Overnight on Isla del Sol

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, March 17, 2011

The next morning, we took a boat from Copacabana to Isla del Sol, the sun island. Folklore says the island is the birthplace of the sun god and the sun itself.  It's covered in Inca ruins and offers some particularly picturesque hiking.  Lots of people day trip in, getting off the boat at the north of the island, hiking to the south, and then taking the boat back to Copa in the evening.  That plan seemed pretty rushed, so we opted to stay overnight, and it was definitely worth it.

Multiple tour operators were selling tickets out of Copa for the 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. boats.  From what I can tell, they were all priced the same.  Our boat left 45 minutes late without explanation, and took about an hour and a half to get to Isla del Sol. 

We hopped off the boat at the village of Yamani, on the southern part of the island, because it's supposed to have the more accommodation choices than the north.  Most of the hotels are located at the top of a very steep hill, which takes maybe 30-45 minutes to walk up, given heavy backpacks and the breath-sucking high altitude. 

Tourists tend to climb the famous Inca staircase up to town, but we opted for the less steep, zigzagging donkey path.  I’m so glad we did, because, less than ten minutes up, we found a perfectly adequate place to spend the night.  There was no name, but it’s the first place you come to on the donkey path, just past the restaurant. 

The place (can’t really call it a hotel, or even a hostel) was just two rooms attached to a woman’s house.  It looked like a two-story building a bit further down the path was under construction, so she might expand in the future.  While it was extremely basic, our research told us that basic seemed to be the standard for most of the budget and mid-range options on the island.  Our room didn’t have electricity, but the owner set some candles out for us.  The sink water in our shared bathroom was just a trickle, since there are no water mains on the island.  This means that water for sinks, showers and toilets has to be carried up the hill from the harbor by humans or donkeys.  None of us even considered taking a shower since our books said all showers on the island were ice cold, but there was a shower in the bathroom. 

The good news was that our room had lake views; it was clean and it cost us around $4 USD each.  Best of all, we didn’t have to walk any further uphill with our backpacks.  Because of those crazy steps, I’d advise future travelers to stash their backpacks in Copa and just bring a day pack to the island.  Apparently, you can also rent a donkey to take your stuff up the hill for you, so that’s another option if you’re stuck with your big bag.


Once we’d dropped our stuff, we hiked up the steep hill into the main part of the village.  Along the way, we saw the famous fountain whose three spouts are said to represent the Inca motto: "Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t be lazy." 

The islanders must have taken this motto to heart, because they were much nicer than the mainland Bolivians we've met so far.  Several of them actually answered our, "Holas" and even smiled at us.  This was a pleasant surprise given that the Bolivians typically ignore our greetings or stare at us in stony-faced silence.

Anyway, we checked the menus of about ten restaurants in town and they all had (literally) identical offerings: quinoa soup, trout, milanesa (chicken schnitzel), and omelets, all served with rice and French fries.  Since the menu wasn't going to influence our decision, we chose a place for its cute flower garden and outdoor dining terrace with views of the lake.  We were the only customers besides a Japanese couple, since most of the tourists who’d arrived on our boat were day trippers who got off in the north of the island.  Despite this fact, the service was verrrry slow, as it has been so far in most of Peru and Bolivia.  In this case, it took us about two hours to eat our meal.

Once we’d (finally) eaten, it was time to get moving on our 11 km hike to the village of Ch’allapampa, on the north end of the island.  Supposedly, there are two trails leading this way, the first leading up and over the hills, and the other winding closer to the coast over flat terrain.  We couldn’t find either trail.  

As a result, we ended up climbing through terraced farmers’ fields, startling donkeys and sheep.  We weren't totally lost, since we could see the whole island from our hilltop position, but we didn’t find the trail until about halfway through the hike.

Along the way, we passed through a few small villages where women washed their hair in streams and kids begged for candy and cookies.


