Eighth in a series about Bolivia
On August 15, 2015, Rachel and I took a day trip by boat out onto Lake Titicaca from Copacabana to Isla del Sol, Bolivia. One of the largest islands in the lake, Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is rich in archaeological sites and prominent in Incan myth. Several companies offer boat service to the island from Copacabana. A few days earlier in La Paz, a Canadian woman we’d met touring the Basílica de San Francisco told us a horror story about her visit to the island. She told us she was temporarily marooned on the island after her boat’s crew tried to extort 3,000 Bolivianos (about $440 US) to bring her back. I want to say she claimed there were other visitors in the same predicament, stuck wandering the island without enough money to find a place to stay or get a boat back.
Although the story gave me some pause, I figured we’d be safe enough if we asked the staff at Hostal Las Olas for a recommendation about which company’s boat we should take to the island. Any company that ripped off its customers would not be recommended for long. The clerk recommended a company named Andes Amazonia and we had a flawless journey with them.
We purchased our tickets in the morning. Our boat had a lower deck with indoor seating and an open air upper deck with a row of benches accessible by a ladder mounted on the outside of the hull. Of course, we chose to sit on top in the fresh air. The boat had a handful of life jackets on the aft lower deck; not enough for all passengers, but I suppose it was an improvement over the ferry at the Strait of Tiquina, which only carried a single life ring.
Various companies depart Copacabana harbor around the same time. Our boat got underway around 8:40am, joining a small flotilla en route to Isla del Sol. The boat headed northwest, more or less running parallel to the Yampupata Peninsula (referred to more broadly as the Copacabana Peninsula by some sources) north of Copacabana.
According to Charles Stanish in his book Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science, prior to the Spanish conquest, Incan pilgrims would travel from the capital, Cusco, to Isla del Sol via Copacabana. Instead of going the whole way from Copacabana by boat as we were doing, the pilgrims would travel by land to the village of Yampupata and would cross the Strait of Yampupata by raft.
The ride gave us a good view of the rugged landscape ringing Lake Titicaca. It’s mostly rocky with light vegetation and few trees. Interestingly, in “The Lake Titicaca Basin: A Pre-Columbian Built Landscape” (an essay in Imperfect balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas and yes, the inconsistency in hyphenation bothers me, too) Clark L. Erickson writes that the Lake Titicaca Basin may have once been heavily forested. If it was, there are several different theories on what (or who) was responsible for the deforestation including climate change or over-exploitation during pre-Columbian, colonial, or modern times.
After passing through a narrow channel between the Yampupata Peninsula and a small island offshore around 9:25am, we got our first unobstructed view of Isla del Sol. At a distance, the island seemed unremarkable, with terrain that was little different than the mainland. There were high hills and ridges. Like the mainland, the terrain was rocky with mostly light vegetation and a few stands of forests. Drawing closer, we could see that much of the island was heavily terraced.
The terracing was so substantial that Rachel and I discussed the possibility that our impressions were incorrect and that they were somehow natural formations. How could hillside after hillside be transformed? Incredibly, researchers have discovered that these terraces were indeed built by human beings during a time spanning more than a thousand years, using only hand tools. We would see traveling further west from Copacabana that extensive terracing is by no means limited to Isla del Sol. We didn’t notice it at the time, but the hills surrounding Copacabana have it, too. As it turns out, terracing is just one of several large-scale agricultural techniques practiced by pre-Columbian peoples in the Lake Titicaca Basin.
The first archeological site the boat passed on Isla del Sol was Pilco Kayma (Pillkukayna). Stanish writes in Lake Titicaca that this is also the first major site that Incan pilgrims would have encountered after their rafts (or reed boats according to the book I’m about to introduce) from the mainland landed nearby.
In another book, Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon, Stanish and Brian S. Bauer discuss the site in greater detail:
“Pilco Kayma is the best-preserved prehispanic site on the Island of the Sun. The site rests on a cliff more than twenty meters above the lake in a crescent-shaped bay. It is composed of a nearly square principal building, a set of small outlying buildings to its north, and a suite of surrounding terraces […] The principal building at Pilco Kayma is two stories high and built into the slope of the island […] This exceptional building is best known for its closely spaced interior chambers, its high corbeled vaults, and its large doorways.”
Interestingly, in the past, the main building’s stone walls were apparently covered in plaster painted yellow and/or red. Similarly, although the much better known Machu Picchu’s buildings are admired for their fine stonework by visitors today, some of them were also covered in yellow and red plaster.
Our boat continued along the eastern shore of Isla del Sol, hugging the coast and providing exceptional views of the island’s hilly landscape. Around 9:50am, the boat docked at Yumani, the principal settlement on the island. The town is built onto a steep hillside perhaps 200 m (656′) in height with buildings from water’s edge to the top of the hill. A set of Incan stairs ascends the hill; other parts of the town are accessible by switchbacking trails. (There are no cars on the island.)
To the east, we could see Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) against the backdrop of the Cordillera Real. We’d previously seen portions of this impressive range (part of the Andes) while crossing the Altiplano from La Paz to Copacabana. Topography hides the range from view in Copacabana itself. Isla de la Luna is far smaller than Isla del Sol, but has its share of archaeological sites as well.
Departing Yumani, we got a look at a couple of boats with fierce heads that I’m guessing represent pumas. Local people construct these boats from the lake’s totora reeds. Although we didn’t have a chance to see them, locals also use the reeds to build artificial “floating islands.”
After dropping some locals off at Challa, a small settlement midway up the island, the boat continued northwest to Challapampa. Challapampa is the northernmost settlement on the island and is the jumping off point for those visiting what Bauer and Stanish refer to as the Sanctuary. This site, once the destination of the Incan pilgrims, contains the rock that gives Lake Titicaca its name.
As we approached the village around 10:40am, a man named Juan (who was a local guide and not affiliated with Andes Amazonia) came to the upper deck offering a 50-minute tour of the archaeological sites nearby. The boat would wait at Challapampa for a couple hours and then then head back to Yumani. Passengers finishing their visit to the archaeological site could either ride the boat back to Yumani or hike there via a trail that spanned the island’s ridges from north to south. Whether traveling by boat or foot, we would have to be in Yumani by 3:30pm when the boat departed for Copacabana.
As it turned out, Juan’s estimates about both the length of his tour and the time it would take us to hike to Yumani were wildly inaccurate. We ended up having an adventure in which we came within minutes of missing our return boat. But that is another story.
Date: Saturday, August 15, 2015
Distance: 21 km (13 mi) as the crow flies
Estimated speed (open water): 7.4 knots (13.7 kph)
Duration: 2 hours
Series on Bolivia
Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)
Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat