The people of the floating islands originally lived on dry land around Lake Titicaca. They were a peaceful people but invaders forced them to move into the shallow parts of the lake, they filled in the area with layers of reeds cut from the lake on which they built their houses. When the Spanish arrived, they invented their floating islands far out in deep water. Many boats are taking tourists out into the lake and each one visits one of the Islands. It is carefully organised so that each island gets a turn, hosting a a boat. Dressed in bright colourful costumes, the island people greet us.
We have collected a young French couple on our way here from a hotel on the peninsular which used to be a prison. Now converted, guests have been known to complain that the rooms are too small. The girl is a wheel-chair-user and uses two walking sticks to negotiate the spongy surface of the Island.
Mary, a local woman from our Island, assists our guide to demonstrate how the floating Islands were made. They were forced to move further out to the deeper parts of the lake when the Spaniards arrived.
A solution was found in the roots of the reeds – they are porous, trapping air inside and therefore float well. Huge sections of roots were cut from the lake bed and tethered together, originally with twine but now with nylon rope, which lasts longer. Next layers of reeds are laid on these foundations which need replacing as they rot down. The top layer is green and freshly laid. It’s a bit like walking on a mattress. On top are the houses, the kitchens and other buildings, all made out of reeds and now lashed and woven with nylon twine.
Growing crops is not possible here, but there were fish in the lake and birds eggs were plentiful and the birds could be caught or shot. In this way, they traded with the land people, exchanging their goods for potatoes, corn and Alpaca wool which they turned into textiles to wear and now sell.
We are divided up and my small group is with Mary, who shows us ‘her’ house full of textile products. It’s a retail opportunity and doesn’t look as if anyone lives here, in spite of her claim. Most of the items are too brightly coloured for me, and I haven’t brought much cash as I wasn’t expecting to shop. However, a natural-coloured hanging has caught my eye. It’s more cash than I’ve got on me so I wave my Master Card and say ‘ VISA’. To my astonishment, Mary calls out to someone – low and behold a portable credit-card machine materialises and the transaction is completed via wifi in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,827m.
Everyone in our group is incredulous, so I show the print-out receipt as proof. Lloyd tries to get Ken’s attention (both from our group) but he gets caught up in an old nail sticking out of Mary’s doorframe. In the confusion, a sale is lost. Lloyd, however, brushes off his wound even though there is blood everywhere and someone sticks a plaster on him, I think.
Not only do they have wifi but solar panels produce electricity. They used to use candles for light, but dried reeds are flammable – accidents happened. Now light bulbs are powered by the panels. Water is drawn from the lake and toilets are on separate islands. There can be some rather quick paddling to be seen.
Boats are also made from reeds and are quite elaborate, if cumbersome affairs. We are taken across the water to reconnect with our tour boat. There are two rowers at the stern, but mostly for show. The real power is from thin aluminium painter with an out-bord motor which skilfully manoeuvrers us across the waterway. From the upper deck we look down on these mini-communities, all charming but kept up for the tourists. The original need for these islands has gone and young people have left for education and an easier way of life. Perhaps they will come back later to continue their traditions, but it is uncertain. Their traditional subsistence way of life has disappeared, so tourism and sale of hand-made goods keeps them afloat.
Some of the modern buildings such as the Primary School (Highschool pupils have to go to the mainland) and the Mormon church (not a huge number of members) are floating on metal air-tanks. There are also small huts where holiday makers can stay the night.