Visiting the floating islands in Puno
The Uros visit was interesting although with some mixed feelings. On one hand it is obviously touristic and unauthentic, on the other it is a must see if you are in Puno. So we tried to get the most of it and don’t overthink it.
The Uros claim to live in many man-made islands built out of totora, some local grass growing in the lake shores. They used to live from fishing but now mostly from tourism and selling souvenirs made elsewhere.
Some houses have solar panels, but most seem to lack facilities to deal with dark waters. I get the impression not that many people live there continuously, but rather commute from nearby Puno whenever the tourist come. Who knows.
To reach the islands you can take some regular service that runs about 3 times a day (probably more often on peak season). We took the one at noon, as later on it gets quite cold in the lake. There are many others offering the service in the harbour on their own private boats, but the savings are minimal and the service less reliable. On top of that, you need to pay an entrance fee when coming to the islands.
We were told the islands are made by planting totora plants on some special soil they bring from elsewhere in the mainland. When the plants are strong enough, they tie them together, fix them to the bottom of the lake, and build their houses on top. They then need to continously refill the floor of the islands as they keep rotting and sinking.
There are about 2500 people living there continuously, in about 600 man-made islands, and there is even a primary school. The conditions are so adverse and the comforts of Puno are so close that I find it hard to believe, but that is ok.
In the normal tour they just take you to one of the islands, where 4-5 families live. The chosen island rotates so everybody profits from the tourists. They explain how the islands are built, how the people live there, and then how you can buy some souvenirs to support them.
Later on, they bring you on a totora boat, conveniently pulled by a motorboat, into a bigger island with a shop and restaurant so you can spend some extra money before being brought back to Puno.
Everybody complained that since about 5 years ago the tourism, specially the Spanish, had reduced a lot, well before the pandemic. I have no idea why this could be, but since most people travel on organized tours, it could just be that tour operators have now chosen other destinations as more fashionable than Puno.