In 2017, strained internal politics and growing community tensions on the sleepy Bolivian island of Isla del Sol boiled over. The north of Isla del Sol was shunned and according to many in nearby Copacabana, getting there today is still impossible. However, if you follow our simple tips and tricks you can spend an easy and enjoyable few days in the north. Despite what everybody says in Copacabana.
After local disputes the island was put on a tourism ‘lockdown’ and access to the northern side was completely restricted. This put a halt to all visits to the northern side of the island. However, since January 2019 the tensions have somewhat relaxed. Yes, everybody in Copacabana will tell you it’s impossible but take our word for it – it’s possible to visit the north of Isla del Sol. The north hosts some of the most intriguing Incan heritage and the North-South Camino has the island’s most rewarding scenery. The best part is, you’ll be some of the only visitors there.
- Why Was the North on Lockdown?
- Getting There
- Where to Stay
- Things to Do
- Our Statement on Isla Del Sol
- Isla del Sol Summary
- Isla del Sol Budget Breakdown
Our Guide to How to Visit North Isla del Sol does not cover the usual blog details. We don’t talk about the best tour companies, the best types of tours, or what to expect in the south. This post covers how to visit the North and what to expect there.
Why Was the North on Lockdown?
Let’s keep it simple. There are three main towns on Isla del Sol: Yumani (South), Challa (Centre) and Challapampa (North). Traditionally, a visit to Isla del Sol involved visiting the southern side of the island, and paying your island entry fee there. These proceedings went to the main town and tourist hub of the south – Yumani – a sleepy village with more tourist-orientated hostels and cafes than you could count.
To get to Yumani, you visited one of their related tourism agencies in Copacabana and took their boats to the south. If you wanted to visit the north of Isla del Sol, you needed to trek there and trek back from Yumani. When the north (Challapampa) caught wind of the financial benefits of tourism, they got in on the act as well. It didn’t go down particularly well with their central neighbours in Challa.
As more visitors began to enjoy the natural beauty and the outstanding Incan history in the north, the town’s population grew. They wanted to open their own agencies in Copacabana and offer direct boat access to its piers, bypassing the south completely. This meant introducing their own island entry fee. Having monopolised the island transport, the communities in the south rejected this concept completely. Furthermore, the two northern communities – Challapampa and Challa – couldn’t agree on how to split the profits of the island entry fee.
The North Gets in on the Act
As the tourism infrastructure in the north grew (they doubled the number of hostals from two to four), they eventually, apparently, built over sacred ground. This sparked a violent retaliation, and the newly constructed buildings were deliberately destroyed. Relations between Challapampa and Challa haven’t been the same since. If you want to read more about the conflict, then check out Take Each Day’s article here.
We had an entirely safe experience in the north, but access from south – north is forbidden. For this reason, if you want to see both sides of the island you must visit the north first. Friends tried to walk the very same road we walked in the opposite direction, and were turned around. Once more with feeling: you cannot walk from the south to the north of Isla del Sol.
When you ask at the tourism agencies in Copacabana, you won’t have a problem getting a boat from Copacabana to the south of Isla del Sol (Yumani). Since you need to begin in the north, you’ll need to make the boat journey with a company that goes there.
There are only two official companies that offer a boat journey from Copacabana to Challapampa. Most will instead visit the southern port of Yumani only.
Don’t be surprised to find most tour agencies in Copacabana telling you that a journey to the north is impossible. Bad politics, bad information and corruption make it more difficult than it needs to be, but it is absolutely still possible.
The Tour Agencies
The first company – and the company we used – are called Turismo Comuntario del Lago Titicaca. You’ll find them on the South-West corner of Plaza Sucre, where all the La Paz buses leave from.
Monica sold us a boat ticket for Bs35. The actual boat fare is Bs25, but your ticket automatically covers your Bs10 entry fee to the island. An unusual part of this deal is Augustin, president of one of the villages in the north of Isla del Sol. He’ll accompany you on the boat journey, walking you to the pier, arranging your dinner when you get there and helping you find accommodation in Challapampa as well. He’s a friendly enough guy, but you’ll need to speak Spanish (or Aymara) to communicate.
