Straddling Peru and Bolivia, the traveling wonder of Lake Titicaca (with an area of over 8,000 square kilometers or 3,000 square miles) lies at an oxygen-deprived 3,800 meters above sea-level (12,500 feet) making any activity for a visitor beyond a slow stroll quite a feat of endurance. For hundreds of years, the Uros people have lived peacefully on a handful of small islands made solely of reeds dotted within this huge lake.
Nearly everyone, locals and visitors alike, seem to chew heartily on coca leaves, supposedly to combat the effect of altitude sickness. Though there is scant medical evidence, this South American equivalent of tiger balm also holds claims to combat the cold, fatigue, and various other ailments.
Living on a reed island brings some interesting new chores and challenges. Everyone seems to be fairly active either working reeds or preparing food. The leathery skin on the hands of the island women shows the years spent crushing grains with large smooth rocks.
As the reeds slowly rot away in the lake’s waters, there is an endless cycle of collecting, drying, and spreading the reeds to build up the island. Fortunately, the lightweight reed huts can be easily picked up and moved, a new reed floor being laid every few days.
Exotic, Viking-like longboats with giant dragon head fronts are also constructed from reeds and are used for transportation between the neighboring islands. Small sticks and reed pens on the edge of the island house fish form the staple diet of the Uros.
The Uros unashamedly encourage visitors, charging them for rides on their boats, to climb their watchtower (you guessed it, made of reeds), for souvenirs such as their colorful clothing and model reed boats, and for snapping photos. This money assists them in buying other goods from the mainland.
The whole experience may feel somewhat voyeuristic but a few hours on the island provides a fascinating insight into this unique travel wonder, a chance to view a lifestyle so completely different from our own.
Also worth a visit (and an overnight stay with a local family) is Amantani or Taquile Islands which have sustained subsistence farming families for generations. You may even get a chance to enjoy the Peruvian delicacy of cuy (guinea pig) which naturally enough tastes like chicken!!