Beyond the traffic clogged streets of La Paz and Potosi, and the shopping malls of Santa Cruz, Bolivia is a country that has changed very little with the passage of time. Should you disappear into the countryside, you will find simple adobe huts and ruddy cheeked children, a society kept alive on the whims of a harvest. And whilst the women may carry a mobile phone buried beneath layers of colourful skirts, little boys will know of Manchester United and even Coca Cola is on sale, it is difficult to deny that life remains very much the same as it was hundreds of years ago for many people in this beautiful country.
Perhaps, this is no more true than upon the shores of Isla del Sol, one of Bolivia's most picturesque destinations and somewhere you simply can't miss.
For travellers, a visit will either consist a single-day's hiking adventure or a more laid-back few days taking in the beautiful scenery, starry night skies and peaceful existence by the water.
Visiting for the day
Although a number of backpackers opt to spend a night or two on Isla del Sol, we felt it was entirely possible to experience the best the island has to offer in one day.
**Update May 2017: There has been an on-going dispute between the north and south sides of the island regarding tourism revenues and accessibility - according to reports this means boats are unable to go to the north and tourists are restricted to visiting the southern end of the island. Please keep us updated on the situation in the comments section so we can keep future travellers informed.**
In order to make the most out of your trip however, we'd recommend (actually, make that insist) that you leave on the 8.30 a.m. ferry from Copacabana and travel to the north of the island, and the village of Cha'llapampa. Just be warned, this might not look very far on the map, but these boats go painfully slow - expect the journey to take around 2 hours (and pray you don't need the bathroom!)
Included within your ticket price is the option to explore this section of the island and then take the boat to the southern end of the island at 2.30 p.m. - but we say that this is the waste of an amazing hike! A much better option is 'Willa Thaki', a beautiful trail that runs the length of the island, ending in Yumani.
This Incan path, sitting atop Isla del Sol's highest point allows for simply breathtaking panoramic views, across both coasts and, on a good day, to the very edge of the Cordillera Real’s snow-capped peaks.
The hike, depending upon your level of fitness, takes around 3 hours to complete, but do take it slowly if you haven't properly acclimatised to Bolivia's altitude - don't forget that this is the highest navigable lake in the world!
Starting from Cha'llapampa, it's a walk uphill towards the ruins of Chincana and Pillkukayna (just follow the signs). In all honesty, we weren't too fascinated by these, preferring to take more time to appreciate some of the gorgeous vistas available. Gorgeous blue water, verdant greens, and picture-perfect bays. We arrived on a particularly spectacular morning, but even if the weather hadn't been so great, the scenery would still have been breathtaking. The first beach along the way (who knew Isla del Sol had this?!) was unfortunately taken over by holiday-ing young Argentineans and Chileans - and if you've travelled for a little while in South America, you'll know what this entails - but venture a little further, and you'll find a beautiful little cove that you may well have all yo yourself!
(Please note that even if you don't wish to visit these ruins, and opt instead to just keep on walking, you'll still need to pay a fee to pass through. Please see below for more information on the necessary fees.)
The trails are all quite clearly marked, so you won't have any issues getting lost if you stick to them. You will however be asked for tickets at certain points, with there also being 2-3 'tollbooths' along the way - these are, we understand, legitimate with the money being put towards the island's residents. It's best to carry small change with you to cover off these.
The official fees are as follows:
#1 Entrance to Chincana and Pillkukayna ruins as well as to the Museo del Oro (NB: even if, like us, you don't intend to visit the ruins, you will need to pay this fee to access the hiking trail) | Bs 10
#2 Central Checkpoint | Bs 2
#3 Entrance to Yumani | Bs 5
We opted to bring a packed lunch and several large bottles of water with us from Copacabana, but should you require a little sustenance on the route, you'll find plenty of kiosks along the way (just remember to take your rubbish back with you).
A perfect way to end this hike, before catching your boat back to Copacabana from the ferry at Yumani at 4 p.m., is with a delicious lunch of soup or trout at one of the restaurants overlooking the Lake Titicaca - it's probably the most picturesque spot you'll eat at in Bolivia.
How to get to Isla del Sol
There are twice daily ferries from Copacabana leaving at 8.30 a.m and 1.30 p.m. All of them leave from pretty much the same spot by the water, with different firms having their own ticket booths by the jetty.
A single ticket costs 30 Bs each way, or you can buy a return with the same company for 40-50 Bs. We bought our ticket in the morning, just before the boats left and there are no shortage of companies or touts asking you to go with them. This means that you can bargain to try and get a slightly better rate - although don't be surprised if you're not successful.
There are always at least two stops on each journey. The first calls into Yumani on the south of the island, the final stop is Cha'llapampa in the north. For the hike, you want to stay on until the last stop.
To return, take the boat from Yumani at 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. Make sure you arrive with plenty of time and double-check departure times on the day of travel as there are no advance reservations, and theoretically, if it's super busy you could get left behind.
It's worth noting that there are some steep ascent and descents on Isla del Sol but, providing you have time and a reasonable level of fitness and acclimatisation to the altitude, this shouldn't pose too much trouble.
where to stay
Before you think about booking your accommodation, bear in mind a couple of things.
Unless you have a pretty large budget, you're not going to find anything luxurious on Isla del Sol - the facilities simply don't exist. And whilst wifi is present in a couple of hotels, it's the exception not the norm. Of course, this is no bad thing at all (your aren't coming here to watch Youtube!) but it's something to be aware of in advance.
Additionally, if you're planning on being here during the winter months, remember that given the altitude, it gets decidedly chilly - especially at night. Be sure to pick somewhere with heating or where you know they provide lots of thick blankets!
We were genuinely surprised by the number of accommodation options on the island, especially in the south, and as with so many places we visited, a substantial number of (cheaper) places just don't exist on the internet.
If however, you do prefer to book in advance, take a look at some of these:
HI-Inka Pacha - a HI hostel located in Yumani. Whilst not quite up to the standards you might be used to if you've stayed in some of the big city HI's, this family run hostel is cheap (dorms can be had for £6 a night) and comfortable. They also serve up some pretty tasty trout!
Willka Kuti Hostal - found in Cha'llapampa (in the quieter north of the island) is popular in huge part due to its location right on the beach - a great option during the summer months.
Casa de la Luna - Whilst it's a little pricier than your usual Bolivian hotel, if you're looking for something a little more cosy during the winter months, Casa de la Luna is a good bet. They can also arrange a donkey to collect your luggage if the thought of hauling up the steep steps is a little daunting (there's no motorised transport on the Isla).
If you do book in advance, then make double sure that your boat stops at the right place on the island before buying your ticket (and make sure you get off at that stop!) Due to the steep climbs, unless you rent a donkey, it may be worth considering leaving some of your heavy luggage in a secure luggage storage back in Copacabana and only taking enough for a night or two with you.
If you're heading to Isla del Sol, then you need to read our guide on things to do in Copacabana.