Posted by: Naomi Baltuck | November 21, 2013

Islands Out of Time

We set out by boat from Puno, Peru.  Our destination, the Floating Islands called the Uros.

The islands are man-made, found on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12, 507 feet, and 109 miles long.

There are over 40 small islands floating in the lake, each constructed of layer upon layer of totora reeds growing in the shallows.

The Uros were pushed back into the lake when the Incas conquered the region.  They were so poor the Incas found them hardly worth taxing, but some were taken as slaves.  After the fall of the Incan Empire, the Uros traded and intermarried with the Aymara on the mainland, eventually losing their Uru language for that of the Aymara.

We were given a warm welcome by the women of the island…

…who sang us ashore.

Each island supports up to 10 families, depending upon its size.  The islands are anchored with ropes tied to stakes driven into the lake bottom.  When attacked, the Uros cut the the ropes to escape into deeper water.  When cohabitants fought, as a last resort they cut their island in half, to live separately.

Totora reeds rot quickly. New layers must constantly be added. Even so, an island lasts only about thirty years.

When we stepped onto the island, our feet sank several inches into the top layers of reeds.

Marcos, a leader on his island, explained through a translator that the white part of totora is eaten for food, and its flowers provide tea. The same reeds used to build the island are also used to build houses and boats for fishing, hunting, and trading with mainlanders.

A model of the island community shows each component, with its real life counterpart.

Canoes.

Cooking pits.

Houses and watchtowers.

And the people.

The Uros fish, and keep pigs on floating islands nearby.

They domesticated Ibis for meat…

…and eggs.

Marcos welcomed us into his home.

Living in close quarters keeps it warmer at night.  During the rainy season they sometimes use plastic tarps to keep dry.

The islands’ population dropped from 2,000 in 1997 to about 400.  The draw of city comforts is strong, especially for the younger generation. The modern world encroaches.  Solar panels provide music and television to make them more content with island life.

Tourism now provides income to purchase products available only on the mainland.

The Uros sell handicrafts made from reeds…

 

…or from materials bought on the Mainland.

It’s a delicate balance maintaining their traditional culture and making a living,

…between supporting their way of life…

…and keeping the children happy at home.

Flashy non-traditional water taxis, the Uru version of a gondola, transport tourists from island to island for a fee.

We caught a ride with Marcos.

He operates his taxi, sells his family’s handicrafts, and fishes to eke out a living for four generations of family.

A French Canadian I spoke to expressed extreme disappointment in the experience.  She found it too commercial, and felt the Uros had sold out their culture to make a buck.  But I don’t see their world or mine in such black and white terms.

Like her ancestors, that woman lives in Quebec, speaks French, and eats baguettes.  But she also eats sushi, drives a car, and works for a tech company to pay her electric bill.

Such a fine line between preserving cultural traditions while adapting to the changing world around us.  Since the beginning of time, most living things have both adapted and made the choices that put food into the mouths of their young.

The Uros are a unique and hardworking people living in a harsh climate under difficult conditions.   Doing no harm to others or the world around them…

…they have done an amazing job keeping alive a way of life that began centuries ago.

All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Balance.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Layers.

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Responses

  1. Very cool!

    • Thank you, Holly. So nice to hear from you. I hope you are all well.

      • Hey Naomi! Doing great. Hope you are well, too!

      • So glad to hear it, Holly. I have my daughter home for Thanksgiving, and as a mom, you know that means I am very happy right now! Best wishes to you all for a Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. This is absolutely fabulous! I had no idea there was any such thing as a floating island! Wow!

    • Hi Sue,
      I had never heard of this either. It’s something between a fairy tale and science fiction! Thanks so much for the visit, and taking the time to comment.

  3. I never have heard of these islands. Thanks for turning me on to these beautiful hard working people. This morning I admired our visiting Brazilian student’s scarf. turns out it was from Peru. The world grows smaller while it expands in wonder.
    Carol

    • Hi Carol,
      Thanks for the generous response to this story. How long is your Brazilian student staying with you? Have you had exchange students before?
      You are so right about the world growing smaller. And i love that it still gives us so much to wonder at.

  4. Now I did not have an inkling that these people existed, how interesting… fascinating that a women was disappointed, I wonder how she expects such people to live while the rest of the world has commercialised everything they should not?
    It is like our Bushman that still live their nomadic life where they can but will happily now sell you a bow and arrow made expertly by them…
    Great share this post.,. I love it..

