Isla del Sol provides a colorful and serene escape from modern life. // © 2013 Pablo Hidalgo
Imagine a storybook island where your feet are the main mode of travel. There are no paved roads, and its inhabitants live by the humble farming methods of a society from long ago. This is Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun, on the southern edge of Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.
Even with 30 years of travel experience, Isla del Sol remains one of the most remote places I have visited in the world. Not much has changed on the island since the Inca walked the same stone pathways that tourists walk today.
Getting to the island is a journey that requires several parts, but the trip is not too arduous. Copacabana acts as the gateway to Lake Titicaca. Once travelers reach La Paz, they can easily travel by car or bus to Copacabana. From there, they can walk to the boat launch and enjoy a 1½ hour-long float across Lake Titicaca to the island where, according to Incan lore, the sun was born.
Legends aside, the island offers beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The views from promontories around the island are stunning and include the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real off in the distance.
The residents growing corn or quinoa on the island — some in colorful native dress — are descendants of a pre-Incan people called the Aymara. All told, about 800 families farm rugged hillsides and tend sheep. Their subsistence living is supplemented with fishing and a small but steady growth in tourism. Their accommodations are simple but multiplying. It seems that every family is building a small addition to their home to house international travelers.
There are various down-to-earth restaurants on the island but not in forms you would traditionally expect. Sometimes, the dining room is the converted living room of a private residence. Regardless of the establishment, the food is always fresh. Trout from the lake and quinoa soup are mainstays of every menu.
Because the island has no paved roads or motor vehicles, it is an ideal location for hiking. The high rocky backbone of the island can be hiked from tip to tip in a single day — a matter of five or six hours if you move at a leisurely pace.
Serious adventurers might want to stay in the area and also hike Isla del Sol’s smaller sister island, Isla de la Luna. I devoted three nights just to Isla del Sol, but many visitors with limited time try to visit the island for a day trip. That can be frustrating because the boat schedules make it difficult to complete a desired itinerary. Hiking is no fun if it’s rushed, and there is no leisurely lunch waiting at an Incan ruin.
My journey began with a 1½-hour ride to the northern end of the island and a hamlet called Challapampa. I ventured out on a rutted trail, with a small group of children herding sheep down the pathway off in the distance.
I rented a room for the night, without a reservation, from a native Indian woman whose family owned a six-unit building they call Pachamama. I don’t think she spoke Spanish because she told me the price with her fingers. I handed her Bolivianos, and she handed me a key to my room. My accommodations were simple but rustically charming: The bathroom and shower were located across the patio, and several of the rooms looked out over a beach. My back window opened up to a lush green cornfield.
From Challapampa, I hiked the island’s northern tip to an ancient Incan Ceremonial Table and a labyrinthine temple called Chincana. The temple was in remarkably good shape, with skinny passages twisting through tiny doors into other rooms or into dead ends. It was fun to explore and a great spot for lunch, looking down over the blue waters of the lake.
The second day, I hiked south for four hours, from Challapampa to Yumani, the largest hamlet on the island.
Over time, Yumani has grown up the hillside from the small port where it originated. At the top of the hill, there are a few simple restaurants offering great views. One of the best is Las Velas, an organic restaurant that prepares sumptuous pizza. A small crowd of hikers gathers there nightly for the sunset view. I spent the night in a modest place near the restaurant.
The next morning, I ventured out on my last hike of the journey, toward the island’s southern tip, in search of the Inca temple, Pilko Kaina. (Not everyone gets here by hiking. I met an American couple who came over on a private boat with a guide from Copacabana.) This site is not as grand as Machu Picchu, but it offers stellar views and photo ops because of its location above the crystal-clear water of the lake.
There are two ways to experience Isla del Sol. Independent travelers can do as I did and set out on their own adventure, while those who prefer a guided tour would do well to join escorted trips with travel agencies in Copacabana or La Paz.
However they prefer to craft their trip, this remote region of Bolivia will leave visitors with a lasting impression. Its beauty, serenity and independence from the hustle and bustle of everyday modern life make it both an adventurous and inspiring destination.
Buses for the three-hour ride to Copacabana leave the central bus station in La Paz several times daily. The last return bus from Copacabana to La Paz departs at 6:30 p.m. A second option: In the evening, private eight-passenger vans leave Copacabana as the seats are filled. Small boats depart from Copacabana daily at 8:30 a.m. and at 1 p.m. to ferry passengers to the island. The last return boat leaves daily at 4 p.m.
Bring warm clothes, as the weather around the lake can be frigid at night.
Leave your suitcase or backpack in your La Paz or Copacabana hotel and just take a shoulder bag for the trip. This makes hiking a lot more fun.