Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

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.

1 Copacabana Harbor
Flotilla of boats in Copacabana harbor.  Our boat is actually the one at left.

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.

Isla del Sol Map 1
Map of our journey to Isla del Sol on August 15, 2015. The red segments are by boat and the blue are by foot. In Incan times, pilgrims would have traveled from Copacabana north to Yampupata (not labeled on the map, but located at the end of the road on the peninsula) and taken a raft or reed boat to Isla del Sol.  Map imagery from Google Maps.
2 Heading Out
Boats head out of Copacabana towards Isla del Sol in the distance

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.

3 Copacabana
View back towards 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.

Panorama of Isla del Sol. In the foreground (less hazy, on the right hand side) are islands off the Yampupata Peninsula

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.

3a Passage
A boat threading the passage between the mainland and a few islands offshore.
4 Island near Capilla Yampupata
The island to the north of the passage. Note how the water level was higher in the past. Erickson writes that Lake Titicaca’s “levels are dynamic and have fluctuated 6.5 m in the past century.” At some points water levels in the lake were lower and recovered submerged artifacts are on display at Challapampa.

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.

One of many extensively terraced hillsides on Isla del Sol

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 archaeological site known as Pilco Kayma. Note the remnants of terracing on the hillside above.

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.

6 Isla del Sol

7 Yumani Steps
Incan staircase in Yumani

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.)

I borrowed Rachel’s superzoom to take this photo of the northwest corner of Isla de la Luna against the Cordillera Real. (This photo was taken from Yumani in the afternoon when lighting conditions were better, as the range and island were backlit when we first arrived on Isla del Sol.  The island was about 6.75 km (4.2 mi) away when this picture was taken but looks much closer thanks to the camera’s telephoto zoom, with a 35 mm equivalent of 1200 mm.)

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.

8 Traditional Boats
Boats made out of reeds at the edge of Yumani’s harbor

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.”

Close-up of the (puma?) heads of the reed boats

9 Isla del Sol

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.

10 Challapampa
The village of Challapampa

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.

11 Our Boat
Our boat in Challapampa’s harbor

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

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill)

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus


3 thoughts on “Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

    1. Thanks! I’m always trying to find a balance between capturing a high level of detail (common in books but hard to find online) while avoiding being too longwinded. (My wife would probably say I end up falling into the latter category most of the time…)

      Liked by 1 person

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