Isla del Sol is the centerpiece of the mythological origin of the Incas. According to one Incan legend, this “Island of the Sun” was the birthplace of the sun god Inti from Lake Titicaca and his son, the ruler of the first Incan dynasty. Today, it is a long and thin piece of land with craggy hills, peninsulas jutting into the lake like arms, and a melange of terrace crops. Villages of stone buildings are served by winding dirt paths on which donkeys are used as the main manner of transport as there are no motorized vehicles on the entire island.
Bright and early, blurry-eyed and sleepy, I boarded a small boat at Copacabana’s lake port and settled in for the two hour ride to the island. I had booked a hostel in the village of Yumani on the south side of the island and was all set to disembark the ferry there so I could drop off my stuff and spend the afternoon exploring the neighborhood.
Unfortunately for my plan, the boat cruised right on by the port on the south side of the island. I watched all the other boats pull into the docks below Yumani as we motored past. Apparently I had picked the only boat that didn’t stop where I wanted to go.
Our boat chugged on for another half hour to the north side of the island, parking at a dock in the small village of Ch’allapampa. Now my mode of transportation to my hostel on the other side of the lengthy island would be my own two feet.
A tour guide approached the passengers disembarking my boat, urging us to follow him to some of the Incan ruins near the village. It was tempting to join him – the mention of “Inca” and/or “ruins” always gets me excited – but I had a long walk ahead of me to my hostel and figured I’d better get going.
Luckily, I would still be getting my fill of Incan sights because there remain some of their creations on the other side of the island as well. But first, I had to find the trail that connects the two sides of the island. I hoisted my slightly heavy backpack over my shoulders, thanking myself for having the keenness to leave the rest of my luggage at my hostel in Copacabana. I started ambling south along the coastline, hoping I’d run into either the trail or someone who could point it out to me.
The girl who I finally asked directions from told me the trail was at the crest of a rugged hill, reachable by merely climbing up the hillside until I arrived at some Incan ruins. The trail passed right by those ruins, she said.
Easy enough, I thought, looking up an incline of trees to the seemingly close tapering off of the slope.
I started to trudge straight up the slant of the hill, dodging trees, climbing boulders, darting over logs, and maneuvering my feet on the loose dirt, rocks, and leaves so as not to fall on my face or backwards back down the hill. My lungs were panting for oxygen from the thin altitudinous air, and I began to regret bringing my not-as-light-as-an-Air MacBook Pro and my heavy toiletries.
Despite my fatigued muscles and screaming lungs, I was having a great time with the challenge of making it to the top. I sputtered over one last boulder and commenced a mental celebration for surmounting the hill.
My feet flattened out on level ground, and I looked up to see … an even higher undulation of grass and rocks in front of me. Regrettably, I had forgotten that the summit of a hill is never where it seems. All my years of traversing the steep San Francisco streets still hadn’t taught me that there is always another block to scale after you think you’ve made it to the top.
I could barely make out some crumbling rocks at what I really hoped was the top of the hill. Please, oh please, let these be the ruins I’m looking for, I begged Inti the sun god.
Thankfully, this second stretch of hill was less arduous. Finally, I reached the collapsing stone building, and as promised, there was the road. Victory!
My trek to Yumani was a relaxing yet strenuous three hours up and over rocky green swells flanked by blue satin lake. Gradually the terrain turned agricultural, with verdant crop terraces strikingly complementing the periwinkle sheen of the lake. Barely a person – tourist or local – was in sight. It was such a fun journey that I was mildly disappointed when I reached my hostel.
My disappointment was short-lived. The hostel owner led me to a spectacular room with a wall of windows overlooking the lake far below down the hill. I sat on the balcony outside my room, rested my legs, and daydreamed at the lake to a soothing medley of mooing, baaing, and hee-hawing.
A half hour later, my legs were ready to get to work again.
I made my way past tourist shops, restaurants, hostels, and tables of handmade alpaca wear down to the ferry dock that I had hoped to arrive at that morning. Leading up the cliff from the coast is a set of still-intact Incan steps with an Incan fountain spouting water down the length of one side. Wanting to get the full Inca experience, I forced my tired legs to lift themselves up the stone staircase.
At the top of the stairs, a path twisting around the southern tip of the island implored me to find out where it went, so I turned onto it and headed southward.
Apart from the fun of the hike, I was completely entertained by the local life going on around me. Women in bowler hats and flowing skirts with florescent packs on their backs herded llamas and sheep along the narrow road. Lone donkeys somberly plodded by like they were just another person on their way home from work. I almost expected to see one troop past on his hind legs wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.
Every so often the quiet was interrupted by a loud baa or snort and I would be jolted out of my reverie by an attention-seeking sheep or a hungry pig chomping away in the terrace fields next to the path.
In the distance ahead, I could see an Incan-looking building, so I rushed on to scout it out. It was the Incan ruins of Pilko Kaina, a stone structure that looks like a mansion. Complete with a raised front foyer, alcoves to house sacred objects, easterly lake views, and a labyrinth of rooms, it definitely had the feel of a luxurious estate, Incan-style.
Back at my hostel that early evening, I enjoyed the sunset over the lake from bed, then totally conked out before the sun had fully disappeared. I guess I was tired!
I spent the next morning wandering the island’s network of pathways through little villages and terrace farms. My lunch was the island’s specialty, trout, recently caught right out of the lake.
An afternoon ferry took me back to Copacabana, and now I am on a bus to Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.