Bolivian Travels: Walking Through The Ruins of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

Previous Post: From Copacabana To Isla del Sol

The night before we had walked up to the mirador – the scenic lookout on the island’s highest point. We then made our way back down to the Ecolodge La Estancia for dinner and a restful evening. The next morning we first headed for the village of Yumani. Our guide Javier had arranged for a restaurant there to prepare that day’s lunch-in-a-bag for us. I noticed a few lodges and cheaper hotels – and a lot of places offering pizza! –  in the village. You don’t have to stay at the Ecolodge if you’re on a tight budget.

The map below shows the path – the ruta sagrada – that we walked to the north end of the island. The cool of the morning – it was about 8:30 when we started  -and the entire island being vehicle-free, it made for a wonderful walk on a very well maintained path. It is about nine kilometers end-to-end.

[ Do note that the map below is turned 90º  to fit a landscape image format. The island actually angles from southeast at the Yumani end to northwest on the Chincana/Titi Khar’ka end.]

isla de sol map with sites

Isla de Sol map  – note that north is on the right and east is on bottom

A Two-Day Exploration of  Isla del Sol:  One Way to do it…

As mentioned, Yumani has a number of restaurants and accommodation options for those planning on spending a night on the island.  One possible plan would be to take the 8:30 a.m. boat from Copacabana to Yumani, find a room and drop off your baggage, and then spend the day walking to the sites at other end of the island and then walking back via Challapampa before dark to Yumani. (See map above for the route.)  If the thought of walking all the way back is too much, a boat ride from Challapampa back to Yumani is possible. The reception desk at your hotel/hostal would be able to help you plan it.

Early the next day you could walk up to the mirador (scenic lookout) at the island’s highpoint for the sunrise and then spend a few hours visiting some sites on the south end of the island before catching a boat back to Copacabana in the afternoon.

Yumani village road on Isla del Sol

Yumani village road on Isla del Sol

As we left Yumani we came to the toll-gate where villagers from Challa charge $2. U.S. for passage.  The pix below show the scene as our guide took care of the details. This included writing each of our names and country of origin down in a registry!

Communidad of Challa toll gate on Isla del Sol

Comunidad of Challa toll gate on Isla del Sol

What looks like a pretty humble site is actually infused with a couple of millennia of history – if you know the story.   The archaeologist Charles Stanish’s Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science provides an insightful guide to the history of the entire region.  Of this spot, named Apachinacapata, he writes –

Apachinacapata has a long cultural history, going back at least 2000 years before the Inca. There is also a substantial Inca occupation on the site. This large site was a major point in the Inca-period pilgrimage.   It is the only site where the two roads intersect, is on the boundary between the communities of Yumani and Challa today, and is a major crossing area. It is precisely for these reasons that the islanders have established a ticket booth here, a custom that definitely goes back to the Inca period. (page 173)

trekking roup waits while guide pays the toll

our trekking group waits while guide pays the toll

El guía Javier records the names of the trekking group members at Challa toll on Isla del Sol

El guía Javier records the names of the trekking group members at Challa toll on Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol's pequeña Comunidad de Challa

Isla del Sol’s pequeña Comunidad de Challa

Leaving the ticket booth at Apachinacapata, we continued our way north to the major Inca sites. Looking east, I saw the Cordillera Real about seventy kilometers away and thought – “Tomorrow morning our trek will be starting at the foot of that peak on the left!”

looking east from above Challa on Isla del Sol to the Cordillera Real

looking east from above Challa on Isla del Sol to the Cordillera Real

The Illampu Massif from isla del Sol's pilgrims' trail

The Illampu Massif from Isla del Sol’s pilgrims’ trail

a section of the Pilgrims' Trail across Isla del Sol

a section of the pilgrims’ trail on Isla del Sol

another view from Isla del Sol's Pilgrims Trail

another view from Isla del Sol’s Pilgrims Trail –

The current edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook notes this –

The island’s most spectacular ruins complex, the Chincana ruins, lies near the island’s northern tip. Its main feature is the Palacio del Inca , a maze of stone walls and tiny doorways, also known as El Laberinto (the Labyrinth) or by its Aymará name, Inkanakan Utapa.

