Where to go to see the birthplace of the fabled Inca? Not Machu Picchu, that’s for sure. Head instead for Bolivia’s Isla del Sol, where this civilization first rose to greatness
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Isla del Sol is located on Lake Titicaca, which lies on the border of Bolivia and Peru in South America
YEAR Fewer than 8,000
Jan: 61°F (16°C); Apr: 54°F (12°C); Jul: 52°F (11°C); Oct: 59°F (15°C)
If you thought you needed to go to Machu Picchu to see the Inca civilization on its own terms, you’re off by a few hundred miles and some centuries to boot! The birthplace of one of the world’s most fabled societies is actually farther southeast, on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) – the largest of the 41 islands located on what may be the world’s most stunning body of water, Lake Titicaca. This lake was considered sacred by the Inca, and after one look at its indescribably blue waters, it’s easy to
see why. Situated at nearly 10,500 ft (3,200 m) above sea level, the lake is so clear it is said that the original inhabitants believed that they could see the entrance to another world at the bottom. Small wonder most travelers don’t make it to the island when the scenery around is this beautiful.
The tiny island itself is littered with remnants of the Inca. Nearly 200 ruins, most in pristine condition, attest to the presence of this mighty people. This is a harsh place and little has changed over the centuries. There are no roads, and the 5,000 or so inhabitants – many of them descendants of the first Inca – still cling to their centuries-old lifestyle. Anthropologists have suggested that many of the tiny fishing hamlets that dot the shore have remained virtually unchanged for over a thousand years.
According to legend, the Inca creator god, Viracocha, willed his two children, Manco Kapac and Mama Oclio, to come to life on the shores of the island. Titi Kharka (Puma Rock), on the northern end near the ancient town of Cha’llapampa,
commemorates their birthplace. The mysterious Chinkana labyrinth, possibly a training ground for Inca priests, is also nearby. Three sacred springs on the south coast still issue the same fresh water the earliest Inca used in their ceremonies, and are now regarded by the locals as youth-restoring founts.
Exactly 206 steps from this triad of waters, the island’s largest town, Yumani, descends directly into the lake. In the distance sits Pilcocaina, a stone sentinel whose purpose is shrouded in mystery.
Nearby, Isla de la Luna also looms large in Inca legend. Once the home of the goddess Mama Quila, it is also home to what may have been the first order of nuns on the continent. Here the Virgins of the Sun lived in seclusion, weaving tunics of alpaca and ministering to the Sun God.
Beneath the depths of the lake lie more mysteries: a recently discovered and still-unexplored temple (the natives don’t want to disturb the lake) and, some say, the remnants of the lost Atlantis civilization. The full story of these people may never be known, but no other place on earth provides such a vivid insight into the origins of the great Inca as the atmospheric Isla del Sol.
FORGET MACHU PICCHU?
THE BUILD-UP There’s no doubt that Machu Picchu holds its own as a premier tourist stop. Possibly South America’s most- promoted destination, it has held the top spot for travelers eager to see the majesty of the Inca for several years.
THE LETDOWN The journey to Machu Picchu is not pleasant, and the entrance fee has risen to US$44. Add to this the round-trip train fare to the village at the foot of the mountain (the most common means of transport from Cusco), the bus fare from here to the site, plus the food and water you’ll need during the day, and you’re well above US$150 before you’ve even set foot inside Machu Picchu. . .that is if you fall within the number of people allowed in daily.
GOING ANYWAY? The flood of tourists making this pilgrimage has made it essential that you book your stay months ahead. December through to March has fewer visitors, so your wait will be shorter in these months. Regardless, mornings always see fewer tourists at any time of the year.
Getting There and Around
The ideal way to reach Isla del Sol is to drive on the paved road from the capital, La Paz, to Copacabana, on Lake Titicaca’s shores, and complete the trip by ferry. It’s better to rent a car than take a bus, as there are many side trips worth taking.
Where to Eat
La Orilla in Copacabana serves both local and international food, along with the country’s best trout.
Where to Stay
There are no formal overnight facilities on Isla de Sol. Instead, stay at the ecologically sensitive
Hotel Rosario del Lago in Copacabana. The hotel can arrange visits to the island.
When to Go
The best time to visit is during the southern hemisphere’s winter, Jun–Aug, when there is maximum sun and minimal rain.
Budget per Day for Two
Isla del Sol and its surroundings are fairly inexpensive. US$140 is more than enough to cover costs and leave change.