Wondering why the Isla del Sol is partially closed to tourists? Here’s our take on the current dispute preventing visitors from fully exploring this mythical isle on the shores of Lake Titicaca.
A short history of the Isla del Sol
Andres is small and lively, with gold-capped teeth. He speaks rapidly, often pausing to scribble diagrams or numbers on a small note pad. And he asks questions to check that we’re keeping up.
“So why is the island named Isla del Sol?”
We shake our heads blankly.
“Mira!” he cries, and out comes the pad as he illustrates the solar calendar of the Tiwanaku civilisation.
“We’re descendants of the Aymaras – not the Incas.” Andres is keen to point out that most of the island’s archeological sites pre-date the Incas, belong instead to the former illustrious culture. In fact, the Inca’s shortlived reign of less than 100 years pales in comparison with the Tiwanaku’s 800 year empire.
But why is the Isla del Sol closed to tourists?
Andres was a fascinating and spirited guide, but the truth is, we’re more interested in contemporary issues at the moment. Specifically, why is the majority of this tiny island (just 15km long) currently closed to tourists?
Isla del Sol is comprised of three communities: Yumani in the south, Cha’llapampa in the north and Cha’lla, in the central eastern coast. Much of the accommodation is in the south of the island, while the gold museum, and ruins are in the north. During our visit in May, however, only the south of the island was accessible. This had been the state of affairs for two months already. What was behind it all?
Life on the Isla del Sol
Andres put it this way: “There are around 3500 people living on the island, most of them in the centre. The community in this part of the island maintain a traditional way of life, clothing and culture. They don’t want tourism to destroy that.”
The north, on the other hand, he told us, used to be a small community of 100 people that had grown to around 500. This section of the island are keen to capitalise on the tourist dollar. In Copacabana, the town on the shores of Lake Titicaca which is the main access point for the island, a local told us that there were tensions with the northern islanders too. She understood that the north wanted to open their own agencies in Copacabana to sell tickets for passage across the lake with their own boats. Naturally, the Copacabana agents aren’t thrilled about this idea.
A violent retaliation
However, the reason for the closure stems from a more violent incident. Several months ago, five newly built cabins were deliberately destroyed. According to Andres, these were built on sacred ground. For some islanders, this affront was too much. The retaliation took place, and since then the central community blocked access to the north until the issue is resolved.
It’s shocking to imagine that this could have taken place on such a serene, sleepy island. During our stay, we walked north as far as possible, until we hit a roadblock flying a red flag. Usually, this checkpoint charges tourists 10 Bolivianos to enter. There are similar taxes for each community on the island. (It’s a much-bemoaned topic on TripAdvisor. Many tourists refer to the money-grabbing tactics of locals.) Currently, this one was a blockades. The two gentlemen manning the hut politely but firmly denied us entry due to the ‘dispute’. They didn’t want to go into details.
With high season approaching, the islanders risk losing out on the income that tourists bring. As far as we know, the majority of the island is still closed. It seems that much hinges on the identity of the attackers. Once they own up and apologise, the island might be able to go back to business as usual. However, things might not be so simple. The dispute is based on underlying tensions between tradition and tourism. It’s a debate that won’t be solved overnight.
So what can you still see on the island?
For now, visitors to the island can access the southern community of Yumani and the nearby ruins of the Templo del Sol. Plus, they can climb to the mirador for spectacular views across Lake Titicaca to the snow-capped Andes.
The islanders at the checkpoint directed us to the top of a nearby hill where we could get a clear view across the north of the island. From there, we could see locals going about traditional life as they have for thousands of years. Women shouldered colourful aguayo blankets on their backs and led donkey along narrow paths. Men in black felt hats tended llama in the fields. Beyond, in the glistening Challapampa bay, white ships sat docked and inactive.
It might seem inevitable that economics will eventually win out here. But it’s important to remember that these islanders have spirit. Although the Incas might have rebranded Isla del Sol as the site of their creation myth, Andres was keen to point out that the island’s archeological sites all predated this hostile takeover. There’s every chance that the modern invasion of tourism will be met with a similar level of derision. Only time will tell.