(Lonely Planet’s Bolivia)

Like a visit to the remains of other ancient sites – Machu Picchu or Mycenae or Sigiriya – the visitor needs to supply some constructive imagination for it to come “alive”.

a panorama of the Chincana ruins

a panorama of the Chicano ruins – enlarge in a new window with a click or two

In the case of Chincana, we have the ruins of a roofless building.  All that is left are the stone walls of a labyrinth-like set of rooms – some much smaller than others – and passage ways. Even without the roof it was occasionally difficult to see the way forward and once or twice I had to backtrack from a dead-end passageway.  It must have been fun finding one’s way around when the roof blocked off all the sunlight!

Isla del Sol Chincana doorways connecting three rooms

Isla del Sol Chincana doorways connecting three rooms

Chincana narrow passageway to room of left

Chincana narrow passageway to room of left

looking north over the Chincana ruins

looking north over the Chincana ruins

looking south over the Chincana ruins

looking south over the Chincana ruins

north end of Isla del Sol Lake titicaca chincana ruins and beach

panorama – north end of Isla del Sol Lake Titicaca – Chincana ruins and beach

Below the ruins of the Chincana is a beautiful beach.  Three backpackers had their tent up and they were walking along the beach or sunbathing – maybe not the greatest idea given the UV levels at 4000 meters! The beach, the water, the whole scene was breathtaking.

isla del Sol beach - a little slice of paradise

Isla del Sol beach – a little slice of paradise

Lake titicaca - Isla del Sol beach and campers

Lago Titicaca – Isla del Sol beach and campers

From the Chincana we looped back to the area of the Titi Khar’ka. I will admit that I was actually disappointed since the reality of the sloping sandstone rock face was not quite as dramatic as I had imagined.  There it is – a small bump –  in the middle of the image below. It is behind the remnants of a stone wall.

Also, given that a major temple complex once stood here, I was expecting to see some evidence of that.  Other than the so-called Ceremonial Table on the plaza area across from the Rock, there was nothing. Where did it go? Did the Spanish really haul away all the stone blocks for their own projects?

approaching The Sacred Rock - Titi Khar’ka (The Rock of the Puma)

approaching Titi Khar’ka (The Rock of the Puma) – aka The Sacred Rock  (La Roca Sagrada)

And here is The Sacred Rock is from a different angle.  Titi Khar’ka means Rock of the Puma; it gets its name from its shape as pictured below.  If you can see a puma you are on the right track! This is a situation where it really helps to be told what you are seeing. Someone else might imagine a giant sleeping on his side!

looking at Titi Khar'ka from the south end

looking at Titi Khar’ka from the south end – a crouching puma?

In the pic above you can also see two cavities near the east end, one on top of the other. They are the birth place of the sun and the moon in Inca myth are part of what made the site so holy to them. In fact, next to the Coricancha in Cusco this site was one of the most powerful huacas (sacred spaces) in the entire Inca mythic worldview.

close-up of some of the Chincana rock face

close-up of some of the Chincana rock face

I let the rest of my group wander ahead while I worked a bit at different angles of the Titi Khar’ka. I would catch up to them on the path that leads to Challapampa. We would catch a boat there which took us for a quick visit to Isla de la Luna, another important huaca in the Inca world.

a view of the lake side of Titi Khar'ka from further south

a view of the lake side of Titi Khar’ka from further east on the path to Challapampa

panorama of Titi Khar'ka - the Rock of the Puma - on Isla del Sol

panorama of Titi Khar’ka – the Rock of the Puma – on Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol - from the path to Challapampa - Titi Khar'ka and the Mesa (Table)

Isla del Sol – from the path to Challapampa – Titi Khar’ka and the Mesa (Table)

The walk from the Sacred Rock to Challapampa and the boat was 2.3 kilometers.  It was just after noon and there was absolutely no shade anywhere as we walked in the full sun and heat of the day. The path and the elevation profile are illustrated in the Google Earth satellite map below –

from Titi Khar'ka to Challapmapa Trail

heading south east on the path to Challapampa on Isla del Sol

heading southeast on the path to Challapampa on Isla del Sol

looking down on a farm property in a Lake Titicaca bay near Challapampa

looking down on a farm property in a Lake Titicaca bay near Challapampa

an old wooden boat on the beach at Challapampa

an old wooden boat on the beach at Challapampa

what the locals of Challapampa are floating these days

what the locals of Challapampa are floating these days

Our next objective was the much smaller Isla de la Luna about 12 kilometers to the south-east.  It has one small Inca-era site which may -or may not – be worth the time and cost to get there, depending on how obsessed you are about things Inca.

leaving Challapampa by boat for Isla de la Luna

leaving Challapampa by boat for Isla de la Luna (aka Koati)

approaching Isla de la Luna's reddish northwestern tip

approaching Isla de la Luna’s reddish northwestern tip

The first thing you notice is the red colour of the island’s tip. It reminded me of the red colour of hematite used by Algonquian peoples in Canada’s Canadian Shield region to paint mythic images on countless vertical rock faces at water’s edge.

the tip of the Island of the Moon in Lake Titicaca

the tip of the Island of the Moon in Lake Titicaca

The map below shows the 12-kilometer boat ride from Challapampa to the north side of the island. There is a small community on the south side but we did not visit.