Turismo Comuntario del Lago Titicaca offers a 13:30 boat leaving on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t ask about return boats, you won’t need to either. But we believe the boats do the opposite journey around 7am or 8am on the same days.
Your other option is a company called Chasqui. We don’t know much about their route, but a friend definitely took a boat with them, also leaving at 13:30 on a Wednesday. Both boats will visit the southern port of Yumani, before continuing north to Challapampa.
WEE TIP: if you’re half-asleep on the boat like me, you’ll be amazed at how quickly time goes by. Just be sure to watch the clocks on your phone – it might change time and go back an hour, as it picks up Peruvian reception (which is an hour behind).
If you’ve already been travelling through Bolivia and this is the last stop, you’ll be aware of their, ahem, relaxed attitude toward Health and Safety. This boat is no different. Locals, families, dogs, babies, gringos and other tourists all aboard. All of them. We reckon this boat was packed around x3 beyond capacity, and the homemade seating gallery on the roof only added to this.
The distance between Copacabana and Challapampa is only 16km, but our journey took a surprising two and a half hours. With both engines running. That’s because the boat is rammed full, extremely heavy, and therefore moves very, very slowly.
That being said, the views are incredible. You get unparalleled views of the lake, Isla de la Luna, the impressive Cordillera Mountain Range and even the dreaded Huayna Potosi (read more about that particularly miserable experience here) in the distance. With the sun beating down on us, it didn’t matter that it was a slow journey and we enjoyed views of the highest lake in the world the whole way.
Where to Stay
So you’ve figured out how to get to the north of Isla del Sol! Now you need somewhere to stay. We counted five hostals in Challapampa. There may be more, but it’s not easy to tell. Some of them look like they’ve been closed for years, but are in fact open. Others are swanky new builds very obviously open for business. Considering there will only be a handful of other savvy tourists on the boat with you, you’ll find a bed no problem.
Augustin introduced us to Freddy and we stayed at his place Wilka Kutti for the night.
Freddy offered us a matrimonial bed with gorgeous views of the lake and a private bathroom for Bs100. He also offers twin rooms with private bathroom for Bs80, and twin rooms with a shared bathroom for Bs60. The matrimonial was incredibly warm and cosy, with beautiful views out over the lake. The only downside was that our promised warm water shower could not have been colder. The views made up for it.
This was the nicest room we stayed in during our whole time in Bolivia. We were admittedly at the end of our trip and scrapping for every penny, so please don’t judge us.
Other decent options for a sleep are KUMRI Hostel and Qala Uta Hostal, both well reviewed. They looked reasonably modern from the outside, and the owners were present in case you turn up on the day.
Camp on the Beach
We left our tent with the rest of our luggage in Copacabana. What a mistake that was! You can camp on the beach for free. Obviously you’re wild camping so the usual rules apply for the bathroom, litter and food, but what a fantastic spot this is. There was just about enough wood for a campfire, unbelievable stars above and only a few curious pigs investigating your tent in the morning.
Things to Do
The northern side of Isla del Sol is undoubtedly the most beautiful. Here you’ll find a fraction of the tourist hostals and restaurants found in Yumani and an authentic, laidback vibe which hasn’t changed in a long, long time. There are more donkeys than tourists here and friendly locals who can’t help share a ‘buenas tardes’ when they pass you.
Yes, this seems like a strange one, but as soon as you’re off the boat you should arrange dinner. Augustin will offer you dinner at his place (it’s literally at the port – next to the shop), but there are a couple of others place you can try as well. They all have one thing in common – they’ll need advance notice. The north doesn’t get a lot of foreign visitors, so restaurants won’t always have stock and won’t be open. Organise dinner as soon as you arrive so that you don’t go hungry.
WEE TIP: we ate at Augustin’s place. For Bs35 we were fed quinoa soup and a huge plate of omelette, rice, fries, tomato salad and boiled veg. We’re not sure what your other options are, but this was certainly bang for bob. Huara beers from Bs10.
Visit Incan Ruins
A kind passer-by offered us a tour of the Roca Sagrada (sacred rock), Mesa Ceremónica (table of sacrifice) and Chinkana (labyrinth) for B10 per person. They’re all right next to one another. Unfortunately, we were more interested in the sunset views and rushed for time, so couldn’t take him up on the offer.
