Twelfth in a series about Bolivia
Around 12:45pm Juan wrapped up his tour of the Sanctuary at the north end of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), Bolivia. Rachel and I now had to decide whether to head by boat to Yumani (located on the south side of the island) or take the riskier approach of hiking there instead. If we decided on the latter, we absolutely had to be in Yumani by 3:30pm when our boat departed for the mainland.
I was concerned that we simply did not have time to hike the length of the island, even though it had been a major reason for our visit in the first place. The map of Isla del Sol from our hotel estimated that the hike would take two and a half or three hours. We’d be hiking at altitudes of up to 4,000 meters (13,123′) and were still not fully acclimated to the thinner air.
Juan, however, said it would be fine. He assured us that the hike could be done in two hours at a leisurely pace. Perhaps we should have questioned the estimate of someone whose “50-minute tour” had taken two hours. At any rate, we were glad to be free of the tour group and able to hike at our own pace. We began the steep climb from the Sanctuary into the hills that make up the backbone of Isla del Sol.
The beginning of the trail passes Murokata, a rock that may have been sacred to the pre-Incan people known as the Tiwanaku. To recap briefly from my article on the Sacred Rock Titikala, the Tiwanaku empire controlled Isla del Sol from about the 7th century until its collapse circa the 12th century. When the Inca arrived sometime in the 15th century, they demolished what was left of the Tiwanaku shrine now known as Chucaripupata located near the Incan Sanctuary.
In his book, Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science, Charles Stanish describes this other sacred rock in greater detail:
“Murokata is a large rocky crag […] that is similar to the Titikala rock in appearance. It dominates the landscape of the entire area and towers above Chucaripupata. […] The location of Chucaripupata relative to the Murokata rock is similar to the location of the Inca temple relative to the Sacred Rock. I believe that the Murokata rock was the Sacred Rock of the Tiwanaku peoples and that it functioned like the Titikala for the Inca. […] It is also significant that the Murokata is actually higher than the Tikikala. We can speculate that the Tiwanaku peoples first adopted the Murokata as their sacred huaca and that the Inca peoples came in and chose the nearby Titikala for similar reasons.”
(I’ve mentioned this previously, but Stanish explains that “Huacas are a peculiarly Andean concept; a material object or natural place represents the soul or ‘vitality’ of a people.”)
The trail was stone in some places and dirt in others. There were often rocks lining the edges. I was impressed with the trail’s excellent overall condition. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the trail was actually a restored Inca road. The Inca road itself was probably built overtop a preexisting ancient road. Since the Inca didn’t use wheeled transport, their roads were often rather narrow by modern standards. Incan pilgrims would have walked this same road in order to reach the Sanctuary (after initially landing at the south end of the island closer to Pilco Kayma and Yumani).
The trail had plenty of ups and downs throughout its entire length. Frequently we’d get to the top of the hill only to see a taller hill on the other side of a brief dip. Of course, the hike was tame by Inca Trail standards.
Periodically, there were kiosks selling water (and probably food), no doubt lugged up there by pack or pack animal since there are no vehicles on the island. We tried to hike as quickly as possible, but of course the island’s rugged beauty made it impossible not to stop at least long enough to snap some photos.
Once we reached some altitude, we had exceptional views of not only the island, but the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Real laying to the east across the waters of Lake Titicaca. They’d been backlit in the morning when we’d arrived, but with the Sun’s movement to the west, they were now in their full splendor.
Around 1:30pm we came to a cairn field against the backdrop of the Cordillera Real. I was quite curious about them, but they were not discussed in my guidebook nor in the Bauer and Stanish books I’ve read. I recently contacted archaeologist Johan Reinhard in regard to his work retrieving artifacts from beneath the waters of Lake Titicaca and queried him about the cairns as well. After looking at the above photo, Dr. Reinhard wrote that the cairns “look fairly recent and were most likely made by locals as part of rituals for fertility to the mountain deities, the lake, and, to a lesser extent, Pachamama (the Earth Mother).”
