According to legend, Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the Incas, but it’s actually far older than that. The remote lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia is the world’s highest navigable body of water and has a unique range of flora and fauna, but what’s also unique about this spot is the people who live there; the Uros people.
Lake Titicaca is a casual 3,812 metres above sea level and as such, is a fairly remote place to get to. That doesn’t bother the roughly 4,000 people who live on the lake though. When we say on, we really do mean ON the lake. The Uros people have a unique housing situation which involves them building their own islands to live on using the lake’s reeds. Using layers of dried totora reeds, they weave them together to create islands that are strong enough to stand on, but light enough to float. It’s a fine balance alright.
The original purpose of the islands was defensive. Throughout the thousands of years since the area was inhabited, people have wanted to live there due to the rich food and water source. By living on floating islands, when threatened they could simply move their location to elsewhere and escape. It’s a strategy that has clearly been successful since the Uros people actually pre-date the ancient Incas. They consider themselves to be the owners of the lake and its water, and they also claim to have black blood and not to feel the cold. That part is probably a myth, but there’s no denying their traditions are unique; from handicrafts, food, language and of course, their floating homes.
The reed islands themselves can last up to 30 years if maintained properly, and that involves the never-ending process of adding new layers of reeds when the reeds below the water level begin to rot. It’s a daily task for the Uros, but it’s part of their everyday lives. It might sound primitive but it’s far from it. Food is cooked on stones so the reeds don’t catch fire, there are special ‘toilet’ islands where the ground roots absorb the waste, and some huts even have solar panels so they can have lights, watch TV and charge their phones.
The bigger islands are so sturdy they can hold up to ten families. Smaller ones are about 30 metres wide and only hold 2-3 groups. But if each island lasts 30 years and groups live close together, what happens when there’s an argument? Well, they simply cut the island in half and let the other half with the family float away. A simple way to resolve issues. we suppose.
The totora reed isn’t just used to make homes and islands though. The Uros use it to make their furniture, boats, handicrafts to sell to tourists and even as medicine. We’ll explain: part of the root is rich in iodine and important for their simple diet, but it also has uses in pain relief and can help cure hangovers to boot. In addition to the root of the reeds, the Uros fish and hunt birds, as well as raise ducks and guinea pigs (a traditional Peruvian dish). One of the main methods of getting food onto the islands is by fishing and hunting for birds. The people are as unique as the wildlife there, with a whopping 90% of the fish in the lake not being found anywhere else in the world!
It’s amazing how these local communities have preserved their traditions and ways of living throughout the centuries. Inca ruins have been found on the islands and shores of Lake Titicaca, and a temple structure was recently found at the bottom of the lake, but the only people who really know the history and stories of the lake are the Uros.