Visitors tend to find the bizarre sight of floating Islas Uros (Uros Islands), about a 20-minute boat ride from Puno, either depressing or highly interesting.
The Uros, an ancient lake civilization who were harassed by the Spanish to near extinction, probably fled to these islands to escape forced labor in Spanish silver mines, though they may have come here earlier to isolate themselves from the Collas or Inca.
Their way of life revolves around the tótora, or reed, which they cut and pile to form giant floating islands that are anchored to the shallow lake bottom.
The true Uros people, whom legends say were protected from cold by their thick, black blood, have long since intermingled with the Aymara, whose language they now speak. Nevertheless, the islanders preserve a way of life that is probably based on Uros traditions. They live in family units governed by a grandfather, and they prearrange marriages—sometimes right after the births of the future bride and groom. They fish, hunt birds, and move about the lake in huge tótora rafts that look almost like Viking ships with their huge dragon heads.
Many visitors find it disconcerting to walk upon the springy, waterlogged reeds, which have to be continually replenished as the bottom layers rot, creating the fermented odor that is peculiar to the islands. But the scenery is spectacular and the islands are unique—the largest even has a clinic, school, and Seventh Day Adventist church on it!
Tourism to the islands, which began in the late 1960s, has helped pull the Uros out of grinding poverty and maintain their population of several hundred. But it has also brought problems. Thousands of tourists each year arrive here with camcorders, creating a generation of begging children and adults who aggressively push miniature reed boats and other trinkets. Do not give money to begging children—give them fruit or school supplies, or buy something from them instead. The islanders also offer US$1 boat rides in their reed boats to neighboring islands.
Most Puno agencies offer guided tours for the Uros Islands, and cheap public boats to the islands leave frequently from the Puno public pier.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition