Isla del Sol is a historic island located just north of the quaint, sleepy town of Copacabana in the sky blue waters of Lake Titicaca. With a surface elevation located at 3,812 m. (12,506 ft.), Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, and once home to the people of Tiwanaku, Inca and many other important Andean cultures. Copacabana is located approximately 3 hours northwest of La Paz, making it very accessible via paved road and short water taxi across the Strait of Tiquina.
Getting to Isla del Sol
Don’t forget your passport on this journey as you will need it to pass through immigration after crossing the Straight of Tiquina on a water taxi; through the small town of Saint Peter and in to Saint Paul on the opposite side. Even though no borders are crossed traveling across the Strait of Tiquina, Peru is close enough that immigration officers are mandated to ask all visitors for their documents.
From here, it is a short, 30-minute drive to Copacabana. Once you’ve arrived in Copacabana, head down to the beach where there are many water taxis, operated by locals, willing to ferry you down the coast of the lake to Isla del Sol. The trip to the island takes about one hour in good conditions. If you happen to depart on a windy day with rough water conditions, it will take longer, or it may be too dangerous to complete the perilous journey at all.
During the hour-long boat ride, a beautiful vista of Isla del Sol’s sister island, Isla de la Luna (Moon Island) is visible off the starboard side of the boat. With some luck and a break in the usual cloud cover shrouding the commanding, snowcapped peaks of the Andes, this trip serves as a picture-perfect opportunity to snap some great photos. Travelers are welcome to book their own trip to Isla del Sol, but joining a guided tour is advised in which all expenses and bookings are taken care of ahead of time. Joining a tour also allows for the chance to learn and understanding more about the historical, spiritual and cultural importance of both the island and lake from a well-informed guide.
What to Do at Isla del Sol
Most boats will drop you off on the eastern bank of the island, just in front of the Temple of the Sun – an important cultural center and perfect place to begin the slow ascent of the island on foot. The temple – constructed around 800 A.D. by the Tiwanaku and modified later by the Inca –stands as a ceremonial and spiritual site devoted to the Sun and Sun God.
The temple was constructed during a period when the Tiwanaku were experiencing severe drought, as a place to make offerings and appease the Sun God and bring rain. Two rooms on the lower level of the temple not only demonstrate their beliefs, but also their superior knowledge of the way in which the natural world operates. One room is dedicated to the Winter Solstice in which there is a small window facing east. The only time the sun will enter the room directly (i.e. through the tiny window) is during the sunrise on the Winter Solstice, illuminating the room with its rays for only a split second; not returning for 365 mornings.
The other room is dedicated to the Summer Solstice (June 21st), in which the same construction and planned occurrence happens only in this particular room, on this specific date. The two rooms are constructed so precisely – and with such insight – that the sun enters each separate room directly for a matter of seconds, on an intended and corresponding date, once a year, every year (save for heavy rains or overcast, in which the failure of the sun to enter the rooms will be evaluated accordingly by spiritual leaders).
Spiritual leaders enter the temple and the relevant room on the corresponding dates – offering coca and other important offerings to the Sun God – awaiting a glimpse of the bright beams of light to enter the room, hoping for prosperous weather conditions for the coming seasons. Though the temple hasn’t been flawlessly maintained over the years and has slowly become slightly dilapidated, the walls, rooms and portholes that illuminate the temple are still very much intact, giving visitors a chance to see the impressive craftsmanship that went in to its construction.
Heading up the hill from the Temple of the Sun, one enters the still thriving cultural domain of the estimated 3,000 Aymara people that call Isla del Sol home. Hundreds of terraces being worked by the men and women of the island can be seen lining the steep slopes, accompanied by llamas, donkeys and sheep that graze the sparse landscape. Ascending the hills, the view becomes more and more dramatic as the deep blue waters of the lake and the far-off summits of the Andes begin to display their true beauty. Zigzagging through the landscape and between farmers tediously maintaining their plots of land, we come to the top of the eastern side of the island.
A short walk back down brings us through many handicraft stalls managed by locals; finally leading to an ancient fresh water source (one of the only sources of fresh water on the eastern bank of the island) dubbed the Fountain of Youth. This water source was once visited often by Inca kings paying homage to the importance of the island, and attaining the rejuvenating properties of the water. Two main faucets in the Fountain of Youth spill a continuous flow of water, and a quick sampling gives way to an interesting discovery: The streams of water taste radically different.
One faucet produces a vaguely sweet taste, while the other displays a slight mineral flavor. It is believed that the two tastes derive from the type of rock that the canals are cut through. Regardless of where the tastes come from, visitors are encouraged to drink from the Fountain of Youth – a ritual that has been maintained for hundreds of years.
Heading down the 240 Inca steps –the same steps travelled by Inca Kings on their way up to the Fountain of Youth – we end up at another dock where one can hop a boat back to Copacabana. This route is the most popular taken by tourists, yet it is not the only trail across the relatively large island. The western side of the island is much more heavily populated with local communities carrying out the many duties entailed with living on the island.
Spending the Night at Isla del Sol
On the island itself, there are a few little cabins and hostels that are available for visitors seeking an overnight stay on the island. The majority of these are located on the eastern side of the island; with rooms available both on the shoreline or way atop the hill, giving way to stunning views of the eastern sunrise peaking over the towering Andes. However, many of these cabins and hostels maintain rudimentary accommodations, such as shared bathrooms and in many cases no running water. If hygiene and creature comforts are personal imperatives, Copacabana is a much more comfortable place to stay.
In Copacabana, a handful of hotels and hostels, restaurants and local shops are scattered across the the small city. Copacabana is also arguably the best location on the shores of Lake Titicaca to view the striking sunsets displayed every evening; views that are hard to come by when staying on the eastern side of Isla del Sol.