Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol

Getting There

After a day off, during which we got to know the town of Copacabana and spent a lot of time just relaxing in the pleasant gardens of the Hostal La Cupula, it was time to head off to the Isla del Sol. It was a windy, cloudy day and we took the afternoon launch which, packed to the brim with backpackers, was soon puttering slowly across the rolling dark waters of Lake Titicaca.

The Inca Steps

The Inca Fountain - Condor, Puma and Serpent

Ninety minutes later, we were pulling into the harbour at Yumani, faced with the daunting prospect of climbing the 210 steps of the Inca Staircase to the village above. However, as the guide on the boat pointed out, the Inca civilisation gets a lot of credit for what was accomplished before its brief 80-year span of human history.

First views from Yumani village

The Aymara people had settled Isla del Sol for centuries earlier and most structures credited to the Inca were built by them, including the Inca Staircase and the Inca Fountain, a spring spouting from three pipes, El Condor representing heaven, La Puma representing earth and La Serpiente representing the underworld. Isla Del Sol was a sacred place for the Aymara and extremely important in Inca mythology, being the place were Viracocha, the sun god, created the first Inca man and woman. Even today it is held in reverence by the Aymara people and is home to 3500 of them. Our guide explained that the population is divided into three communities, one based on quasi-communist principles of equality and the sharing of wealth, one based on economic rationalist principles leading to a gap between the rich and the poor and the third, missing out on much of the tourist boom, remaining poor subsistence farmers. That may be overgeneralising, but our visit promised to be a fascinating one.

Depiction of the Aymara cosmology

Walk around the Isla del Sol

Our walk started from the Hostal Imperio del Sol, our accommodation on the island with views across the Isla de la Luna to the snow-capped 6000m plus mountains of the Cordillera Real. This magnificent range, crowned by the 6429m peak of Cerro Jankhouma, was a constant companion on our wanderings up and down the island.

The magnificent Cordillera Real - backdrop to Isla del Sol

Wandering up through the streets of Yumani

We climbed slowly up through the the rough stone paths of Yumani to reach the crest of the ridge at just under 4000m. To the west, we could look down the terraced slopes to tranquil Hacienda Japapa in Bahia Kona, sheltered by the long arm of the Kakayo-Queña Ridge. Beyond the ridge, across the blue waters of Lake Titicaca, lay the Peruvian shoreline.

We left the village of Yumani, climbing the rounded hill of Cerro Palla Khasa, at 4065m the highest point on the island and from there were 360º views, before picking our way back down through the terraced slopes, with their crops of beans and potatos interspersed with aromatic shrubs and wildflowers.

Tranquil waters of Hacienda Japapa on Bahia Kona

Rejoining the main path, we arrived at a control point, where we paid our 10 Boliviano fee to cross the lands of the Challa Community. With very little tourist infrastructure in their community, this is one way they can cash in on the gringo invasion. From this point, we could look down the valley toward Challa village nestled beneath a deeply terraced hill.

The track out from Yumani - looking back to the northern tip of the mainland

Village control point - Challa

The old pre-incan road led us slowly up through a grove of eucalypts, the most abundant Australian expat of all, and the scent of these trees sent a wave of nostalgia through us. The road, lined by low stone walls, took us up past the 4000m contour to follow the ridgeline. The undulating road took us above and below this mark several times as we headed north along the island's crest. From time to time, islanders would cross the road from Challa, heading toward the terraces in the valley behind Bahia Kona to harvest corn, beans, potatos and other produce.

Terracing near Bahia Kona

The stony path passing a grove of eucalypts

Locals heading off to harvest potatos near Bahia Kona

As we followed the barren ridgeline, we were treated to superb views across Lake Titicaca to the majestic Cordillera Real, now illuminated by the sunlight breaking through the morning cloud. To the north, views of the tip of Isla del Sol began to appear and, after passing some old stone ruins, we commenced a long descent through rocky terrain to reach the pre-incan archaelogical site of Chincana.

Views across the lake to the 6000m plus Cordillera Real

The stone-wall lined track along the spine of the island

An isolated ruin on the northern end

The maze-like pre-Incan ruins of Chinchana

Here we could admire the Roca Sagrada, formed like the head of a puma (with some imagination), the Mesa de Sacrificio overlooking the blue waters of the lake, where animal and human sacrifices were carried out, and the maze-like stone ruins of Chincana, built by the Aymara people hundreds of years before the Inca Empire even existed. Looking over the emerald green waters of the cove set in the steeply sloping cliffs, one could see the attraction of this place to those early people.

The Mesa de Sacrificio (Incan sacrificial altar) used for animals and
the odd princess

The Roca Sagrada (sacred rock) which resembles the
head of a puma

Coastal scenery in the north of Isla del Sol

Track through the small settlement of Santiago

Turquoise waters of Lake Titicaca in the bay below Chinchana ruins

Terraced farmlands at Santiago de Pampa

From, this site, we followed a well-formed path around to the east, traversing high above the coves of Bahia Sabacera and a white sand beach below the village of Santiago Pampa. Crossing a ridge in the village, the path wound down past small houses and gardens, and the local school. It was 1pm and the children were just leaving for the day; our path down the stony track and across the beach to the village of Cha'llapampa was accompanied by the giggles and chatter of the Bolivian youngsters. Cha'llapampa straddles a sandy isthmus and was the ideal place for a break; we sat for a while, looking across the waters to the snow-capped mountains as fisherman slowly rowed by in their boats, and allowed the tranquility of the site to seep through.

