Waking up on a floating island on Lake Titicaca, Peru

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The island I woke up on is one of the many locally inhabited ones that make up Los Uros, the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca. Los Uros is in fact a cluster of artificial islands of some 40 or so (they are constantly changing) made of floating reeds picked from the shallows of the lake. Each is inhabited by local families, as many as eight families on each, living in homes and watchtowers made of reeds and straw.

I carefully stepped outside of our straw hut and glanced at the surroundings as the presence of dawn started to illuminate the sky. This small piece of land where we had spent the night, approximately 60 square feet, looked as if someone had wildly spread straw all over the ground, giving it a bit of a rustic barnyard feeling. Across this tiny island were small straw huts serving as sleeping quarters, a restaurant, café, kitchen, bathroom, large watch tower, and so on. Behind me were the rest of the islands of Los Uros, very similar to ours, whose inhabitants were now slowly waking up for the day’s tasks. All this was surrounded by the enormity and beauty of Lake Titicaca.

Lake Tititica is, by volume, the largest lake in South America. Sitting at 3,811 meters (around 12,000 ft) above sea level it is also the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake rests between Peru and Bolivia with various islands speckled throughout it. On the Peruvian side, tourists’ most popular port to the lake and its islands is the city of Puno. Two major islands people visit and stay are Amantaní and Taquile. Tourists also frequently visit the nearby islands of Los Uros.

As it turned out, I ended up staying overnight at this island by chance. Our original intentions were to stay overnight in the larger islands with a family in Amantaní or Taquile. Unbeknownst to us the boats to those islands only leave until 7 a.m. from the port in Puno. So there we stood at the port at noon, confused expressions on our faces, feeling deceived by our hostel, and overnight bags hanging over our shoulders. After a meal of freshly caught grilled trout (for only 10 soles, we couldn’t resist) and a beer at one of the port’s many small local restaurants, we decided to make the most of our day and take the local ferry boat to visit the floating islands of Los Uros, a trip and tour that typically lasts about 2 hours and a reasonable cost of 30 soles.

We hopped on a two-story boat and headed to the islands with 15 other companions consisting of tourists, Peruvian and foreign, and locals making their commute home. Sitting on the second story of the boat (basically the roof with a rail), allowed us to take in the beauty and tranquility of the lake as we left city sounds.

We arrived to Los Uros after a smooth 20-minute ride, passing several locals on small boats traversing the marsh-like surroundings of the lake, where we were greeted upon entering this community by a large straw watch tower. Our boat driver took us to three islands of Los Uros (most tours do), with the first consisting of an explanation by a family of the history of the islands and how they are constructed.

The islands, and the locals’ famous canoe-like boats, are made from dried totora reeds that grow in abundance above the lake’s surface. Through a careful anchoring system of ropes and sticks, the islands are practically immobile – unless a natural disaster or family dispute strikes. Much of the people’s diet and medicine also revolves around the totora reed, as it is used to alleviate pain, to cool foreheads on a hot day, alleviate hangovers, make tea, or to simply eat.

The Los Uros inhabitants have been around for several generations. Our local guide on the island explained that before these floating islands, families would live on large reed boats on the lake. Before the 1960’s, many of these families had little to no contact with the outside world. Now many rely on tourism brought from Puno. The tour boats to Los Uros are on a rotation system of which island is visited, so that each family has an opportunity to share with tourists and sell their locally crafted souvenirs.

After visiting two of these islands, talking to locals, purchasing a few handicrafts, and riding on one of the local reed boats, we were left yearning for more from this experience and to learn more of this culture. That was when we arrived to the third island of the tour and met Luis Ayvar. Luis is the owner and proprietor of Island Qanan Pacha (each island has its own name) which has lodging to accommodate over 20 visitors, a restaurant featuring several dishes from freshly caught trout (grilled, fried, with garlic, ceviche, soup, you name it!), a café, a local shop, and the islands’ only post office. After speaking to Luis over some coffee, he talked us into staying overnight in one of the straw shacks for a reasonable 15 soles each.

So there we were on this temporary straw island as we waved our boat and ride back to civilization goodbye. The rest of our afternoon was spent relaxing, taking Luis’ row boat that he lent us around the lake, overhearing Luis entice more visitors to stay overnight by referring to the Americans already staying overnight (us), and eating more trout. We had the opportunity to talk to Luis and his family about their daily lives and how Luis has become quite the entrepreneur starting all these tourist services on his island.

That next morning we rode back into town on Luis’ motorboat, as he makes daily visits to Puno to stock up on supplies and offered us a ride. As the sun was rising over the lake, I sat there transfixed on the ripples in the water behind us, realizing that we had just managed a once-in-a-lifetime experience sleeping on a floating island in Lake Titicaca.

Originally from California, Andreas Vailakis currently lives in Lima, Peru where he heads Beyond Volunteering and writes about travel.