Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Part of Ollantaytambo’s appeal is that Inca descendants living in the shadow of monumental Inca architecture bring the visitor one step closer to the feel of these ruins when they were still occupied by their builders.

 

On Lake Titicaca, two indigenous cultures are alive and well in their ancestral environments, unchanged in centuries and accessible to the curious.

 

There are too few opportunities to experience such “living legacy” cultures, and with the cultural integrity of  many indigenous communities  threatened by the impact of Western civilization, many such opportunities are fading all too fast.

Uros Island village

Uros Island village

The first of the two cultures is the Uro people, after whom the floating Uros Islands are named.

The Uros moved into the lake for the same reason that ancient Venetians first settled in a swampy lagoon:  They were more defensible.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

 

Their islands sit not five miles offshore from the Puno harbor, and the route is via a boat channel that has been cleared through the reed-covered lagoon.

 

The morning sun is still low in the sky and a chill in the air as the boat departs.

 

The islands soon appear as clusters of huts, watchtowers, and catamarans all made of reeds.

 

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

 

 

 

 

 

The men typically are out fishing during the day, but two pass by in a small motorboat as we approach.

Every island seems to have a watchtower

Every island seems to have a watchtower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another man looks out over the water from the vantage point of a watchtower.

 

Walking about on one of these islands is not unlike walking around on a very firm water-bed, and the sensation takes a bit of getting used to.

 

Any qualms that I may have about the safety of this floating bird’s nest, however, are quickly laid to rest by an explanation that uses 3-D miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The foundations of these islands are the root beds of totora reeds which have grown so far from shore that they detach from the lakebed and float along the surface like lily pads.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

 

 

The Uros corral enough of these floating beds to house a group of four or five families, trim them close to their roots, and corral them by lashing them to stakes driven into the lake bed.  Alternating layers of cut reeds are laid atop the floating root system, and structures are then built upon it.

The Uros value the totora reed not only for construction, but also as an essential part of diet and medicine.  The iodine-rich, white bottom of the reed is chewed or brewed – as with coca leaves – for relief from climate, hunger, and hangover. It also is wrapped around wounds to relieve pain.

Because the reeds are continuously decaying, the islanders have to re-create new island homes – as well as replace their catamarans – every few years.

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

 

 

 

 

There is no electricity here except for solar panels which now power electric lights and radios, and which have reduced the risk of fire.  Traditional cooking stoves, however, still remain a fire risk.

 

 

 

 

The lake is not only the islanders’ home, but their highway.  A grocery boat – a sort of floating convenience store – makes a stop at the island on its appointed rounds.

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The school "bus" arrives.

The school “bus” arrives.

 

 

 

 

A school boat drops by to take one of the island’s children to class.

On Sundays, worshipers travel by boat not only to the Catholic church, but also to services for the Seventh Day Adventists, who have been gaining acceptance in this part of Peru.

 

Uro women

Uro women

 

 

 

 

The Uro population now numbers only a few thousand, but the greatest threat to their way of life may not be their numbers, but negative environmental impact.

Introduction of non-native fish has driven species long fished by the Uros into endangerment or to extinction.

Uro woman with child

Uro woman with child

 

 

 

 

Global warming is shrinking Andes ice caps and altering mountain runoff.  A thinning ozone layer reduces the scant sun protection afforded by thin air and cloudless skies; it’s no surprise that skin cancer is epidemic here.

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

 

These threats have compelled the Uros to turn increasingly to tourism in order to preserve their distinctive settlements and culture.

There are no admission fees to these islands, so visitors’ purchase of handicrafts fashioned by Uro women are the only way that the families benefit from tourism.  Be forewarned that the Uros will adamantly refuse anything resembling a handout.

The launch awaits at a nearby floating island which serves as a sort of marina, affording the opportunity to make the trip there on one of the reed  catamarans, rowed – traditionally – by the women.  As we part at the end of the crossing, I grasp their hands in thanks.  They are small as a child’s, the skin a rich, warm brown.  Their palms and fingers are as dry and calloused as a farmhand’s.  They smile and nods as if the ferry ride was all in a day’s work.

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

It’s been an unforgettable experience, but the day is only half over.

From here the route continues further into the lake to Taquile, where yet another distinctive culture has evolved in island isolation.  It promises to be a great afternoon.  Click here to come along!

 

 

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