PUNO, Peru—It seems wrong to end a series about the hidden wonders of South America with one of the continent's most celebrated tourist traps. And yet, as curiosities go, few are as singular, or as misunderstood, as the floating man-made islands of the Uros in the middle of Lake Titicaca.
Though the origins of the Uros are shrouded in anthropological mystery, their story goes something like this: At some point in the distant pre-Colombian past, a tribe of comparatively dark-skinned people migrated out of the Amazon and found themselves on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Oppressed by the local population and unable to find land of their own to tend, they moved into the middle of the lake onto small floating islands that they constructed from layers of cut totora, a thick reed that grows abundantly in the high-altitude fresh water. There, in the middle of frigid Titicaca, unmolested by their neighbors, the Uros found relative peace and scraped a living as fishermen and bird hunters for centuries while living one of the most unusual lifestyles on the planet. The Inca considered them sub-human and never bothered trying to subdue them; the Spaniards thought them indolent and dirty and beneath contempt; and the local Aymara still dismiss them as dim-witted. But their culture managed to survive. Today, some 1,200 Uros still live on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands strung out like a necklace near the city of Puno.
Until the mid 1980s, most of the Uros islands were located about 9 miles out in the lake, far enough from shore that few visitors bothered to motor out to them. But in 1986, a huge storm devastated the islands and forced many Uros to rebuild closer to shore, near the comparative security of Puno, the largest city on Lake Titicaca. With that new proximity came new visitors—and new opportunities.
Puno lies smack in the middle of the well-plied backpacker trail from Cuzco to La Paz. For a small fee, tour boats ferry upward of 200,000 visitors a year from the mainland to the islands, dropping them off for 30 minutes at a time to take pictures, talk to the locals, and get a glimpse of this strange "indigenous" way of life. At first, the Uros were reluctant to entertain this influx of visitors, but they soon understood that there was money to be made hawking trinkets to tourists. Before long, other Uros had moved their islands closer to Puno, beginning an epic experiment in what can only be described as the Disneyfication of an entire culture.
Each island is tiny, about 50 feet by 50 feet, and contains several thatched houses, typically belonging to members of a single extended family. The islands rotate their hospitality services on a daily basis. Each day, half open themselves up to tour boats, while the residents of the other half take off their native costumes and return to a normal life of hunting, fishing, and making handicrafts. With more than 80 percent of the population working in tourism, the islands feel a little like Colonial Williamsburg, except the actors don't go home at night.
In recent years, several families have begun to let tourists spend the night on their islands. The stays are billed as an exercise in cultural immersion, but they are more akin to full-service floating hostels. We ended up booking a night on an island called Qhantati, which has been receiving visitors for five years. When we arrived, the first thing our gracious hosts, Victor and Cristina, did was robe us in a traditional wool camisa, vest, and chullo hat.
Stepping onto a floating island is an unnerving sensation, like walking on a giant sponge that squishes underfoot. Though the reed mats are up to 12 feet thick, there is always the feeling that one could step right through to the cold lake below. To keep that from happening, the islands are in a constant state of upkeep. Their foundation is formed from giant clods of floating earth that are tethered to each other and to the lake bottom with long rope cables, but they have to be constantly renewed with new totora. Victor, a heavy-set man of 43, took us out on a boat to cut fresh reeds that we brought back to be dried and eventually scattered atop Qhantati. The Uros use totora not only to make their floating islands, but to build their houses and boats. They burn it for warmth and eat its green roots. We slept in totora huts, on elevated totora beds, and sat for dinner on rolled-up totora mats.
Over dinner, Victor and Cristina told us about their growing accommodation to tourism and how they see it as the best chance to preserve their traditions.
"When we started this, people said we were crazy," Victor told us. When they entertained their first tourists five years ago, they fed the Dutch couple small, bony lake fish that the foreigners couldn't eat. "We didn't know what to do," Cristina confessed. She eventually took a cooking course at a five-star hotel on the mainland and learned how to serve up a dish of lake trout and quinoa that looks like it could have been plated at the fanciest restaurant in Lima.
Other efforts were made to learn the craft of accommodating outsiders. In 1989, a group of professional artisans came to the islands to show the Uros women how they could make higher-quality handicrafts—simple tapestries, mobiles, and small reed boats—that the tourists were more likely to buy. Five years ago, Victor left the islands for a tour of other indigenous Peruvian communities, hoping to learn firsthand from their experiences in ecotourism.
The challenges facing the Uros are the same challenges facing indigenous cultures throughout the world as they navigate the tricky passage between tradition and modernity. Here, though, they are cast in higher relief because of the uniqueness of the Uros' situation: their proximity to a major city and the fact that Puno now has a thriving tourism industry that depends on making a showpiece of this strange culture.
A culture that survives entirely off the voyeurism of the outside world and maintains its existence as a kind of tribal zoo feels inherently empty. But what's the alternative, Victor asked over dinner. The Uros could erect a barricade and close off access to their part of the lake. Or they could literally up sticks and rebuild their islands farther away from Puno, where the tourist boats would find them harder to reach. It would mean returning to poverty, hunger, and a subsistence lifestyle. And it would all but ensure that the Uros children who now have the opportunity to head off to high school in Puno, and sometimes even college, never return. Indeed, about 200 of the 1,200 Uros have decided that they are happiest as simple fisherman and prefer to live apart from the hubbub on islands farther from shore. Many more have left the islands altogether and disappeared into Puno and the life of modern Peru.