Sailing boat near Cha'llapampa

Leaving this peaceful spot, we did a short climb to traverse the steep rocks along the edge of Bahia Cha'lla, crossing curiously patterned orange-pink sandstone, interspersed with ribs of highly tilted flaking grey shale.

Path across the sandstone slab

The village of Cha'llapampa on its narrow sandy isthmus

Curious patterns in the sandstone

Sandstone headland on Bahia Cha'lla

White sand beach at Challa

Climbing up the cobbled streets of Challa

Northern tip of the Isla del la Luna

After meandering around the contour and crossing several freshwater springs, we dropped back down to walk along a white sand beach that led to the village of Challa. Once again, we found ourselves climbing up through the houses of the village along a rocky path, lined with high stone walls that kept in pigs, donkeys and sheep, passing small plots of maize and quinoa, beans and potatoes. As we crossed the ridge, a superb view opened up across the green flats below, leading out to Bahia Bukhara and Lake Titicaca, the hills on either end framing the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real.

The Cordillera Real framed by Bahia Bukhara

The 6400m summit of Illimani, peeking above the horizon

From here, the stone path led us steadily up the slope until we rejoined our outward path on the crest of the ridge and followed it back to Yumani. It had been a fascinating walk in a landscape indelibly marked by centuries of human occupation, but which still retains a tranquility and unique charm. Moreover, a 16km walk at 4000m was a big step forward for the longer treks to come. Lying in bed in our hostal room we watched the evening light descend over the Isla de la Luna and Cordillera Real; as darkness fell the lights of the many villages on the distant shore of Lake Titicaca lit up like a string of shining beads.

Isla del Sol to Copacabana

The next morning we woke to a cloudless sky - the first in several days. The air was clear and the morning light brilliant as we descended the 210 teps of the Inca Staircase to the small port. There we met up with Daryl and Ran, an anglo-kiwi couple with whom we had crossed paths on the the Uyuni jeep trip and again on the island walk yesterday. We had seperately planned to walk back to Copacabana and decided to hire a boat together to cross over from the Isla del Sol to the village of Yampupata on the mainland. It would be good to have company on this 17km walk along the lake shore.

Terraced hills and the blue waters of Lake Titicaca south of Yampupata


The village of Yampupata with Isla del Sol in the background

The twenty minute crossing was uneventful and we set off through the village lanes to join up with earth road that headed south. The road led us gently over a rise past houses and fields lining the reed-lined shore of the lake. The calm waters here were protected by a long peninsula of narrow cliffs jutting out toward the Isla del Sol.

Alpacas grazing and maize drying

This would be the course of the day; short traverses over small hills or rises leading from one village in its peaceful rural setting to another, passing fields of maize and beans, small pastures where llamas, alpacas, pigs, sheep and donkeys grazed and where people quietly carried on with their daily lives.

Traditional reed boat and current water transport

Leaving Yampupata, we pushed on to Sicuani, where a traditional reed boat lay moored in the totara reed-beds next to a wooden sailing/row boat and a small motor launch - the evolution of boating on Lake Titicaca in nutshell.

Totara reed beds near Sicuani

From Titicacha, we commenced the biggest climb of the walk, briefly taking a shortcut through terraced slopes of blue-flowering lupins yellow-flowering herbs and low aromatic shrubs, as we looped away from the coast to wander through a heavily-scented grove of eucalyptus trees. Passing the small Rio Jinchaca, tinkling down from the bare and rocky slopes above, we turned eastward and followed the road through the eucalypts to the site of the Gruta de Lourdes, site of a statue of the virgin with reputedly miraculous powers.

Rio Jinchaca flowing down from the dry hills

Climbing up through the lupin and herb fields

View across the lupins toward th distant Isla del Sol

Eucalypt grove near the Gruta de Lourdes

We decided not to go down to the cave, as it did not seem worth the climb back up (it is not so easy to escape miraculous virgins, however, as that night back at our hostal, one came to stay, her statue carried by sailors from the Bolivian navy and accompanied by a military brass band, to be installed with much fanfare in the TV room of the hostal!)

Not the Virgen de la Gruta de Lourdes but the
one who came to spend the night at La Cupula

Roadside walk toward Chani

Looking across the lake towards 375m
(or 3840m from sea level) high Cerro Pucara

View over the reed beds of Chani and
the dry hills beyond
Meanwhile back at the walk, we pushed on along the road above the steep drop into the clear green waters of Lake Titicaca. Ahead, a small peninsula dominated by 375m Cerro Pucara jutted out into the lake. giving shelter to the village of Chani, set in its reed lined bay.

From Chani, we climbed over the ridge of the peninsula, past a small trout hatchery and along low rock cliffs above the lake. Ahead, across the deep blue Titicaca waters, we could see the cathedral and houses of Copacabana nestled behind the imposing cross-topped Cerro Calvario. The end of the walk was in sight; all that was left was a long stretch of flat walking between cultivated fields and the lakeshore that took us back into town, where a short climb up through the rough stone-paved streets brought us to the Hostal La Cupula and the end of a trek.

It had been a very interesting walk with perfect weather and pleasant company, giving glimpses of the homes and lifestyles of the people who live on the edge of the magnificent Lake Titicaca, and was the perfect complement to our exploration of the Isla del Sol. Thanks Daryl and Ran for sharing this part of our South American adventure.

Walk's end - Copacabana nestled between its two hills