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Isla del Sol will go down in history (of the travels of Sandeepa and Chetan, of course!) as the first time we got stranded. Stuck on an island in the middle of a lake. Without any phones or internet. Without any means to get to the mainland.
We had chosen this island, Isla del Sol (translated to the island of the Sun) as our last destination in Bolivia. It is the biggest island on the high altitude Lake Titicaca. It sounded like a perfect combination. Tso Moriri, the high altitude lake in the Himalayas had left us spellbound. We have forever drooled over images of the famous Andaman islands in India, even researched some Andaman tour packages and had fallen in love with island life on Ilha Grande. Naturally, we knew we had to visit Isla del Sol.
“Oh yeah, that’s the real Copacabana”
The route to Isla del Sol passes through the Copacabana. Except that it’s hardly ever called Copacabana! Everyone told us, “this is the real Copacabana”. We heard the word real enough times to actually suspect the reality of it all.
Thankfully, the white washed basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana stands as proof of the originality of this Copacabana. The famous Copacabana of Rio de Janeiro is named after this Copacabana of Bolivia.
Depending on your mental state while visiting Copacabana, it either feels like a “cute little town” or a “tourist infested marketplace”. Rows of shops selling sweaters, caps and gloves with the omnipresent lama designs are everywhere. Each restaurant advertises free wifi, grilled trout and coca leaf tea.
Tip: The wharf is one street down from where the bus drops you off at Copacabana. From here you can buy your tickets on a ferry to Isla del Sol.
We didn’t feel enough reason holding us back in Copacabana. We booked our seats in the next ferry out to Isla del Sol.
Isla del Sol, Yumani and Challapampa or south and north
These are the decisions we had to make before we got our tickets for Isla del Sol. Yumani, the settlement on the southern side was the closest port. We decided to spend a couple of nights on the island, using Yumani as our starting point.
You can do a one day trip of Isla del Sol and buy a ticket accordingly, at the ticket counter on the wharf.
It is a slow and steady 1.5 to 2 hour journey to the Yumani port. Small islands, blue water and the blue sky, best enjoyed from the upper deck of the ferry.
After a couple of hours, the guy in the boat announced we had reached the port of Yumani. We got our bags, which we had left inside the boat. And noticed something strange. Everyone else was carrying just small day packs. We had spoken to a few of them, so we knew for a fact that they were also staying back on Isla del Sol. We wondered where and why they had left their bags.
Even before we had got off the ramp at the Yumani port, an old lady, carrying a booklet of receipts approached us. We had to buy a ticket to get on Isla del Sol. This would be valid all through our stay on the island, she told us. Entry tickets bought, we started walking towards the settlement of Yumani, and the reason for everyone’s smaller bags became clear.
There were around 200 steps that we had to climb, to get to any hotels. Now 200 doesn’t sound like much (even with the big sacks on the back, it sounds reasonable). But high altitude is a game changer and Lake Titicaca is nearly 3800 meters (almost 12,500 feet!) above sea level. At these altitudes, just is not a word we would attach to 200 steps.
We resisted the temptation of just putting in our bags at the first accommodation available. Our aim was to get to the top of the island and stay there for a couple of nights, so we could enjoy both the sunrise and the sunset from either sides of Isla del Sol. But after a few bouts of huffing and panting and feeling like our chest were going to explode, we decided sunrises and sunsets were grossly overrated (yes, altitude does this to a thinking mind!).
A little guy had been following us asking us “habitaciones?” (rooms?). We decided to stay somewhere at the mid-way elevation of Isla del Sol. The view even at this height didn’t give us much to complain about.
Glimpse of life on Isla del Sol
Yumani, we realised was a pretty important port for the people living on Isla del Sol. Some boats from Copacabana are filled with tourists coming to the island. Others, the ones that the locals take are loaded with cargo. The families living on teh island buy most of their supplies from Copacabana.
Interestingly, most of the unloading and transportation is done exclusively by women. We didn’t see any men getting off boats with the wares bought from Copacabana. Neither were they waiting with the donkeys to take this stuff up.
Tourism is a major source of income on the island, besides some terraced farming. Most families have built guest houses around their house for tourists. Some have opened shops, some restaurants. Walking around the settlement of Yumani, women selling handicrafts were seated all along the steps going to the top.
Thankfully, we were carrying torches, the first night we stepped out for dinner. There is no street lighting on the island. Except for the dim light peeking out of the hotels and guest houses, it gets pitch dark. So much so, that on our first night there, we lost our way. We realised we were lost, when instead of reaching our guest house, we reached the waterfront!
