The floating islands of Uros


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South America » Peru » Puno » Lake Titicaca » Uros Island
December 28th 2011
Published: January 19th 2012
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Waking up early was the last thing I wanted to do this morning after an awful nights sleep; but having mastered the temperature control on the shower I made my way downstairs for breakfast. I was one of the first people up and about in the hostel this morning, and was very much looking forward to breakfast after my meal last night. Although there were no eggs as had been promised, I made do with the stone-baked bread rolls and copious amounts of tea to keep me going. Having wolfed down my breakfast, I waited patiently in reception for my collection and transfer to the Uros and Taquile islands tour. I didn't have to wait long, but kicked myself when we were halfway across town, realising that I had forgotten to pick up the delicious looking quiche I had bought last night to snack on during the trip.

Once the minibus had collected everyone, we made our way to the docks to board the ship taking us around the Northern part of Lake Titicaca. Juan welcomed us all aboard, and told us that we would be visiting one of the many floating islands of Uros first, before making the two hour journey to Taquile. As the boat spluttered into life and thick black fumes issued from the rear I was glad to be sitting inside the boat, and not just because of the miserable looking weather.

As we made our way out on to the thick reed beds it became clear just how commercialised these unique islands had become. Although we were welcomed in the traditional Aymara tongue, which Juan had taught us the response to, the island we visited seemed all to well prepared to receive visitors. Juan had explained that the people of the Uros had cut themselves off from the Inca mainland centuries ago and until recent years had shunned visitors. Now reliant on tourists to help their survival we were seated on a bench made of reeds for an explanation and demonstration of island building.

The islands, and indeed everything that surrounded us where we sat, were made entirely from the totora reeds that grew abundantly in the shallows of the lake. Juan and a couple of the Uros people demonstrated that huge chunks of floating reed bed were tied together, before being anchored in place to stop them from being carried away on the currents. The islands reeds themselves were then layered upon these floating blocks to create a firm ground. These reeds were then constantly replenished as the reeds rotted away, which explained why the ground was soft and springy. We were then each handed a reed to eat, being told by Juan that this was how the islanders cleaned their teeth. Not being one to shy away from a new experience, I bit into the long stem and it was an extremely fibrous texture, not tasting like anything at all. Sadly the lack of any mirror on the island meant that I couldn't check to see if it had had a beneficial effect on my teeth, a look that was reflected on the faces of the other passengers around me.

It was a fascinating process, as was the creation of their homes, boats ad the many tourist crafts that were offered to us once we had been taken into their tiny homes. I couldn't help but buy something to help keep the tradition of these unique people going, even if it was vastly over priced. We were then each given a necklace as thanks to coming to visit them, before being sung a traditional song. As it was all in the Aymara tongue none of it made any audible sense, but it was an experience nonetheless. Just as it began to rain, we were offered a ride on one of the mighty reed boats that had been affectionately referred to as a Mercedes by Juan. I wasn't in the mood for getting wet, so returned to our boat to wait for the two hour ride to Taquile.

We arrived at one end of this seven kilometre square island in now brilliant sunshine. Juan had warned us of a few rules that we must follow before we stepped onto the island, one of which was asking permission before we took any photos of locals. The mainly Quechuan speaking islanders led lives that had been largely unchanged by mainland modernisation, and as a result some believed that photographs stole their soul. As we walked along the cobble stoned path that ran along the edge of the island, we saw huge numbers of terraces that provided this self-sufficient with nearly all of it's produce. The path was scattered with small ruins that looked really impressive against the backdrop of the lake and the distant Bolivian mountains.

We eventually reached the islands main square, which was filled with other tourists each on a day trip to the isle. I was ravenous, and so bought a quinoa cereal bar to keep me going before lunch. Other than the tourists, there was a huge co-op craft warehouse that took up one edge of the main square. It was filled with many different items of tightly woven garments from hair clips to ponchos, that had been made by the islanders. Juan had explained that it was the menfolk that did all of the weaving and selling of the garments, whilst the women did everything about the home. Apparently this tradition had taken place for many centuries, and like everything else had remained unchanged.

At last we were escorted to one of the many resultants that lay a short walk from the main square for our lunch. We were served a rather watery quinoa soup, followed by freshly caught lake trout. The trout was perfectly cooked and served with fluffy white rice and chips that felt like they could have perhaps done with another couple of minutes in the frying pan. It was however most welcome, after almost seven hours without eating. As we were served coca tea, Juan began to explain to us the significance of the mens clothing. The woven willy hats, that bore an uncanny resemblance to floppy nightcaps, denoted social status within the community as well as signifying their marital status. The mens white topped hats signified that someone was single, were as the multicoloured bobbles that hung from the end of women's braided hair denoted theirs. It struck me that this was a brilliant system that should be employed all over the world, and would stop any confusion when dating! Juan also demonstrated the traditional greeting of the menfolk by the exchanging of coca leaves from their colourful pouches. He also told us that amazingly only fourteen to sixteen percent of the coca leaves grown in Peru were used for medicinal or chewing purposes, while the rest was used in the production of a certain well known chemical stimulant!

Once we had thanked our hosts for their hospitality, it was time to make our way to the other side of the island to meet our boat for the return trip to Puno. The weather was still warm and sunny, even given the altitude of the lake and I passed the time on the ride back by catching up on a few blogs.

It was almost dark once we arrived back in Puno, but I was still keen to do some sightseeing. There was a huge white statue of Manco Capac that stood looking out over the mighty lake from atop a small hill in the centre of town. Manco Capac was the first Inca leader who emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca to found the Inca Empire. I couldn't resist going up to take a look, as well as a few photos of the town at night. As I walked through the ever darkening streets, it began to appear like an increasingly bad idea and all that I could think of was being susceptible to a repeat of the boxing day drama. Having scrambled along the rocky path to the summit as fast as my legs would propel me, I was met by a family who had had the same idea as me. Happily the family and I stayed up there surveying the impress view and taking photos for each other for the same amount of time, before making our way back down the hillside together.

I was happy to have been able to go up to the top of the hill and happier still that I had done so in the safety ad presence of other people. I hadn't quite overcome my fear of doing things like this without worrying about another unforeseen attack, but it was a start. I had enjoyed my time in Puno ad tomorrow would be the next step on my fun filled adventure in Peru.

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