Lake Titicaca and Sun Island

On a chilly October morning in 2009, my son and I awakened in Cusco, Peru, having completed our visit to the ruins at Machu Picchu the day before. Our spacious room was in a rustic Peruvian-style hotel a few blocks the train station. The room had a vaulted ceiling with exposed wooden beams and a stone fireplace that stretched along one wall. We enjoyed breakfast by the fire, packed our belonging, and walked to the train station. We were heading for Puno, Peru, which is situated on the border with Bolivia. Puno is the gateway to our final destination: Lake Titicaca and Sun Island

Our train, the Andean Explorer, pulled out of the station, as scheduled at 8 a.m. sharp. The train was lavishly furnished in every detail, and I had the feeling that I was moving along the rails in a luxury hotel. There were two dining cars, one for breakfast and lunch, the other for dinner. The daytime dining car had softer furnishings and macrame panels; the night-time car’s club-style leather chairs were arranged around tables in fours. There was even a piano bar, complete with a baby grand, that was decorated in Andean hues of grey, blue, and yellow. The last carriage, the observation car, opened onto a deck that afforded views of unsurpassed beauty. 

Peru is one of the few places on earth where humankind’s footprint has actually made the landscape even more beautiful. The stepped ridges cut into the mountainsides by the Incas render the landscape measurably more astounding and magical when compared with nature’s original design. The views are so amazing that passengers flock to the observation car where cameras are busy recording panoramic views that are immensely inspiring. The dreamlike terraces and vertiginous tropical mountains are a delight to the eyes and a silent witness to the beauty of nature.

Our assigned seat was in a coach that was almost empty so we moved to a more comfortable four-seat area. After lunch the train stopped at a market where locals displayed their handiwork. Many of these folks were dressed in traditional costumes.

At the station in Puno we found a taxi to our hotel which was located along the shore of Lake Titicaca. The view from our room of the Lake and the mountains beyond was spectacular. The next morning the tour company picked us up at 7:30 for the short drive to the border post where we entered Bolivia. We continued along the lake shore to dock areas where we would board the small ship that would take us across Lake Titicaca to Sun Island.

Set between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the second largest lake in South America, covering 3,200 square miles. Situated high in the Andes Mountains at 12,500 feet above sea level, it is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The lake is 50 miles across at its widest point. We set sail on waters that were deep blue stretching as far as I could see, with a sweep of mountains off to the side. We passed women who were fishing from hand-thatched canoes. They were dressed in colorful shawls and straw bonnets. 

When we docked at the small jetty on Sun Island we were met by a guide who loaded our bags onto a llama. We followed along behind as we trudged our way up an inclined pathway to a staging area where there was “transportation” to the various hotels. I mounted a donkey for the last kilometer to our hotel, and my son walked. There are no motorized vehicles or even paved roads on the island.

Life on Sun Island is very simple –no noise, no liter along the streets, and, would you believe, no WiFi. This is a place where you can really shut off the stress of the outside world, where you can relax and relish the beautiful, unmatched views.

The hotel was located atop a ridge and was set among lush green grass and hedges. The tall eucalyptus trees seemed to dance to a steady breeze. The view out over Lake Titicaca was truly incredible.

Sun Island is situated in the southern part of Lake Titicaca, and it is a part of the nation of Bolivia. The terrain is harsh. rocky, and hilly. Farming is the main source of income on the island, although fishing and tourism also contribute. Hills on the island often are shaped into “agricultural” terraces that adapt the steep and rocky terrain into farmland. Tourists are especially interested in the more than 80 Incan ruins that remain. Most of these date to the Inca period of about 600 years ago, although archaeologists point out that the island was inhabited as early as the third millennium BC.

According to an Incan legend, Sun Island is the birthplace of the Sun God, as well as the world’s first two Incas. This legend claims that following a great flood, all of Lake Titicaca was plunged into a period of total darkness that lasted until the bearded god, Viracocha, arose from the depths of Lake Titicaca to create the world. He settled on Sun Island where he not only commanded the sun to rise, but created the world’s first two Incas. While this myth is quite dramatic, most interpreters conclude that the Incas did not originate on the shores of Lake Titicaca. They suggest a more realistic version is that in the mid-15th century the Incas invaded the island and wrested control away from the current rulers. The legend, they say, was created as an attempt to justify their reign and how they came to power.

Sun Island is less than 6 miles long and about 3 miles wide. With no gasoline powered vehicles anywhere on the island, hiking is the major mode of transport although donkeys may be rented. Either method of transport showcases Incan ruins set amid beautiful green hills that contrast against the clear, blue waters of Lake Titicaca. These journeys also provide glimpses of island life, such as grazing llamas, donkeys loaded for market, and adobe mudbricks being made. 

We came upon a stone Incan Table that the guide said may have been used for human sacrifices.

One of the best preserved sites on Sun Island is the two-story Incan palace–a 50 by 43 foot building with galleries cut from the stone and surrounded by fountains and gardens. Other remains on the island are less well preserved but nonetheless very popular with tourists. Many of the ruins feature stone terraces that are still maintained and used for agriculture.

On our second morning on this incredible island, we left behind our hotel and began the decent down the hill towards the jetty. There were more than 400 steps to negociate, but with my son’s steady, helping hand, I made it just fine. In fact, we broke the decent at a restaurant about mid-way down, and had lunch with a view of Lake Titicaca that was beyond any picture postcard.

Of course, no one would want to leave such a beautiful place but I was looking forward to the scheduled stop at one of the many “floating islands” in Lake Titicaca. There are scores of these man-made islands that literally “float” because they are made of bundled reeds and mudbricks. They have been defined as “equal parts of physics and ingenuity.” Many of these artificial islands belong to the Uros people who have built their villages upon what are, in reality, huge rafts. The Uros continue to hunt the plentiful land that surrounds Lake Titicaca while they fish its waters.

The guide was providing details about the floating islands when I caught my first glimpse of a tiny floating island with a single reed hut. We were about four miles off the coast at Puno. Just a few minutes later there appeared a colorful and vibrant “floating” village. The ship slowed and docked. As I stepped off the ship I could plainly see the layers of thin green reeds and blocks of mud that supported the island. The reeds are known as “totora” reeds. They grow almost exclusively on Lake Titicaca and on Easter Island in Chile. The indigenous people of Uros have learned to harness the power of the totora reed. They have been living on these floating islands for centuries. There are over 100 of these Uro islands, each one no more than 90 feet wide and four to eight feet thick. The Uros use large hand-saws to cut out three-foot thick bricks of the mud and roots from the shallow parts of the lake. They bind these bricks together to form the base of the islands and layer the totora reed on top. Walking along the mushy surface I had the sensation that I was actually on a waterbed!

Each island is home for up to 10 families. The islands are tethered together by rope to prevent them from drifting apart. They are anchored to the trunks of large eucalyptus trees to maintain the distance from the shore. There are no walls on the islands except for the ones that make up the peoples’ homes. There is nothing to stop you from falling over the edge into the water even though Lake Titicaca has an average depth of around 440 feet! 

This trip was truly an amazing journey.

Dr. Watson Mills (with his son) writes, “A visit to Lake Titicaca and Sun Island is one of those destinations where getting there is half the fun! The Andean Explorer train was itself an experience of a lifetime. Machu Picchu is nearby and can be combined with an adventure here. Sadly, South America is often overlooked as an international destination taking its place far behind Europe even though many destinations are much closer to the USA. This means fewer hours flying-time and, on top of that, since it lies due south, jet lag is not much of an issue. Perhaps more importantly South American is significantly less expensive than Europe! I suggest that travelers would be wise to include South America on their list of destinations.”

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