On the Peruvian waters of Lake Titicaca live the indigenous Uros people. Their way of life is very unusual and fascinating – they live on islas flotantes: floating islands they have created themselves. In recent years they have opened up their islands to welcome tourists to come and experience their way of life. There are a few different ways you can see the islands: read on to learn and discover the best way to see Lake Titicaca’s floating islands.
Who are the Uros people?
The sacred Lake Titicaca spanning Peru and Bolivia is nestled in the Andes Mountains and is the world’s highest navigable lake (over 3,800 metres above sea level) and is an impressive 120 miles long. The Uros people are native to the shores of Lake Titicaca and have a civilisation older than the Incas. Around 500 years ago, after suffering from colonisation and attacks from Inca tribes, they were forced to abandon their homes. They courageously left the lakeshore and dry land for a life on the water and established a new village and home for themselves in the lake.
They were already very knowledgeable about their environment and so they were able to ingeniously make giant floating islands from reeds and have been able to preserve this secluded lifestyle for hundreds of years. Not only are the islands made of reeds, but everything on the islands including the houses are made from the plentiful Totora reed found in Lake Titicaca’s shallow waters. The locals depend mostly on fishing and more recently, tourism has fortunately provided them with a source of income too.
There are about 70 floating islands and they are quite big – several families can live on one island! The children attend the local school (on one of the floating islands) and after graduating many of them move to the mainland to attend college.
Amongst the islands is an island called Uros Khantati, where we stayed overnight and experienced a homestay. Stepping off the boat and onto the island, it does sink a little bit – it kind of felt like being on a bouncy castle or a big waterbed! I remember thinking what if the island collapses when I stand on it – it was only made of reed after all!! Of course this will not happen though!
Living on the islands can be hard work: regular upkeep of the islands is needed and new layers of reeds are added every few weeks as the bottom layers start to decompose in the water (during the wet season this needs to be done every week though as the reeds rot quicker).
Millions of people in Peru are of different indigenous groups, all with their own indigenous languages. Therefore along with Spanish, Aymara and Quechua are official languages in this part of Peru and so many of the locals on the floating islands will speak only Aymara or Quechua, although the ones working more with the tourists will speak Spanish and some English. The locals are very friendly and smiley, a little bit shy but so welcoming and happy to have visitors learn about their culture.
How to get to the floating islands
The closest Peruvian city to Lake Titicaca is Puno, in south-east Peru near the Bolivian border. To get to the floating islands you will need to take a private boat from Puno into the lake (it’s about a half an hour boat ride). You can organise it through your hotel in Puno or online. But first you will need to decide how long you will stay at the floating islands – whether you want to go just to see it for a day trip, or whether you want to stay overnight, immerse yourself in the culture and experience a homestay on the lake.
So how best to see the floating islands?
There are 3 options. You can either:
- Take a half day boat tour around the floating islands
- Take a boat tour around the floating islands and then stay overnight on a different island in the lake with a different indigenous tribe (these islands are not floating islands, but natural islands made of land)
- or you can do as we did and do a homestay on one of the floating islands.
The half day boat tour lasts about 4 hours and departs in the morning and the afternoon. You can choose a group tour or a private tour. If you choose this option I would strongly advise you to pay a little more for a private tour as opposed to a group tour, just to make it more authentic as I have heard the group tours can be too touristy. You will get to meet some of the resident families and ride on the reed boat and then head back to Puno.
The second option is similar to the first: you will spend a few hours at the floating islands and then in the afternoon go on to the natural islands of Taquile or Amantani a couple of hours away by boat, and stay overnight there. Lots of people recommend this option, but we were really intrigued to stay on the floating islands and learn more about their culture and traditions so we chose that option instead.
The third option – the overnight homestay on the floating islands offers a completely authentic experience. It won’t be touristy like on the day trips (often people leave the day trips feeling like it was too touristy, but you won’t get that feeling at all with the overnight stay).
You’ll spend 2 days with the family on the island and help them with everyday activities such as going fishing with the locals at sunrise or helping them to harvest the reeds.
You’ll also have the option to ride on the traditional reed boats, help cook, embroider, or just relax and chat with the family! We actually just spent a lot of time chatting to them and learning about their culture, traditions and way of life. I really appreciated the time they had taken out to spend with us.
They also dressed us up in their traditional brightly coloured dress that they wear every day, which was so much fun we spent most of the afternoon wearing it!
You’ll have your own private cosy bungalow on the island, 3 meals a day (simple but healthy and delicious!) and even a nice hot shower on the island! The place is very clean and it felt very homely. Click here for the contact details of the family on Uros Khantati, the island we stayed on.
Honestly I am so glad we did an overnight homestay as opposed to just a day trip and I would definitely recommend it. Being the only tourists with this family for a couple of days was really special and definitely a highlight of my trip to Peru! I like when I am backpacking round a country to really spend time with the local people and experience the culture, and not just see places to tick them off like many tourists.
Only a few of the floating islands offer a homestay, Uros Khantati being one of them. Here is the link to the website of the family we stayed with on Uros Khantati. Costing around $35USD per person, this was really money well spent and I left with some of my most cherished memories of Peru. Many people bypass seeing Lake Titicaca and I really think this is a mistake. I have only positive things to say about this experience and hope you will too if you decide to go!
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