Empire of the Sun

16 Jul

View from atop hill at northern tip of Isla del Sol

Earlier this month, my friend Neil and I stood atop a hill on the northern tip of Bolivia’s Isla del   Sol (Island of the Sun), taking in an amazing 360° view of beautiful Lake Titicaca.  From this vantage point, looking out on the seemingly endless expanse of sapphire-blue water and staring at the imposing snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Real, it was as if we were the sole inhabitants of an empty world — we couldn’t spot a single boat on the water, nor person on land, nor bird in the air.

The Isla del Sol was revered by the Incans as the center of creation, from where the sun itself was born, as well as the first Incan, Manco Capac.  Today the island is a central tourist attraction on the Bolivian side of gigantic Titicaca (nearly 8,400 km2 spread across Bolivia and Perú); sitting at 3,800m (nearly 12,500ft) in elevation, the lake is the world’s highest major body of water.

Neil and I were here as part of a 1.5-week trip around Bolivia, with Titicaca being the first stop on an itinerary that was to include La Paz and the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

Border Crossings

Getting to Titicaca and meeting up with Neil was itself a bit of an adventure.  He, coming from the U.S., flew to the capital city of La Paz and from there took the 3.5 hr bus ride to Copacabana, a tiny Bolivian beach town that gives its name to the famous beach in Rio.  I, coming from Lima, balked at the $600+ flights to La Paz, and so instead took a $70 flight to the southeastern town of Juliaca.  From there it was a short taxi ride to Puno, Peru’s main lakeside city, where I then caught a colectivo for 8 soles ($3) for a three-hour ride past small villages and pretty lake views to the border.

The top of this nondescript hill marks the border between Perú and Bolivia

The border crossing at Yunguyo is done on foot, and there are no checks.  You must obtain an exit stamp from an office on the Peruvian side and then head to the police station on the Bolivian side for visa processing, but there is no one to tell you this or to stop you from just waltzing across.  I exited Perú and entered Bolivia without fully realizing it, before dutifully doubling back.  I had read in some places online that Bolivia requires travelers to show proof of income, an itinerary, and yellow fever vaccination card — none of these were needed; just crisp, perfect American currency to pay the $135 entry visa fee.  A $20 note had the slightest of tears, so the officer refused to accept it, helpfully tearing it much more as he handed it back to me explaining the bill was defective.

But after that, things went smoothly.  I took a short taxi ride the remaining 8km to Copacabana, and proceeded to the lobby of a ritzy hotel where Neil and I had agreed to meet up.  Surprisingly, I had arrived before him, though I only had to wait 30 min. for him to show up.  We quickly moved to more economic lodging in a hotel on the beach near the base of Cerro Calavaro.  For dinner we hit up the nearby lakeside shacks which specialize in trucha (trout).  This Copacabana quickly proved that it bore little resemblance to the one in Rio — it being winter here, it was freezing cold, and the gale-force winds blew away signs and nearly knocked over a few of the shacks!

Walking on the Sun

Descending the island’s main trail toward the northern coast

That first morning in Copacabana, we were bit tired from traveling and slept in.  We missed the chance to catch the cheap ferries directly to Isla del Sol (they run to Yumani on the island’s southern end and Challapampa near the north) and so we took a taxi ride of under an hour to the village of Yumpapata.  From there we hired a motorboat to take us on the half-hour ride to Yumuni.  We disembarked there and were immediately confronted by the Escalera de Inca, a rather-steep stairwell of some 200+ steps which one needs to ascend in order to reach the ridge and find the trails connecting to the rest of the island.  For those not yet acclimatized to the altitude, the Escalera can be a bit daunting.

Motorboat from Yumpapata to Yumuni

The trail going to the north bisects the island but for over an hour we clung to the eastern shore, walking past many pastures filled with pigs and sheep.  We rejoined the proper trail early on, continuing on some short, steep climbs.  Every twist and turn of the path brought a new beautiful view which looked ripped straight from a Mediterranean isle.

Isla del Sol is appropriately very sunny, and windswept.  (I recommend sunscreen and chapstick if you go, as both Neil and I came out with sunburned faces and roughed-up lips.)  There are no cars and no paved roads on the islands, only small communities of farmers and fishers, resulting in a very tranquil ambiance.

