Are the Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca Worth Visiting?

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Lake Titacaca’s main claim to fame is that it is the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world (at 12,500 ft) but it’s also well known to tourists as the location of the floating Uros Islands.

The Uros Islands are in the northern section of the lake that is in Peru (the southern section of the lake is in Bolivia) and they are the main reason that tourists visit Lake Titicaca on the way to other Andes destinations such as Machu Picchu to the north or the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia to the south.

We visited the Uros Islands a few years ago whilst on an overland trip from La Paz to Machu Picchu and were initially hesitant to do so because we’d read reports that tourism was destroying the authenticity of the islands. But Puno, from where boats leave to reach the islands, was a convenient overnight stop on the long journey, so we allowed for a 24-hour stopover there when buying our bus tickets.

After settling into the Intiqa Hotel in Puno after a comfortable three-hour morning bus ride from Copacabana on the southern end of the lake, we strolled down the street and had a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant that the hotel had recommended in the town square. The lunch was excellent – probably the best food we had eaten for about 10 days – and there was an interesting array of shops along the street between our hotel and the town square.

Puno looked to be a much more interesting town than appeared from what we had read on the web, so we were somewhat disappointed that we had planned the itinerary to spend only 24 hours there. On the way back to the hotel I bought a knitted Alpaca wool sweater from an old woman on the street. It was less than US$20 and a good fit for me.

In the afternoon we took a boat with a guide out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the famous Uros Islands – a group of about 40 floating islands in the northern section of the lake.

The islands are made of totora reeds. The roots of the reeds are used to construct the base of the islands – several metres thick – and cut reeds are used for the surface which is soft and spongy to walk on. The islands are anchored to the lake bottom by ropes tied to sticks.

The Uros are descendants of pre-Inca people and they still live a traditional lifestyle – although these days they have modern technology such as solar panels and boats with outboard motors (the traditional reed boats with the puma heads that you see in some of the photographs are now used just for giving rides to tourists).

Between three and 10 families live on each island. Children go to school on the mainland by boat. Tourism provides additional income for the Uros, but it is a challenge for them maintaining a traditional lifestyle in the face of rising tourist numbers.

It was a most interesting afternoon.  As we had hired a private boat, there was just the four of us and our guide, so the visit didn’t feel too touristy. There were five families living on the island that we visited and they took us around a few of the other islands in one of their reed boats.

While we were visiting the other islands we saw two tour boats carrying a much larger number of tourists to some of the larger islands. My guess is that those tours would feel very touristy, so we were pleased we had forked out a few extra dollars for a private tour.

My answer to the question “are the floating islands worth visiting” is a definite yes. You’d be missing a unique experience if you came to Lake Titicaca and not visit them.  It’s fascinating to walk on the soft and spongy surface of the islands knowing that there is nothing but water underneath. But if you want to get away from the touristy feel to the island visits, you’ll need to book one of the private tours.

Image credits: Header image by bobistraveling CC BY 2.0. All other images © David Astley

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