Lake Titicaca: Floating Islands and Solar Energy

Lake Titicaca, at 3810 meters (over 12,500 feet), is the highest navigable lake in the world, and the largest freshwater lake in South America. At its maximum, it reaches 190 km long (118 miles), 80 km wide (50 miles), and 281 meters deep (922 feet).

It also is a very old lake – formed over three million years ago — and is one of less than 20 ancient lakes of the world. About 60 percent of the lake is in Peru, and 40 percent in Bolivia.

We visited two of the lake’s islands: Isla Taquile, and the Uros floating islands.

Uros Islands

The Uros floating islands are made entirely from reeds that grow in Lake Titicaca! The reeds (called totora reeds) are used not only to build the islands, but also to make houses and boats — parts of the reeds are even eaten. Here’s a photo of the totora reeds growing in Lake Titicaca.

Titicaca

The Uru, a pre-Inca people, created these floating islands hundreds of years ago for defensive reasons. If they were threatened, they could move the islands to a different location. In Inca times, the Uru were often slaves.

Titicaca

Titicaca

There are about 2000 Uru people now, though only a few hundred still live on the islands. As the bottom of the islands rot, layers of reeds are added on top, about every three months (more often in the rainy season). The islands have a springy feel — like walking on a big, soft, mattress. House walls last for two years, and roofs for one year, before needing to be replaced.

People here live simply – although there’s an FM radio station that broadcasts from one island, and solar panels are connected to many houses. In recent years, the islands have become a tourist attraction – when we visited, boats were pulled up to nearly every island so tourists could visit. It provides a new source of income for the people who live here… but also makes the islands seem a little like a theme park.

Titicaca

Titicaca

Isla Taquile

Our ferry continued to Isla Taquile, where we spent the night. This was a unique and thought-provoking experience for our whole family. There are about 430 families, for a total of 2500 people living on the island.

The island is small (5.5 km by 1.6 km), with no cars or roads. The hillsides are terraced (the land is carved into flat areas, like giant stair steps), so people can grow crops – mostly potatoes. The economy is supported by knitting (which is done mostly by men), fishing, and tourism. Here’s a photo of us having lunch just after arriving on the island.

Titicaca

The only electricity comes from solar panels, which you can see on many houses.

By our western standards, Taquileños would certainly be considered poor. However, we encountered warm smiles and generosity everywhere we went.

Gabriel and Pilar were our kind hosts, and our kids had a great time playing with Nils, their 10 year-old son, who also brought us to Pachamama — the highest point on Isla Taquile, and a spot where the islanders give thanks to mother earth. Here’s a photo of Jason dressed in traditional island clothing with his new buddy Nils.

Titicaca

We stayed in a simple room, made from mud bricks, without electricity or running water. It was cold at night, but we nestled cozily under many warm blankets. Here’s a photo of where we stayed.

Titicaca

We were treated to a truly stunning sunrise in the morning right outside our window.

Titicaca

From an environmental perspective, there’s a lot to learn from the Taquileños. Fossil fuels (such as oil, gas, coal) are expensive and hard to come by (everything has to arrive by boat), so they depend on solar for the little energy they use.

Just this year, a solar-powered water pumping station was put in (you can see it in the next photo), so islanders no longer have to carry water up from Lake Titicaca. A few homes had satellite dishes, and some had boom boxes — again, powered by the sun. For homes that have running water, you can see an occasional solar-powered hot water heater.

Titicaca

While their lifestyle would be difficult for us to adopt, it makes you think about our conveniences, the things we accumulate and how many of them are truly necessary.

Sources (in addition to first hand research) and Links for more information:

Lake Titicaca on Wikipedia
Information on Lake Titicaca from UNESCO site
Uru people on Wikipedia
Isla Taquile on Wikipedia

All photos taken by Larry Kraft

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