Life on a floating island can’t be easy – but the Peruvian Indians of the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, have been doing it for centuries. Take a balsas boat from Puno and discover a fascinating aspect of Peruvian culture – the floating islands of Uros – made entirely from totora reeds. We visit one floating village.
Welcome to the Uros Islands. My name is Percy, the leader of this community. There are six families living on this island, which is 40 metres long and 30 metres wide. Family members always stay near their brothers, or near their fathers and mothers. Fathers and mothers are important – they are leaders of the community.
The most important activity in this community is fishing. We also have handicraft. The women make small objects for Uros life. The men use reeds of totoras to make small boats for sailing and big boats to be used as gondolas for tourist transportation or taxis in Lake Titicaca.
My name is Amalia, and I live on this island with six families in total. I’m married, and I have one child who is six years old. I work on this island, especially for men. I cook for the husbands. When they are working, cutting the totoras, they need food. I wake up at about 6am. Families normally go to bed at about 8pm.
We cut many reeds of totora to make the houses we put on the islands. Totora grows in another place, we cut it and bring it to the island. We also fix any broken houses using green totoras, not dry totoras. We travel four kilometres every six weeks to gather fresh totoras to put on the island. We use totoras roots to create small gardens on the island and sometimes we plant crops.
Our boats are called balsas. The balsas are our local traditional transportation. Children use small balsas to go to school and men use them to go fishing. We use the big balsas – that we call Mercedes Benz – as transportation to go from this island to other places and come back here.
Here brothers and sisters work together – we live here. And we do good work to make sure the island stays afloat. We use these reeds and roots to keep the island afloat. This island is held together by many root pieces – that’s its foundation. We cut and bring big block pieces. From this place to another it’s long kilometres. Here they’re like brick shapes. In each block piece, we put a eucalyptus rod, which we get from the mainland, not from the island. Then we use a rope to tie it. We tie all the root pieces together. This protects the reeds from breaking apart and so it holds its position. Local people call these blocks idli. This makes the islands float.
This island has 12 anchors. This holds it in place in the windy season. If it’s too windy, we’ll end up in Bolivia – and we don’t have Bolivian passports. Ancestors on Uros used to use this kind of rope, but it doesn’t last for a long time. Now we use synthetic rope to tie the foundations. This is a tool to cut the green reeds of the totora. On these foundations we put many layers of reeds. Firstly, we put them in one direction, and then the other direction, so it makes a crisscross shape. The block is approximately 1 metre. The totoras layer is 2 metres. The whole thing is 3 metres. The houses are made out of totoras reeds. This is for the rainy season or protection.
They use this tower for local communication in the Uros community. They call to other people for local activities and celebrations.
Let’s go and take a look at the houses. This is a family house – it’s a modern house.
In the rainy season, we use plastic and reed mats on the roof. Local people dry their totoras reeds in this shape. They use the dried reeds to make houses. This is another family house. This family is drying reeds of totoras to put over their roof. This is my house. This big one is one of the first houses. It belongs to my father. It’s the first house near the lake. This is an older house. It has a pyramid shape. The first Uros ancestors lived in houses like this. This house only sleeps one person, but the modern houses are designed to sleep several people – two, three or four. This house is now used for cooking food.
This is my house. Here are all the clothes. On Uros, we colour all our skirts. Women buy different coloured skirts – each island has different colours. Every day the women wear different colour skirts: yellow, blue, orange, purple. Different colours for different occasions. Men here wear thick shirts, because it’s cold in winter and when they go fishing. We have solar power to have a small light inside the bedroom or some people buy a small television. We can watch films or television programmes.
The mattress is made from reeds of totoras. First of all, we put reeds of totoras, and over this, we put a reed mat. One, two or three reed mats, because it’s warm which helps with sleep. Over the reed mat, we use blankets. On top of that, I have three reed mats, and on top of that I have seven blankets. Because sometimes it gets very cold, and we need to have many blankets. Sometimes it’s really cold, and we need more blankets. So we keep these reed mats inside the house, and when it’s cold we put them over the roof of the house. At the moment, there is just one reed mat. When it is cold, we put more mats on, which is good for sleep.
We live in this place – this is our life. If you were to sleep for a night on this island, you can stay in a place like this. We would be very happy if you were to come and visit!
Now we’re going to see a couple cooking. This is my mother, and this is my father. They are cookingin in a cooperative way. This is not a typical fish – it’s kingfish from Argentina. These small fish are typical ones. We all eat together. Sometimes, my mother cooks seagulls and we eat mixed foods, but now we are only eating fish. The oven is put on a block of roots, because the fire is made with dried reeds of totoras. If the oven was put the oven directly onto the ground, the island would probably catch fire. Roots or stones are used for the base to cook food on. The pots and oven are ceramic. Water is used to extinguish the fire after cooking, because it’s dangerous to have fire here.
The women make fabrics for Uros life. They use alpaca or synthetics. The first one shows Pacha, the father of the universe. The next one is Tumi, which comes from north Peru. This is Viracocha, who is Titicaca’s god, or master. Here is Pacha Mama – mother Earth. This one is an animal – a titi. A titi is a feline, or a puma. This lady is making fabrics for the handicraft shop. The threads are different colours. This one shows the local transportation –the Mercedes Benz. First of all, the woman draws the design and then she goes over it with synthetic or alpaca thread. They use a small tool to make the fabric.
The children watch their parents doing the various activities. Whether it’s boys or girls. They’ll go fishing with their fathers or mothers, or to cut the totoras. The little girl likes meeting people. This is a big handicraft fabric that depicts Uros life. The houses, the mamas, cooking fish. The couple is fishing. The birds.
Uros people use the big boats to fish – the balsa. These are all of the activities of this place. Here is a mobile made out of totoras. It shows Uros life – the birds, the boats, the sun. It has different colours.
I made this small boat. It took me two days to make, and I used different colour threads. This small boat – or balsa – will be used to hold some small fruit or bread in my house. Uros men make these small items out of totoras reeds. Women make the fabrics. Uros people have two main activities. One is fishing – but fishing isn’t always good. Tourism is a good activity for Uros people. Tourists come here and buy some things – perhaps a small boat or a mobile. Women make handicraft – pictures on fabrics for example. Sometimes, tourists will buy something, and it’s a great help for us. It’s good for Uros people.
Years ago, the only activity was fishing, but the fishing wasn’t good and the Uros people were poor. But now tourists come here, and it has changed our lives – it’s a good economic help. It has changed our lives for education, we have small homes, some solar panels.
Thank you so much for visiting this island – I hope to see you on your next trip.