THE quaint little town of Copacabana loomed before us as our bus made the final descent from the steep hill tops above. Just beyond lay the deep blue waters of Lago Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, barely a few kilometres from the Peruvian border. Home to Bolivia’s most revered image, the Virgen de Copacabana, the town marked the starting point for our visit to the Isla del Sol (Sun Island).
The plaza in front of the cathedral was packed with cars, buses and trucks, each decorated in bright coloured rosettes and flowers, and being blessed with holy water by a gaunt priest in dirt-brown robes, who seemed to be wondering what all the fuss was about as we scrambled to take photos. This was all part of a ritual known as la ch’alla in which the vehicles were doused in beer and liquor, thus ensuring their future safety along Bolivia’s hazardous routes.
After a short but pleasant lunch consisting of fresh trout from the nearby lake, we set off along the trail to the village of Yampupata, the closest point on the mainland to the Isla del Sol. The beaten landscape, littered with sporadic clusters of trees and grazing herds of llamas and alpacas, took on a somewhat eerie aspect as we ventured further and further from civilisation, and in to the hills overlooking the lake.
Along the way, we passed several chulitas, each wearing the distinctive billowing skirts and bowler hats that have come to be synonymous with these indigenous ladies. Watching them disappear over the horizon as we continued along the pathway, it was impressed upon me how such people went about their own business, making a basic living in such a far-flung region of the globe.
Continuing the trail, we passed a grotto-like cave on the hillside above. Now occupied by a statue of the Virgin, it was no doubt a pre-Christian shrine in an earlier age, and was a timely reminder of religion’s role amongst indigenous societies. We were conscious of the immense tranquillity of the surrounding landscape – we felt to all intents and purposes completely alone, yet peacefully so.
Spending the night at the Hostel Yampu in the village of Sicuani, we had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Señor Hilario Quispe, who was a mine of information about local customs and beliefs. After dinner we took a stroll along the stretch once more, this time in total darkness, admiring the magical beauty of the night sky with its twinkling stars shining like diamonds before the human eye, before retiring to rest.
Awakening to the sound of traditional Andean panpipe music blaring out from the next-door neighbours, we partook in a plain but adequate breakfast of bread washed down with mate de coca, before Señor Quispe insisted on taking us for a ride in his totora boat, painstakingly handmade using the reeds of the lake. Our guide had obviously done this many a time before, for he insisted on having his photo taken only when stood beside one of his alpacas, dressed in traditional Andean clothes consisting of a poncho, the woollen hat with those funny collars that cover the ears, and a swing rope with which he demonstrated his unnerving ability to launch stones into the Titicaca. <–page–>
Finally, we were steered out onto the lake towards our destiny, the Isla del Sol. The clear skies belied the fact that the fresh waters that sprayed around us froze our knuckles white as we gripped the sides of the boat, trusting Señor Quispe’s navigation skills. Fortunately for us, he chose one of the best-preserved Inca sites for our disembarkation.
Set on a rocky weathered cliff some 20m above the lake, Pilco Kayma is a well-preserved two-storey stone structure with classis Inca trapezoidal doorways facing out across the lake to the Isla de la Luna and the snow-capped mountain peaks beyond. Armed with the knowledge that pilgrims in times gone by would have passed through here after landing at the southern tip, we made the most of our time all alone at this building, taking in the almost sacred views from the cliff-top, before beginning our hike across the island.
Making our way to Yumani, the largest village, we negotiated the intact Inca stairway, the Escalera del Inca before heading along natural pathways, passing tranquil hamlets and indigenous children who regarded us initially with suspicion but then laughter as we made for Challa, a smaller community set above a peaceful bay. From there we kindly accepted an offer by two young chulitas and their male partners to row us across to the other side, thus saving us the effort of climbing yet another steep incline. We watched with slight bemusement as the girls took over from the boys in steering us across, throwing themselves into an impressive physical effort. We were so grateful for such hospitality.
Some distance ahead of us, once more at the top of a steep gradient, loomed the sacred rock Titikala where the Inca creator god Viracocha is believed to have created the sun and moon, and after which Lago Titicaca was named. Although an almost clumsy-looking remnant of weatherbeaten sandstone, its location at the windswept summit of the island made us feel like we were indeed treading on holy ground as we gazed around us at a vast circumference consisting of Titicaca, the Peruvian horizon and the mountains of the Bolivian altiplano.
A couple of hundred yards beyond lay the maze-like complex of Inca ruins, La Chincana (The Labyrinth), a curious jig-saw of interlinked rooms and passages that is thought to have been the dwelling quarters of the “Virgins of the Sun”, women specially chosen for their purity and beauty who attended the shrine in rituals. Overlooking a bewitching bay, seemingly untouched by humans in centuries, it was unnerving yet ultimately enriching to have the site to ourselves as we stood in the face of a cooling breeze, recognising the remains of an ancient community, tucked away in this small corner of the world.