Vagabond Tales: Cellphones And Candy Bars In The Floating Islands Of Peru

There is a running joke amongst Peruvians that when it comes to Lake Titicaca, Peru got the “Titty,” and Bolivia got the “kaka.”

All anatomical and bathroom jokes aside, the world’s highest navigable lake does in fact stretch across the borders of both nations. When read from left to right on a map, it would appear that the Peruvians may have a reason on which to make their case.

My mind didn’t spend too much time dwelling on this, however, as I motored across the placid lake waters for the first time. At 12,500 feet in elevation, even the slightest amount of breeze can create a frigid wind chill, causing me to tug my alpaca wool hat a little tighter over my ears while en route to Las Islas de Uros, the Floating Islands of Peru.

The thought which most occupied my mind as we motored away from the lakeside town of Puno – the Andean version of a seedy port town full of con-artists, liquor dens and ne’er do wells – was just how these islands even float in the first place.

A collection of 44 islands not far off the coastline of Puno, Las Islas de Uros are created from intertwined sections of floating bricks of mud, which are then covered in fresh, dry totora reeds harvested from the shallow parts of the lake. Thatched together in much the same fashion as palm frond draped palapas and tiki bars, the end result are islands no larger than a football field, which provide a home for the native Uro people of the lake.

And here’s the kicker: they even have an anchor to keep them from floating away. Seriously, islands with anchors – who ever would have thought it?

%Gallery-161058%Why, you might ask, would anyone choose to live on floating islands?

The Uro people, native inhabitants of the Lake Titicaca region who were conquered by the Aymara and later the Inca, opted to create floating islands as a defense mechanism in the event their part of the lake ever came under attack. Outside forces invade, pull anchor, move the village elsewhere, problem solved.

While the Uro may have lost their language to the Aymara and were subjected to enslavement by the Inca, a few hundred Uro residents still populate the floating, reed-strewn islands. Despite managing to somewhat maintain their culture, the Uro people inhabiting the floating islands are now being subjected to a new type of invasion generally known as tourism.

Arguably the lifeblood, which keeps the local economy afloat (pun intended), the hordes of tourists who flock to see these floating islands have subjected the remaining Uro people to an entirely new set of challenges.

For one, as more people come ashore to their islands and trample upon the reeds, the islands literally need to be replaced and rebuilt faster than before. Every step you take on one of the islands is accompanied by a loud crunching sound, and you actually sink about three inches into the island whenever you move. As the reeds are broken they are subjected to water and rot, and according to our local guide, the islands need to be “replaced” faster now than ever before.

Then, of course, there is the issue of begging children. Whether in the form of directly asking for money or by trying to sell you something you simply don’t want, for some reason, when a child lives on an island made out of sticks and the daily entertainment consists of a boat wake shaking the entire island, you feel a little more compelled to buy something from them, even though you know promoting child labor is wrong.

I mean, they actually live on an island made of sticks. How much can they really have? They probably take whatever money they make and occasionally venture into Puno for vital supplies such as quinoa grains or a used pair of shoes, right?

Let’s just say it would be nice if this thought were true.

From my perch on a “Uro yacht,” a two-story vessel made entirely out of totora reeds and bedecked in dragon heads like some sort of alpine, Peruvian Viking ship, I was witness to a reality-shattering event, which took place right in front of my eyes.

Having stopped for a lunch break on one of the larger islands, I had spent the last 45 minutes or so watching as traditionally dressed women sold souvenirs to camera-toting tourists and as small children demanded money for taking their photo. Pretty standard stuff, really.

From the number of tourists crunching their way around the island and the number of Nuevo Soles changing hands, it appeared the islanders were doing a pretty brisk business.

Then, in a moment I couldn’t make up if I tried, the island was approached by a wooden boat with a sputtering outboard motor and an oversized yellow sign. From the rush of children and local women headed down towards the water’s edge it was apparent this was a popular boat.

Taking a moment to tie his vessel to a metal stake wedged into the reeds, the floating merchant turned his attention back towards the women and children and indicated he was open for business.

Reaching into the deep pockets of their colorful, vibrantly flowing clothing, the traditionally dressed Uro women of the historic Islas de Uros then proceeded to grab all of their newly acquired fistfuls of cash and promptly spend all of it on …

Inca cola and candy bars!

But wait, that’s not all. Once the women had dutifully purchased no less than 14 liters of cola and about 40 candy bars for their soon-to-be-toothless children, they reached further into their pockets to grab some more money in order to …

recharge their cellphones!

Out from the depths of one of their six clothing layers came small, portable cellphones, and all the mothers proceeded to add more credit to their pre-paid accounts.

Somewhat deflated, I boarded a separate wooden boat back towards Puno, excited to have experienced such a culturally unique corner of the world, but somewhat disappointed that even here in the middle of Lake Titicaca on islands floating somewhere between ocean and sky, the far-reaching tentacles of modernity had turned it into a place eerily similar to everywhere else.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.