We now realise that this was a huge mistake. The north of Isla del Sol shares its part in the island’s incredible and mysterious history. Sacrifices were made at the Roca Sagrada and yet, to this day, not much else of its purpose is properly understood.
Further along you’ll find the Chinkana – the labyrinth. A series of crumbling walls and archways lead you further down to the shore for lovely views of the beach. At both sites there’s a noticeable quiet, some people have also described ‘a real energy’ about the place. We wish we had more local knowledge to share about all three attractions but regardless, they’re a must visit when you’re there. To get there, it’s about a 45-minute walk along the coast from Willka Kutti.
Enjoy Isla del Sol’s Best Sunset
Like we said, our main focus at the time was catching a sunset in the north. And what a sunset it was. We chose to watch the sunset from the rocks behind the Incan ruins (roughly -15.989815, -69.198167 on Google Maps) with the sheep.
Another great place to watch the sunset would be Cerro Tikani, slightly further north, but we were pretty happy with our choice.
Enjoy the Beach
After walking the lane between the houses, we hope you’re as impressed with the first sight of Challapampa Beach as we were. It’s a really pretty stretch of white sand with next-to-no buildings behind it, save a few hostals and local homes.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d left Bolivia altogether. We thought the views of the beach with beautiful clear waters could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean. Better still, they could have been from a loch back home (the sunshine being the obvious exception). We never got the chance to go for a swim, but the water is clear and swimming is perfectly safe for a dip.
On your walk to the Incan ruins you’ll pass another beach which is also incredibly picturesque, and perfectly safe to swim in. This wouldn’t be a bad sunset spot either.
Walk the Beautiful North-South Camino
Now for the highlight of visiting the north! The awesome and phenomenally pretty North-South Camino of Isla del Sol. This was a common way fare before the disputes and so the path is pretty well looked after. As mentioned previously, this camino is only possible in the direction of north to south.
From Challapampa you have two options. The first option is to re-trace your footsteps north to the Incan ruins and start the hike south from there. The other option is to take the coastal route south from Challapampa and cross on to the North-South camino further down the coast. Not wanting to re-trace our steps, we took the coastal route. Regrettably, we arrived in the south way too early and should have headed north instead.
Whichever way you walk, you’re going to absolutely love the North-South camino. You get unrestricted, unparalleled views over the whole of Isla del Sol. You see just about every stretch of coast and gorgeous rows of farmers’ fields lining the walls. Small forests, sleepy hamlets and peaceful shephards are your company for the next three hours.
About two hours in to your walk you’ll come across a mirador. This is the perfect place to set up the tripod, with great views of Yumani, Isla del Sol, the Cordillera Real and even Copacabana. We walked at a relaxed pace, and could still spend as much time here as we wanted to.
WEE TIP: if you take the coastal route, then at some point you’ll need to cross back on to the north-south camino. When our path started to head downhill to the water, we decided it was time to make the uphill crossing. We aimed up when we were almost in line with Hostal Las Nubes (-16.0093477, -69.1770146) and met the north-south camino at (-16.0192535, -69.1774485)
A friend had warned us about ‘some older islanders asking for proof of ticket’. Thankfully, we only passed a few friendly shepherds on our walk. However, approaching Yumani we seemed to pass a crossing station, and with it some older local ladies who were the crossing ‘guards’.
One lady, surprisingly aggressive, enquired where we had come from. We politely told her that we had walked from the south for some pictures and that we were simply returning. Without stopping her knitting, she continued to berate us and tell us about the ‘conflicto’ in the north, and that she wasn’t responsible for anything that happened to us. We smiled, assured her that we were fine, and kept walking. Apparently news takes time to travel from the north of Isla del Sol.
Lunch With a View
Arriving in Yumani you’re likely to be the most smug tourists on the island. On the more touristy side of Isla del Sol you won’t struggle to find a place to eat. We arrived around noon (way too early) and couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The sleepy, serene atmosphere of the north of Isla del Sol felt a long way away.
Packs of tour groups ambled up the main pathway and terraces were full with day-trippers. The sooner you stop in Yumani for some lunch is probably better, as the restaurants furthest north are the quietest, and have the best views. Admittedly, even the views from the terraces on the south of the island are pretty spectacular.