It took 2.5 to 3 hours to reach the island’s northern tip, where the majority of the ruins (including the Palacio del Inca and Mesa Ceremónica are situated).  Truthfully, to me they seemed tiny and completely unremarkable after having been to sites like Machu Picchu and Kuelap.

But the aforementioned view from the hill, Cerro Tikani, at the northern end of the island is well worth it.

Surveying the view from atop the hill, it seemed we were the only ones around for miles

By early evening, it was too late to catch a ferry back to our hotel in Copacabana (they leave the north around 1pm and the south around 4:30pm), so we spent the night in the tiny port village of Challapampa.  Were I to advise future travelers to Isla del Sol, I would recommend taking the morning ferry from Copacabana directly to the north of the island, and hike to Yumani in the south.  If you want to spend the night, there are many more food and lodging options in Yumani.

That said, we passed a pleasant but unremarkable night in Challapampa–I heard the local cholitas (traditionally dressed native women) speaking Aymará, which I had never heard before!–where our room at a tiny inn cost us about $6/person, and ran out of running water at night.  We caught the morning ferry from Challapampa directly back to Copacabana, a nearly three-hour ride for a ridiculously cheap 25 bolivianos (under $4).

Cheaper than Insurance

A priest provides the bendición (blessing) for a local couple’s new automobile

Back in Copacabana the next morning, it was Saturday, and so we were fortunate to get to witness the popular local tradition known as the Bendición de Movilidades (Blessing of Automobiles).  All morning and early afternoon, a long line of new cars, trucks, vans, and mini-buses adorned with flowers and ribbons queued outside the town cathedral waiting for a priest to deliver a protective cha’lla (ritual).

The priest leads the vehicle’s owners in prayer, sprinkles holy water on the seats, and then the owners uncork a bottle of champagne to spray on the vehicle’s tires and doors.  Finally, someone sets of a round of firecrackers in front of the car (sending everyone scampering), and voila!  It’s an entertaining process to watch, and as the Lonely Planet guide hilariously notes, “The priest slips owner donations into his vestments faster than you can say Hail Mary, but per vehicle it’s still a cheap alternative to insurance!”

Spraying champagne on the tires of a new vehicle as part of the blessing

A bus crossing the Tiquina Strait on a raft

After watching for a long while, we had just enough time to eat a quick lunch, and then got on the 20 boliviano ($3), three-hour colectivo ride to La Paz, a pleasant experience which featured some great views and a unique water crossing at the Estrecho Tiquina (Straits of Tiquina) between the villages of San Pedro and San Pablo.  Passengers disembark and cross on one ferry, while flat rafts are precariously loaded with vehicles ranging from cars and trucks to full-size buses!  Bridges — who needs them?


5 Responses to “Empire of the Sun”

  1. Andrew Tourtellot July 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Aw come on, size isn’t everything when it comes to ruins! You gotta engage your imagination and picture the inhabitants’ way of life, which must’ve been pretty different on the edge of a giant lake than on a mountaintop. Admittedly, without any signage or guidance it all starts to look like some old stone buildings, which is why doing some research always helps…but yeah, appreciate each site for the unique flower it is!

    This scolding brought to you by Andrew’s Desire to Believe All Those Random Historical Sites His Parents Brought Him To As a Kid Weren’t Entirely Meaningless.

    • Jay July 17, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Hahaha… loved this comment. But I tell you, amigo, it wasn’t a good sign that I thought this was a random picnic table, not realizing it was the Inca Ceremonial Table.

      • AC July 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

        That picture of you trashing an ancient holy ground is pretty much what I’d pictured you doing throughout Peru for your time there.

  2. Patricia O´Ferrall October 8, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Hi! Do you remember at what time in the morning did you get the ferrie back from Challapampa to Copacabana? It is impossible to find the schedules on internet!! Thanks very much.

    • Jay October 8, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Hi Patricia, I believe departure was set for 8am, though it left some 15-20 min. behind schedule. You can ask around at Challapampa the previous evening for someone to confirm the time, or just keep an eye on the dock in the morning (it’s tiny and there will probably only be one or two boats out there).

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