Lake Titicaca is definitely one of Peru’s highlights and a must-see for most people who have decided to travel to this vast country. Situated half in Peru, and half in Bolivia, it is presumably the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at an altitude of 3.810 meters (12.500 feet).
This lake was already of great importance at the time of the Incas. Legend has it that Titicaca is the “birthplace of the sun”. It tells that the god Viracocha emerged from the lake, creating the sky, sun, moon and stars, as well as the first people of the Andean world. The Inca people believed that their souls would go back to where they came from, namely Lake Titicaca. Therefore, the lake held a very special place in their culture.
Nowadays, it is not less important than it used to be, but its function has evolved throughout the years. In 1987, Lake Titicaca has been declared a National Reserve of Peru with the objective to preserve its natural beauty and resources. It is home to distinctive biodiversity and also a place where ancient traditions are being kept alive.
In the world of tourism, Lake Titicaca is especially well known for an attraction that does not have its roots in the Inca culture: the Uros floating islands. These islands are built out of totora reed growing in abundance on the lake. The inhabitants collect totora reeds floating on the lake, build huge floating blocks out of them and attach them to the ground of the lake to give them stability.
Different theories as to the origin of the floating islands exist. One of them affirms that the Uros people were already building such islands on Lake Titicaca before the arrival of the Incas. Another theory says that the Uros started this tradition trying to protect themselves from the Incas and other cultures. Yet another one refers to their will to escape the Spanish people invading their territory.
All floating islands consist of totora reeds in their integrity, not containing any other material. The same reeds are also used to build homes, boats and crafts. Of course, the part of the islands that touches the water is constantly rotting away. While this natural process is of great importance (as the gas produced by it keeps the islands floating), it also obliges people to always rebuild their work on the upper side for it to be maintained.
It is not a big surprise that such a unique tradition arouses interest among tourists visiting Peru. Seeing how people live on floating islands in the midst of a lake at 3.810 meters (12.500 feet) of altitude is something they do not want to miss by any means. By the way, if you are among these people, you should definitely inform yourself about acclimatizing to the high altitude, in order to enjoy your visit to the fullest. Read our blog on How to stay safe and healthy when traveling to Peru, to find out how!
The conventional Uros islands: What’s the issue?
The truth is that the “normal” Uros islands have been subject to excessive commercialisation, which in turn has led to the experience losing its authenticity. But what exactly is the story of these islands and their inhabitants, and why do they tend to have such a bad reputation? Let us clarify some things that only very few people do, but everyone should, know about.
What we see on the surface, is that a significant amount of boats filled with tourists go to the Uros islands every day to show the visitors a different way of life. However, most people you will meet here don’t exclusively live on the islands. Most of them have settled into a home in Puno. People want to move to the cities, looking for richness and progress. Here, they have access to health care and can send their children to High School or university, as on the floating islands, there is only a primary school.
Unfortunately, some of the Uros people, that could not invest a greater amount of money, live under precarious conditions in Puno. They accept their situation, knowing that the city offers them opportunities that they lack on the islands. But generally, most of them prefer spending their time on the islands. Here, they earn better money from tourism, live in tranquility and watch their children play in these beautiful surroundings.
So, whenever they can, the Uros people go to the islands to spend their days. There are currently about 32 of these islands. The ones sitting closest to Puno receive tourists almost every day, whereas the more remote ones, who receive fewer tourists, engage in fishing and gathering to make a living.
But despite all of the love the local people have for their islands, and their wish to maintain their traditions, the touristic experience here has become somewhat artificial. Once you arrive on the islands, people will sing for you and let you go on a boat ride on totora boats with dragon heads. Then, they will show you their artisan work, invite you to their homes and try to sell you some of their crafts. All of this, if we are honest, can feel more like an attraction park than an actual authentic experience of cultural exchange.
The reason for this situation is that tourism is simply excessive here. With so many boats making their way to the islands every day, the place has become subject to a lot of competition. The inhabitants envy each other, wanting to receive more tourists and receipts from this lucrative activity. It’s just the way it goes sometimes when large sums of money are involved.
Due to this situation, we have already had travelers considering to refrain from a visit to this place, as they have come to hear about the reality of the Uros islands. The truth is, even we sometimes sell experiences taking people to the conventional Uros islands. This is the case on our Lake Titicaca Tour with Homestay on Taquile Island. We do that because it is the most available and cheapest option to get you to Taquile island. Group transportation options do generally pass by the Uros islands, and we cannot change that as a tour operator.
