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Isla del Sol - Sun Island

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After our hiking tour to the place Sampaya and a 30 minutes-boat trip we get to our day destination nearby Pilkokaina, the Isla del Sol - the famous sun island in the Titicaca Lake. Normally, most of the tourists get here with some chartered boats straight from Copacabana, there are enough providers for such tours in this place and the prices are between five and ten euros. Two times a day there are also some public passenger and transport boats sailing to the island; What is highly recommendable is an excursion at least for a whole day but better a two-days stay the way we planned it, two days with an overnight stay on the island in order to make an extensive hiking tour through the island that is cultural-historically and scenically very interesting.

Map of Bolivia; click to enlarge View from the sun island back to the mainland in direction to Copacabana

The Isla del Sol is located at approximately 20 kilometres at the north of Copacabana, so to say as an extension of the big peninsula that is located between the Chucuito- and the Winaymarka lake. It is almost 10 kilometres long and maximal six kilometres wide, its longitudinal axis goes from northwest to southeast and the coastal area is marked by many bays and numerous small peninsulas. There are several settlements there with a total of approximately 3000 inhabitants and today, many of them live from the tourism and only a few from the agriculture and thwe fishing. There are countless ruin complexes and temples from the Inca era in the island, as according to the legend, it is supposed to be the origin of the Inca empire. But later, we will have a deeper look into what it is all about when we make our hiking tour through the island.

Ecolodge La Estancia

Thus, nearby Pilkokaina at the southeast of the island we go ashore with all our baggage and some men with some packing animals are already waiting for us in order to take over our staffed rucksacks and travel bags. Up to our accommodation for the next two nights, there is still a one hour walk which is very tough at the beginning! Within the first 20 minutes, we have to walk up some very steep stairs for about some 100 altitude metres which really made us breath harder and we are happy not to have to carry our luggage. But as a reward, the first Inca ruin complex is waiting for us, the multi-storey palace Pilkokaina, built by the Inca Tupac Yupanki by 1480. It is fascinating how exact the stones were carved and precisely stacked one on top of the other and completely without any mortar for the consolidation and the stabilization. From the windows we look far beyond the lake up to the Cordillera Real, apparently, also the Incas already has a faible for a dream view!

At the temple of Pilkokaina with a view from Illampu and Ancohuma Who is pulling whom? Small Bolivian boy with a lama

From the palace, a relativly even path that is approximately 100 metres above the sea level leads us through some terrace complexes for the agriculture, low bushes, passing a herd of sheeps up to a place where we can look down to the boat mooring point of Escalera del Inca that is deeply underneath us. There, at the harbour, are almost all kinds of ships anchor that traffic on the Titicaca lake , from the simple reeds and wood ship to normal passenger boats up to most modern hydrofoils, everything is offered here, funny to look at. But we even laugh more when a small boy of about three years approached us with a lama on the leash, whereby it appears that the animal that is more than two times bigger than the boy and obviously stubborn rather pulls the boy than the way around. Visibly exhilarated by this encounter, we easily make the last metres of our way up to shortly before the place Yumani, where at the left, a little off the main path, we get to our day destination, the Ecolodge La Estancia.

Some colourful flowers grow in the small gardens The Ecolodge La Estancia with its main building. At the left, beside the door, there is a small guest house with a solar complex visible.

Over some long stairs, we get to the spacious hotel complex that consists on many small houses and a main building that, spread on several different terrace levels, nestle alongside the hillside. In the Ecolodge La Estancia,, numerous inhabitants of the sun island joined together with the objective to offer a comfortable accommodation to demanding tourists, but under the aspect of an ecological and a nature frinedly management. This means, amongst other things, that the guests will be mainly provided with the food produced in the island, the waste water is restored by means of a biological sewage plant and the guest rooms are heated with a simple but very effective solar system. By this way, it is, for example, expected that the guests handle the water in the bath carefully, as every litre of it is laboriously carried up fom the lake. The buildings are built in traditional style and the roofs are covered with straw, so that they perfectly match into the landscape. Despite of the dry period, one repeatedely finds some areas over the whole complex with some dapper plantings in which some colourful flowers grow and highly contribute to the well being of the guests.

View from our small house over the Titicaca lake to the moon island and to the Cordillera Real

In the main building, our luggage is waiting for us and we are assignated two by two to the small houses. By opening the door, we are visibly surprised, as in the room that is flooded with light there are two huge beds with some nice colourful bed linen, one of those would be already a double bed and on the walls, some real designer lamps made of wood were hanging and the view from the window to the Titicaca lake and the ice giants is simply not to beat; After the strains of the day, me and my room partner Wolfgang enjoy a cold shower and relax a little until after some time we are called for dinner. Therefore, we have to climb up numerous stairs to the main building but meanwhile, we are well acclimatized and we are also driven by hunger. In the main building, a festive decorated table is waiting for us, there is a vegetable soup, fresh caught fish with sweet potatoes and salad and as a dessert, recently made strawberry ice cream. And of course, in addition to that a chilled cerveza (beer). There is a sitting area in the foyer with an open fireplace, that is very inviting to stay there for a while after dinner. But to some of us, the day task of movement seems not to be enough and they decide to make a short evening hiking tour on the Cerro Palla Khasa, and due to the reason that this is again a "peak" of 4000m, I join.

