HOW TO VISIT ISLA DEL SOL ON LAKE TITICACA
18 October 2019
18 October 2019
Protruding from the azure blue waters of Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol is literally a world away from La Paz, Bolivia’s frenetic metropolis 170 kilometres (105 miles) to the southeast.
No paved roads here. Nor motorised vehicles. Just 800 or so indigenous families, together with their trusted llamas and donkeys.
And where, at 3800 metres (12,500 feet) above sea level, the pace of life can best be described as “on the slow side”.
But for many, the “Island of the Sun” is an essential stop on the Gringo Trail between Bolivia and Peru. Not least because of its myriad walking tracks and their fantastic viewpoints.
And so here’s our guide on how to get the most out of your visit.
Isla del Sol
Isla del Sol
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About Isla del Sol
According to Inca legend, Isla del Sol was the birthplace of the Sun God, who sent to Earth the first Incas in the shape of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo (an Incan version of Adam & Eve). And, to this day, the island retains a certain revered mysticism both for locals and tourist alike.
Essentially home to three distinct communities – the Yumani in the south, the Cha’llalampa in the north and the Cha’lla in the east – the island’s rocky and sometimes barren landscape is dotted with eucalyptus trees and people of all ages working the fields just as they have done for generations. Including the Incan agricultural terraces that were built on to the hillsides over 500 years ago.
Indeed, there are over 80 Inca ruins on the island, although none appear particularly special to the casual observer. And most of those are to be found in and around Cha’llalampa.
Most of the tourism is currently centred around Yumani, where simple hostels, cafes and restaurants have sprung up over the past few years. And it’s this disparity between tourism in the north and south that seems to have led to an ongoing dispute that’s resulted in the northern section being “off limits” to visitors for the foreseeable future.
Apparently, members of the Cha’llalampa had tried to build holiday cabañas on land that was deemed as sacred by the Cha’lla. Who then responded in the only way they thought appropriate; by dynamiting the said cabanas. Which then sparked tensions amongst the Yumani who subsequently created an artificial border between their southern section and the rest of the island. Suffice to say, trying to cross the “border” on foot is currently not a safe pastime for tourists.
However, that shouldn’t put off anyone considering a visit to Isla del Sol. The staggering beauty of the island, its breathtaking viewpoints and the Yumani culture can still be appreciated from its relatively small southern tip.
View to the mainland from the island’s southern tip
Walks around Yumani
Best taken at an ambling pace, the walking tracks around Yumani are well worth exploring.
You need to be aware that there’s a general lack of shade. And with the sun beating down on you while you’re walking at an altitude of up to 4,000 metres, that means wearing a decent hat, applying plenty of sunscreen and carrying enough water to keep you hydrated.
And keep a watchful eye on any dogs that approach you, too. We were aware that rabies could be a potential problem. And, indeed, Nicky got nipped by an over-exuberant puppy on one of the trails. We ultimately had to make a decision on whether to continue or evacuate back to Copacabana and onwards to Lima for treatment. We opted for the former but it nevertheless served as a warning.
To Yumani via the Inca Steps
After arriving by boat at Yumani’s port, your first task will be to scale the Escalara del Inca (the Incan Steps). It’s a lung-busting but essential introduction to the island and involves clambering up 206 steps, some of which are extremely steep.
And, along the way, you’ll pass the sacred Fountain of Youth until you eventually arrive in the village itself.
However, the climbing doesn’t end there as the village, which clings to the hillside, is bisected by further sets of steps and hilly pathways.
To Pilko Kaina
The longest of the available walks stretches from Yumani along the coast to the southern tip of the island.
It’s a gorgeous walk with fabulous views across Lake Titicaca to the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real. It’s particularly special if you’ve stayed overnight and can set out before the day trippers arrive.
And you’ll undoubtedly be able say hello to the occasional local lady (or cholita), complete with her traditional dress of belled skirt, bowler hat and aguayo (shawl), as she passes you by.
After about an hour of fairly flat walking, you’ll arrive at Piko Kaina, an Incan temple that sits just above the lake shore. To be fair, in terms of scale, it’s not up there with other Incan temples in South America. But as a place to sit, rest and gaze out over the lake, it’s perfect.
Footpath to the ruins of Pilko Kaina
A cholita takes a break from work
A local woman en route to Pilko Kaina
From there the trail continues and descends to the lake shore at the extreme south of the island. From where the views back towards Copacabana are sublime.
Total walking time: one and a half hours each way (gentle pace).
To Cerro Queñuani
Having returned to Yumani, you’ll find a shorter trail that runs a similar course to that of Pilco Kaina, but higher up the hillside.
