The “Floating Islands” of Lake Titicaca sound more like a level in Super Mario 3 than a place that actually exists. I can assure you, however, that these islands do exist and are not inhabited by goombas and koopas, but rather pleasant Uro men and women who are quick to welcome you into their homes.

The bus from Copacabana, Bolivia drove us to the Peruvian border and waited patiently as we went through customs before continuing on to drop us in the town of Puno, Peru. Our bus company pushed us into buying the tour from them but we probably could have done it cheaper by finding a cab to the port and buying the tour there.

The tour boat cruised through choppy waters and entered a canal in the lake with tall reeds on either side. As we exited the canal we saw clusters of huts perched upon gigantic floating mounds of straw. We approached the islands as villagers poured out of their homes to wave at us. The boat docked alongside one of the islands and we stepped off onto the surface, taking cautious footsteps as we walked on top of the crunchy, thick piles of reeds, afraid that we might fall through.

We sat down on wood benches and our guide explained to us how these floating structures are made. Meanwhile, a man from the island scurried about, using miniature models to demonstrate the techniques being described.

The reeds used in the construction of the islands are called totora, and grow naturally in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The root of the totora reed floats under the surface of the water, and grows between one and two meters thick. Blocks of roots are cut into square meter pieces and towed to the desired location. Groups of four blocks are then bundled together and left to sit for one month. During this time, the roots grow together, becoming one large piece. This process is repeated over and over until the island is the desired size. Once this is completed, more reeds are harvested and piled on top of the base, providing a dry floor for the island. The reeds used for the floor eventually rot, and new reeds must be added on a monthly basis.

The Uro people who inhabit these islands have mastered building houses, watch towers and even large two-storey boats out of this material. Centuries ago they moved to the islands to isolate themselves from the aggressive Incas and Collas; today, their traditional lifestyles are mostly preserved by tourism. Calina and I bought a wall hanging from one of the women, who explained the significance of the patterns and said that it took about one month to finish. At the end of the tour we took a short boat ride in one of the traditional totora reed ships to an adjacent island.

We returned to the mainland still unsure if what we had experienced was real or from some strange fantasy world. Bolivia had awed us with its many mysteries. Now, it seemed, Peru would unveil secrets of its own.