Set off the Bolivian coastline of Lake Titicaca—which at over 13,000 ft. is the world’s highest navigable lake, by the way—is the utterly enchanting island of Isla del Sol. Exceptionally authentic and frighteningly relaxing, Isla del Sol is one of the most incredible places I have ever been.
Everyone paying a visit to Isla del Sol must depart from the Bolivian port town of Copacabana, itself a lakeside charmer that far outshines its dingy Peruvian port city neighbors. Be forewarned that there are no ATM’s in Copacabana, and for some strange reason the only bank is closed on Mondays. If for some reason you show up on a Sunday night with 3 cents in cash after paying the hefty $135 Bolivian visa (only for Americans), there are, amazingly, a few shady back alley places that will change a traveler’s check. Don’t mind the fact you’re doing business with an 8 year old girl…that’s completely normal around here.
The town of Copacabana itself can be walked around in a few hours, with time devoted to visiting the town cathedral, walking the sandy lakeshore, or catching a sunset from the top of Cerro Calvario, which is only a half hour’s stroll up the hill.
The main attraction in these parts, however, is undoubtedly heading out to La Isla del Sol. Reachable via a 90 minute panga ride from Copacabana, Isla del Sol is a welcome and refreshing step back in time. There are no cars on the island, and the population of donkeys, sheep, and herds of roaming piglets most likely outnumbers that of humans. While still culturally authentic and decidedly rural, times are changing on the simple little island. Electricity was installed around 2005, and it isn’t uncommon to see a traditionally dressed sheepherder chatting on a cell phone. Herds of backpackers flock to semi-modern lodging, yet it’s still the type of place where “restaurants” are really just a family kitchen, and ingredients are purchased from the store across the street as soon as an order is placed.
Be warned: If arriving on the south end of the island be prepared for a 20-30 minute uphill trek that is numbingly steep and strenuous considering the altitude. Once at the top of the mountain, however, the views afforded are simply indescribable, and it’s easy to forget that you are standing atop an island in the middle of a lake in Boliva, and not on the hillside of a simple Mediterranean hamlet in somewhere say, Croatia. For anyone needing a room on the south end of the island, I highly recommend Hotel Intikala, which is by far and away the nicest lodging in the area and it offers the most dramatically sweeping lake view you could possible imagine. The entire lakeshore seems to open up before you, and it’s the type of place where the perfect accoutrement to a sunset view and a bottle of wine is the heavy blanket of stars that stretches across the sky on a clear night. Add in the occasional whine of a nearby donkey, and it’s easy to have to take a step back and think about where you actually are.
While the views are expansive and the thought of relaxing is enticing, a highlight of Isla del Sol is taking a day to walk the length of the island and witness the simple way of life that many of the villagers still choose to live. Anyone walking across the island along the ancient path of the Incas will encounter multiple local women driving their herds of sheep up the terraced slopes, or men escorting donkeys laden with bags of grain. While the far northern end of the island has multiple Incan temples and ruins, the greatest highlight for me, at least, was finding the beaches that lie on the eat facing shoreline. That’s right, simple sandy beaches in landlocked, mountainous Bolivia. The days on the island can get real warm, the sand between your toes is soft, and if you lie down and close your eyes, the sound of the waves lapping on the shoreline transports you to somewhere far more tropical. The downside of the Isla del Sol beaches? The water is a tad bit chilly for cooling off. The upside? Chances are that the only thing you’ll be sharing the beach with is a big muddy pig.