    • That is an interesting parallel, and I’m sure it’s a good one. Even the Amish don’t live in a bubble. I have a friend who lives next to an Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They aren’t allowed to own a telephone, but they do come over and borrow hers.
      Thanks for your kind response, and for adding a really interesting thread to this thought.

  5. What an adventure. Isn’t it wonderful how there is so much color and invention and no waste. Lovely, huh?

    • Dear Jamie,
      Thanks so much. It was one of the most interesting and unique places and people I’ve ever met. I did think of the Native American tribes that lived in the Great Plains and depending upon Buffalo for everything–meat, hide, sinews, hooves. The reeds provide the Uros with so much, although they still need to fish to survive. But you’re right–no waste–and that’s a lesson we need to learn.

  6. I love the native Peruvian arts and crafts. Very colorful.

    • Hi Richard,
      We’re looking forward to seeing the Peruvian art at the Seattle Art Museum next month. It is very beautiful, isn’t it? And the Peruvians do not shy away from color–I love that!

  7. Looks like a fantastic trip. Your photos are straight out of National Geographic.

    • Thank you, Lisa. You are very generous! It was a fun trip, and I thank you for coming along.

  8. If I could put 2 likes I would, very interesting, thank you for sharing!

  9. I would love to have a floating island in my backyard, lol. I think it would be the perfect place to escape to and write.

    • Hi Kate,
      That sounds great! My dream is to rent a place every summer to be my floating island and write a book there. But I don’t see that happening for a while. Wouldn’t it be nice, though?
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  10. I had never heard of this place until a few months ago when someone in my photography club won a photo essay contest with a series of photos from her trip here. It’s great how photography can be used to share the world. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • I am so glad to be able to share, and appreciate your interest. I would love to see your friend’s photos, if they are posted for public viewing. Thanks again for your visit, and for taking the time to share your response.

      • Unfortunately, she does not have a site, because I would leave you a link if she did 🙂

      • Gotcha. Thanks for writing to let me know.

  11. Wow, you’re photos are spectacular! What a cool place to visit. I love the photo of the little girl wearing the hat. 🙂

    • Hi Jill,
      She was a sweet little girl, shy, but she warmed up and came out of hiding. Thanks so much for your generous comments.

  12. Great post, Naomi. How few are the examples of people truly working with their environment, fashioning a life from what there is. And it’s probably impossible in this century to maintain that exclusively, although I suppose there may still be a few “untouched” cultures deep in the Amazon basin somewhere. But few people living in cities even know what native resources are (especially the kids). I remember reading about a guy that was initially arrested for foraging in Central Park NYC and then was hired by the Parks department to teach others about the native plants.

    • Hi Scilla,
      I love your story about the person foraging in Central Park! There are a few peoples in the Amazon that the government works hard to protect from outside influence, but it gets harder and harder, especially if the people don’t WANT to be protected, as in one case that I heard of while I was down there. Worse still, is if the elders want to remain insular and independent, and the next generation wants to own the latest model of cell phone and blue jeans. There are no easy answers.
      Thank you for adding, as always, an intelligent and thought-provoking perspective to the conversation!

  13. .Thanks for the intriguing tour, Naomi. I had no idea about these people and their floating islands. It’s a shame someone would be disappointed the way this Canadian woman was. As someone else commented, we try to keep our cultures while living in the world, but we must eat and provide for our families. Sometimes your options aren’t what you’d like, or you do the best you can

    • Hi Tess,
      Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation–well said! And thank you, as always, for your kind encouragement.

  14. Nice. Thanks for introducing me to the Uros.

    • Hi Katz,
      Thanks so much for the visit. I hope you are well.

  15. A great portrayal of the Uros people Naomi. Like other commenters I had no idea of this unique way of life. What a versatile plant is that totora!

    • Hi Roy,
      The Totora and the Uros dependence upon it brings to mind the Native American Plains tribes, and their dependence upon the buffalo. It is endlessly amazing to me how resourceful people can be, and what remarkable resources there are to sustain them.
      Thanks so much for the visit. I hope you are well.

  16. We skipped the floating islands Naomi. Enjoyed visiting them through your captivating post 🙂

    • Hi Madhu,
      Thanks so much for the visit, and, as always, for your kind words of encouragement.

