Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands

After almost two months living in Puno, Peru and after a few embarrassing moments when tourists I encountered asked me for advice about visiting Lake Titicaca and I had to sheepishly admit that I hadn’t yet embarked, I decided it was time to make the trip. In my defense, I had been waiting for the rainy season to pass and for someone to go with. Luckily, last weekend both my prerequisites were met.

Through a Kiva connection, I met a fellow microfinance worker, Zoe, who was conducting surveys on microfinance interest rates in Puno. In the good and admittedly much needed company of a fellow expat, I set out at 6 am on a tour boat for the floating islands of Los Uros. Although the translation of the name obviously implies that the islands are floating in the lake, I thought that this was surely just an expression, or perhaps a mistranslation; I was wrong!

Thousands of years ago, out of necessity, the Uros tribe began creating islands off the coast of Puno. The people of Los Uros create the islands using land that they cut away from the shore of the mainland. In order to maintain the islands, layers of reeds must constantly be added on top of those that are beginning to rot. Using large stakes, the islands are anchored in the lake and in order to move the islands the inhabitants simply need to remove the stakes and push the islands with their reed boats. Originally, the idea of the floating island was devised as a defense mechanism against the Aymara tribe, and later against the Incas. Today, the islands are safe and are rarely moved to new locations along the lake. Although many of the inhabitants of Los Uros have moved to the mainland, about 70 of these islands remain inhabited, with each community consisting of between four and 16 families. Although the islands themselves are small, the community of islands makes up a rather large population of people who work together in business and culture. Children travel to nearby islands where teachers provide both primary and secondary education and the island’s inhabitants work with Puno’s tour agencies to ensure that every island benefits equally from the prominent tourist industry.


Docking at one of the islands and being cheerily greeted in the local language of Aymara, Zoe and I explored the approximately 1,000 square foot island, which was just a bit larger than my old apartment in San Francisco. Perhaps even more surprising than the fact that these islands actually float, was seeing the juxtaposition of modern technology and an ancient culture. Looking up at the metallic structures on top of each of the nine thatched roofs I thought, “these can’t be what I think they are”, but again, I was wrong (an ongoing theme!). The tour guide explained that almost all the islands of Los Uros are powered using solar technology. Adding to the islands “green theme”, the guide also informed us that the boats these communities use to travel from island to island are made using used plastic water bottles, which are placed inside the woven reeds and act as floatation devices. As I watched a small girl in the local dress of a top hat and large skirt pop in a CD for us visitors to enjoy, I marveled at the reaches of globalization.


After returning to the mainland and going to the office on Monday morning, I let the loan officers of the Microfinance Institution (MFI), Manuela Ramos, where I’ve been volunteering, know that I finally made it out on the lake. They asked me if I bought any artesian arts and crafts and informed me that many of these artesian workers are entrepreneurs of Manuela Ramos and are part of community banks that take out loans in order to buy supplies in bulk in Puno and increase their profits. After seeing the solar panels and the impressive organization of the community of islands, I wasn’t surprised and was certainly pleased that microfinance too had found a way to merge with the culture of Los Uros.


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