By Nathan Strauss
On Bolivia’s scenic Isla del Sol, terraced hillsides and ancient ruins offer otherworldly vantage points over the seemingly endless expanse of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake. The mythological birthplace of the first Incans, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, lures hikers and history buffs with its weathered ruins and waterside paths. It’s also appealing to stargazers or travelers seeking to completely unplug for the world (good luck getting WiFi to work here).
Evidence of human inhabitation on this largest of Titicaca’s islands dates as far back as the third millennium B.C. Reminders of that rich history are everywhere — from ancient sites such as the Pillkukayna temple to the well-worn cobblestone lanes meandering through Isla del Sol’s tiny towns.
The island has a small, indigenous population of farmers and fishermen, but no cars or paved roads. Locals (many in traditional garb) and tourists navigate the hilly terrain on foot via a network of trails and stone pathways curving past windswept pastures and blue vistas over some of Lake Titicaca’s 3,200 square miles. In its quiet fishing villages, birds —including the endangered Titicaca grebe — bob in the water beneath the docks as donkeys and llamas idle along the shoreline. If you’re hungry, trucha frita (fried lake trout) tops the menus of Isla del Sol’s simple restaurants.
And as its name suggests, the island bakes relentlessly in the sun, resulting in sparse vegetation and brilliant light reflecting in the surrounding crystalline waters.
One remarkable feature of Isle del Sol is the small number of visitors. Compared to the tourist-overrun islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, Isle del Sol is welcome relief.
Getting to Isla del Sol can be a slog. It’s four hours by bus from La Paz, the nearest major city, then another hour and a half by boat from the resort town of Copacabana (which is well-worth a visit of its own). If you’re coming from Peru, you can take the bus from Puno to Copacabana (if you’re a U.S. citizen, you’ll need a $160 visa to cross the border).
The best way to experience the island may be with an overnight stay.
The island has a number of ecolodges with cozy digs and spectacular vistas. They include the Cabañas Ecológicas Santo Campo (bookable on Airbnb), whose genial host serves up home-cooked meals and advice along with panoramic lake views. And since most residents of Isla del Sol and nearby areas don’t speak English, use an app like Duolingo to brush up your Spanish before you go.
Though recent political unrest in Bolivia previously made travel here inadvisable, as tensions subside, tourism is rising. And tucked away from the bustle and politics of the cities, the regions surrounding Lake Titicaca prove some of the country’s most intriguing, off-the-usual-path destinations for explorers. But this “Island of the Sun” isn’t without some risks — you’ll want to pack plenty of sunscreen.
Credit: National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com