From La Paz to Lake Titicaca
La Paz is the starting point for visiting the country.
From La Paz, travelers head either west for Lake Titicaca and then on to Peru, or south for the Uyuni Salt Plains, Sucre and Potosí.
The distance between La Paz and Lake Titicaca is about 100 miles, and it takes 3.5 hours to cover it by bus. To reach Copacabana, the main Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca and a stopover for tourists travelling from La Paz to Peru, the Strait of Tiquina has to be crossed. The Strait of Tiquina divides Lake Titicaca into its larger and smaller parts, and to cross it, passengers embark on small speedboats (2 Bs), and buses on tiny ferries.
After an hour’s drive, it’s Copacabana. Here, the bus company switches the buses and continues to Puno, the main Peruvian city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. An option is to spend one night in Copacabana and visit the Sun Island, and to continue to Puno the next day.
Crossing the border is relatively easy, especially if on a tourist bus – about 20 minutes out of Copacabana, the bus stops at the Yunguyo/Kasani border, where everybody goes through the Bolivian/Peruvian Immigration. From here, it takes another 3 hours to reach Puno.
To change Bolivian Bolivianos into Peruvian Soles, Puno has better rates than the border. In Peru, time has to be changed one hour behind.
Due to generally bad roads, travelling in Bolivia can sometimes be a hellish experience, especially when going by bus on the Altiplano. To travel more conveniently, there are 3 main airports in the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, connecting the eastern, central and western parts of the country.
The city of La Paz
La Paz is located in western Bolivia on the Andean Altiplano about 100 miles from Lake Titicaca.
It is surrounded by the Cordillera Real and its snow-capped peaks of Illimani (21,000 feet), Huayna Potosí, Illampu and the Sajama Volcano, the tallest mountain in Bolivia. The city sits in a vast canyon that has several miles across – the first views from up the road are breathtaking.
Although the official capital of Bolivia is the city of Sucre located in the south, La Paz, the seat of government, is considered the country’s de facto capital. It is the third most populous city in Bolivia, and the world’s highest national capital.
Despite its altitude – La Paz lies at roughly 12,000 feet above sea level – the city has an unusual subtropical highland climate with rainy summers and dry winters.
The famous landmarks in the city are the Witches’ Market, Church of San Francisco, Calle Comercio and Plaza Murillo; El Prado is the city’s main thoroughfare, lined with skyscrapers, high-rise office buildings and restaurants.
Plaza Murillo is the heart of the city, and the site of the metropolitan Cathedral, the Presidential Palace and the National Congress. It was designed in 1558 and named in honor of the Bolivian hero Pedro Murillo, an independence-era leader who was hung by Spanish troops.
Surrounded by eucalyptus trees and featuring a grand statue of Neptune, the plaza has been the center of Bolivia’s political and public life ever since the colonial times.
The impressive Cathedral whose construction started in 1835, sits on top of a small hill (the entrance is 300 feet higher than its base). It was inaugurated in 1925, exactly 100 years after founding the Republic of Bolivia.
Across from the cathedral is the Palacio de los Condes de Arana, a magnificent 18th century building, now home to the National Museum of Art. The museum houses a collection of famous Bolivian colonial art as well as some modern art. There’s a small fee to pay.
The National Congress of Bolivia had previously been a jail, a university and a convent.
In 1904, the colonial palace underwent a renovation to become the seat of the legislature.
The Congress is famous for its backward-going clock on the top whose hands turn left, and the numbers go from one to 12 anti-clockwise. The change of the clock had been made to get Bolivians to treasure their heritage and to show them that they could ‘question established norms and think creatively.’
The Presidential Palace is also known as Palacio Quemado, Burnt Palace, since it has been twice burnt by fire. It is the home of the Bolivian government and the official residence of the President of Bolivia.
