Southern Peru

Lake Titicaca: Floating Islands and an Energy Lesson

Article and photos by Larry Kraft

The Krafts visit the world’s highest navigable lake.

Lake Titicaca, at 3810 meters (over 12,500ft), is the highest navigable lake in the world, and the largest freshwater lake in South America. At its maximum, it reaches 190 km long (118 miles), 80km wide (50 miles), and 281 meters deep (922 feet).

It also is a very old lake – formed over three million years ago – and is one of less than 20 ancient lakes of the world. About 60 percent of the lake is in Peru, and 40 percent in Bolivia.

Outside of these facts, the lake occupies a special place in Inca mythology. According to the story, the first Inca king, Manco Capac, was born here from the sun god Viracocha.

We visited two of the islands close to Puno (the main city on the Peruvian shore of the lake): Isla Taquile, and the Uros floating islands.

Uros Floating Islands

The Uros are simultaneously amazing and a little weird. The amazing part is the relationship between the Uru people and the totora reeds of Lake Titicaca. The reeds are used to construct the floating land on which they live, and to make their houses and boats — parts of the reeds are even eaten as well.

The Uru are a pre-Inca people that created these floating islands for defensive reasons. If they were threatened, they could move the islands to a different location. Up until about 500 years ago, they had their own language, but by trading and intermarrying with the Aymaras on the mainland, they started to speak only Aymara. In Inca times, they were often slaves.

There are about 2,000 Uru people, though only a few hundred still live on the islands. To build the islands, reeds are placed in succeeding perpendicular layers, to a thickness of 1-2 meters. As the bottom of the islands rot away, more layers are laid on top. More reeds need to be added about every 3 months — more frequently in the rainy season. The islands have a springy feel — like walking on a big, soft, mattress. House walls last for two years, and roofs for one year, before needing to be replaced.

People here live simply, without many material possessions. However, the islanders definitely don’t reject modern technology; there’s an FM radio station that broadcasts from one island, and solar panels are connected to many houses.

The weird part of the islands is how much they cater to tourists. As our boat pulled in to our assigned island, there seemed to be a tourist boat docked at every island… it had a bit of a theme park feel to it. Tourism certainly provides good financial opportunities for the Uru people, but also has obviously had a major impact on their traditional lifestyles.

Isla Taquile

Following our stop on the Uros islands, our ferry continued on to Isla Taquile, where we spent the night. This was a unique and thought-provoking experience for our whole family. There are about 430 families, for a total of 2,500 people living on the island. Most tourists come on an organized tour, but we decided to go on our own. We didn’t have a place to stay until we arrived on the island. When you arrive, you are assigned a family to stay with. The benefit of arranging things this way is that money spent goes directly to the island economy.

The island is relatively small (5.5km by 1.6km), with no cars or roads. It is heavily terraced to support local agriculture (potatoes are the main crop). Taquileños are also known for their knitting, which is done primarily by men. The other main parts of the economy are fishing and tourism.The only electricity comes from solar panels, which you can see on many houses.

It seems like a strongly-knit community, and we noted several communal practices. The father of our family was working during the day on a communal path-building project.

By our western standards, the Taquileños would certainly be considered poor. However, we encountered warm smiles and generosity everywhere we went. Gabriel and Pilar were our kind hosts. Their 10 year-old son Nils acted as a tour guide to bring us to Pachamama — the highest point on Isla Taquile, and a spot where the islanders give thanks to mother earth. Our kids had a fantastic time playing with Nils. He would dart around a bend in the path and disappear, only to appear seconds later behind us, laughing at his ability to outpace us.

We stayed in a simple room, made from mud bricks, without electricity or running water. It was cold at night, but we nestled cozily under many warm blankets. Outside our window, we looked out over the blue expanses of Lake Titicaca, framed by snow-capped Andes mountains. We were treated to a truly stunning sunrise in the morning… an Andean “TV” experience that I think is superior to any TV show.

From an environmental perspective, I think there is a lot to learn from the Taquileños. Given their location, the cost of fossil fuels is extremely high, especially relative to the islanders’ income. The result is that as they add more of the trappings of modern society, they are doing it based entirely on renewable energy.

Just this year, a solar-powered water pumping station was put in, so the islanders no longer have to carry the water they need up from Lake Titicaca. Some homes had satellite dishes and some had boom boxes — again, powered by the sun. For houses that have running water, you can see an occasional solar-powered hot water heater as well.

While their lifestyle would be difficult for us to adopt, it makes you think about our conveniences, the things we accumulate and how many of them are truly necessary. And their energy usage makes you wonder how other parts of the world could make much more significant use of renewable energy, especially if the financial equation was more balanced to reflect the true societal cost of fossil fuels.

If you want to hear more about our adventures, come back to Peru this Week in two weeks! You can also follow us on our family blog, and also our kids’ blog. We write for The Wilderness Classroom, a non-profit site followed by 85,000 schoolchildren., and we’re on twitter too!

About the Krafts

Larry Kraft has worked for more than 20 years in high-tech companies; most recently, he was Senior Vice President at Minnetonka-based Digi International. Lauri Kraft has managed PR for a technology company and performed full-time in musical theatre; lately, she has been writing a children’s book. Jamie, 8, and Jason, 6, attend Peter Hobart Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both will return to Peter Hobart after their year of travel.

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