Lake Titicaca - Isla del Sol, de la Luna, and Yampupata

The image below shows the area we approached with our boat. The visitor center and entrance to the site sit just above the dock.  A short steep walk up a series of steps leads you to the site itself – a natural amphitheater – with its ruins of a stone temple and a supposed nunnery.  Some reconstruction makes it easier to picture how it may have looked.

dock and entrance to the Isla de la Luna Inca site

dock and entrance to the Isla de la Luna Inca site

At the top of the plateau before we entered the amphitheater, we passed by the following wall.  It turns out that what we think of as amazing Inca stonework is actually the handiwork of those from this area.  The builders were the descendants of those who created Tiwanaku, a city-state so fabled in the Lake Titicaca area that the Inca themselves incorporated it into their story.

stonework at Isla de la Luna

stonework at Isla de la Luna

Since the Spaniards used this island and Isla del Sol as sources for the stones they needed to build the cathedral in Copacabana,  much of what was here has been destroyed. This island’s use as a penal colony in the early 20th century also resulted in damage or outright destruction to more the original buildings.

a panorama of the Isla de la Luna site

a panorama of the Isla de la Luna site – enlarge with a click

Various names are used for the site.  Among other names,  I found it referred to as the Temple of the Virgins of the Sun, as Acllahuasi, and as Iñak Uyu.

Isla de la Luna - one side of the amphitheatre

Isla de la Luna – one side of the amphitheater

What you will see is a fairly humble site. For many people the half-day dedicated to the visit must be a disappointment; for some, keen to experience every little bit of Inca myth, it could be worth it.

Combining the visit to the site with a walk along the ridge and perhaps a stay in the village on the other side overnight might create added value.  You would have to make sure about boat connections since the island is not serviced regularly.  In my mind, spending more time on the nearby Isla del Sol  would be a better use of your limited time and allow you to ramble around there a bit more.

a reconstructed portion of the site at Isla de la Luna

a reconstructed portion of the site at Isla de la Luna

stone and mortar - and a bit of adobe - work at Isla de la Luna site

stone and mortar – and a bit of adobe – work at Isla de la Luna site

one the three sides of the Isla de la Luna site

one the three sides of the Isla de la Luna site

another side of the amphittheater structures

another side of the amphitheater structures

Isla de la Luna - entrance to small chamber

Isla de la Luna – entrance to small chamber

Thanks to fellow trekker Tony Coulson for the remaining shots in this post. For some reason I put away my camera at this point of the day!  After our brief visit to the site – perhaps an hour in all – it was back to the boat and the ride to Yampupata where our mini-bus was waiting to take us to Huatajata and our hotel room for the night.

from Isla del Sol to Huatajata to Sorata

from Isla del Sol to Huatajata to Sorata

Along the way we had to go back over the Strait of Tequina.  It was just before 6:00 p.m. when we got to the hotel  – Huatajata’s finest. Reception staff took our dinner orders while we checked in and an hour later we were in the dining room. Very efficient!

barge crossing the Strait of Tiquina with a Tour bus

barge crossing the Strait of Tiquina with a Tour bus

the front of our hotel in Huatajata

the front of our hotel in Huatajata

view of Hotel Inca Utama in Huatajata

view of Hotel Inca Utama in Huatajata

Huatajata - our cooks and driver wait to get going

Huatajata – our cooks and driver wait to get going

The next morning we would begin our trek with a last ride up to the start point. In the image above, our cooks for the trip Lucretia and her daughter Patricia are readying their food boxes and gear on the truck which will take them to the first of the trek’s campsites located just above the village of Llojena and accessible by dirt road.  A few days later, as the roads disappeared, a switch to donkeys and llamas would be made. The trek begins in the next post –  Cordillera Real Trek Day 1: South of Sorata to Alto Llojena

Useful Links:

Stanish Titicaca

The Lonely Planet guidebook to Bolivia has an excellent chapter on the Lake Titicaca area, as does the Rough Guide to Bolivia.

