Monday, August 9, 2010

Isla del Sol: Two days in sunny, sacred paradise

I gave into compulsion, pulling my camera off my shoulder although I'd told myself a dozen photos earlier that I had to stop. Only three weeks into my six-week trip, space on my memory card was precious. I climbed on a pile of rocks and looked through the viewfinder into the limitless horizon, breathing heavy in the thin air and rolling my shoulders in an effort to relieve the pangs from my heavy backpack. I snapped yet another picture.

Silky cerulean waters all around. Majestic snowcapped mountains distant on the horizon. Sheep grazing from golden pastures. Undulating hills of rocky green and beige spiraled with ancient Inca terraces. Ruined temples, sacrificial rocks and mythical fountains. Women with weathered faces chatting in the pre-Inca Aymari tongue and leading loaded mules up winding trails. Their husbands tilling earth and holding radios to their ears. Surrounded by glorious sunshine and silence. 

Isla del Sol, this place was mystical beauty, no less than the setting for the creation myth of the Inca Empire. The birthplace of the sun god and home to a legendary city, now lost underwater.

The Bolivian island is the largest of 41 islands on Lago Titicaca, the world's highest navigated lake at 12,500 feet-high. It's a fertile refuge at the crossroads of the imposing Andes and the hostile altiplano. Fed by rainfall and glacial meltwater from the Sierras, at some places the lake's depths reach 1,000 feet. This body of water is so massive that it takes a week to cross by boat. Inhabitated three-thousand years before Christ, today the island has no roads or vehicles, only laberynth ruins of Incan nunneries and subsistence farmers and fisherman.

The day before we'd flown from the jungle over the mind-blowing Cordillera to Bolivia's capital La Paz and then taxied straight to the bus stop for the 3.5-hour trip to Copacabana, a sleepy little town near the Peruvian border on Lago Titicaca.

As the home of the cult of the Virgin Morena, hundreds of pilgrims come the the giant Moorish white-washed cathedral the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana in the town center on the weekends for the ritual blessing of miniature objects (toy-like cars and houses or even tiny wads of euros) by Catholic priests in Latin or by shamanes in Aymari. 

In the tranquilo European backpackers mecca my Finnish friend and I met a 20-year-old, charismatic German who'd just finished a year teaching in Ecuador. We found a hostel together for the night and hopped on a boat for the two-hour trip to the Isla del Sol the next morning.

Upon disembarking at the little village of Cha'allapampa on the northern shore, we let the tour groups proceed and instead paused on the beach for the Bolivian version of the American breakfast: one egg, bread with margarine and jelly, a small glass of orange juice and a mug of instant coffee or coca mate.

Then we followed wandering sheep and families of pigs into the windswept hills and fields, gawking at the vistas of the sea of cobalt water and the white Cordillera in the distance. We collectively sighed in the serenity of it all.

The island and the lake are right on Peru's notorious Gringo Trail, but we discovered a paradise of hushed solitide. At midday when the sun shone high overhead we stopped hiking for a picnic on a hilltop of 4,000 meters, tired but happy.

After walking all day we came to a hostel with a gorgeous lake front view, high above our $2-3 price range. But after five minutes of bargaining we took off our dusty boots in a luxe (by Bolivian standards) room with down comforters, heat and a private shower. That night an eerily beautiful full moon rose overhead as we ate our modest trout dinners.

In the morning we had to ask the owner to turn on the hot water for our previously agreed upon three-minute allottments. I made my way from the reception to our bathroom in an Olympic sprint. My roommates couldn't stop laughing. My hair has grown long in the past six months, and every drop of water counts.

The next morning we hiked to the south end of the island to the village of Yumani, greeting the more resilient than weary looking locals trudging up the hills and washing laundry on the beach while their children played tag. Before catching a return boat we walked up hundreds of stone stairs to sip from the Fuente del Inca, springs promising aid in love and health.

Just two days on the typical tourist itinerary, but for us it was two days of mystical, unexpected bliss.