In 2011, Peruvian-American artist Grimanesa Amorós descended from a boat made of totora reeds onto an island – also made of totora reeds – in the northwestern part of Lake Titicaca. The highest body of navigable water in the world is around 3,810 m above sea level in the Andes and is shared by Peru and Bolivia. It is also home to one of the world’s most innovative feats of human engineering: the Uros Islands.
The man-made floating islets, home to the indigenous Uros people, are created by piling layers upon layers of totora roots and reeds. This water-resistant plant grows in the lake and is the lifeblood of the Uros community: it is used to make boats, houses, roofs, mattresses and more. The plant is also eaten (playfully called the “lake banana”) and applied as medicine, and its flowers are used to make tea.
“There was something very haunting and attractive about this wide array of creations from a single material,” said Amorós, whose art often draws inspiration from Peruvian cultural heritages and communities.
However, the Uros were not always dependent on the totora – this adaptation was driven by necessity. Over 500 years ago, the growing Inca Empire began to encroach on the mainland villages of the Uros. To combat this threat, the Uros began to build the islands, which could be launched deep into the Titicaca, away from danger. Hundreds of years later, there are now around 120 of these islands built, with around 1,300 people living there.