Opposite the building stands a statue of the ex-President Villarroel. In 1946, antigovernmental crowds took control of the square, stormed the palace and assassinated him. His body was then tossed from a balcony. Finding out he was still alive, the crowds hung him from the light post that can be found behind his bust.
Located near Plaza Murillo is Jaen Calle, one of La Paz’s best preserved colonial streets.
It features bright-colored plastered houses dating from the 18th century, shops, bars, restaurants, and 4 minor museums housed in colonial homes. They all show different exhibits – one is a costume museum, one a museum of precious metals, the third exhibits old maps and the last is the home of the 1809 independence leader Pedro Murillo. The entry fee is about $3 for all four.
On the other side of El Prado, about a 10-minute walk from Plaza Murillo, are located the famous Witches’ Market, the San Francisco Basilica, and the Calle Sagarnaga street market selling the best alpaca products.
The Witches’ Market, Mercado de las Brujas, is a legendary local attraction. Situated along the steep, narrow streets between Calles Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz, just one block up from the San Francisco Church, it is a place where ancient Aymara rituals are still performed.
Yatiri, female witch doctors (easily identifiable by their traditional black hats, multi-layered skirts and fierce looks), are traditional healers in Aymara society, sought and revered by the entire population. They sell all kinds of magic potions, amulets and talismans supposed to bring luck, ensure beauty and help with curses, health troubles, and love and fertility problems. For sale are dried frogs, armadillos, turtles, feathers, black statues of copulating couples, black candles, as well as llama fetuses for protection and good luck that people bury under the foundation of their new houses. Yatiris can also cast spells.
Calle Sagarnaga is one of La Paz’s most popular tourist streets. It features hostels, tour agencies, money changers, cafés, souvenir stores and alpaca clothing stalls, that is, businesses catering to tourists. Near the street’s upper end are shops with cheap electronics; at the lower end is one of the city’s main landmarks – the San Francisco Church.
Located on the plaza of the same name, the San Francisco Church is the most important historical building in La Paz.
It was built in 1581, when the Franciscans had already settled in the area even before the founder of La Paz, Alonzo de Mendoza, reached the valley in 1548. In 1753, it was rebuilt to be the impressive structure it is today. The founder of the church, Francisco Morales, has his remains entombed inside.
The façade of the church is built in the baroque-mestizo style, a blend of catholic and native art, created by Aymara craftsmen, that incorporates into the decoration carvings of indigenous symbols like snakes, dragons, birds and masked figures. The roof has unique thigh tiles, created by workers who used their own thighs as tile molds. The inside of the church has high arched ceilings, cloisters, crypts and cedar altars decorated with gold leaf designs and religious paintings, statues and artifacts. Photography inside is not permitted.
The tour of the church is available for 20 Bs ($3) with a Spanish or English-speaking guide; it includes a visit to the bell tower which provides amazing views over La Paz.
The best way to discover La Paz from above is by using the local cable car network called Mi Teleférico.
Constructed in just 5 years using drone technology, it is the highest and most spectacular cable car system in the world that covers 30 miles and has 25 stations along eight lines. The fare is 3 Bs ($0.43) for each line, each circuit takes about 20-30 minutes to complete.
Mi Teleférico provides fast, cheap and reliable transport between La Paz and the neighboring city of El Alto that is situated on the rims of the La Paz canyon. It is an efficient public transport system for the locals, as well as a tourist attraction with spectacular bird’s-eye views of the city and the distant mountains.
Situated at 13,620 feet above the city of La Paz, El Alto is the second-largest city in Bolivia, and the largest city in Latin America.
Inhabited by indigenous Indians, 76% of the city’s population of almost 1,000,000 are Aymara, 9% are Quechua, 15% are Mestizo (descendants of Indian and White Europeans), and less than 0.1% are Criollos (White). It is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
The dry plain of El Alto above La Paz was uninhabited until the early 1900’s, when the newly built railway from Lake Titicaca reached the rim of the canyon. El Alto started to grow in the 1950’s due to a large-scale rural migration, initiated by the 1952 rural reform and increased in the following years, when the place was connected to La Paz’s water supply (before this, all water had to be transported in tanker vehicles).
