Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

Ninth in a series about Bolivia

Rachel and I arrived on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on the morning of August 15, 2015.  Our boat from Copacabana landed at the village of Challapampa around 10:40am.  Challapampa is located on an isthmus between the northern section of Isla del Sol and the Kalabaya Peninsula.  The village also includes the adjacent shoreline along the bays to the north and south of the isthmus.  The village is smaller than Yumani (the main settlement on the south side of the island), but does have a handful of shops.

Challapampa is the closest village to the archaeological site—sacred to the Inca and other pre-Columbian peoples—that Bauer and Stanish refer to as the Sanctuary in their book Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon.  The Sanctuary features ruins as well as the Sacred Rock from which the Sun was purported to have risen in one of the Incan legends recorded by Spanish chroniclers.

10 Challapampa
The village of Challapampa seen from a boat on Lake Titicaca.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Although the Kalabaya Peninsula is heavily terraced (like much of Isla del Sol), the hills rising directly behind the village appear to be unmodified.  These hills were quite arid looking.  The color of the rock looked somewhat lighter than other hills I’d seen around Lake Titicaca and the hills’ overall appearance reminded me of the calanques along the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille.

We joined a tour led by a local guide identifying himself as Juan.  Juan promised—somewhat disingenuously—that his tour would travel to and cover the archaeological site in only 50 minutes, giving us plenty of time to hike across the island to Yumani.

12 Tiwanaku Ceramics
Tiwanaku (a pre-Incan empire in the area of Lake Titicaca) ceramics and arrowheads in Museo del Oro

The first stop on the tour was Challapampa’s museum, Museo del Oro.  The 10 Boliviano ticket (about $1.50) also covers entrance to the nearby archaeological site.  The museum is small but has a number of artifacts.  Interestingly, Juan mentioned that artifacts had been recovered from under the water of Lake Titicaca.  It seems that centuries old stories of buried treasure inspired the research.

Johan Reinhard (whose work I’ve previously referenced in my articles about the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu) writes in his paper Underwater Archaeological Research in Lake Titicaca:

“Legends about the lake abound. Among them are several which describe underwater cities, roads and treasures. […] Due to the variations in the lake’s level, there were period during the following centuries [after the Spanish conquest] when causeways, piers, and other structures appeared which had been covered earlier by water, and this gave rise to many of the stories about underwater ruins, including cities.”

At times it can be hard to distinguish legend from actual archaeology.  I came across an intriguing note in my Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook, claiming that in 2000 researchers found remnants of “a massive stone temple, winding pathways and a surrounding wall, all about 8m underwater.”  Unfortunately, while I found news articles about the discovery, which was supposedly made by a group called Akakor Geographical Exploring, I have yet to find any scholarly accounts.  That might be because with only one archaeologist on the team, just under three weeks in the field, and announcing its finds by press conference rather than in a journal, it wasn’t a particularly scholarly expedition!

Update on April 17, 2016: I overlooked it somehow, but in Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science, Stanish dismisses Akakor as a “group of amateur enthusiasts” whose announcement was hyped after it was “apparently picked up by a naive news stringer for a major network”.  Though ten plus years had passed at the time Stanish was writing his book, “Little has been heard about this discovery since, but it is likely that the ‘temple’ was one of the abandoned piers or other modern constructions often found in the shallow areas of the lake.”

Although the stories of underwater cities appear to be unfounded, Reinhard writes that since 1977 a number of underwater expeditions (both sanctioned and illegal) have located a variety of artifacts including stone boxes, pottery, and figurines of both Tiwanaku and Incan origin, some of them made of gold or silver.  Through email correspondence with Dr. Reinhard, I learned that unfortunately, over the years Museo del Oro was victimized by burglaries and at least some of the precious underwater artifacts (apparently including the gold ones that gave the museum its name) were stolen.

13 Challapampa
Beach on the north side of Challapampa with the trail to the Sanctuary visible on the right side of the picture behind the boats.

Leaving the museum, we walked along the bay on the north side of Challapampa.  The bay was quite shallow and the lake water remarkably clear, something we hadn’t really noticed in the deeper harbor of Copacabana.

14 Clear water
Crystal clear water

Juan led us to a trail covered in stone that headed uphill.

15 Trail to the Ruins
Beginning of the trail to the archaeological site

Looking back, we could see the Kalabaya Peninsula against the backdrop of the Cordillera Real.

16 View Back
Kalabaya Peninsula on the left with the Cordillera Real in the background

As the trail ascended into the hills, we got our first close-up look at the agricultural terraces that cover hillsides on much of Isla del Sol and the rest of the Lake Titicaca Basin.  As I understand it, terracing existed on Isla del Sol for a long time prior to the arrival of the Inca, but they continued the development of agriculture there.  Bauer and Stanish write: “The Inca considered the maize that grew on the Island of Titicaca [another name for Isla del Sol], the birthplace of the Sun, to be special.”

17 Terraces
Closer view of terraces
18 Lake and Reeds
View from the hillside trail. Note the offshore vegetation; totora reeds that grow in the lake are used to build boats, even “floating islands”.
20 Farming
A farmer tilling a terraced field by hand.

Although most of the terraces we’d seen thus far around Lake Titicaca appeared abandoned, some trailside terraces in this area were still being cultivated.  A farmer was tilling a field with a hand tool much like his forbearers who, as Clark L. Erickson points out, built the terraces with neither advanced tools nor draft animals.  Unfortunately, the future of terraced agriculture is in doubt.  In The Lake Titicaca Basin: A Pre-Columbian Built Landscape, Erickson writes:

“Pre[-C]olumbian] terraces are used by contemporary farmers, but little effort is devoted to their maintenance. Most terraces are in a poor state of preservation, and many walls have been removed to enlarge the fields. With the exception of a few rural development projects, new terraces are not being constructed.”

In his book Raised Field Technology: The Raised Fields Projects around Lake Titicaca, Arthur Morris writes, “Terraces themselves are almost a lost technology” and laments that, “Today, the massive abandonment of terraces is leading to the breakdown of the system, and particularly to the increase in soil erosion which will eventually destroy the terraces themselves.”

21 Hillside

We slowly continued towards the Sanctuary.  Even though he was wearing what looked like dress shoes, Juan walked rather quickly on the trail.  There’s a real advantage in being fully acclimated to the altitude!  Unfortunately, he stopped many times to talk about the sights.  That would have been fine (this was a tour, after all) except for two things.  First, he was giving the talk in Spanish.  Rachel hates history and was befuddled by the plethora of unfamiliar names, so she soon lost interest in translating for me!  More importantly, he was taking far longer than the 50 minutes he’d promised.

Though the tour was supposed to be finished by 11:30am, we didn’t even arrive at Sanctuary until 12:15pm.  Rachel and I began to debate whether we should leave the tour early, just as it was getting to one of the most important sights on the island!  We’d soon face a tough choice about whether we had enough time to hike overland from the Sanctuary to Yumani before our boat departed at 3:30pm.

The trail with the Sanctuary area visible in the distance

 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


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