  17. There used to be Marsh Arabs, who lived in the delta area of Iraq, and they lived on floating islands something like this. But Saddam Hussein drained the marshes to create more arable land. I’m not sure what the status is now. I used the Iraqi Marsh Arabs as an inspiration in my book for the connected rafts where people lived for a while. It’s interesting to see there are people living on floating islands in other places too!

    • Hi Anne,
      I had never heard of the Marsh Arabs. Fascinating, and very sad that their home and their way of life was taken away from them. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  18. Beautiful travels and friendships! . . . and respect! Thanks for sharing.

    • Dear Mary,
      Thank you for your visit. As always, it is good to see your smiling face!

  19. Wow, very cool! I love being able to travel vicariously through you 🙂 Thanks for the trip!

    • Hi Kathy,
      So good to hear from you, and so glad you could come along for the ride.

  20. Thank you so much for this. It’s on our list, we want to go, but just don’t know yet if Don will be okay at that altitude. We’ll start with Cusco and see. We know he’s good to 10,500 so what’s another couple of thousand eh?

    • Hi Alison,
      I have to say that the last thing I expected was to be floored by altitude sickness, but I was struck down in Cusco with fever and shortness of breath, and ended up in a clinic for oxygen and an IV for hydration. One day I might write a post about it, but it’s too soon yet. If Don has a history with altitude sickness, I would be very careful. If you could work your way up gradually, that might help. We had such a tight schedule that we didn’t have time to adjust, and I didn’t expect it to be much of a problem. I LOVED your blog about Patagonia! Thanks so much for the visit.

      • Thanks for your advice. We’re researching like mad. We went to 10,500 in Mexico and he was dizzy and short of breath for about the first 20 mins of hiking and then fine for the rest of the day. I think we’ll both be taking medication for it. Oh the places we want to go! – starting with some geysers in southern Bolivia at 13,800. It’s a 3 day 4×4 tour to the Bolivian salt flats and we’d start acclimatized to 8000 then go to 13,800 in a day. We’re still thinking about it.
        Thanks re the Patagonia post. It’s an amazing place.

      • My son Eli spent a couple of weeks in Bolivia at some very high altitudes, and he experienced only a slight shortness of breath. Thom and I were taking medication to help us acclimatize, but we just didn’t give it enough time. If you were to go, I’d just advise taking it slow and giving yourself enough time to acclimatize. Best of luck! I am looking forward to your photos and stories!

  21. This was absolutely fascinating Naomi!! So compelling – the story and the photos. Has completely prompted me to learn more about these people and their history, culture and way of life….

    I also love that you included the contrasting opinion of a fellow tourist and followed up with your own astute comments and observation.

    Amazing…

    • Hi Terri,
      So good to hear from you! Thank you so much for your generous response. I just learned from another blogger about the Marsh Arabs who lived on artificial islands in Iraq, and I am determined to learn more about them, as the Uros have sparked my curiosity too.

  22. What a fabulous trip, Naomi. I found Peru so fascinating, but didn’t go to the Uros. Loved your pics. Are you going to Machu Picchu?
    I have a new blog which replaces my ‘another day in the hammock’ one. Here’s the link: http://anotherday2paradise.wordpress.com/

    • Hi Sylvia,
      Thanks for the visit. We had a wonderful visit at Machu Picchu. I was waiting for the right weekly prompt or travel theme to post about it, but it was amazing to visit, and walk down our little section of the Inca Trail for the overview. BTW, I love your new blog and am all signed up to follow.

  23. I have never heard of such islands. It’s fascinating. But the conditions do seem very harsh. I agree with you about adaptation to contemporary standards. We see this all across the world.

    • Dear Shimon,
      It is a miracle, and speaks to the power of tradition that these people have not long since moved to the mainland to live under roofs of stone and shingle.

  24. Well said Naomi. These people have done a terrific job maintaining their culture and livelihood. They do not need to be mutually exclusive. Everything evolves to survive. Or it doesn’t. Great point about the woman in Quebec too.

    • Thank you for sharing a very thoughtful response. “Everything evolves to survive.” So true!

  25. Very interesting. Thank you. I wonder how long it would take to cut an island in half and if it would affect the stability?

    • Now THAT is an interesting questions. It doesn’t happen very often, I’m sure, and I don’t imagine they would take such a dramatic step lightly. But after centuries of living thus, they probably have some sort of system in place.
      I appreciate your visit.