Once we finally reached Ch’allapampa, we were told that the last group boat heading back to the south of the island was leaving in five minutes.  Unfortunately, this meant we had to skip the famous Inca ruins outside of town.  Even more unfortunately, we later learned that this sales technique was a lie (surprise, surprise!)  We saw two more boats dock in the south harbor after we’d returned, and there may have been even more after that.  Oh well.

Our night on Isla del Sol was quiet, since there are no cars on the island and most of the tourists are day trippers.  It was also pretty warm.  The shallow waters of the lake trap heat during the day and release it at night, slightly warming the land around the lake shore.

Because our room faced east, we woke up to watch the sunrise from our beds, snapped a few pics, then fell back asleep. 

The next morning, we took the boat back to Copacabana.  As we very slowly cruised along, a man grabbed my backpack and jacket and balled them up into a pillow so he could lie down across the bench seats.  I said, "No!" and grabbed them away from him.  There is a limit!

Later in the ride, the same guy approached us and asked for money.  Not an unusual occurrence down here, but his excuse sure was.  “It’s not for me,” he said.  “It’s for that girl over there.  She has a baby and she can’t afford it.  She tried to leave it with her family on Isla del Sol, but they said no.”

The woman sitting next to Shelley nodded and said, “I have a son.  He’s a huge burden on me.”

That lady contributed 10 bolivianos and Shelley gave them some change, but I didn’t.  I’d already (however unwillingly) contributed about $70 to charity in the form of my stolen shirt and by paying "special" tourist pricing for everything from hotels to taxis and food.  That was all they were going to get out of me.

When the man approached the girl with the baby holding out the money he’d collected, she refused to accept it.  They argued for several minutes, during which time Shelley translated for me: “She wants to sell her baby.” 

She wasn’t sure she had heard correctly, so she conferred with the woman next to her.  Yup, the girl wanted to sell her kid but hadn’t yet found a buyer.  Heartbreaking.

Back in Copa, we ran into a guy we'd met on our Uyuni trip.  After chatting for a few minutes, we found a shop selling bus tickets and booked seats on a TourPeru bus leaving an hour later.

Since they wanted us at the bus half an hour early to stow our luggage, we didn’t have time to sit down for lunch.  Luckily, the adorable Café Bistrot (not a typo, there’s a random final “t” in the name) made us boxed lunches to go.

For 35 bolivianos, we got two sandwiches, crackers, a tomato and a banana, a hard-boiled egg (which was half raw and therefore inedible) cake, a chocolate bar and a bottle of water.  Not bad!

The border crossing into Peru went smoothly.  Just a stamp on either side of the border and a walk in between.  

I paused when answering the question on my exit form that asked: “Amount expended during your stay.” 

“Does that include the value of money and items they stole from us?” I felt like asking.

As we walked across the border into Peru, I had a huge smile on my face and felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  True, Peru has its fair share of poverty, pickpockets and luggage thieves.  But at least in Peru, unlike Bolivia, people look me in the eye when I say hello or ask a question, rather than turning their backs on me.  Some of them even answer the question correctly!

Back in Iguazu, the owner of our hostel had found out that I was headed to Bolivia.  “You poor, poor thing,” he’d said.  “Bolivia is a &$#@-hole.  Peru is poor, too, but the people there will like you.  Bolivia is just a &$#@-hole.” 

Now, it’s a well-known cultural tendency for the Argentinians to talk themselves up while casting suspicion on neighboring Latin American countries, but I have to admit that the guy turned out to be right. 

Bolivia has two beautiful sites worth visiting: the salt flats near Uyuni and Lake Titicaca.  I’d advise anyone interested in visiting those areas to see Uyuni on a round-trip tour from the north of Chile.  Similarly, you could see Lake Titicaca on a round-trip tour from Puno, Peru.  Basically, the goal would be to get in, see something cool and get back out again as fast as possible.  Do yourself a favor and skip the entire interior of the country.  La Paz is ok, but not worth a special trip.
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