Las Islas Flotantes de los Uro are one of the must-sees near Puno. The story we heard was that when the aggressive Colla and Inka started pushing the indigenous communities of the area further and further towards Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) , people fled in boats onto the lake. They lived this way for some time before slowly creating floating islands out of the abundant, bouyant reeds called totora.
Their own legends say that they are descendants of a race that existed before the sun, impervious to drowning. They lost their powers and were punished after mixing with humans, scattered, and lost many of their traditions. Today people still live on these islands, although the territory they occupy is much smaller than it was originally. For those who read in Spanish, there is a good website written by current residents that describes their situation today.
These communities survive on weaving, fishing and now tourism. The totora reed is also used to make the homes the people live in, as medicine, to make handicrafts to sell to tourists, and more. Our visit was relatively short, but included a demonstration of how the islands are constructed and anchored, and some information on daily life. For example, islands are usually made up of 6-10 families. If there is a disagreement, they sometimes just cut the island in pieces according to who is getting along. Conversely, some families join their islands and decide to live together. The number of floating islands is constantly changing. There are always tall stacks of totora drying, since new layers need to be added frequently. Only a few of the islands accept tourists. In addition to our walk around, we also took a ride in a totora boat to another nearby island where our excursion boat picked us up. The boat felt remarkably solid and buoyant, as did the islands themselves. We learned a few phrases in Aymara, the language spoken on the islands, to be able to greet and thank people. The visit was definitely touristy and well practiced on the part of the islanders, but interesting and enjoyable nonetheless.