The Uros People
Titicaca Lake Floating Village
The word “Uros” comes from the Aymara word, “qhana uru” which roughly translates to “clear day.” Thanks to the fascinating history of these indigenous people, we get to learn all about the Uru people who call Perú and Bolivia their home.
The Uros are descendants of an ethnic group, “qapi.” As their main language – Pukina – became extinct, Aymara is now the most spoken language along with Spanish. These two languages are the ones you will find when traveling through Bolivia and Machu Picchu.
The Uros islands are floating in one of the largest Latin America lakes – Titicaca Lake – the highest navigable lake in the world at an average altitude of 3.812 meters (12.5 feet) above sea level. The lake is located between Bolivia and Perú. However, The Uros live solely on the Peruvian side near Puno Bay.
Why do the Uros Live on Floating Islands?
One of the most interesting facts about this civilization, in my humble opinion, is their history and the decisions they made to avoid being conquered by the Tiahuanacos, the Collas, and/or te Incas. These last civilizations started to gain ground in Perú and, as a consequence, the Uros left firm land in order to survive and hold onto their freedom. 3,700 years ago a big part of their village decided to build floating islands and houses so as to protect themselves and float away.
On each island between five and seven families now live together and are able to sustain themselves thanks in great part to their ability to fish and hunt. In the last few years, the Uros started to create items of handcraft and embroidery that they now sell at the nearest port as well as to tourists who visit the island.
The Several Uses for Cattail
The Uros build their houses and their islands with Cattail – an aquatic plant that grows on the surface of Titicaca Lake. These islands can be used for 30 years if they are well maintained which requires adding layers of Cattail whenever needed. Additionally, the room assigned to each family is made of this same plant.
Not only are the houses made of this air-filled plant but so are their boats. Approximately 6 months is the time the Uros need to build these boats which are generally operable for at least 7 years. But that’s not all – The Uros also use Cattail for cooking and as medicine to relieve pain and cure hangovers. Fascinating!
The Uros of the Modern World
I visited this one and only place a few years ago as part of a tour. As soon as I had a glance at the islands something inside me lightened up. The first step I took on this place felt like stepping into a mushy cotton floor that moved softly, sinking under my feet. Three ladies were waiting for us, waving and smiling happily.
We felt more than welcomed. One of my first memories was when we were touring the island and one of the little girls invited me to go inside the one-room house to show me some of their unique full colored clothes.
It seems that a lot of things have changed in the last number of years because now the Uros are willing to receive tourists and share their traditions. After the tour, we were shown one stunning artifact – a solar panel that the tourist guide explained the government had provided. This assistance was provided mainly because the Uros still use candles at night which is very dangerous. But the solar panels also come in handy in order to charge cell phones, use the radio, and plug in the television. The last thing we saw was a Cattail-made tower from where you could see all the surrounding islands together with the lake. Again, just amazing.
Why are the Uros Defined as “The Ones Who Live Lightly?”
I had read a book a long time ago – “Spark Your Dream” by the Zapp Family”1 in which there was a description of these floating islands. The writer, named Hernan, had visited them and while he was walking around and trying to see inside the houses, a man invited him to go inside. The bed was made of Cattail and – this may come as a great surprise – there were just some clothes hanging on the walls, some potatoes, and onion bags together with some tools. After having observed everything, Hernan asked:
“Where do you keep the other stuff?
“This is everything”, the man replied, “I don’t have anything else. The more things you have, the more you can sink. Everything you need in this temporary life will be given to you temporarily. Life is not eternal and nothing belongs to you forever.”1
This short extract had a big impact on my life and when reading it I decided that one fine day, I was going to visit these intriguing islands.
Once on Firm Land
After learning more about the Uros history and about the extraordinary measures they took (and continue to take) to survive and to hold onto their culture, their way of living and their freedom, the fact that the islands are currently quite touristy is a little bit shocking. However, if you had the chance to visit the place, you would soon realize that it is the only way of actually learning about them. It might also be the only way they are able to continue to survive im the modern world.
As with every culture and ancient civilization, it is not surprising that the Uros want to keep their traditions while still feeling connected to the outside world. We all live in a globalized world now and this connection allows the Uros to take advantage of modern technology and household essentials, while enjoying the economic benefits of the visiting tourists.
Having visited the Uros and learning about their incredible history is a remarkable experience that I highly recommend. Let GIM know if you ever visit, and share your experiences with us below!
Written by Virginia González
If you liked this read, here is a link to Viriginia’s previous article on her magical adventures to Machu Picchu.
1 Tres Americas: We Are, www.argentinaalaska.com/blog/We-are.
In addition to:
“Uros Island in Perú.” Qorianka Tours, 9 Oct. 2020, www.qoriankatours.com/uros-island-in-peru/.
“Uru People.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Dec. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uru_people.
“Ministerio De Comercio Exterior y Turismo – MINCETUR.” MINCETUR | Gobierno Del Perú, www.gob.pe/mincetur.