Stepping out of a boat onto an artificial reed island, your foot wobbles and the surface feels spongy underfoot. Elaborate vessels, made of bundles of dried reeds lashed together into crescent shapes, some with figureheads in the shape of animals on the prows, are docked along the shore.

This is the home of the Uros people, lake dwellers who live on floating mats of dried reeds on the highest freshwater lake in the world.

While the mysticism of Machu Pichu draws thousands of visitors from around the world to survey the splendour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, other areas of Peru are definitely worth exploring.

The islands of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, are as varied as they are beautiful. Ranging from tiny uninhabited islets to densely populated islands, by far the most unusual are the artificial Isla Flotantes, or floating reed islands.

The Uros people — the islands are also called the Uros Islands — began their unusual existence centuries ago in an attempt to flee from the aggressive Incas and Collas.

Now, several hundred people continue to inhabit the islands and harvest the totara, or reeds, plentiful at the bottom of the lake, to construct their islands. It’s a constant battle to keep the approximately 45 islands in repair since the reeds are always shifting.

The people are eager to show you the inside of their simple thatched homes, sell handicrafts made of reeds or take you on a tour around the islands in one of their fanciful gondolas. Be prepared to give them a tip.

The floating islands are about a half-hour by boat from the port of Puno, Peru. The nearest airport to Puno is at Juliaca, the region’s largest city and a 30-minute drive along a recently paved highway. Another way to get to the area is by bus from Cusco, which offers spectacular vistas winding through the Andes Mountains.

At 3,812 metres above sea level, beautiful, mirror-like Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and also the largest in South America.

If you’re arriving from Lima, it’s a good idea to take it easy in Puno for a day or two so that your body can adjust to the high altitude, which can leave you nauseous and lightheaded.

An opportunity to stay with an indigenous family on one of the remote Lake Titicaca islands is another highlight of a visit to the Puno area. At Isla Amantani, a three- to four-hour boat ride from Puno, visitors are greeted by genial hosts, who thankfully insist on carrying the travellers’ overnight bags to their homes. The barren terrain is hilly and the air thin, leaving tourists who re unaccustomed to the altitude winded.

The rustic homes, set in terraced hillsides, have been approved by the tourist board and are sparse yet clean and the beds have plenty of brightly coloured woven blankets, needed in the chilly night air at the end of May.

The people speak Que­chua and perhaps a little Spanish, so an English-speaking local guide translates; but once in their hosts’ homes, visitors are on their own.

There are no sleek stainless-steel appliances or flush toilets here. Crouching by a hearth, women cook an evening meal of assorted potatoes, beans and mint tea and a breakfast of thin pancakes over a smoky fire by candlelight. Guests are given a basin of steaming water in which to wash in the morning. There is a basic outhouse.

Gifts of fresh fruit and vegetables for a host family can be purchased at the Puno dock before boarding your boat and are greatly appreciated. The people don’t have much in the way of worldly goods and are paid roughly $8 per person for an overnight stay.

Good to know
• Many companies operate tours of the islands from Puno, Peru. The islanders do not speak English, so it’s best to travel with an English-speaking local guide who can arrange for you to stay overnight with a family.

• For more information on Peru, visit www.peru.info.