World Adventurer | Issue 1 | June - July 2005

Tourism keeping Peruvian islands afloat

For centuries, the reclusive Uros tribe of Peru have lived in a real-life waterworld on Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes.

Building huge floating pontoons from the buoyant totora reeds, the Uros Indians’ waterborne communities of Islas Flotantes (floating islands) have afforded them protection from rival tribes, the Inca and Collas.

Now, despite hundreds of years of isolation, the Uros’ way of life is threatened by the encroaching land-based population in nearby Puno, Peru’s major port town on the 8300 square kilometre lake.

The plight of the Uros was highlighted in a feature story on National Geographic Channel recently.

“The issues facing the people living on the floating islands are multifold,” says anthropologist Arrufo Alcantara Hernandez, director of the faculty of social sciences at the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno. “The waters of the Uros have been overfished by commercial fishermen, tourists are affecting their traditional culture and sewage from Puno is causing environmental and health problems.”

Paradoxically, the growth of tourism on the lake has been something of a relief for the Uros, bringing them much-needed cash. This has reduced their reliance on the dwindling fish stocks and enabled them to purchase motorboats and medicines. Even the expansionist Incan armies looked upon the Uros as poor, yet took little pity on them as they were forced out onto the lake to escape their raids.

Today, the women can be seen with exquisite carvings, beadwork and embroidery beautifully laid out for the visitors who arrive by boat. Some might argue that the measured exposure to tourists has allowed the remnants of the Uros culture to continue, whereas they almost certainly would have disappeared into the homogenous cultural mix that now makes up Peruvian cities.

Speaking to National Geographic, Melchora, one of the elderly Uros women selling handicrafts to the tourists, said their tourist numbers grow every year. At first, only a few Uros chiefs permitted tourists, now nearly all the islands receive them.

Given their resilience and adaptability, Hernandez remains confident that the Uros people and their culture will remain intact.

“They’ve successfully dealt with many serious challenges over the last few centuries,” he says. “I think if the Uros people use foresight and care, they’ll be able to overcome their problems and balance their traditional lifestyles with the modern world.”