despite my layers of warm clothing. Juliaca is situated 3,825 meters above sea level. For a first-time visitor such as myself, Juliaca seemed ethereal, in particular the undulating barren hills and desert.

For the first two days of my visit, I ended up in bed at the Conde de Lemos Inn, a three-star hotel in the center of Puno, suffering from altitude sickness — I experienced nausea and a headache like I had never felt before.

I didn’t access medical treatment as I figured it was just a matter of getting acclimated to the altitude. Instead, I drank a lot of cocoa tea. “It is very good, senorita,” said Tomas, a hotel staff member who brought in my meals. He told me that cocoa leaves had been used for centuries by indigenous Andean people to survive living at high altitudes.

When I finally recovered, I decided to look around the city and take a short tour to visit the Uros people of Lake Titicaca.

Located 3,810 meters above sea level, the 8,560-square-kilometer lake is breathtakingly huge. It extends from the southeast of Peru to the west of Bolivia and by volume it is the largest lake in South America.

The 42 floating islets where the Uros people live are scattered in the lake’s Chucuito Bay. The islets vary in size from 30 to 300 square meters. The Uros people were some of the first pre-Incan people in the Andes, although the current tribes are mostly mixed with the Aymara people. The villagers rely heavily on totora reeds, the water plants that grow on the lake, using them for food, medicine and materials to build their houses, boats and floating islets.

When Spanish conquistadors encountered the Uros in the 16th century, they were living in small reed-built boats that functioned as their floating houses. They started to build floating islets from the reeds in the early 1960s as they were easy to move from location to location.

It was a one-hour motorboat ride to our destination. The islet we visited was about 100 square meters and held six small houses built of bundled dried reeds.

“Buenos dias! Buenvenida!” the residents warmly welcomed us. Each floating islet has a chief who they call president. Margarita, our guide, asked us to sit in a circle while she and the islet’s president explained how the people construct the islets.

The islets are built from layers of densely-interwoven roots of reeds. Each layer is then anchored with ropes to the sticks in the lake bed so it cannot move. “Otherwise, we’ll be floating to Bolivia,” the islet’s president joked.

When one layer of reeds starts to rot, the villagers pile another layer on top. “We can divide the islet into two or three parts using this,” the president said, pointing to a big saw. “When problems among the residents occur and cannot be resolved, we divide the islet as a solution.”

He said that floating islets had been known to last up to 30 years.

The residents offered us snacks made of the fried roots of totora reeds, which are also a source of iodine. The Uros people also obtain protein from fish and navigate the lake’s waters in motorboats or canoes built of reeds. They are also highly creative in mixing colors and motifs to make embroidery and decorative wall hangers from dried reeds.

Their lifestyle seems very simple and humble. Jimena, a young resident of the islet, showed us her house — a two-by-three-meter hut. I saw a bed of totora reeds and some basic kitchen wares. Some houses had solar panels on their roofs. “We use the energy to turn on the television,” Jimena explained.

Despite the often freezing temperatures, the Uros don’t seem to worry about the cold.

“Uros believe that they have black blood, which protects them from the cold,” Margarita explained. They wear layers of clothing made from alpaca wool to protect against the temperatures, and most of the women wear woollen hats and long skirts.

Currently there are around 2,000 Uros descendants on the islets, although most of the group’s younger generation live on the mainland to attend school. A few hundred members of the older generation stay on the islets. “That is why the older women are getting fat — because they don’t have a lot of activities out here,” Margarita said. “However, Uros men prefer fat women, they think that they are beautiful.”

As we bid the Uros people farewell and boarded our motorboat to return to the modern madness of Puno, I marveled that a people could retain such a simple and traditional lifestyle. Sometimes, it feels like all we are doing is keeping up with the rat race of daily life. But the Uros are proving that life can be lived in a humble and quiet manner, out in the middle of a giant lake in Peru.