This story was originally published in our Nov/Dec 2023 issue as "Floating in the Clouds." Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.
Stepping onto one of the Uros islands in southern Peru can feel like walking on a bouncy castle. Your feet sink a bit into the mushy floor, which trembles slightly when a motorboat speeds past. That’s because this land is actually floating — on the largest lake in South America, located 12,500 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.
Hundreds of miles south of Peru’s famous Machu Picchu ruins, dozens of artificial islands pepper the surface of Lake Titicaca, situated along the border of Peru and Bolivia. The veritable floating city made of roots and reeds is currently home to about 2,000 residents.
For visitors, the structures demonstrate a living version of pre-Columbian engineering that’s far more accessible than the Inca citadel to the north. For locals, they form the literal foundation of their cultural identity, which they have packaged into a unique and otherworldly tourism destination that is now integral to their economy.
No one knows exactly how old the Titicaca Island culture is. Oral tradition holds it was established by the Uros peoples’ claimed ancestors, the Urus. Those ancestors are known as one of the first major ethnic groups to settle in the Andes, migrating from the Amazon perhaps as early as 3,700 years ago. They initially lived on Titicaca’s shores but took refuge inside the lake’s labyrinthine reedbeds when the Incas rose to power in the early 15th century.
The Urus could not have asked for a better hideout. Even today, it’s virtually impossible to reach the islands without a guide. Luckily, boating and kayaking tours are available for anyone who wants to visit. Sipping on Peruvian coffee or mate de coca — a beverage made from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca), which abates altitude sickness — visitors on day trips get a glimpse of Uros history, culture and engineering. They are also cajoled to buy bracelets, necklaces or miniature caballitos de totora, a toy version of the traditional boats used by Titicaca fishers. While the souvenirs (and some vendors’ assertiveness) might feel commercialized and uncomfortable, these tourism exchanges have become the primary source of income for the majority of the islanders. Overnight stays can offer visitors a more immersive alternative.
Today’s locals build their islands the same way their distant ancestors built theirs: from totora, a giant bulrush sedge native to South America and found throughout Titicaca. Each year, the Uros harvest fresh roots from the lakebed. The roots are then bound into buoyant clusters and covered with piles of dried reeds stacked 6 feet tall. This complicated craft was passed down from one generation to the next since before the Inca Empire crumbled in the 16th century.
Nelson Coila Lujano, who lives on an island called Utama with his wife and three kids, describes an idyllic childhood, being raised on the lake: “I used to listen to the songs of the birds and had a deep appreciation for the water, the sky, and the sun, because they kept us safe, healthy and happy.”
His neighbor, who goes by the host name Helmer on Airbnb, paints a similarly enchanting picture. “When I was younger, I thought the whole world was made of fresh water and totora,” he says. Helmer is one of many islanders who now rent out rooms on their flotilla through Airbnb. The booking service offers a more personalized experience than group tours, allowing guests to spend time with a host family and see the islands from their perspective.
It’s difficult to say just how many islands exist on the lake, partly because islands are periodically broken down and reconstructed, and partly because its residents are constantly moving back and forth between the water and the Peruvian mainland. Most estimates settle on 70 to 80, although Coila Lujano claims there are as many as 120 scattered across the 3,200-square-mile expanse.
The average island measures 21 by 32 yards, and is shared between three to eight different families. Each is connected to the lakebed via a network of ropes and anchors. Their fluid, makeshift structure dictates every aspect of Uros social life: Young couples seal their love in special romantic boats woven from totora, and when two families have a falling out, they can cut off their section of the island and reattach it elsewhere in the community. Previously, the islands were moved around the lake to avoid the Incas; nowadays, they follow the ebbs and flows of the tourism industry.
When the Incas drove the Urus off Titicaca’s shores, the latter were forced to give up agriculture. Without access to soil, their descendants continue to survive primarily as hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fish, birds and eggs found on the lake. They also barter for meat and vegetables with merchants from Puno, a city on the western shore.
Life on the islands poses many challenges, including limited access to clean water. For centuries, people drank directly from the lake, putting themselves at risk of contracting waterborne parasites and bacteria like E. coli. Hospital trips were common, especially among children and the immunocompromised.
