If our experience of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, Puno and the overly touristic floating islands, was something of a disappointment, the Bolivian side more than made up for it.
After a slow border crossing, where everyone on the bus filed first to the Peruvian police station, then to the immigration office for exit stamps, then over the border on foot and into the Bolivian immigration office, we made it into Copacabana. Not a particularly lively or picturesque town, we enjoyed it simply for it’s relaxed vibe and incredible views. We spent the next morning walking along the edge of the lake over the stubby grass and shingle beach, and eating in one of the two colourful, hippy-ish restaurants that face the port, before hopping on an afternoon boat to the Isla del Sol.
The boat ride took two and half hours, puttering slowly but surely across the lake which, surrounded by green cliffs and disappearing at the horizon with no opposite shore in sight, looked much more like a sea. The sky above, the very air itself, seemed impossibly blue and in spite of the bright, warm sun everything looked cold and weathered.
On the shore, we were accosted immediately by kids trying to get us to stay in one of the three hostels clustered around the tiny beach at the foot of tall, rocky cliffs. Luckily, a local gave us a tip and pointed out that the beach gets no electricity at night and that there are hostels and restaurants in the village at the top of the island, which have better views and face the sunset. So, we headed up the enormous stone staircase, reportedly Inca, past the dubiously named Fountain of Youth (the water feeding into this runs down a gutter beside the steps, so I’m not sure if drinking it would make you younger or just give you a serious tummy problem), and up into the village.
At 4,100m above sea level, the highest we’d been yet, the climb was pretty difficult. But the late afternoon sun was warm, and as we ascended the views behind us across the lake became clearer, until we could see the snowy white peaks of beautiful, silent mountains peeping out from the low cloud bank lining the lake in the distance.
At the very top, we found a relatively cheap hotel – the Templo del Sol, at 30Bs (about £6) a night for private – and then headed out for a short walk to some nearby Inca ruins that were marked, slightly inaccurately, on a map in our hostel. We never reached the ruins, since they turned out to be at the very southern tip of the island down a huge hill with no clear trail or path that we could see, but instead we had a really nice walk in the golden, wintery sunlight, through the small pine forest and around a hilltop covered in wiry bushes and heather-like plants, where a local farmer was watching his sheep.
After our walk, we watched most of the sunset from one of the village restaurants, on plastic tables teetering at the edge of the cliff, as it slid down the sky towards the lake. The island turned slowly golden, the distant sky was a pale, cold pink, and it was set to be one of the most beautiful sunsets we’d watched. But, thinking we had more time, we decided to hike up to the viewpoint at the top of the hill behind the village, and of course arrived just after the sun had completely disappeared behind the distant blue horizon. The electric pink and orange sky it left behind, and the dusty peach coloured light playing on the white mountain range behind us, were spectacular, but it seemed like a huge shame to miss the actual sunset when on the Isla del Sol.
Our night on the island more than made up for it, though. On a recommendation from another traveller, we headed back out of the village to the tiny stone cottage Las Velas on the edge of the pine forest. From the outside, it looked shut, with no lights on, no sign, and no sign of life through the dark windows. We tried the door anyway, though, and found a tiny, cosy little restaurant dimly lit by five or six candles on as many small tables, where a few other couples and groups of travellers were sitting, quietly chatting and playing cards, so that the noise was not above a murmur. Although it sounds a little eerie, the atmosphere was beautifully intimate and I loved it straight away.
Although we had to wait a long time for our food (there’s only one chef, also the owner, and he serves everyone at the same time so that we all eat together), it was worth the wait. Perfectly cooked Filet Mignon in a gorgeous mushroom sauce, with proper mashed potatoes (something hard to find in South America), not to mention the delicious wine; it was easily one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip. The owner was absolutely lovely, too, chatting to everyone and making sure everything was perfect. When we left, our bellies grossly overfull, he showed us to the door and outside, after I remarked on the stars in a gushing awe that was totally genuine, he pointed out all the constellations for us, including the Southern Cross. The night sky was absolutely breathtaking; the milky way – which I’d never seen clearly before – was visible, as well as dozens of crystal clear constellations. I walked home with my neck constantly tilted upwards, barely able to tear myself away from the view, and utterly in love with the Isla del Sol and our first taste of Bolivia.
Our second day on the Isla del Sol was even more beautiful than the afternoon before. The sky over Lake Titicaca was a constant vivid, empty blue, and the air at this altitude smelled fresher and cleaner than any I’ve smelled before.
We fuelled up greedily with a huge breakfast, then headed out at about ten to walk the length of the island. Having spent the night in the village of Yumani in the south of the island (where the most hostels and restaurants are to be found) we walked all the way to the north of the island, rounding the tip, to the village of Challapampa to get the afternoon boats from there.
The walk took about three hours, weaving constantly up and downhill through beautiful scenery. Shortly after leaving Yumani, we passed a checkpoint and had to pay tax of 15Bs each to pass into the northern section of the island, allegedly for upkeep of the archaeological sights. Although every uphill was hard, the walk wasn’t too tough and the stunning, 360 degree views of the lake were a spectacular reward.
In the distance ahead, a thin blue line proved the enormity of Titicaca, disappearing over the horizon like an ocean, while to our left the island fell away in small, model-railway hills coated in neat, stubby grass, to bays of startlingly turquoise water with thin, sandy beaches. Behind us to the right, the mountains we had glimpsed the day before still rose above the low cloud bank, which clung to them like children, while the white peaks remained glassy and unmoved.
At the far end of the island, we reached the Inca ruins; roofless, stone houses with gapingly empty windows and doors. The houses hinted at history, but the island itself felt ancient: the silence, the dirt tracks, the few spindly pine trees and the weather-worn mat of grass tangled with spiky bracken. Mildly interesting, the Inca ruins felt limp after Machu Picchu, especially when we saw the squat, stone Inca table, reportedly once used for sacrifices, laden with souvenirs and watched over by a bored old man.
The final part of the walk crossed farmland. Stone cottages on sloping hillsides, pigs tethered by the side of the path, a flurry of colourful flowers shivering in the blueish sunlight. It was a slow, peaceful, beautiful path that curled around the hillside and down to a shingle bay, where white painted rowing boats were moored behind a silent town.
We bought tickets at the tiny harbour and, having arrived only ten minutes before the boat left at 1:30pm, headed back to the mainland shortly after our walk. The Isla del Sol is still one of my biggest highlights of Bolivia, and was the perfect way to enter the country. Looking back, I wish we’d spent longer on that peaceful, beautiful island.