Sunburnt on Isla del Sol

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wel,, we said good-bye to Peru on a high! What better way to end our time there than walking the Inca Trail!

After an excellent (and dry) night´s sleep back in Cusco, we hopped onto a bus to Puno early on the morning of Monday 16 January. We planned to head straight over to Bolivia, so in Puno we hopped onto a local bus to the frontier town of Yunguyo. Phew, we just made it over the border in time! The Bolivian border post closes at 6.30pm - we arrived in Yunguyo at 6pm and then caught a tricycle taxi for the 3km or so to the border... the poor man pushed the trike uphill, with Rich jogging ahead. We got to the Peruvian border post at about 6.25pm and crept over to the Bolivian side just as they were closing the doors of the immigration office!

So by nightfall we were in Copacabana, a charming little town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Another good night´s sleep at the well-priced yet posh (by backpacker standards) Ambassador Hotel saw us totally rested the next morning, and ready to explore the lake and one of its best-known islands. At 8.30am on Tuesday morning we caught a boat to Isla del Sol, where we planned to spend one night.

At an altitude of 3,811m, Lake Titicaca is highest navigable lake in the world, and with a surface area of 3,305 square miles it is a veritable inland sea. Grey clouds hung above as we slowly cruised over to Isla del Sol, but by the time we landed, the had come out to reveal the vivid blue colour of the water. We found a little eatery with a view and sat down to a belated breakfast, before setting off on a hike across the island, to its northern end.

The weather steadily improved as we walked; soon we blue skies overhead and panoramic views unfolding all around us. The snowcapped peaks of the Cordillera Real shimmered in the distance. We found the clarity and colour of the light absolutely astonishing - apparently it has something to do with the altitude - and the contrast between the subtle greens and reds of the land and the startling blue of the lake was truly breath-taking.

Isla del Sol is quite a hilly island, and its slopes are covered in cultivated terraces that date from Inca times. Small villages dot the shoreline. The people here still lead a traditional rural life, working their potato, maize and sweet-potato fields. Despite the influx of tourists, parts of the island still feel unspoilt (the masses stick to the southern end of the island, where the boats arrive and depart).

The walk across the island took us around two an a half hours. The sun blazed down as we hiked - I covered my nose and cheeks in factor 25 lip balm in a desperate bid to ward off sunburn... we´d stupidly left our sun lotion behind in Copacabana! About halfway across the island we reached a sort of toll booth in the footpath, and were charged 10 bolivianos (about US$ 1.25) each to continue. The chap assured us that it included entrance to the archeological sights on the north side, so we paid up without complaining.

At the northern end of the island is the Roca Sagrada, or Sacred Rock, mythical birthplace of the Inca nation. According to the Inca creation myth, Viracocha the Creator made the world at Lake Titicaca, and the first (Inca) people, Manco Kapac and his sister and wife Mama Ocllo, were born from the Sacred Rock on Isla del Sol. From there the nation spread to the Cusco and the Andean regions of modern-day Peru and Bolivia.

We arrived at the northern end, and looked around for the Rock. What we found was a marvellous stone table, a sort of altar, surrounded by 12 smaller cube-shaped rocks, like little seats. Nearby are the Chincana ruins, which overlook the lake. As we sat waiting for the sun to set (the site has a super westerly aspect) a local boy of about 10 or so came over and offered to tell us more about the Roca Sagrada and the ruins. We gave the little would-be tour guide a chance - turns out he was pretty knowledgeable!

He explained that the table-like slab of stone with 12 'seats' is in fact an ancient Inca astronomical calendar. He pointed out the Roca Sagrada itself (it's pretty inconspicuous so we'd overlooked it earlier in the afternoon) and showed us other interesting features of the site (all in Spanish, but we got the gist). We were impressed with the little fellow and gave him a few bolivianos for his effort!

We spent the night in a nearby village on the shores of the lake, called Challapampa. The path from the archeological site covered in small purple flowers - very quaint. The village itself was quiet that evening, though there were a few other backpackers around. We had a lovely meal of Pejerry, a lake fish, in a very rustic restaurant with no other clients, and hopped into bed early with our books (PS to other travellers: our acccommodation at Posada Manco Kapac on the shorefront was clean, comfortable and well priced).

The next morning, on Wednesday, we woke up to a bit of drizzle. We set off back to the south side of the island along a different path, this time following the shoreline and passing through several villages along the way. At Challa we visited the small museum (included in our 10 bolivianos ticket) with interesting but neglected displays of traditional dance costumes and ceramics. A bit sad to see, really... someone had obviously gone to quite a lot of trouble collecting, displaying and interpreting the artefacts, but the current 'curators' aren't taking much interest in caring for the collection.

The weather improved on our walk back and again we enjoyed the most magnificent views of terraced fields and adobe huts set against the crystal blue waters of the lake. By 1pm we arrived on the south side, totally starved! We settled down at another small restaurant with a panoramic view for a yummy lunch of extremely fresh trout, which the cook bought from two lads while we watched (the trout here is farmed, but very good).

We caught the boat back to Copacabana at 4pm in the afternoon... the weather remained good and we drank in the magnificent views around us for one last time. By now we were both pretty sunburnt, but thoroughly relaxed. The island had been both a wonderful insight into the rural lifestyle of the region's Aymara people, and a good place to simply chill out and enjoy the unique beauty of the lake.

Upon arriving back in Copacabana, we took a stroll through town, looked at the lovely Cathedral and returned to the Hotel Ambassador for a marvellous hot shower. In the evening, we bumped into our Swiss friend Guillaume in the street... we always seem to meet up totally coincidentally! It was late and not many restuarants were still serving food, so we ended up in a place called Kala Uta, which is actually recommended in the guidebooks.

Well, what a disaster... we waited about 45 minutes for our beers and over two hours for our food! The waiter was the most lazy, dopey guy ever - whenever we asked him about the progress of our meal, he'd just grin stupidly. Strangely, the place was full of travellers... probably because it's listed in the guidebooks. In the end some French guys went into the kitchen and made their own meals! When ours finally appeared, they were cold and very disappointing, esp. considering the price. So beware, fellow travellers, avoid Kala Uta in Copacabana!

On Thursday morning we hopped aboard a bus to Copacabana. About an hour into the journey, we reached the narrowest point in the lake, and here we crossed by ferry. Us passengers were herded onto a rather unseaworthy-looking wooden motor boat while our bus was loaded onto a small raft that looked totally incapable of carrying the weight! A rather amusing sight. And here's another interesting observation we made: the Bolivian Navy is based on Lake Titicaca (the country is land-locked). Outside its base, while we were waiting for the ferry, we spotted a large bill-board with the following in Spanish and English: "Bolivia demands from the world its right to access to the ocean". Bolivia lost its coastline in a series of wars, and it's still very much a sore point, as well as a hindrance to economic development.

We arrived in La Paz about 1pm in the afternoon on Thursday 19 January. After a four-hour ride over the high Altiplano and through the bustling new city of El Alto, we dropped down into the dramatic canyon in which Bolivia's high-altitude (3,640m) capital is situated. Tucked into this 'bowl', the city has many steep and winding backstreets. During the day, the entire city centre turns into one big street market as thousands upon thousands of vendors display goods of all kinds. In the afternoon, we wandered through these interesting streets and went in search of our next adventure... the world's most exhiliarating downhill bike ride!
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