The turn of the millennium brought the arrival of new technologies. Several islands now have biotoilets that use worms and microbes to decompose waste, as well as filtration systems that purify lake water by sifting it through layers of increasingly fine sand. Solar panels, first installed in the ’90s, now generate enough power for simple electronics such as lamps, phones and black-and-white TVs. With few refrigerators or stoves, food is cooked on fires made from dried reeds and wood — a risky enterprise considering that nearly everything on the islands, from houses themselves to the ground its inhabitants walk upon, is flammable. Unsurprisingly, fires have broken out. When they do, the Uros can do little except sit and wait until the fire brigade arrives from Puno, a trip that can take up to 30 minutes by boat during the day, and even longer in the dark of night. In 2022, one incident that began with a stray spark destroyed more than 25 acres of reeds. Fortunately, no one was injured.
But once a year, the Uros intentionally set their islands ablaze. According to Sayda Coila, a tour guide working at Iguana Hostel in Puno whose parents were born and raised on the lake, this is the Titicaca equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture, aimed at replacing rotted reeds with new vegetation to harvest during the rainy season, which lasts from December until March.
Equals Rather than Subjects
If the advantages of living on artificial islands don’t outnumber the disadvantages, they at least outweigh them. “There is no noise,” says Coila Lujano. “Our houses do not use padlocks because there is no theft. In difficult times we survive by hunting. These are the blessings of having been born on the highest lake in the world.” Until recently, he continues, people seldom wore shoes because they hardly visited the mainland.
Currently, the Uros maintain a good relationship with the people of Puno and beyond. But that wasn’t always the case. For years, their political opponents, often anthropologists and academics from Puno and Lima universities, challenged the ethnic legitimacy and origin of the Uros people, claiming the present-day islanders are related to the ancient Urus in name only.
This opinion was — and to some extent continues to be — shared by locals like Augusto Salcedo Parodi, a Puno-based architect who says the culture went extinct when the last person to speak the original Uru language died in the early 20th century. “Later,” he says, “others learned to create artificial islands with totora, and turned the lake into a money-making machine.”
The islanders denied this, and in 2013 they were backed up by genetic research. An effort called the Genographic Project — conducted by researchers from Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil and Lima’s San Martin de Porres University — revealed that many islanders share genetic traits with Uros people in Peru and Bolivia, but are genetically distinct from other Indigenous people in the South American highlands. The DNA results, published in Plos One, were celebrated by the Uros, and for good reason. In the Andes, proof of a differentiated identity is the most effective way marginalized communities can secure their political and civil rights. “We always ask ourselves whether we are Uros or not,” Julio Vilca, mayor of the Titicaca Uros, told lead anthropologist Michael Kent at the time. “Proving that we are Uros is going to help us in our struggle.”
Prior to the Genographic Project, the Uros were held at the mercy of the Reserva Nacional del Titicaca, a Peruvian government agency created in 1978 to regulate tourism on the lake and the islands. Now, vindicated by genetic data, the Uros can interact with the officials from the Reserva Nacional as equals rather than subjects. And they no longer have to pay them any taxes.
The future of the islands is again up in the air. Reliant on tourism, the Uros suffered from pandemic travel restrictions. Then, just as Peru was reopening, national protests and airport closures followed the arrest of President Pedro Castillo (accused of rebellion and conspiracy) in December 2022. Puno became a hotbed for anti-government protests, which derailed the Uros economy to the point that islanders struggled to afford school supplies for their children.
More recently, the unrest seems to be dying down. This has rekindled opportunities for visitors to drift through a forest of totora reeds and encounter the living communities of Lake Titicaca, which feel truly set apart from historic sites that remain frozen in time.
Planning Your Visit
Transportation: Lake Titicaca can be reached by bus from Lima or Cusco, both of which have international airports.
Lodging: Visitors can either stay in Puno or book a room on one of the floating islands through Airbnb. Staying on an island provides the chance to get to know locals, creating a personal experience that differs from a shorter group tour.
Tours: If you stay in Puno, you can access the islands via boating or kayaking tours. Guides can be booked through hotels and hostels in Puno. If you stay on an island, usually your host will act as your guide.
Activities: Depending on your tour guide, you can explore the islands, learn how they are made, talk to islanders about the history and culture of the islands, and buy clothing and crafts. While the Uros can be persistent about selling their wares, these sales remain one of the main ways they earn money.
Duration: One day is often enough time to experience the islands, though longer stays allow for a more immersive experience.
Altitude: Lake Titicaca is 12,507 feet above sea level, and an estimated 4 in 10 visitors experience altitude sickness. You can buy medication at pharmacies, or order coca tea in hotels, hostels, cafes, and restaurants. Coca tea, in addition to coffee, is served on the islands.