Copacabana and the Isla Del Sol

CopacabanaThe Isla del Sol (The Sun Island) was not on my original itinerary. I’d briefly researched the island and Cocacabana and decided against it. It was Eve who changed my mind, an English woman living in Bolivia I met on a bus in Santa Cruz.

Legend states the first Inca King, Manco Capac was born on the Island and because of that was regarded as the most sacred site for the Inca. I felt compelled to go.

To get to Isla Del Sol you first have to get to Cocacabana on the border with Peru. Catch the bus from the cemetery (Cemeterio) in La Paz. The nominal fare of 15BOB (£1.20) is a bargain considering the journey is almost 4 hours. The one drawback is you are designated a seat and have to sit next to whoever bought the ticket before or after you.

Unfortunately I was seated next to a Bolivian boy who had the same stuffy smell of poverty I had noticed on my first day in La Paz. In front of us was a man in his 40’s – old enough to know better – playing awful pop music through his mobile phone.

Lake Titicaca

The journey to Lake Titicaca is non-descript; run down neighbourhoods where women sell there wears by the side of dusty roads. People mill about the streets without seeming to be doing anything. The scene was becoming a familair sight in Bolivia.

En route partially built houses show no signs of completion. There are no builders or building equipment. Perhaps work had stopped due to the rainy season, though most looked abandoned. It crossed my mind that the perspective owners might have run out of funds. Either way, I get the sense building work is slow in Bolivia. I fear for Tiwanaku.

Stunning ViewsLake Titicaca is a sacred region for the Inca. Indigenous myths say the sun god Wiracocha rose from the depths of the Lake on foam – just as Aphrodite did in Greek mythology. It struck me that two myths from two different parts of the world shared the same image.

Breathing through my mouth in an attempt to quell the sickening whiff I look out the window to see Titicaca shimmering beside us. She looks magical. The immediate change in scenery is like traversing into another world.

The sprawling Lake, spans 118 miles across the Andean mountians and feeds from 37 rivers. At 38000 metres above sea level, Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world.

We arrive in San Pedro and I am relieved to get some fresh air and escape the mental torture of listening to tinny pop music. San Pedro is a tiny village by the part of the Lake known as the Tiquina Straits. We get off the bus here and catch a small boat to San Pablo on the other side.

The coach is pulled over by a very slow moving tug boat, but the time delay is an ideal opportunity to grab a drink and nip to the toilet. Back on the bus and its another hour of nasal and adio torture.


Cocacabana has the feel of a seaside resort. The two main streets are geared for tourism, lined with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling garments woven from Llama wool. In the main Plaza is an extraordinarily big church considering the small size of the town.

Sea ViewLike all the colonial churches I have seen, Cocacabana’s is over-decorated with silver and gold. Bizarre carvings of religious figures leave you with the uneasy feel of a horror movie. Everything about it is over-the-top and ugly.

Attached to the side of the church is a long, narrow room. This is known as the Capella de las Velas – Place of Candles. People come here to light candles and make wishes.

On the wall are several sculptures moulded from candlewax. They represent the maker’s desire – cars, houses and dollar signs. One person has sculptured a heart. For me, the scene summed up modern day values and the fact that materialism outnumbers the desire to love and be loved. Why do we hate each other so much? Welcome to the world we live in.

There are plenty of tour operators in Cocacabana. Buying a ticket to Isla Del Sol is simple and costs about £2. The boat leaves from the harbour at 8.30am or 1.30pm and is usually packed to the rafters, top and bottom. I’d been told that on a good day a seat on the roof is great for the views and fresh air. In rainy season though it’s best not to chance the outdoors, instead find shelter underneath.

The morning sky was ambiguous, a chill clung to the air. I found a downstair pew. On the boat I met Julian, an Englsihman who has lived in Peru and Bolivia for the last five years undergoing intensive Shamanic training. He told me each part of the Isla del Sol represents a different chakra – puma, eagle, hummingbird, snake and condor. Julian says he feels a dragon there as well.

“Which parts of the island represent which animal,” I ask.

“They keep moving around,” he tells me, “but the north tip of the island is most definitely Puma.”

