Peru’s floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca

Receiving a warm welcome from the Uros people on Jachatata Island, Lake Titicaca

Leaping off the boat I fear for my ageing knees, but fortunately my landing is cushioned by a spongy floor made from hundreds of thousands of totora reeds.

At 3,809 metres above sea level, the island of Jachatata couldn’t be more different to the grimy Peruvian port city of Puno that we’ve left behind. It is one of 64 manmade floating communities that exist on Lake Titicaca.

Jumping from the boat on to the spongy-floored island of Jachatata

Dating back hundreds of years, the islands were initially formed when reed ‘extensions’ were tagged on to traditional reed boats, creating a surface strong enough upon which to build a basic lodging.

Some say the first to construct the floating islands were Bolivian jungle dwellers, who used to conduct late-night food foraging missions to[ the mainland.

Others say the ‘floaters’ were formed when local people, not jungle dwellers, fled the mainland to try and avoid a land tax being imposed by the conquistadors.

With Edgar and his wife on Jachatata island

Either way they are an impressive and beautiful piece of engineering and I am honoured when the president of Jachatata, Edgar, invites Sophie and I into his tiny reed and wood home, which is just about big enough to fit a bed.

He tells us his family has been living on the island for more than ten generations.

Although his son now goes to school in Puno, he says the population of the floating islands (around 2,000 people in total) remains stable.

Islanders demonstrate how they barter for goods between the islands

Women dressed in bright pink skirts display eye-catching flared ponytails and wide-brimmed straw hats as they demonstrate the art of bartering for goods, island-style.

It appears to involve some kind of heated negotiation which eventually results in the pulling off of a hat and a near fight.

I can see why money was invented.

The precious totora reeds not only feed the construction business, they also feed hungry mouths and by peeling off the outer layer of a shoot like a banana, we are able to sample the juicy interior.

Sophie samples a bit of totora reed

It doesn’t taste of much (grassy, plantlike), but it is not unpleasant.

Every few months new layers of reeds have to be laid out in a criss-cross fashion on the island floor to ensure it remains afloat.

Independent floating islands can join bigger floating communities through a laborious rope pulling process. Alternatively a giant saw, can simply cut nuisance neighbours adrift.

If you ask the inhabitants about their origins, many will simply say they are ‘children of the lake’.

A reed island home is pulled toward another floating community

Accordingly, those living on the islands used to deposit their dead in the water, although these days they are buried on the mainland. Rowing one of the traditional reed crafts between two islands is hard going, but I have a try before plucking up the courage to dive into Lake Titicaca’s shiver-inducing icy waters.

At just seven degrees, it literally takes my breath away.

Jumping into Lake Titicaca

It takes 12 hours on a motor-powered boat to cross the lake, whose deepest part lies at 274 metres. French explorer Jacques Cousteau reportedly discovered giant, 50cm frogs on the lakebed.

Seven species of native fish once lived in these dark waters, but that number has now dropped to just four types following the introduction of trout and silversides from Canada.

The local people, called the Uros, live on a diet of trout, duck and duck eggs.

We motor on to the biggest island on the lake, Taquile. Another place full of very distinct tradtions.

Sophie holds her first belt made from human hair

Here wives-to-be chop off their long locks so their husbands can weave them into a belt to wear for the rest of their married days – supposedly a sign of loyalty to their spouse.

In a quirky change to Western convention, fellas do all the knitting here.

So the saying goes: “If you can’t knit, you are not a real man!”

Also, any guy who is not married by ripe old age of 30 is assumed to be gay.

Now I understand why I was receiving some broad smiles and winks from some of the island’s older gents.

Tough life: The ‘knitting men’ of Taquile island

About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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3 Responses to Peru’s floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca

  1. Pingback: Peru Online: November 2011 | How to Peru

  2. Pingback: Floating Reed Islands of the Uros People at Lake Titicaca | When On Earth - Places to See, Things to Do, Gear to GetWhen On Earth – Places to See, Things to Do, Gear to Get

  3. Pingback: Reeds, Malls, and Creepy Photography | Rosalind As Ganymede

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