We hadn’t even bothered asking the name of our guest house – not that there was anybody around to ask. We only had our perplexed sense of direction to find our way back.
The walk across Isla del Sol from Yumani to Challapampa
The main reason we had decided to stay on Isla del Sol (and not do just a day tour) was the walk that one can do from one end of the island to the other. On our second morning, we decided to do this walk across the island from the south to the north.
The morning rains got us worried, but we were assured that it wouldn’t rain much, once the sun was up. For sure, each morning, it would drizzle, with no signs of rain or clouds the rest of the day.
After a miserly breakfast that we had in our guest house, we started the walk up the island.
It is an exhausting rocky climb to the top of the island. But once we got to the top if Isla del Sol, the walk was mostly through a flat terrain. The houses and the village itself ended soon after we got to the top.
Incan ruins at Challapampa, the northern end of Isla del Sol
Down here at the Challapampa end, we could see the white sand beaches formed by the lake Titicaca. We stood there hypnotised by the clear emerald-turquoise waters of lake Titicaca, taking in this strange beautiful paradox of a high altitude beach!
We wanted to take the boat to get back to Yumani. Walking through the Challapampa settlement to get to the port here, we realised there were many places to stay on this end as well. And reaching them didn’t involve climbing up 200 steps.
Stranded on Isla del Sol
We had heard stories of the mind blowing, sky on fire sunsets on Isla del Sol. The evenings on the island during our stay however, had been cloudy and dark. You win some, you lose some we had said, as we had missed our chance of seeing the spectacular sunsets Isla del Sol was famous for.
As we packed our bags to take the boat back to Copacabana, the owner of our guest house asked us if we were getting ready to leave.
No one here had so far bothered having any conversation with us. The only talk we had had with them was, “Will you stay another night?” “Yes.” “You will have to pay immediately.” The end.
So this seemingly warm question of our further plans took us by surprise. We told him we wanted to get back to Copacabana as early as we could, to travel further ahead to Peru.
“Impossible” he told us, smiling through his gold laced teeth. Huh? We asked, confused. He then went on to explain in a Spanish-English mix of words that there were elections in Bolivia and all commercial activity was closed for the day. Voting was compulsory in Bolivia, and no one was allowed to give a reason of “work”!
We knew elections were impending in Bolivia, but hadn’t remembered the exact date. But this family sure must have remembered! They knew of our plans to leave, and yet, the previous day, not one person had bothered to let us know.
Thankfully, we travel with no fixed plans! We hadn’t booked any further tickets. Only, our plan to change countries would be postponed. Eventually that morning, many complained about bus tickets ahead to Cusco, even worse – flights from La Paz!
The people on the island made arrangements for an overcharged “private taxi boat” to take them to a port call Yampupata. Yampu Pata is connected to Copacabana by road, but we would be at the mercy of people there to take us to Copacabana.
Final sunset on Isla del Sol…and Bolivia
Not wanting to take that risk, we decided to stay back another night. That evening, as we climbed up to the top again for our definitive last sunset of Isla del Sol – and Bolivia. The snow on the mountains far off was turning a golden pink. As we turned around, we saw the village of Yumani was bathed in a golden glow.
Had we been made to stay by some incomprehensible force, so all our wishes would we fulfilled as said our goodbyes? As we bid farewell to the sun on his own island, the Isla del Sol, we knew we had to come back to figure this out!
Top tips for traveling to Isla del Sol, the island on lake Titicaca
- The real experience of the island is felt only by spending at least a night on Isla del Sol
- Day trips to Isla del Sol are available from Copacabana. We know people who have done these, they liked the island, but didn’t find it anything special. We do not recommend a day trip to Isla Del Sol.
- Yumani, the southern end of Isla del Sol has more stay and food options. Challapampa, the northern end has more things to see, and a beach. Stay options on Challapampa are slightly cheaper than Yumani.
- The grilled trout is a must have on Isla del Sol.
- The weather is always towards the cooler side on Isla del Sol. Especially once the sun sets. It also gets quite windy in the evenings. Warm clothing is a must.
- Carry a torch when stepping out. There is no “street lighting” on Isla del Sol.
- The entire island of Isla del Sol is a high altitude region, take the precautions necessary to avoid altitude sickness. If you feel unwell, rest indoors. Do not stay long on the island. Walk slowly and cautiously. Drink lots of water (or coca tea).
- Isla del Sol is a half day journey from La Paz in Bolivia and Puno in Peru. From Cusco, it is an overnight journey.