In 2006, the city became the location of a gas war, centered on the exploitation of the country’s natural gas reserves. It led to bloody protests and 60 deaths, and forced the country’s president to resign. This paved the way for the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and the longest serving president in the country’s history.
The city contains El Alto International Airport that serves La Paz and is the world’s highest international airport.
One of the city’s main attractions is an open-air Aymara market, the biggest of all in Bolivia. It stretches over 2 square miles and sells almost everything from car parts, sports equipment, computer software to second-hand clothing, fake electronics and used medical equipment.
El Alto is also known for cholita wrestling.
Blending WWE and the popular Latin American sport known as lucha libre, the long-braided female wrestlers who started as a side event in wrestling shows, were so popular they became the main act. Unlike their skimpily dressed American colleagues, the cholitas wear in the ring the traditional Bolivian outfit featuring bowler hats and multi-layered skirts.
Competing not only for sport but also for a cause – the cholitas have taken up wrestling as a form of empowerment and resistance against gender stereotypes and machismo in the male-dominated Bolivian society – they perform every Sunday night at El Alto’s Multifunctional center.
Things to do around La Paz
There are many things to see and do around La Paz, ranging from the Moon Valley and Death Road on the outskirts of the city to the most extensive archaeological site in Bolivia Tiwanaku and the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca with its islands and the famous pilgrimage town of Copacabana.
The Valley of the Moon, the Valle de la Luna, is situated about 6 miles from La Paz.
A maze of narrow sandstone valleys, jagged rocks and giant spires created by erosion, the valley is a display of lunar landscapes and unique geological formations.
The Valley’s mountains are of different colors that range from beige and light brown tones to almost red with sections of dark purple; this great variance in mineral content creates unusual optical illusions.
There are two different hiking trails – the longer one takes about 45 minutes and has the Devil’s Point, a viewpoint that overlooks the whole Valley, located toward the end of it. The shorter track takes about 15 minutes.
Entry to the park is 15 Bs ($2), not including a guide. There is a tourist information center at the entrance with maps of the trails.
Most travel agencies offer organized tours to the Valley with private transportation, a bilingual guide (Spanish-English), and the park entrance fee included in the price.
Similar to Valle de la Luna is another valley called El Valle de las Animas, the Valley of the Souls, located 11 miles from La Paz.
The Valley of the Souls is a vast unique area with canyons and rugged peaks, surrounded by deep gorges, rock passages and needle-like spires. Seen as petrified souls by local people, these spires gave the area its name; if found anywhere else on earth, the Valle would be a major tourist attraction.
Since the Valley is located in a remote area off the tourist trail, it gets very few visitors and can be tricky to get to. Some travel agencies offer organized tours with private transport.
Another option is taking a public minivan that goes past it (yellow bus #44 leaves from Plaza de San Francisco to Ovejuyo). Helpful is downloading the Maps.me app.
One of the most popular adrenaline activities in La Paz is the downhill mountain biking on Death Road, officially known as the Yungas Road.
The road was built in the 1930’s by Paraguayan war prisoners for the purpose of connecting La Paz with the lower yungas, the jungle area on the slopes of the Andes, and further on with the Amazonas. The narrow single track of 10 feet with no guardrails is known for dangerous steep slopes, mountain cliffs dropping off 2,000 feet, frequent rains, fogs and landslides. Until 1994, 300 people died on it every year – that’s how the road got its nickname the ‘Road of Death.’
The reward for taking the bike ride, though, are incredible mountain views, waterfalls, chasms and jungle.
The tourist route is a 43-mile long trip descending from snowy Andean peaks of 11.500 feet to a thick tropical jungle. It takes about 4 hours to complete.