As you continue walking, the village road will lead you down to the port via yet more touristy restaurants and hostals. It’s a long way back up, so make your choice early. We stopped in at Inti Wata’s terrace with a view, and enjoyed the drinks and surprisingly good wifi.
WEE TIP: coming from the south, you’ll be desperate to make your way as far north as possible. There’s a great mirador (Mirador Palla Khasa) just north of Inti Wata, but unfortunately this is about as far as you’ll get. Frustratingly, there’s a manned station and access any further north of this is prohibited.
Incan Steps and Tres Fuentes
We only mention these two because we feel like we need to. I don’t know what we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.
Depending on whether you approach them from the boat, or from the village of Yumani higher up, you’re still likely to pass them without much thought. They’re stairs. And a stream. That’s about it. We could not possibly dress this one up. We were bitterly disappointed when we walked all the way down to the port and found these supposedly ‘beautiful’ attractions. No wonder everybody looked so bored waiting for their return boat.
It’s also possible to visit the Templo del Sol on the very south of the island. This seems like it’s best done on one of the Bolivia Hop boat tours, as it would be a long walk there and back and you’d probably be stretched for time.
Our Statement on Isla Del Sol
Well done for sticking with us all the way through this post! Despite the warnings of attacks and red tapes in Copacabana, we visited the North of Isla del Sol and walked the North-South Camino like the happiest tourists on the island. It was one of the highlights of our time in Bolivia.
Hopefully this is very clear: we double, triple and quadruple-checked the legitimacy of this trek. We spoke to as many locals as possible in Copacabana, and as many as possible in the north of Isla del Sol. We wanted absolute confirmation that this wasn’t some sneaky tourist trick and that we weren’t disrespecting the ongoing local political stance. Everybody (willing to talk with us) answered us that as of January 2019, the island conflict has died down. As was told to us, by visiting the north we were not breaking any rules and we were not deceiving anybody. There just seems to be a strange by-law which currently allows tourist to access the south from the north, but not the other way around.
If you learn any more about this, or if your experience differs from ours, please get in touch in the Comments below and let us know what you think.
Summary for Isla del Sol
We only spent two days and one night on Isla del Sol. A pathetic amount of time, and something we still regret. Unfortunately, we had to rush north for a work opportunity in Peru and for once, couldn’t extend our time as we normally would.
- Get your boat from Copacabana, arriving in Challapampa around 15:45
- Organise dinner and head to your accommodation
- Check in and head then take the 45-minute walk to the Incan ruins in the north. You’ll have time to explore before a sensational sunset
- Walk back with the local llama herders (Reynaldo’s an interesting guy) and head to Augustin’s for dinner
- There can’t be many better views to wake up to – but don’t sleep in too late
- Grab breakfast in ‘town’ and choose either the north or coastl route on to the North-South Camino
- After arriving in Yumani, enjoy lunch with a view at one of the terraces
- Catch the 3pm boat back from Yumani and grab your bags, or check-in to your accommodation in Copacabana
Realistically though, 2 days is not enough on Isla del Sol! If you’re lucky enough to have more time, then it’s worth spending at least an extra day on the island. You can spend more time at each of the beaches in the north, visit Cerro Tikani and unwind for a little longer.
Isla del Sol Budget Breakdown
- Turismo Comuntario del Lago Titicaca
- 13:30 – 15:45
Total: Bs70 ($10)
- Wilka Kuti
- Matriomonial with Private Bathroom
- Bs100 per night
Total: Bs100 ($14)
- Dinner at Augustin’s place Bs35 pp
- x2 dinner beers at Augustin’s place Bs20
- 2L water in Challapampa Bs10
- 2L water in Yumani B10
- Lunch in Yumani Bs25 pp
Total: Bs160 ($22)
- 15:00 – 16:45
Total: Bs60 ($8.50)
Total for 2D/1N: Bs390/$55
The above budget is for x2 people. Food, water and alcohol costs are likely to vary.
This budget breakdown isn’t quite an exact record of what we spent, but should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.
*all currencies accurate at the time of writing (June ’19). $1 = Bs6.66
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