However,  Of all the books I read before the trip, Charles Stanish’s Lake Titicaca: legend, Myth and Science provided the most informative and scholarly exploration of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations which flourished around the Lake Titicaca. Stanish has spent over twenty years doing archaeological work in the area and the depth and range of his knowledge make for a great read.

If there is one overall idea that the book left me with it is this – the credit we give to the short-lived Inca empire often belongs to civilizations of the Titicaca region like that of Tiwanaku which preceded theirs. The allure of anything Inca is so strong, however, that any trail becomes an Inca Trail and ruins are always Inca ruins – it is marketing gone mad and leaves travellers unaware of the true – and more complicated – story.

Next Post: Cordillera Real Trek Day 1: South of Sorata to Alto Llojena

7 thoughts on “Bolivian Travels: Walking Through The Ruins of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

  1. I usually prefer travelling independently, but reading this and comparing my own experience, I can see the advantage of joining a tour group for this excursion. I never made it to the ruins on the north side of the island, which I deeply regret after seeing your photos and reading more about the history of the area. On the other hand, the adventure I had getting “lost” in the local farm fields is unforgettable 😉

    • If you note from my other posts I also prefer to do it on my own – canoe trips, bike touring, hiking in Torres del Paine. My visit to Bolivia was mostly about the mountains – the Cordillera Real – and a walk down and through them. It is one area where I do not feel totally competent to be out on my own – and given the lack of trekking infrastructure in Bolivia fairly challenging to do.

      The best thing about this tour, other than the way everything flowed perfectly with no hickups, was the guide. Javier is a native of La Paz with complete command of English who enriched our understanding of situations and places we walked through with his insight. I usually get very bored of guides who rhyme off a whole bunch of info; I prefer to take in things on my own. However, Javier was on a different level. He made it possible to pack in a lot in a short period of time – no getting lost in local farm fields for us! And in a way that’s the fun thing about doing it on your own – even if you missed the ruins!

      • Sorry, I didn’t see your reply the other day! I didn’t mean to imply anything about travel habits and preferences, I was just noting how different this particular experience was for us. I find there are many of ups and downs with either type of travel…

        I’m totally jealous of that amazing trek in the Cordillera Real, by the way! I only spent a few days in Bolivia, focusing most of my time in the Amazonian Basin of Ecuador and Peru. Exploring the rainforest was the dream my trip was mostly intended to fulfill, but if I ever go back, I would really like to do something like that!

        I did take the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu tour while in Peru, though, and coincidentally, my guide was named Javier and I had a similar experience with him! Funny how those things work out, eh?

      • Julie, you did the trip solo in your 20’s and I am now in my 60’s! I indulge in “luxuries” now that I would not have considered forty years ago. In March I am going to be bicycling around Tasmania. I have already booked rooms – single and private! – for half of the nights I will be on the road and will make use of my tent for the rest. Back in the day I would just have gotten a bed in a hostel dorm that sleeps twelve or tented all the way! Nothing like a cushy pension and bank account to draw from, eh!

        Lots of good reading at your website! By the way, what is this with you calling your gotta-git-to lists “bucket” lists? A bucket List is something that folks my age do!

  2. I fear you’ve misunderstood my comments. I did say in a comment on another one of your articles that I took the trip 9 years ago and that I don’t take the same risks anymore. So, I’m aware that things change as time goes by. Rereading my comments, I can’t see what I said to make you think otherwise, but regardless, I regret the confusion.

    People of all ages have bucket lists, I think, no? Some people might just call them dreams or goals when they’re younger, but I don’t necessarily see the difference… After all, no one is assured to even see tomorrow…

    • Julie, you are way overthinking our back-and-forth emails! I certainly have not taken any offence at anything you wrote. I appreciated your thoughtful comments and was prompted to write back some stuff that your views led me to considering. That’s pretty much it – no confusion, no misunderstanding, no regrets! Perhaps I should make more use of lol’s or emojis to help folks understand my teasing nature! I should have use one right there instead of the ! If you want, of course you can have a bucket list!

      • Lol! Thanks for saying that — I do overthink things sometimes, and then again, I don’t always “get the joke” either… Maybe not the easiest combo for jokers and kidders to crack 😉

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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