There are many adventure tour companies in La Paz, selling the tour and providing information, guides, transport and equipment. Their prices range anywhere from $50 to $110, with cheaper companies usually using rundown bikes and poorly trained guides.
In 2006, a new two-lane road was built that replaced the northernmost section of the original road. Despite that, some vehicles still use the ‘Death Road,’ as it is the only route that connects certain destinations.
Located only about 15 miles north of La Paz, Huayna Potosí is a 19,000-foot mountain, that can be commercially climbed.
Meaning ‘Thunderous Youth’ in Aymara, Huayna Potosí feeds with its glacial waters the city’s largest hydroelectric power plant.
The location and the fact that the climb is non-technical and achievable with only a moderate level of fitness and acclimatization, makes it one of the most popular climbs in South America.
The normal route is a fairly straightforward, beginner-level glacier ascent with some crevasses, followed by a steep climb to the summit. It is done over a 3-day period.
The prices of local tour companies generally include private transportation, qualified mountain guides, basic training, equipment, meals and accommodation.
The ancient civilization of Tiwanaku
Situated 44 miles from La Paz by Lake Titicaca and covering an area of about 4 square miles, Tiwanaku (or Tihuanaco) is one of the largest archaeological sites in South America, and the most important one in Bolivia.
Tiwanaku was the capital of a powerful pre-Columbian culture that once dominated the southern Andes and reached its peak between 500 and 900 AD, when it had a population of around 30.000-40.000.
The current consensus is that hunter-gatherer humans first settled near Lake Titicaca some 14,000 years ago, and that Tiwanaku was founded around AD 110 which makes it no more than 2,000 years old.
However, the Bolivian archaeologist Arthur Posnansky claimed that the site was 12,000 years old, based on his calculations of certain solstice alignments of the Kalasasaya Temple that could have only occurred around 10,000 BC.
That would support the widely believed theory that the region was occupied by cultures dating back as far as 60,000 BC – on the eastern side of the Gate of the Sun are several images outlining the head, ears, tusks and trunk of an elephant-like creature, which might represent the New World toxodon, or cuvieronius, that became extinct 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.
The earlier name for Tiwanaku was Taypikala, an Aymara term meaning ‘the stone in the center’ – Lake Titicaca was the legendary center of the world, the site where the first race of giants (and subsequently humans) was produced, and from where the world was repopulated after the flood.
Despite the harsh and arid climate of the Altiplano, large architectural and agrarian construction projects were carried out in Tiwanaku like sophisticated systems of aqueducts, dikes and terraced fields. Covering nearly 20 square miles, they allowed for a reliable agricultural yield (especially potatoes), that could support human populations 20 to 30 times larger than today (the Tiwanaku culture is said to have originated the terraced field system).
Up until 1000 AD, when the metropolis went into decline, the empire covered nearly half of present-day Bolivia, the southern part of Peru, the northwest part of Argentina, and nearly half of Chile. The Incas took over the area around 1450, and the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1532. After that, the site has been extensively looted, used as a quarry and damaged by amateur excavations; apart from that, many of the site’s gigantic statues were smashed during a campaign by the Catholic church to wipe out idolatry. Further destruction was caused in the 19th and the early 20th centuries due to railroad construction and target practices by military personnel.
The Tiwanaku archaeological area has 5 principal structures – the Akapana Pyramid (the most imposing structure), the Kalasasaya Temple (with the famous Gate of the Sun), the Puma Punku (with its megalithic ruins), the Semi-Subterranean Temple, and several administrative palace structures.
Originally thought to be a natural hill, the Akapana Pyramid is a manmade mound made of earth. It rises in seven steps to a height of nearly 55 feet. In the center of the flat summit used to be a T-shaped sunken courtyard; today, there is a huge crater dug by treasure hunters.
The court and terrace walls are paved with beautifully cut and precisely joined cyclopean andesite blocks – the largest one is estimated to weigh 66 tons.
A monumental system of interlinked channels collected water on the summit and brought it down and through all seven levels, exiting below ground level and merging into a subterranean drain system that flows into Lake Titicaca.
