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#TBT Travel the self-sustainable islands of Lake Titicaca

Article also on: The Plaid Zebra.

Just like our appliances, it can be good if we learned to unplug occasionally. Put down the cellphones, log off social media or just leave it all behind and join the Uru People who live on artificial self-sustainable floating islands in Peru’s Lake Titicaca.

These man-made islands are made of dried totora reeds also used to make reed boats (balsas mats). There are over 42 floating islands in the lake formed from three main groups of people: Uru-Chipayas, Uru-Muratos, and Uru-Iruitos.  The islands were initially created as self-defence against the Inca empire and other potential threats.

The reeds grow in the lake and the dense roots these plants develop form a natural layer called Khili, about one to two meters thick that support the islands. The reeds are tied together with ropes and keep the islands afloat although they rot away quickly and new reeds are constantly added to the top: about every three months. During the rainy season, the reeds rot much faster.

The larger islands house about ten families while smaller ones have about two or three and each step on an island sinks 2-4” depending on the person’s density. The islands are just five kilometers west from Puno port and a 1997 census put 2,000 people on the islands although only a few hundred still live and maintain the islands. They were free-spirited people and so seemingly innocent.

The lake is the largest in South America and is known as the “highest navigable lake” in the world at 12,507 ft. surface elevation. The name “Titicaca” has now official translation but in Aymara, “titi” translates as either puma (a prominent animal in Peruvian culture), lead, or a heavy metal. “Caca” (kaka) translates as either white or gray hairs of the head or a crack or fissure, or a comb of a bird. According to American anthropologist Weston La Barre, the Aymara in 1948 considered the proper name of the lake to be “titiq’ag’q”, which means a “gray discoloured, lead-coloured puma”.

The Uros’ have everything they need on the islands. Early schooling is done on several islands with both a traditional school and Christian school. They also have solar panels that run modern day appliances like televisions and radios. Speaking of, they have an Uros-run FM radio station. Due to the rise in tourism, a “hotel” has also been built that sleep two people and is ideal for that getaway trip for couples.

Tourism is one of the main ways the Uros get by. They fetch visitors and bring them to the islands via motorboat from Puno bay and they sell handicrafts. Their diets and medicine revolve around the same totora reeds. When a reed is pulled, the white bottom called “chullo” can be eaten to provide iodine and help fight goitres. It is also used to treat hangovers from alcohol and they also make reed flower tea. Like most of the Andean people in Peru, they also use Coca leaf to help with the harsh climate and elevation.

Beyond the totora reeds, the Uros have their own mini-farms. The locals fish ispi, carachi, catfish, trout, and kingfish. Birds like seagulls, ducks, and flamingos are also hunted and cattle are also grazed on the isles. Food is cooked with fires placed on piles of stones. Totora reeds are used as bartering tools in the mainland to get more products like quinoa.

But not all animals on the island are merely used for consumption. Domestic cats are kept around to deal with potential rat infestation while waterbirds like the cormorants are used to catch fish. The ibis is used to lay eggs if they aren’t killed for food. And Uros also keep small animals like rabbits as pets.