Exploring the Manmade Reed Islands of Lake Titicaca

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Jun 23, 2017

by LINDA JAIVIN

High in the Peruvian Andes on Lake Titicaca, we visit the Uros, an indigenous people who build boats, houses – even the floating islands they live on – out of reeds.

Two yellow pumas rear up on Lake Titicaca, mouths agape, eyes rolling. “Mercedes-Benz,” giggles our “taxi” driver, Eduardo. I wonder for a moment if I’ve chewed one too many coca leaves (a local remedy for altitude sickness). But while the thinness of the air at 3812 metres above sea level can do funny things to your head, there really is a double-decker extravaganza of a totora-reed boat, with twin pumas at the prow, sailing past.

By comparison, our single-oar water taxi is a jalopy: bundles of totora reeds tied in a sinuous shape that vaguely resembles a headless duck, topped with a brightly striped woven blanket to sit on. Eduardo is taking us on a jaunt around the world’s highest commercially navigable lake, a body of water nearly the size of Puerto Rico and the birthplace of Incan civilisation. Pumas may no longer prowl its shores but they are still totemic as symbols of courage, power and energy.

Eduardo’s people, the Uros, live here in the middle of the lake, in totora-reed houses on floating islands they build and rebuild themselves out of – what else? – totora reeds. They anchor the islands to the lake bed with rocks so as not to wake up in Bolivia (the lake is divided between Peru and its neighbour). The Uros, who claim descent from the first settlers of the Andean plateau, have lived like this for hundreds of years since working out it was one way to escape enslavement by the Spanish conquistadors, not to mention Incan and pre-Incan aggressors. Today, there are 94 islands, with up to 10 families per island. 

The Uros fish with cormorants, keep cats to control rats and eat both the flesh and eggs of ibises, which they raise like hens. One woman on Eduardo’s island sits weaving a fishing net from string. Another beckons me to follow her across the springy ground into her one-room reed hut. There, to her children’s amusement, she dresses me in the Spanish-influenced Andean costume – in this case, a puffy, ruffled skirt of disco-green, a hot-pink bolero jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. (Later, my friends will do a double take on realising that one of the “locals” in my photos is me.) When it’s time to hand back her clothes, she shows me a selection of exuberantly colourful handmade tapestries. The Uros still engage in barter but she seems content with soles (Peruvian currency). 

For all the tradition on display, life here is changing. Solar panels perched precariously on reed roofs now provide a renewable source of energy that, unlike candles, allow people to light their homes without worrying about burning them down. Motorboats moor alongside reed craft. The islands have their own FM radio station broadcasting news in Aymara, one of the two main local languages (Quechua is the other, the original Uruquilla having faded away). 

The lake’s ecology is also evolving. It’s home to giant water frogs that grow up to 60 centimetres long when outstretched and, in the hands of shamans, yield aphrodisiac “juices” – or so the locals claim. However, their numbers are decreasing as climate change (which is shrinking the lake), pollution and introduced species take their toll. North American trout introduced in the 1930s have driven some native fish to extinction. On the upside, the trout have transmuted into a tasty species with golden scales that reflect the strong Andean sun.

That sun has been elusive today. We began our journey on the lake under fat grey clouds. Alan, our Quechua guide, told us he’d asked the spirits of the mountains to help us out with the weather then handed us three dried coca leaves each to dedicate to Pachamama, Mother Earth. After we’d flung them off the stern, into the wind with our prayers, the gods seemed to be with us for a while, thinning the clouds to reveal the blue Andean sky. We’ll see the sky in all its saturated glory tomorrow when we visit the mystical pre-Incan burial towers of Sillustani but for now we’re wondering if we should have spared Pachamama four leaves each instead of three. For, as we say our goodbyes to Eduardo and his friends and set course for Taquile Island, menacing violet and grey clouds fill the lowering sky.

The 2000-plus residents of hilly Taquile have a reputation for producing the finest textiles in Peru. In fact, the island and its art are recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. As we hike breathlessly towards the peak, 4050 metres above sea level, Alan stops to pick muña, a minty herb that, like coca, helps people acclimatise to the altitude – though probably not quite as helpfully as the oxygen tanks back at our hotel. The muña has a beautiful aroma and I rub the small oily leaves between my fingers then hold them to my nose as a pick-me-up. 

Alan tells us how to determine, by the colour of their clothes and hats, which Taquileños are married: a gaudy pompom on a woman’s hat says she is looking for a husband; on a man, a red hat with a white tip means he’s available. Incidentally, the man would have knitted his hat himself. Women spin, dye and weave but knitting is a man’s job. And if he wants to get married, he’ll need to knit a spectacular cap for his prospective father-in-law or risk a knockback.

The Taquileños are proud and protective of their unique culture and have developed a community-controlled model of sustainable tourism. They run the island on a combination of collectivist principles, Catholicism and the Incan moral code: “Don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy.” We don’t make it all the way to the top of the island – not because we’re lazy but because forks of lightning are beginning to appear in the clouds and we face an hour’s boat ride back to our lakeside lodge.

Titilaka, a boutique hotel set on the tip of its own peninsula, is looking good to us as we flee the gathering storm. The all-inclusive price covers gourmet meals (including that famous trout and locally grown quinoa), room service, bar, outings on the lake or into nearby Puno – and the oxygen. Sitting in the lounge, Pisco Sour in hand, gazing through the picture windows at the dramatic, rain-lashed lake, I think, “Pachamama, do your worst. I’m on top of the world.”

On your way

Make the most of your time in Lima en route to Lake Titicaca.

Lima sits under a pale wash of sky that locals call la panza de burro (the donkey’s belly). But for its whispering blues and violet greys, it could almost be the colour of the city’s pre-Incan ruins and crumbling 17th-century walls – or of the surrounding desert.

At first sight, the Peruvian capital appears to mute all its colours; even the native  San Pedro cactus is a discreet powdery green. But step inside the food markets of Surquillo, with their technicolour produce displays; visit shops packed with flamboyant textiles, ponchos and pompoms; check out the galleries of vibrant contemporary art; or visit on a feast or festival day and you’ll see that Lima, the gateway to Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu, reveals the full spectrum of colours to the traveller who takes the time to get acquainted. 

In the 16th century, Spaniard Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru and founded Lima as its capital. Today, it’s a proudly independent Peru that is conquering the world with novoandina (new Andean) cuisine. Splurge on a meal by the culinary conquistadors at Central, which has been No. 1 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the past three years, and Astrid & Gastón, located in a historic hacienda in the upscale San Isidro district.

Peru’s food revolution has helped to spark a cultural renaissance, too. Lima boasts small but lively design, arts, theatre and music scenes. Survey its art history from pre-Columbian times to the present at the Museo de Arte de Lima in the former Palacio de la Exposición. And try Peru’s national cocktail, the Pisco Sour, at Bar Maury (Jirón Carabaya 399). It was at this Art Deco establishment that a barman in the 1920s first added egg white to the now-venerated recipe.

If time is short and you want art, history and great food and drink all in one place, stay at Hotel B, where the rooms are full of contemporary Peruvian art. This boutique hotel in bohemian Barranco is also a prime spot for watching the sun tickle the donkey’s belly with its rosy fingers before setting over the sea. 

SEE ALSO: Take a Look Inside Peru’s New Luxury Sleeper Train