This one takes you through a small forest and then on to a hilltop at Cerro Queñuani, with an Incan mausoleum and 360 degree views of the whole southern section. It’s breathtaking in more ways than one. But if I had to recommend a place for a picnic and a bottle of wine, this would be it!
View across Lake Titicaca to the Cordillera Real
In fact, the mausoleum is used by locals to pray. Something we assumed the cholita, who said hello to us as she passed, was on her way to do.
Total walking time: 15 minutes each way.
A cholita in traditional dress climbing to Cerro Queñuani
To Cerro Palla Khasa
If you pass through the highest point of the village, a level dirt road skirts the main restaurants and then climbs steeply upwards past farmland towards Cerro Palla Khasa.
It’s the highest peak in this southern section of the island and, once again, the views from the top are nothing less than incredible.
You’ll also have the opportunity to watch locals as they tend to their potato fields, their colourful clothes standing out like beacons against the dryness of the land.
Farm animals are in plentiful supply too so expect llamas and donkeys to cross your path whenever they feel like it.
Total walking time: 30 minutes each way.
View of Yumani from the footpath
Cholitas working in a potato field
A working llama
A donkey takes a break from working in the field
A word about the Yumani
I’ll be honest. We didn’t find the Yumani to be the friendliest people we’ve ever met. Very little eye contact and hardly any response to our attempts at communication in Spanish.
In fact, we couldn’t help feel that many see tourists as unwelcome guests. That they should merely be tolerated rather than welcomed with open arms. And, to be fair, I can imagine that the intrusive nature of mainstream tourism jars somewhat with their way of life.
They don’t like being photographed either. And, let’s be honest, how would you feel if it was done to you on a daily basis without your permission?
So, as always, either ask permission first if you want to take a portrait shot. Or shoot from a discreet distance using a zoom lens for any other type of shot.
A local woman waits for the boat to arrive at Yumani’s port
You’ll need to base yourself in Copacabana, a lakeside village 14 kilometres from the island. Most travellers arrive there either by bus from La Paz or across the Peruvian border in Puno.
From there, daily public boats leave at 08:30 and 13:30, returning from Yumani at 10:30 and 16:00 (or thereabouts).
The fare for 2019 was 25 bolivianos (£2.80 / $3.60 USD) one way. You can buy return tickets for the same day but not if you’re staying overnight on the island.
The boats have both an internal cabin (which can get quite smelly because of the burning fuel) and external seating on the roof. If the sun is out head straight to the roof before it fills up. Especially if you suffer from motion sickness.
Alternatively, if you’re arriving in Copacabana via the Peru or Bolivia Hop tourist bus service (and we recommend you do), they offer faster boats at 13:00 and 14:00 which return at 15:30 and 16:30. The price is $10 USD return and they’ll drop you off at Pilko Kaina. Which, if you’re pushed for time, allows you to walk to Yumani and down the Inca steps to catch the return boat to Copacabana.
Whichever route you take, as soon as you step on to land you’ll be greeted by a local asking you for 10 Bolivianos as an entrance fee to the island.
There are no ATMs.
Boats coming and going at Copacabana’s port
When to go
It’s possible to visit Isla del Sol any time of the year but by far the best time is during the dry season between May and September.
Between December and March there’s a lot more rain. And, if the weather’s poor there’s a good chance boat services might be cancelled.
Whenever you go it’ll get close to freezing at night and you might find your hostel in Yumani has only basic heating. So go prepared.
Unless you really do want to pay Isla del Sol a flying visit, you’ll need to spend at least one night in Copacabana, preferably either side of your island visit.
It’s a pleasant enough lakeside town and its main drag has a number of bars, cafes and restaurants, albeit more expensive than what you’ll pay elsewhere in Bolivia.
The main attraction for us though was to stay at the excellent German-owned Hostel La Cúpula for a couple of nights. We figured we deserved it after some roughing it over the previous few weeks.
And the alpacas grazing right outside our panoramic window seemed happy we were there too!
View of Copacabana from the La Paz approach road
Hostel La Cúpula
Final thoughts on Isla del Sol
Isla de Sol isn’t a place for thrill seekers. Rather, it’s a place for strolling along coastal footpaths, taking in the magnificent views, enjoying a leisurely lunch and experiencing the relaxed pace of life.
It is possible to “do it” in just a day from Copacabana. And many people are more than happy to do just that.
But, if you do have the time, we’d suggest you spend at least one night in Yumani to properly unwind and spread your exploring over two days.
And while it’s true that, if the current travel restrictions continue, you’ll only be able to experience a small part of the island, there’s still enough to see and do to warrant the effort it takes to get there.
Let’s just hope that the islanders can find a resolution to their in-fighting sometime soon.
What did you think? Have you been to Isla de Sol? Do you have any recommendations to add? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.