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Floating in the Sky

A homestay with the Uros people on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru

We glimpse the lake under the dark clouds. Lake Titicaca.

A geographic feature that has captivated me since young as the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. 12,507 feet above sea level, for those wondering, and 5,000 feet higher than our busses departure point of Arequipa. The center point of creation, as viewed by the Incans and esteemed for thousands of years for those who live close to its shore. As we lug our backpacks - and our 1 year old son Zion - through the dusty streets of Puno, Peru, we ever so slightly begin to feel the height - save for Zion who seems to have gained energy throughout the day. We find the pier jutting out to the lake with dozens of other boats docked, looking for a man named “Luis”

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We have not the faintest clue of his identity.

However, spotting us should be a bit simpler as us foreigners clumsily wander the wooden planks and dodge the puddles, likely looking lost while doing it. And I guess it worked as a gentleman with a straw hat and colorful vest popped out of nowhere.

“Kevin?” he asked.

“Yep, that’s me,” I responded.

Luis gave me a warm handshake and greeted my family as he directed us to his boat. “Let’s get going,” he smiled, as he glanced at the darkening grey clouds above. It was a simple boat, comfortably able to sit 6 passengers and partially covered with side window panes for those who prefer not to sit in the rain. Luis maneuvered us out of the marshes on the shore until reaching the open water of Titicaca, when he put his single motor to power. For a journey of two miles, it was a slow moving, 30 minute affair in the open waters to reach his community of Uros, the locals of the lake.

The Uros, a people unlike any other.

No, they do not live on a natural island per se, but rather an artificial one passed down through countless generations. Luis and his family, and several dozen other families, construct their house “pad” of floating reeds. Every few days new layers of reeds are added, as the old, fully-saturated layers dive slowly to the depths of the lake. It is an arduous task, unique to the people of Uros. Yet it also helped keep the people from extinction.

Luis told us an animated story to the best of his limited English how the Uros people weren’t always floaters, but once lived on the rocky shores. When the Incan Empire conquered all of the highlands, the Uros decided to live temporarily on boats in the lake. The Incans weighed the risks and decided not to risk lives by attacking them on sea, holding a major disadvantage to the lake dwellers. And how could they ever survive, they likely thought. The Uros people’s way of life slowly evolved from boats to floating islands, harvesting the plentiful reeds they grow in the lake. And Luis, 500 years down the family line, is still doing just that.

The first of the floating houses appear before us.

Some built entirely out of reeds, others with ribbed metal panes and a thatched roof, and still others donning a more “modern” look. The locals go about their day as we glide by, and nearly everyone greet Juan as a close friend. The Uros tribe has the feeling of a close-knit family, where even us backpackers are welcomed into their floating neighborhood. Luis took a left turn down the main waterway where houses stood on both sides. Eventually our boat slowed to a crawl and stopped in front of his humble abode. We initially notice a circular thatched structure with a rectangular door and a large, glass window pane - the dining room. To the left was another building with a balcony beautifully jutting out into the lake. This is our room for the next two nights. Behind lay a very basic kitchen and a larger structure that serves as the families abode. A beautiful piece of “land”.

A tiny, black dog with stubby legs runs out to greet us as we step out of the boat. Zion is immediately glued to the small creature, and let out a generous smile. Juan’s wife and five-year old daughter came out of the dining room to greet us as well. They both gravitate toward Zion and treat him almost as if family. It was one of our most wholesome moments seeing Zion full of joy, considering the long transportation days that brought us to this lake - not too friendly for a tiny toddler.

Juan and his family are gracious hosts as they all took the time to get to know us, shared meals with us, and took us around their community. For supper, Juan’s wife prepared a Lake Titicaca trout complemented with fried potatoes, rice and steamed vegetables. When we retreated to our room, we were left amazed at the detail they went towards to make us feel at home. Our room was warmly decorated with artesanal rugs and tapestries and handicrafts of the Uros people. There was electricity, a warm bed, and a large glass window overlooking the lake. Considering we are on a makeshift island of floating reeds, it is quite remarkable.

The  first sunrise on the floating homestead was surreal. 

Directly from bed, the open expanse of the lake slowly unfolded, highlighting the blue waters and the golden reeds. Colorful boats glided by, with locals going about their business. A real treasure to wake up to this in this high altitude expanse of water. The day unfolded peacefully with a hearty meal and humorous exchanges between the two kids and the puppy.  Mid-morning, Luis excitedly brought us back into his boat for a tour around some of his favorite spots around the community and beyond. It is  evident the care and affection he has for his hometown, as he excitedly prepared a special route for his guests. And it must go with saying: the Uros people have utilized the influx of visitors from around the world to show off their way of life. Some instances I have read where it becomes too touristy and loses the real-life aspect these people live day to day. Luis and his family, however, made us feel as part of the Uros people - even if only for a couple of days.

The  first stop was a quick jaunt into the reed jungle where he accomplished  two things. First, he paid a young man to harvest the reeds and place them on his property - an arduous, weekly task, and one that Luis usually does himself. Second, he halted his boat at a predetermined location and found a string of small nets he placed in the lake the day before. He slowly removed the nets from the depths, with his daughter helping him, and pulled out 4 or 5 small, sardine-type fish. Zion was enthralled with the little guys swimming back and forth in the bucket.

Luis left the maze of reeds for the open expanse of Titicaca, moving towards  a tiny natural island that goes by the name of “isla del amor.” The island consisted of several large grantic outcrops encircled by a flat earth, where a few Uros women and children are resting in the sun, weaving handicrafts. A second island Luis brought had an abandoned feel to it. Luis explained how the Uros many years ago attempted to create a museum and showcase their lifestyle here; what goes to show for it was an abandoned and dusty museum with broken glass pieces littered throughout. A large boulder stands in the center of this island though, which afforded splendid views of Lake Titicaca.

Typical  for weather in the altiplano, the high plateau found in Peru and Bolivia, dark clouds formed once again with rain  on the horizon. Luis left the abandoned island and set course for home.  As we entered the Uros community, Luis looked over at us.

“Do you see that large house over there? That is where the president of the Uros live.”

“How does one get to be president,” I asked him.

“Every new term, there is a vote among the community.”

Luis then, as humbly as could be, said he is planning on running next term.

“What are your chances of winning?”

Luis responded with a smile, “I think I will win.”

We  set foot on his squishy house pad once more, with the dog most excited  to see us all back. A few more hours here until we will be sent back to  the mainland as we need to catch our next bus. Our experience on this  lake was unique and beyond special, mostly due to a simple and sincere  husband, wife and daughter (and the dog). Farewells are already forming  in my head even though we have only known each other for a couple days.

“Thank you so much for everything Luis. Next time we meet again, you will be president of Uros.”

Thank you for reading the story.

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