But apart from that, we should simply try to adopt another point of view and, instead of condemning the Uros people, ask ourselves what has lead to the current situation. Knowing that these people live with one foot in Puno and with the other one on the islands, being surrounded by a very competitive atmosphere, we might just understand their behaviour a bit better.
Moreover, by sending our travelers to the conventional Uros islands, we have also learned that it can even be interesting for you to see different ways of organizing tourism. In the Taquile tour, we take you to the Uros islands first, where you witness all of the above mentioned experiences. After that, you will head to Taquile, where you will spend time in a homestay, engaging in more Community-Based Tourism. Here, you will understand the importance of maintaining authenticity.
Despite everything, we understand if you want to avoid the Uros islands. If that is the case, we can reassure you: There are definitely ways to go to Titicaca and even to the floating islands, and still have a completely authentic experience there. And we are about to tell you about them!
Uros Titino islands on Lake Titicaca
The Uros Titino islands are more difficult to access than the “normal” ones. Conventional transport services don’t pass by them, which is why most people don’t visit these islands. Thanks to that, tourism here has not been commercialized in the same way as on the normal Uros Islands.
On Titino, you get the opportunity to meet people who do indeed reside here permanently. Therefore, we are sure to say that when coming here, you will live the beautiful experience that you have been dreaming of when thinking about Lake Titicaca.
At the same time, the money you will spend here is a great help for the people living on the islands. Unlike the people living in Puno, who dedicate their time to other commercial activities back there, the Titino people do not work in the city, which is why your support means a lot to them. On our tour From Puno to Cusco the RESPONSible way, the Uros Titino islands are among the places you will visit. As the name says, this tour ends in Cusco and is a great option if you want to book an experience and transport at the same time.
Chimu islands on Lake Titicaca
The Chimu community has also taken up the habit of building floating islands. Unlike other floating island communities, they don’t and have never actually lived on the islands. Their ancestors did in fact live at the coast, close to what is today Trujillo. From there, they migrated to Lake Titicaca, settling at its shore.
Here, the men of the Chimu tribes used to go on expeditions of up to four days, in order to collect totora reed, fish, hunt and search for birds’ eggs. To succeed in this task, they started the habit of building small floating islands, which served as a kind of base camp for their expeditions on the lake.
Despite their hunting and fishing skills, the Chimu people identify first and foremost as artisans. They are especially endowed when it comes to spinning and fabricating different types of objects from totora reed, a skill they have imported from their origin in the North of Peru. Unfortunately, as in many parts of this country, traditions have lost some of their importance within the Chimu community.
Thanks to an effort made by the United Nations, their customs and traditions have been revitalized and their cultural identity maintained. Still living on the mainland, as they always have, they do like to show their tradition of building floating islands. Today, they create such islands explicitly to share their ancient culture with tourists visiting them. Their aim is to give value to their extraordinary artisan skills, which they are more than proud of.
As you can see, the Chimu floating islands are yet very different from the Uros Titino or the conventional Uros islands. In fact, they have just opened up to tourism, which is why coming here is a whole new experience with very few tourists around. If you are intrigued about this recent option to visit the Chimu floating islands of Lake Titicaca, our tour with the same name should be just right for you: Chimu Floating Islands.
Visit Lake Titicaca your way
Clearly, there is not only one way of visiting the famous Lake Titicaca. We cannot even say that there is necessarily a right or wrong way to do it. Things are never black and white, as you might have realized if you have already read some of our other blogs.
In this article, we have shown you the different available options and explained to you why even at RESPONSible Travel Peru, you can find a tour taking you to the very touristic Uros islands. Now, it is up to you to decide, which experience you want to go for.
One thing is for sure: Lake Titicaca is and will always be a magical place, which we think is unique in this world. One way or another, you will enjoy your visit to this emblematic destination; you will feel the energy it transmits and live a truly calming experience. When leaving the lake, you will feel all relaxed and full of new momentum to continue your journey.
Whichever option you choose, of course, it is always in our and everyone’s interest to travel in the most responsible way possible. Even if you go to the conventional Uros islands, it is in your hands to respect the place that you visit, not contaminate the lake and respect the people you will meet. If you want to make sure to behave in the right way during your whole trip, you might want to read our article on How to Travel Responsibly.