Sun Island: A Dazzling Inca Shrine in Bolivia
Leaving breathless La Paz behind, and after our adventures from the Amazon to the Andes with the Quechua people, Danny and I travelled via bus and boat to Sun Island, the birthplace of Inca civilisation. A 70km2 island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest, highest navigable lake, Sun Island’s beauty took our breath away – but this time it wasn’t just the altitude.
So we arrived wide-eyed in sleepy Cha’lla, a small village dotted over the side of a handsome hillside on the east lakeside of the island. An extremely simple, rural lifestyle pervades here, and whilst Isla del Sol is in Bolivia, the cultures that exist are altogether indigenous: there are communities who speak Aymara, descendants of the ancient Kolla civilisation, and those who speak Quechua, blood of the almighty Incas.
Culturally, Sun Island is of historic importance to these peoples. Inca legends state that it was here during the Chamaj Pacha (‘times of flood and darkness’) that the sun made its first appearance, rising from the lake, later followed by the first Inca, Manco Capac, who founded the Inca Empire under the sun’s orders. And with blazing daylight, a crystalline ocean of water on all sides, and the stunning backdrop of the Cordillera Real mountains beyond, one can easily feel the magic of this imposing, mystical place.
In fact, Lake Titicaca is probably the most stunning place that Danny and I have visited so far. Residing at an extraordinary altitude of 3.808 m, the clouds beyond sit at the end of the horizon, not high above in the sky, giving the lake the appearance of an endless blue infinity pool that drops off at the end of the world.
We awoke the next morning after an evening of pastoral delights – sheep herding and potato picking – excited for the day ahead. There are two walking trails across this vehicle-less oasis in the sun, one of which we spent a great morning trekking. We embarked on the historic Inca trail up and over to the Chincana ruins on the North peak, unveiling a gorgeous view.
Arriving at the ruins, we learnt more of the fascinating history behind the island, as our guide Esteban showed us Titi Khar’ka (Rock of the Puma), a rock form in which you can (just about) make out the figure of a puma, a much vaunted animal to the Incas. Titi Khar’ka was a site of human and animal sacrifice, where Inca pilgrims would hold ceremonies to their Gods, as well as being the origin of the lake’s name. It was both terrifying and awe-inspiring to consider this mecca of savage Incas and the bloody rituals that would have taken place here centuries ago.
Inspired and emboldened by this pre-columbine spiritual cornerstone, we dove into the lake’s icy waters for a spot of cleansing. A trek back to our home-stay lodging was then followed by grilled trout for lunch and a well-earned siesta . We had to sleep in a protective mask of after-sun cream – we had no doubt underestimated the sun the island takes its name from, typical Brits that we are!
As we left the island by boat the next morning, Esteban pointed out to us a small column of rock rising just above the water off the coast. At this underwater site, known as Marka Pampa (The Submerged City), recent excavations have found stone boxes containing pure gold artefacts as well as a massive stone temple, winding pathways and a surrounding wall, all 8m underwater. Conspiracy theorists believe that these ruins are the lost traces of Atlantis, the mythical underwater city. We’ll leave the theories to the theorists, but we had certainly found an Atlantis of our own in Sun Island, a stunning monument of indigenous heritage bathed in golden sun on an ocean of blue.
Photos by Harry Dowdney