The Kalasasaya Temple is a large, open rectangular temple that measures 430 by 400 feet. It is believed to have been used as an observatory. It consists of a raised platform with a central sunken court that is surrounded by towering walls of red-sandstone pillars and sections of smaller ashlar masonry. One of the several carved monolith is a 12-foot tall stone, depicting perhaps a ruler, high priest or a god of Tiwanaku – the figure holds in one hand a qero, a tall beaker, and in the other a staff-like object, perhaps a scepter or coca snuff tablet.
The temple contains the Gate of the Sun, the most famous structure of Tiwanaku. The Gate is carved with extreme precision from a single massive block of andesite granite, and is 7 feet high, 15 feet wide and weighs about 10 tons. It has unique detail that demonstrates high skill in stone-cutting and a knowledge of descriptive geometry.
An elaborate frieze above its doorway depicts a central deity, that stands on a three-tiered pyramid, wears an elaborate headdress and holds a staff in each hand. Sometimes called the ‘weeping god,’ the figure is believed to represent Viracocha (the supreme creator deity of all gods). The deity is flanked by 3 rows of a total of 48 figures, including 30 winged attendants with human or bird heads – some scientists believe that these figures represent a solar calendar with 12 months and 30 days in each month.
The Gate of the Sun is thought to have originally stood at Puma Punku, another part of the archaeological complex.
Located inside the courtyard is the Ponce Monolith, a monumental 10-foot statue carved in andesite with huge square eyes.
Discovered in the 16th century by the Spaniards, it probably represents a deity or a ruler.
The monolith has a beautiful iconography carved on its entire surface, and was once clothed in textiles and decorated with bright colors.
Other gigantic statues 25 feet high and weighing 20 tons have been found, along with remains of a great harbor with enormous quays.
The Semi-Subterranean Temple is a rectangular sunken courtyard made of sandstone masonry, that measures 85 by 92 feet.
Its interior wall has 170 sculptured heads protruding from it, with Caucasian, Black, Asian and Semitic features.
The courtyard once contained many stone stelae and sculptures – today, it contains three stelae, one of which represents the figure of another bearded, seemingly crying man, probably Viracocha in his human form. With a 23-foot height, the stela is the tallest stone sculpture surviving from any ancient Andean culture.
The Puma Punku, the ‘door of the puma,’ is a large temple complex situated 0.6 miles from Tiwanaku. The 16-foot tall, three-tiered pyramid mound measures about 1.600 square foot, and contains a complex system of channels that conducted rainwater from the sunken court into the interior of the pyramid.
Today, none of the buildings of Puma Punku are intact. Andesite and sandstone H-shaped blocks are strewn about the site, some over 26 feet long and weighing up to 120 tons. Many show a striking similarity to one another, both in design and dimensions, suggesting that they were prefabricated pieces made by using a highly advanced technology. Another possibility is stone molding, which would require a method of reducing granite to a slurry and then hardening it again into a required shape.
Monumental cyclopean masonry is one of the striking features of Tiwanaku. A stone weighing 9 tons was found, hollow on 6 sides by mortises 10 feet high which architects have been unable to explain. Gateways 10 feet high and 12 feet wide with doors, false windows and sculptures have been cut out of a single stone, the whole structure weighing 10 tons. Sections of walls weighing 60 tons are supported by blocks of sandstone, weighing 100 tons and embedded in the ground (an average car weighs 2 tons).
Most of Tiwanaku andesite blocks come from quarries 37 miles away. Reputedly, those giant stones were transported some 55 miles across Lake Titicaca on reed boats and then dragged another 6 miles to the city.
According to non-mainstream science, the earliest structures of Tiwanaku (just like the enormous pyramid of Cholula in Mexico and others) were built by a race of giants, the same race that built megalithic ruins all over the world, including Stonehenge in England, Carnac in Brittany and ruins across the Americas.