He mentioned that such cairns may be seen elsewhere in the Andes and that they are “called apachetas in some areas”. José Berenguer, in his essay “The Inka in Chile” from The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire elaborates: “Travelers frequently stopped to leave stones or other tokens at apachetas (offering places) to give thanks for a safe journey.”
Just after 1:45pm we came across a checkpoint where we paid a 15 Boliviano (about $2.15) fee. The money is supposed to go to community projects like schools. A map at the checkpoint alarmed us. It had taken us an hour to cover the segment that was labeled as taking 50 minutes. The remaining segment to Yumani was labeled as taking two more hours, but our boat was scheduled to depart in only one hour and 45 minutes! Juan’s assurance that the entire hike was only two hours was simply not accurate. (Rachel says that in Latin American culture, it can be polite to tell people what they want to hear.)
From this point on, we booked it at as fast a pace as we could manage. I barely took any photos, and some of the handful I did take were basically snap shots taken in mid-stride! We lost a few minutes when I had a flareup of the traveler’s diarrhea that had dogged me since La Paz. I had no choice but to duck behind a rock just off the trail. Rachel—being seasoned backcountry hiker who possessed a gut of steel ever since she recovered from a bout of salmonella in Mexico—was amused by my plight. Ironically, about fifteen minutes later we reached an isolated settlement that had a public toilet available for a 2 Boliviano fee. Featuring running water and soap, it was just about the best 2 Bolivanios I ever spent.
We were relieved when we arrived on the outskirts of Yumani around 3:10pm. A man collected a 5 Boliviano fee to enter the town. It was certainly odd to pay to enter the town, but I couldn’t really begrudge them too much. It was a small amount and day trippers like us wouldn’t really be supporting the local economy with food or lodging purchases since we had so little time there.
Our relief at reaching Yumani turned to panic when we realized that the edge of town was at the top of a hill towering a good 200 m (656′) above the water. The way down to the harbor wasn’t clear either. We asked directions several times as we descended a maze of roads that ran sideways relative to the shore as much as they did up/down. We also couldn’t go too fast since the roads were fairly crowded. As time drew closer and closer to 3:30pm, I had visions of being marooned on the island. Finally, in the home stretch, I spotted the Andes Amazonia boat in the harbor. As we descended the last two switchbacks, I could see the pilot (Helmsman? Coxswain? What is the proper term for a small boat operator anyway?) fueling the twin outboard motors.
We finally got off the hill and broke into a run at the waterfront. When we reached the boat, it was 3:35pm, five minutes after our scheduled departure! The pilot nonchalantly checked our names off his roster. He didn’t seem to be in any great hurry, and we weren’t even the last passengers to arrive. The boat didn’t actually get underway until 3:45pm. A pleasant boat ride back to Copacabana brought our adventure to a close.
I regretted not having time to use Yumani’s Incan staircase. (Little did I know that by the end of the Inca Trail we’d have experienced enough Incan steps to last a lifetime!) Visiting the ruins at Pilco Kayma and the Incan fountain was out of the question too.
The hike took a total of two hours, fifty minutes…just like the maps suggested. Without the detrimental effects of altitude or travelers diarrhea, we probably could have hiked the trail in about two and a half hours. I’m sure some of those European power-hikers out there have done it quicker, but two hours would be pushing it for just about anyone else. For prospective visitors to Isla del Sol, allow me to give the following advice:
- Consider staying overnight on Isla del Sol in order to see all that it has to offer. The boats from Copacabana are so slow and doing a roundtrip journey in a single day leaves you precious little time on the island.
- Unless you’re an ultra-marathoner, your safest bet is to allow 3 hours, 30 minutes to hike from the Sanctuary to Yumani if you have a boat to catch.
- Especially if you are just doing a day trip, use caution hiring a local guide. I can only speak of our experience, but we found that joining a tour cost us valuable time and frankly didn’t provide us with very much accurate information. It’s not terribly difficult to find your way from Challapampa to the Sanctuary anyway.
Date: Saturday, August 15, 2015
Distance: About 8.8 km or 5.5 miles (total about 11.5 km or 7 miles including hike from Challapampa to the Sanctuary)
Duration: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Total fees: 30 Bolivanos (about $4.30)
Series on Bolivia
Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)
Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia