The driver turns off the engine but the motorboat continues to glide through the morning mist. He steers us gently, before throwing the dock line to a man in a colourful shirt and reed hat. Grabbing the rope the man anchors us to a floating island—a giant handmade structure of crisscrossed reeds. Everything from the island itself to the huts on it is made of the dried, yellow totora reed that grows plentifully in the shallow waters of Lake Titicaca. About 30 minutes northeast of the city of Puno in southeastern Peru are 50-odd isla flotante or the floating Uros islands that are unique to this part of the lake.
It is time to disembark. The guide holds out his hand to help me, but I’m hesitant. What if the reeds collapse? I take a step forward. As soon as my foot lands, the island appears to sink an inch or so before holding steady. It feels funny, like I’m on an enormous waterbed.
The island I’m on has three small huts and a shed but the largest island in the group even has a school and a post office. Smitten, I listen intently as the guide unravels the story behind these marvels. To escape fierce assaults by the ruling tribes, the indigenous Uru people abandoned the lakeshore roughly 500 years ago and built these islands to begin life on Lake Titicaca. Since then, they have depended largely on fishing and, more recently, tourism as well.
Among the huts, I spot a small souvenir shop where an Uru woman is embroidering red birds on a white scarf. As I approach her, my eye is instantly drawn to something else: a round, orange-and-yellow wooden pendant with three black figures—a puma, a snake, and a condor—in a circle. I ask the guide the significance of these symbols. “In Uru culture,” he explains, “the puma represents courage, the snake symbolizes intellect, and the condor is the spirit.” It hits me that the life of the Uru people on these islands is an embodiment of their spiritual symbols: the courage to leave dry land, the intellect to build a life on water, and finally the spirit to survive and thrive in this environment. I left the island with a sense of fascination. And the pendant, of course.
Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Floating Islands”.
The Uros floating islands are accessible only via private boat from Puno, Peru. Tours can be booked online or via hotels in Puno. Tours depart from Puno harbour at 9 a.m. and usually include hotel pickup and drop (from $20/₹1,074; prices depend on type of boat, group size, availability of English-speaking guides, meals, and routes). The writer travelled with Edgar Adventures (www.edgaradventures.com; $29/₹1,930). To experience the Uros lifestyle, stay at a rural homestay (uroskhantati.com; doubles from PEN200/₹4,035 per person; including meals, pickup and drop to Puno).
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.