It claims that just like many plant and animal species had their giant ancestors, so did humans – giant human skeletons have been found on several continents. Having survived the Flood by climbing to the tops of the highest mountains, the giant race built Tiwanaku as one of their 5 great city-centers (the others were New Guinea, Mexico, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Tibet).
For all anyone knows, the ruins could be of untold antiquity.
The entrance fee to the archaeological site is 100 Bs, which includes entry to the two museums outside the main archaeological area. The trail around the ruins is signposted and easy to follow. The best way to visit the site is with a guided tour from La Paz (44 miles) or Copacabana (62 miles).
Copacabana, the gateway to exploring the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca
Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca, a stopover for tourists travelling between Peru and Bolivia, where they cross the border.
Though a small place, Copacabana has quite a lot to offer. Apart from being the starting point for visits of Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun), the largest island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, it is also a famous Andean pilgrimage site.
The name of Copacabana comes from the Aymara kota kawana, meaning ‘view of the lake,’ and really – the hill above the town offers amazing panoramic views of Titicaca, the Islands of the Sun and Moon, and the Andean Cordilleras.
Copacabana’s main street is called Avenida de Agosto. It runs down to the beach, and is packed with hostels, restaurants, bus companies and souvenir shops.
Dominating the town is a 16th-century Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, a sparkling-white, Mudejar (Moorish-style) church with large domes and colorful, Portuguese-style ceramic roof tiles. Looking a bit like a wedding cake, the church has a massive courtyard and several small, open air chapels to appeal to native people who worshipped in the open.
The hill on which the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana stands, had been revered by the Inca long before the Spaniards built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin on it and turned it into a Catholic pilgrimage site. Nowadays, the site is sacred to the indigenous peoples and Catholics alike.
The Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Bolivia, is housed inside the basilica.
According to legend, a group of local fisherman was caught in a storm on Lake Titicaca in 1576, and while praying for their lives, the Virgin Mary appeared and led them to safety. To show their gratitude, they built a shrine with a statue of the Virgin inside sculpted by Tito Yupanqui, a native Inca craftsman. He made the image from dark wood, approximately four feet tall. Soon, the statue became famous throughout Bolivia and Peru as a miracle-causing icon.
The famous beach of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro was named after her, when a chapel, holding a replica of the statue, was built there.
The statue of the Virgin stands in a small, carved niche on the altar. It has a mechanical base which allows the priests to turn her so that she faces busy masses in the main chapel or overlooks smaller groups in the chapel to the side.
The gold-laminated, wooden Virgin wears a wig of long hair, and is dressed every week in a new robe full of gold and silver – there are now thousands of robes in the church’s collection. The original image never leaves the sanctuary – a copy is used for processions. Worshippers, who leave the church, walk backwards with the intention of not turning their backs on her.
Nowadays, the Basilica of Copacabana is the most visited pilgrimage site in Bolivia. Two big festivals take place here on February 2, the Saint’s Day, and the first days of August, when the indigenous and Catholics come from all over Peru and Bolivia to worship the saint and get blessed. During the festivals, a copy of the statue of Virgin is adorned in colorful robes and precious jewels, and taken on processions around the town.
In April 2013, the Basilica was robbed and the statue of the Virgen stripped of 28 gold and silver accessories, worth an estimated $1 million.
For years, stealing precious objects has been a problem plaguing colonial churches in Bolivia and Peru – at least 10 other churches have been hit so far, supposedly on behalf of wealthy western collectors. In most cases, like in Copacabana, the objects are never recovered and the offenders punished. In July 2013, the town restored the image of the Virgin with new jewelry.
The hilltop above the Basilica that overlooks Lake Titicaca is called Cerro Calvario, Calvary Hill. It is topped by shrines representing the Stations of the Cross, and by an altar with a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is worth a climb for the views.