A young Bolivian girl with a colourful coat.

From the Ecolodge we follow a hardly visible path through the bushes and pass some eucalyptus trees until we reach the highest point after the last metres over scree and rock blocks. From there, we have a gorgeus view over the whole sun island, over to the mainland at Copacabana, over the endless seeming wideness of the Chucuito lake and the Cordillera Real, that currently shines under the light of the evening sunset. A place to relax, to get recovered and to let one's soul free, thus purely holiday. But once we arrived up here, there are already numerous childs bustling around wanting to sell us some small things and self made toys or posing for being photographed, of course, for a boliviano as small obelus! We watch the increasingly setting sun until it disappears at the horizon as a red fireball. Soon, it gets quite cold and the continuously blowing wind make us frost, so that we soon start our way back to the ecolodge where we arrive shortly before it gets dark and where we let the day end in the sitting area in front of the warming fire place with a glass of red wine.

Hiking tour through the legendary island

When I wake up in the next morning it is still dark outside, but a bright yellow strip at the horizon above the Cordillera Real already makes one guess the beginning of a new day. I rapidly set up my tripod and my camera expecting a dream sunrise. After some time waiting in the morning cold the time comes, exactly behind the 6427m heighted Ancohuma, there are some massive gleams visible caused by the breaking of the sun light and shortly afterwards the sun radiates the landscape around me with a warming light. I rapidly make some photographies and we are already called for breakfast. This breakfast is very rich as usual so that we can start our hiking tour througfh the island being well nourished.

Sunrise over the Nevado Ancohuma A well arranged path leads over the island.

At the beginning, we walk a few hundred meters back in direction to Pikokaina up to the point where one can see the harbour of Escalera del Inca; Now we leave the main path and turn to the right and hike through the terrace complexes in a slight up and down in direction to the northeast up to a settlement of four houses. Here, we are stopped by two men and Erich pays a kind of toll to be allowed to continue walking. Erich explains that this is usual in order to pay the maintenance of the paths and the ruin complexes of the island. We convince ourselves that it is really like that, as the path that leads us afterwards over some mountain ridges is more than 2 metres wide, covered with some fine pebbles and bordered at the sides by some pilled up stones.

Fascinated, our eyes repeatedely wander over the deep blue sea, here and there there is a small unpopulated island visible, some fair-weather clouds pass by in the sky and at the edge of the path some cacti grow from the quite stony and barren ground. From the sea, a fresh wind blows up, but due to the strong sun radiation the temperatures are pleasant despite of the altitude of 4000m.

Rest at the place where once Wiracocha is supposed to have given the gold bar to his children.

After a two hours walk we get to an even place in which there are some cuboid shaped stone blocks are arranged around a stone table, thus an optimal place to rest for us. While we recover, Erich explains what it is about this place and the Puma rock that is nearby according to the legend. By this way, once the creator god of the Incas, Wiracocha, honoured his two children Manco Capac and Ocllo Huaca exactly at this place, gave them a golden bar and said to them: "Go whereever you want to go and when you stop in order to eat and to drink, hit this bar into the earth. If it sticks in it, settle down there and rule the population with fairness, reason, patience, love and mildness." Thus, both children started their way and came close to the Cuzco of today where they hit the bar into the earth and therewith established the Inca Empire, and Manco Capac became the fist ruler of the new Empire.

A dream bay with cristal clear water makes one get a holiday feeling The labyrinth of Chincana, once an important ceremonial centre

Erich also shows us the Puma rock at the front, the "Titicaca" after which one the island and later also the lake was named, as the island got the name sun island not before the Incas nominated it as a holly place where it was paid homage to the sun god Inti and could only be accessed by the nobles. Moreover, Erich tells us from the legendary gold treasure of the sun island, that the temple guards supposedely sank into the lake after then arrival of the Spaniards, but that until today, despite of several underwater expeditions, there among also one of Jean-Jaques Cousteau, could not be refound. I am deeply impressed by the stories about the island and even feel some humble to be in such a holy place. Shortly after our break we arrive to the ruin complex of Chincana, a cave-like labyrinth, once the highest rituals were accomplished by Inca the rules of the Empire.

Unfortunately, still today, only the basic walls of the complex that once were completely cladded with gold plates, are visible. But it is still easily possible to get lost there, as myself did when I wanted to have a closer look to the labyrinth. Fortunately, I soon find the way out, as my group is already waiting for me. From now on, the way is only downhill to a small dream bay with cristal clear water where there is already a ship waiting for us to take us back to the Ecolodge. We rest a little during the boat trip as soon, a steep and exhausting upclimb will come from the lake to the hotel complex and additionally at the midday heat. But to our motivation, a traditionally prepared meal, a huatia, is waiting for us. Whatever this may be, we wait to be surprised!

