Extreme Sleep: On a Floating Island in the Sky
Imagine yourself being rocked gently to sleep, nestled in bed under five layers of handmade quilts. Your mattress, bed frame, and a 6.5-foot-thick floating island made of reeds are the only things separating you from the lake below—which reaches to 920 feet at its deepest. If that alone weren't enough to take your breath away, there's the thinness of the air, which has you waking up periodically, gasping as if there might not be enough oxygen to breathe.
It's not every night one gets to sleep on an island, not to mention one floating in the world's highest navigable lake.
But that's just what I found myself doing after staying up late one late night watching Perú: tesoro escondido on Netflix under the covers while traveling in South America. The documentary, as the name suggests, reveals the hidden secrets of that country, including Las Islas Uros, tucked between the border of Peru and Bolivia on Lake Titicaca. An indigenous group that has been living in the area for nearly 4,000 years, the Uros people, created this cluster of upwards of 80 floating islands out of local totora reeds. Picture bales of hay lashed together into islands, each about the size of a soccer field.
Intrigued by what it would be like to spend time on one of the floating islands, I decided I had to check out the place for myself.
A view of Lake Titicaca
Sleep comes easy...
As one might expect, just getting to this remote community was a long and tiring journey, which helped make sleep come fast and easy.
In my family's case, the legs involved flying into the nearest airport, Inca Manco Capac International, in Juliaca, then an hour-plus cab ride to the closest land-based community of Puno. Then it was a short walk to the end of the town's main pier, where we asked around for a family that would let us spend the night on their floating island. We'd heard this was the best way to support the local economy directly, rather than going through a tour operator.
The last stops on the trek were a taxi to a nearby port to meet our host, Felix, who took us by a small speed boat to our ultimate destination: his floating island, where he, his wife, and his grown children and grandchildren lived. Each island is home to a few families who elect their mayor. Felix was the mayor of Isla Suma Suyawi, which means “hope" in Aymara, one of the indigenous languages spoken by the Uros people.
"It’s not every night one gets to sleep on an island, not to mention one floating in the world’s highest navigable lake."
After a few hours learning about the culture, history, and family life of people on the island and enjoying the peaceful views from the lookout and outdoor seating, night found us quickly. There were no street lights or many boat lights for that matter. No cable or satellite TV. And no need to worry about unplugging from our devices—we had no WiFi or cell phone signal for streaming shows or other distractions.
When the sun set, there was little to do but relax, eat a filling home-cooked meal, and, well, sleep.
So that's what we did. We were all in bed by 8 p.m. Partly it was a way to keep warm, as the temperature dropped to about 34 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and there was no heat.
The author and her child
...But staying asleep is hard
The elevation of Lake Titicaca is 12,507 feet, coming in just below the world's highest livable community—La Rinconada in Peru at 16,700 feet, where the air has been dubbed “dangerously thin"—and just above the highest city in the US, Leadville, CO, at 10,200 feet.
About all that gasping I alluded to earlier on? According to researchers, high altitudes (defined as anything above 6,000 feet) can cause even healthy people to have sleep disturbances. In effect, high altitude can lead to carbon dioxide in the blood dropping to very low levels, causing the drive to breathe to “switch off." I experienced firsthand some of the problems associated with sleeping at high altitudes, including waking up many times during the night, sleeping for a shorter amount of time than normal, and not feeling refreshed in the morning.
A night of extremes
My night on the island was a night of extremes: hearing nothing but profound silence, being completely off the grid, witnessing an exquisite sunset out my waterfront window, followed by a fast and vast pitch blackness, and the coziness of those handmade blankets giving way to an insatiable need for more oxygen, fast.
That night was sandwiched between many other nights of extreme sleeping. One might say I'm in the middle of a year of extreme sleeping as I, my husband, and our one-year-old have left our LA home behind to travel the world.
By my count, we've slept in 54 different beds so far (with airplane and airport seats in the mix), so I'd like to think I'm becoming a bit of an expert in extreme sleeping. But that's a topic for another essay. For now, I'm grateful for the experience and appreciate being back on solid ground.
Next, learn what it's like to sleep on the ice in Antarctica.
Have your own extreme sleep story? We'd love to hear from you! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.