Another thing Copacabana is famed for is the popular rite of blessing new cars with holy water – it is believed that the Virgin of Copacabana extends the life of not only humans but also of machines.
Weekends are the busy days, though priests will bless a car for safe journeys any day of the week. On those days, dozens of cars, adorned in streamers and flower garlands, wait in line while local ladies in aguayos, traditional woven shawls, place gladiolas on car roofs. Walking behind is the priest, sprinkling the exposed engines with holy water in a plastic bucket. When the blessing is done, the car owners pour beer on the ground and on their cars making sure that the thirst of Pachamama, Mother Earth, is quenched, and that the rose petals thrown at their cars stick well to them. This way, when driving back home, everyone can see they’ve got a new car, blessed in Copacabana. The whole ritual costs about 200 Bs ($30).
The Island of the Sun, the birthplace of the Inca
The Island of the Sun, Isla del Sol, is the largest island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.
The only way to access it is via Copacabana, the main town on the Bolivian side of the lake. From Copacabana, it takes one and a half hour to get to Yumani, the largest village on the south side on the island. Here, most visitors disembark for a 3-hour, 8-mile hike to Cha’llapampa village on the north side. Daily boat services depart from Copacabana at 8.30 AM or 1.30 PM, a return ticket costs around 40 Bs ($6). Tickets can also be purchased from kiosks down on the waterfront.
There are no motor vehicles or paved roads on the island. The main economic activity of the approximately 800 families living here is farming, fishing and tourism.
The island has over 80 ruins, most of which date to Inca period of around 1500, though some of them – like the agricultural terraces – long predate the Inca. There’s archaeological evidence that the island has been inhabited for over 5,000 years.
Along the top of the island runs an old Inca trail that connects both the island’s northern and southern ends. It offers spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real, Lake Titicaca, the island’s agricultural terraces lined with giant eucalyptus trees, and beaches.
The Inca Steps are a steep staircase of more than 200 steps built by the Inca, and leading from the port up to the village of Yumani. The stairway also leads to a sacred fountain called the Fountain of Youth, a natural water source that contains three separate spouts called ‘don’t be lazy, don’t be a liar, don’t be a thief.’ It is believed that anybody who drinks the water will remain forever young.
Most Inca ruins are located on the northern side of the island – the village of Cha’llapampa has a tiny but interesting Museum.
The museum displays artifacts excavated from under the waters of Lake Titicaca, a place referred to by locals as La Ciudad Submergida, Sunken City.
On show are fantastic-looking figurines with human traits, animal bones, and Tiwanaku-era artefacts like censers, cups and ceramics.
Most of the golden objects recovered from a depth of 26 feet (8 meters) were stolen when the museum was burgled.
The entrance fee is 10 Bs.
Chincana is one of Isla’s most impressive ruins. Meaning a ‘place where one gets lost,’ this labyrinth-like complex is comprised of a maze of stone walls, rectangular rooms and tiny passageways. There’s a small well inside the complex which the Inca believed brought health to all who drank from it.
Mesa Ceremonica is a ceremonial table made of carved stone where animal and human sacrifices are said to have been made.
Today, the table is used by local people for a more mundane purpose – to display their handicrafts.
Titikala is a puma-shaped rock believed to be the birthplace of Inti, the Inca Sun God, and the first two Incas Manco Capac and his sister Mama Ocllo. Lake Titicaca derives its name from this sacred rock. In Inca times, the rock was covered in gold.
Huellas del Sol, the footprints of the Sun, are foot-shaped prints that lead away from Cha’llapampa village. Locals believe they have been created by the Sun when it walked away from the Sacred Rock to light the world.
The island can be visited in one day, or visitors can spend a day or two in several local lodges or guest houses. Prices on Isla del Sol are generally higher than in Copacabana, and conditions can be quite spartan (limited hot water, no heating, no wi-fi). Making up for that are spectacular sunsets and sunrises, as well as a blessing from an Aymara shaman for a mere 20 Bs ($3)!