  26. hello Naomi,
    I’ve read several times about the Uros on the Lake Titicaca in Peru, but never such a wonderful detailed tribute to the little handmade islands – thank you very much for sharing your photos and article = an interesting bridge to understand a thought provoking culture! P.S.: I was amused to notice: “Solar panels provide music and television to make the youth more content with island life…”

    • Thank you so much for your very generous response! It certainly was a surprise. In the photograph with the little girl in the hat, there was also a little solar powered TV to keep her occupied while her mother sold her wares. I am glad to say that the little girl was more interested in what was going on in the real world.

  27. Doing maintenance to your floating island is a whole new level of home ownership. It’s amazing and wonderful how people live and flourish in a fashion that others of us might not survive a few days for lack of skills. My mom was masterful at food preservation, and each time I give in an toss out something I failed to cook or eat in time I’m abashed knowing other people in this day and age have managed to preserve traditions and skills we too often disregard nowadays. Not to simplify and imply the Uros live where and how they live for singular reasons, but it’s a bit mind-boggling to think about hanging out watching Dancing with the Stars atop a reed-enforced floating island. Thanks for a fascinating story.

    • Dear Laurel,
      I know exactly what you mean. I was the child of a Depression Baby, and grew up eating my crusts with the tales of starving children in Africa ringing in my ears. I still feel terrible if I waste anything. And it certainly does intrigue, to think about such a very different way of life. In those harsh conditions, I am also intrigued by what it is that keeps them there despite harsh weather and primitive living conditions in both winter and summer, when the modern comforts of the mainland are only a few miles–and a whole world away.

      • Depression Baby parents are such an interesting breed; I had one, too, and how those experiences shaped their world view was frustrating to me as a child and extremely interesting to me now. I love the concept of love of place and tradition and wonder how they balance both feeling liberated by not depending on things that many of us do and also frustrated at times by going without, whether out of individual choice or by necessity. I am finding that as I get older I want less stuff in my life. Lately, I’ve been giving always lots of things I’ve had for years and am having fun as my house feels lighter. But, and that’s a big but, that’s of course a far cry from a self-sustaining lifestyle. It was incredibly interesting to take the visual journey you offered. I’ve been pondering it a lot in the last days.

      • I understand, Laurel. I need to do a major purge of STUFF.

  28. What an extraordinary experience. Thanks for sharing it with us, Naomi.

    • Hi Cathryn,
      Thanks so much for the visit!

  29. I just love the women’s brightly coloured clothes. Is there a country you haven’t visited yet in the world, Naomi?

    • Dear Sarah,
      There are so many places I have yet to see! I have never been any deeper into Asia than the Asian half of Istanbul. One day I would like to go to Antarctica, and Galapagos, and I have only set a foot onto the northernmost part of Africa. I want to explore Eastern Europe, too. I need to get cracking–so many miles yet to go before my knees give out!

      • Like you, I long to visit Antarctica and Galapagos. Iceland and Norway are on my list, too.

        As for the old knees! My two remedies for knee ache are doing about 5-minutes’ worth of Qi Gong exercises every day, as well as massaging my knees with some of my homemade potion — olive oil with added lavender and rosemary essential oil. It smells yummy and really works.

      • I found that trekking poles really do make a difference when I’m hiking, too.
        Norway is such a gorgeous country. I hope you get there, Sarah. (Bring your lavender oil and trekking poles!)

  30. What an adventure! The solar panel is fascinating. Thank you for showing us their handcrafts. Life must be pretty tough there…

    • Hi Amy,
      I can’t imagine living in such harsh conditions, but the Uros seemed very content, and incredibly well adapted to it.
      So glad you could stop by, and I appreciate your sharing your response.

  31. Naomi, thanks for introducing me to a group of people about which I knew nothing. 🙂 Very interesting.

    janet

  32. What fabulous experiences you’ve had along the way, Naomi! 🙂
    Happy Thanks giving!

    • Dear Jo,
      I am thankful for every one! And thankful for bogging friends like you. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  33. What an experience. Your posts are always packed with amazing people and details. Some of the islands off our coasts are inhabited by people who learned to live with nature and eke out a living. Though tourism has helped some to prosper, it has also taken away much. Floating islands are a new concept for me, too.

  34. […] Uros people construct and live on Floating Islands of the lake, and might’ve taken their cue from the […]

  35. These are great photos…..although it is A Word In Your Ear’s challenge. Here is the link.
    https://suellewellyn2011.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-float/

  36. […] Naomi […]


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