The Huatia - A traditional cooking method

After the boat took us to the land again, we laboriously and sweaty climb up countless stairs passing some wildly growing and huge cacti and some small farms approaching our well deserved lunch. Soaking wet, we arrive at our small hats, have a small shower and are already called for having lunch.

Underneath these stones some food is supposed to be? The huatia, a traditional cooking method in which the food is cooked in an earth hole.

In front of the main building, a big table is already arranged and on a side table there are different salads arranged ready to be eaten. I wonder if this is all, as I will not be staffed by merely a salad. I ask Erich who explains the food is still underneath the earth. Under the earth? He leads us to a small steaming heap of earth where there are already some women standing around and start shortly afterwards to remove the heap slowly. Soon, some slightly burned baked bricks appear, but there is still nothing eatable visible.

Lunch in front of a dream coulisse

After removing the baked bricks and some layers of cardbox, I finally see something that appears to be eatable: Some quite burned bananas wrapped in aluminium foil, not very appetizing. But now, layer by layer, there is steaming food taken from the increasingly deeper getting earth hole, different kinds of potatoes and vegetables, additionally pork, beef and chicken meat. Now I get an idea what the principle of the food preparation of the traditional huatia is about. First, a hole is digged into the earth, than some stones heated on fire are put in, then the food that is wrapped in aluminium foil, in former times leaves, is piled up, thereabove again some hot stones and finally covered with earth and isolated. By this way, the heat cannot go away and everything cooks for approximately two or three hours up to the time it is served. The young women take the recently cooked food in some metal jars to the side table and nicely arrange it beside the salads, a real festive buffet! And additionally, a place at a height of almost 4000m that cannot be more beautiful, with a view to the Titicaca lake, to the Cordillera Real, to the Altiplano, simply a dream, whereby a cool cerveza is never missed.

Saying good bye to the sun island

After this nice tasting and also very abundant meal that after which we felt a little tired, me and the rest of the group retire to have a small midday nap into our hats, where it is pleasantly fresh, as after some time being exposed to the strong sun radiation at the open air, it gets really hot.

At a distance of 180 kilometer, the Illimani shines in the evening light.

By this way, I doze around nearly the whole afternoon through until somebody knocks at my door. It is Viola, she wants to have another small hiking tour around the Cerro Palla Khasa. I of course say yes, some exercise would not be bad, and maybe the evening sun offers some impressive motifs to photograph. I quickly pack my photo equipment and we can start. Meanwhile, the air cooled down to a pleasant temperature, and we walk pathless through the bush all around the mountain, meet some sheeps and lamas, until we finally arrive at the peak. At a very far distance at the horizon, the Illimani coloured by a redish light imposingly shines above the Titicaca Lake, some giant cloud formations over the mountains provide a threatening character to the scenery. It is hard to believe that the ice giant is located at almost 180 km distance from the sun island!

Threatening clouds above the sun island Saying good-bye to the sun island

We cannot enjoy the very clear air of that day and the resulting wide visibility for a long time, as we want to be punctually at the ecolodge for having dinner. After dinner, we enjoy a glass of wine as we did in the previous day, sit cozily at the open fireplace and tell one or two stories about mountain climbing in the Alps and all over the world. The next morning starts with a threatening and spooky interplay in the sky, from the south, the wind pushes a dark range of clouds that are coloured by the rising sun into some unbelievable shades of orange and yellow. It appears as the cloud roller wants to "devour" the yet cloudless sky in the north-east. A little worried, i go to the main building for having breakfast, as we have a piece to walk and I would not be pleased to get wet from above. But after the usual very abundant breakfast, the sun comes through again, even though the south remains cloudy. We leave the highly recommendable ecolodge with a touch of melancholy in direction to Escalera del Inca, from which a boat takes us back to Copacabana.

In the watered terrace complex, agriculture is also accomplished during the dry period.

On the already known way we go in direction to Pilkokaina, at the big crossroads we turn to the left and walk downhill in sepertines. We pass a garden complex where many things are cultivated through watering on several terrace levels also now in the dry period. The water needed therefore is taken from a fountain nearby, the Fuente del Inca. There is aso a legend about this fountain, as according to the Incas, the intake of this water is supposed to provide eternal youth; Even the Spaniards believed this and bordered this fountain with stones. We of course drink also this water bubbling from three holes, who does not want to be eternally young? But I might be only able to confirm if this worked after a few years. From the fountain bordering, some old Inca stairs leads the last metres down to the harbour, where we access one of several dozens ships. But we have to wait a little for the start, as today, the mules with our luggage that we overtooked on the way, are a little stubborn and slow. With a delay of a good half an hour, our luggage is also on board and we can start our last boat trip in our journey in Bolivia. In resume, I can highly recommend a two-days visit to the sun island with an overnight stay in the Ecolodge La Estancia, as beside a dream landscape and a unique accommodation, one also gets an insight into the cultural secrets of the island offered.

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