As our small wooden boat comes alongside the island, strong brown arms reach out to help me ashore. Looking up I see twinkling eyes in an old leathery face, a beaming smile that shows crooked, white teeth and short dark hair sticking out from a knitted woollen hat with ear flaps. I step carefully onto the thick mat of reeds half expecting it to move with my weight, but it’s firm and robust – I have arrived on the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca. These particular reed islands have been built by the 32 surviving families of the Urus-Iruitos Indians, using techniques that have helped them to survive in this area for over 7,000 years. Despite modern influences, these families still speak Pukina (language of the ancient Tiwanaku) and Quecha (language of the Andean Indians and Incas) and have chosen to continue their ancient traditions and way of life, as part of a Bolivian sustainable tourism project based around Quewaya Island, in the southern part of the Lake.
This first floating island is an agricultural space, with a small greenhouse containing herbs and vegetable seedlings and an outside vegetable patch. Once the reed base has thickened and rotted sufficiently, larger crops such as potatoes and root vegetables will be grown here as well. On nearby Quewaya Island is an even larger greenhouse, where the use of biological fertilizers (the droppings from guinea pigs and quails) allow the Urus to optimize year round food production and become more self-sufficient.
The humble totora reed has many uses, in addition to the constant replenishment of the base beneath our feet. On a second floating island, dried reeds have been used for building sleeping huts, a ‘tee-pee’ style gathering space, small cooking huts and traditional reed boats. They are woven into the conical, brimmed hats which the village headman and his family wear to keep off the sun; and new shoots are peeled to reveal a nutritious snack which tastes like sugar cane. As I peek into one of the cooking huts a young, smiling Urus girl shows me earthenware pots containing fires fuelled by burning reeds. These fires heat a pot filled with a delicious stew of freshly caught kingfish and potatoes which we are invited to taste.
Each day the headman and his family are joined by other Urus-Iruitos from nearby Quewaya all dressed in colourful ponchos, hats and eye-catching, multilayered skirts. They provide an additional income for the village by selling finely patterned, hand-made bags, scarves, rugs, bowls and trinkets to passing visitors. As I take in this colourful spectacle I’m aware I have been welcomed as an honoured guest and I feel privileged to have met these people and shared a glimpse of their unique way of life.
This story was first published in ‘Viva List Latin America’ in 2007 (check out http://www.vivatravelguides.com/). ISBN: 978 0 9791264 0 0