At first glance, these dwellings don’t look like much more than a scattering of huts along the edge of a river. However, the land they sit on isn’t exactly natural – though it is alive. The Uros people fashioned these floating islands themselves out of living reeds, and have lived on them in the middle of Lake Titicaca, which is bordered by Bolivia and Peru, for hundreds of years.
Totora reeds, the materials used to create the islands as well as the Uros’ huts and boats, grow naturally in the lake. They have dense root systems that form a mat between three and six feet thick, keeping the islands buoyant despite sometimes supporting ten families. The roots rot away quickly, so the Uros – a Pre-Incan people who stake ownership claims to the lake and water – constantly add new reeds.
These islands are sometimes anchored and sometimes allowed to drift across the surface of the lake. As the eight-foot-thick mass slowly sinks, the new material is added to the top. The texture underfoot is said to be spongy, giving up to four inches with each step. In addition to the islands they live on, the Uros also have ‘outhouse islands’; the root system of the reeds absorbs and filters the waste.
The tortora reeds also provide for the Uros’ dietary and medical needs. The white bottom of the freshly-pulled reed contains iodine, which can help prevent goiter; it is also cool to the touch, and thus often split open and placed on areas of the body that are in pain. The flowers of the reed are made into tea. The Uros also rely on fish and birds for food, and occasionally venture to the mainland to barter for quinoa and other foods. While they have maintained a very natural lifestyle, they don’t shun modern technology – some of their boats have motors, and solar panels even power televisions. The Uros even run their own FM radio station.