“How do you know the difference between the energies?”

“It’s something you learn over time. Each animal represents a different chakra. That’s how you know. San Pedro helps with that.”

His reference to San Pedro was of the hallucogenic, a masculine form of the better known ayahuasaca. Julian explained that it gives you a more outward experience whereas ayahuasaca is more inward. They are both used by Shamans to connect with nature.

Lake Titicaca is mysterious. Perhaps it was my imagination recalling the strange myths and legends the lake is associated with, but the water looked to be shape-shifting. On one side of the boat the surface looked chrome-smooth, yet on the other side the colour was the thick black of an oil slick.

As we approached the island, black-grey clouds hung ominously over the hills like fire smoke and I fear the day might be ambushed by a terrific downpour. A solitary shack sits at the bottom of a grass covered hill shaped like a camel’s hump. As we round the corner it is evident this is a remote corner of the island.

Further along the coastline five more bungalows peak from the hillside. There are no paths. The only place for the residents to go is into the water. I wonder who would choose to build a house on cragged rocks beneath steep, harsh hills. Who would want to live here? As we navigated the island more houses appeared. It seems plenty of people want to live here, in fact about 3000 of them.

The Isla del Sol

The Isla del Sol is not very big. You can hike it north to south in around three hours. The terrain is rugged and tiring, but the views are outstanding.

Most of the major tourist attractions are on the north side of the island with a few lesser important Inca ruins down to the south. To get into the archaeological sites buy a ticket from the museum for 10BOB (£1).

Making the steep climb along the donkey trails and Inca paths, donkey’s graze quietly alongside scrawny sheep. A horned bull lazily watches over them from a grassy knoll above. A trickle and gush of water linger on the breeze, accompanied by the chorus of birdsong.

On the northern tip of the island in Challapampa, you find the sacred rock which is shaped like a Puma. Opposite is the ceremonial table – which is really a polite way of saying, sacrifical slab.

It is believed men inhabited the Isla del Sol whilst female slaves were held on Isla del Luna, a two hour boat ride away. The most attractive and intelligent were used for child birth. The others were sacrificed to the gods.

A short walk from the Sacred Rock is the Chinkana, a labrynth of rooms looking out to the lake. In the side of the walls were the same niches I found in the ruins at El Fuerte and their reoccurence was beginning to make me think they held some kind of significant importance.

As midday bedded in, the sun that gave the island its name banished the cold. Somewhere within ear-shot a lone sheep bleated; perhaps seperated from the herd or merely wanting attention. Either way, her call went unanswered. Below the steep cliffs the emerald waters of Titicaca sparkle.

I begin the trek to the south side of the island and look out across the lake. A triangle of mountains jut from the water nearby. The area is said to be a central energy vortex of the cosmos, and therefore the Gods.

Island rumours

Another rumour about the Isla del Sol is a tunnel that leads all the way to Cusco. It’s submerged underwater and no longer visible. French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau explored the Lake in search of sub-aquatic temples but only found ancient pottery.

However, in 2000 the Atahuallpa expedition lead by Italian scientists claimed to have discovered a road and a wall that lead to a temple. They claim the submerged site dates back around 1500 years and has been attributed to the Tiwanakans who dominated the region long before the Inca.

However, there is some suspicion about the authenticity of the Atahuallpa expedition. Akakor, the company conducting the explorations have failed to provide sufficient video footage of their findings on their website, nor have they produced a peer-reviewed report.

Bolivian archaeologist Carlos Ponce is one of the researchers that is sceptical about Akakor’s claims. He finds it hard to believe that 12 previous expeditions failed to identify the road and a 2300 foot wall, not does he believe a short expedition of 20-days would have produced such results.

In addition the road, wall and temple, Akakor also claimed to have discovered the fabled cave where it is believed the Inca’s practiced child sacrifices. The Italians also claim bones of children were recovered – yet have not produced any physical or documented evidence to support their claims.

Akakor are also excavating Tiwanaku.

You can learn more about the Inca and other ancient cultures in Peru and Bolivia in my book Journey’s to Ancient Worlds: What Modern Man Can Learn From Ancient Civilisations.

Journey's To Ancient World's book cover

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