Bolivia’s Island of the Sun Enchants

Bolivia’s Island of the Sun Enchants

By: 
Sara Shahriari
4/8/11

The incredible flatness of Bolivia’s high plains seems infinite. But in western Bolivia, just outside the city of La Paz, the land begins to roll gently and snow-capped mountain peaks emerge in the distance. Suddenly the waters of Lake Titicaca appear, a stunning sight after the dryness of the plains.

The lake, which is on the border between Bolivia and Peru, is the source of life for the thousands of Aymara and Quechua indigenous people who live on its shores and the islands that dot it. Since well before the Inca conquest of the area in the 1400s, Lake Titicaca has been a center of Andean cosmology, and it remains deeply tied to religion in the region.

Aymara and Inca creation stories tell of Viracocha, a man who rose from the lake. Viracocha created the sun, the moon, and the people of the Andes. In some versions of the story Viracocha walked to the sacred city of Tiwanaku, where he created man. In another, perhaps later Inca version of the story, he placed a man and a woman on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. They were Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the first Inca, who brought knowledge to people.

Today the Island of the Sun, called La Isla del Sol in Spanish, is one of Bolivia’s biggest tourist attractions. Each year thousands of visitors make the journey by boat from the Bolivian town of Copacabana, located at over 12,000 feet above sea level, to the island’s steep shores.

The island has been inhabited for thousands of years. “It was clearly a center of some kind of religious pilgrimage from the first century BCE,” said Alan Kolata, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago who has worked extensively in Bolivia. Kolata points out that pilgrimages to the area continue to this day; the church in Copacabana is the center of a major pilgrimage every year in August.

Whether tourists stay on the island for hours or days, most visit the island’s main ruins and hike to take in the spectacular landscapes. Tourism has transformed the island’s sleepy farming towns and changed the lives of the Aymara Indian communities who live there. Some changes have brought more opportunity to the people of the island, while others have caused friction.

“With so many tourists the economic situation has improved, but pollution has gotten worse,” said Domitila Callisaya, who was born on the island and runs a restaurant in the town of Yumani. Callisaya said that tourism began to boom on the island about 15 years ago, bringing with it money that the community has used for projects like buying computers for use in its schools. The towns on the island have a much more prosperous look than many other communities in western Bolivia. But tourism has also brought increased trash, which is hard to dispose of. In addition to ecological challenges, in the past conflicts over proceeds from tourism have led to tensions between communities.

Outside of the world of hostels and restaurants frequented only by tourists, much of the traditional life of the island continues, Callisaya says. The people speak the Aymara language, continue to perform ceremonies for Pachamama, the Earth Mother, and maintain the structure of a traditional Aymara community. There are no paved roads and no cars on the island, and many people still farm its steep, terraced slopes.

“It’s absolutely magical,” said Tom Leahy, a tourist who traveled to South America from Australia. “You can see why this place was, and is, special.” Leahy, who had already traveled in Peru, said that while the ruins on the Island of the Sun don’t compare to those at Machu Picchu, the landscape alone makes it worth a visit.

As evening approaches on the island sunlight turns the lake from blue to pewter. The islands become shadows and snow-capped mountains on the distant horizon are gilded with the last light of day. The scene is almost miraculous after the merciless dryness of the plains, and it is easy to understand why the lake and the Island of the Sun have drawn so many people to them for thousands of years.

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