Taking a boat out to visit Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) and Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia is truly fascinating. The islands have many interesting ruins that pre-date the Inca empire and have been dated back to as far as 300 BC. The ruins are mostly of temples, but people lived on the islands as well. Island of the Sun is the larger of the two islands and there are even hotels where you can spend the night if you would like. If you just want to tour the islands and return to the town of Copacabana on the same day, it will take you about four to six hours.
We did a three day tour from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, where we first visited the ruins of Tiwanaku before continuing on to Copacabana where we stayed at a hotel that overlooked the Lake Titicaca. The following morning we rose early to take a rented boat out to visit the islands. We visited Isla de la Luna first where we were greeted by some local women selling souvenirs as well as a very friendly llama. The views of the ruins with the lake in the background were simply amazing. We were able to walk through the ruins and see them first hand, which made the experience even more interesting.
From Isla de la Luna, we continued on to Isla del Sol where we continued to tour ruins that are in excellent shape considering their age. Inside of one of the temples, there were coca leaves left on an altar by people hoping to receive blessings from the gods. Looking back towards the Island of the Moon from the shores of the Island of the Sun, its smaller size becomes quite apparent. We did not stay the night on the island, but instead returned to Copacabana, but we understand that they do reenactments of the Incan ceremonies on the island at night if you do decide to stay.
We saw many different ruins during our time in Bolivia, but certainly the ones on Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna were among the most interesting. It was also a refreshing break from the busy city to stay a couple of nights with beautiful sunsets and wonderful views. It took us about eight hours to reach Copacabana from La Paz, but that included a couple of hours touring Tiwanaku and a stop for lunch. It also included a ferry ride across part of Lake Titicaca in order for our van to make its way to the lake. It was definitely one of our favorite tours while we were in Bolivia.
One of the tours that took while we were in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was to the ruins at Incallajta. They are some of the most well-preserved ruins in Bolivia and it really gives you a sense of how great the Incan civilization was. Sadly, not a lot is known for sure about the site and it seems that it is not often visited by tourists. The main temple building is massive and is probably an indication as to how important the site was to the Incan empire. In addition to being a ceremonial site, it was also the easternmost defensive fortification for the Inca, with a large wall to protect them from the rival tribes in the Amazon.
The area all around Incallajta is extremely fertile land, which is probably why it was so important to the Inca people. Our guide, Remy, explained to us that much of the food for the empire was grown in this region, including the potatoes, strawberries, and quinoa. We saw many farms all along the hills surrounding the ruins, with the farmers working the land on the steep hillsides in the same way that their ancestors had. Food from the area was probably taken as far away as Machu Picchu and Tiwanaku. We arrived at the entrance to the site where a Quechua woman watched us curiously from the office where we paid to tour the ruins. From there we hiked up a trail through the trees until the first of the ruins became visible.
The entire site is almost overwhelming, there is so much to see and learn about the Inca people and the importance of Incallajta. We walked along the stone walls, built with the same precision found in Tiwanaku, as Remy told us about the holes that were used by the soldiers to throw rocks at any approaching army. Just as was the case with the castles of Europe, they built the holes at an angle so that spears and arrows couldn’t come through, protecting their warriors. We hiked up to the area above the temples to see the soldiers barracks, very similar to a modern army of today. As we hiked the steep hills, we had an appreciation to how good of shape these soldiers must have been in to walk the wall daily in defense of the empire.
The most impressive site at the ruins is the main temple, called kallanka. Only the wooden roof and pillars a missing, making it the most interesting ruin that we saw while we were in Bolivia. The large stone wall with the window-like ceremonial nooks where they would have likely had candles burning was absolutely amazing. The temple is in such good condition that there are places where you can still see red plaster on top of the stone walls. Outside of this communal temple was a large stone that has been worn smooth from all of the sacrifices that have taken place there in the past and apparently are still taking place today.
We climbed up to the top of an 3,300 meter (11,000 foot) hill that towers over the ruins to see the spectacular views of how vast the ruin site is. It was a pretty tough hike and we were pretty winded by the time we reached the summit, but it was well worth the effort. From the hills above, the massive size of kallanka was even more apparent than it was from standing within its walls. Clearly, with such an important structure, this was a key city in the Inca empire. Unfortunately, we may never know the true nature of things that occurred in Incallajta as there is no written records from the Inca, so the only things that we know for sure were written down by the Spanish who conquered them.
We continued past several homes that are still standing, pausing to think about the inhabitants that must have lived within those walls. Most likely they were ancient priests as they would have been the only ones to have such extravagant buildings for the time period. From there we climbed down to the bottom of a waterfall and ate our lunch, grateful for the break from all of the hiking. On our way out of the ruins, we climbed to the top of what is assumed to be an astronomical observatory of sorts. From there, they would have marked the seasons and tracked the celestial movements across the sky.
It was a wonderful day walking among the magnificent ruins. As was most often the case, it was just the three of us wondering through these spectacular buildings. There doesn’t appear to be any current interest from universities to come and study the site, which seems completely baffling to us considering how truly interesting the ruins seemed to be to us. If you’re in the Cochabamba area, we would definitely recommend taking the time to visit Incallajta and walk the footsteps of the ancient Inca warriors, priests, and farmers.
Walking through the ruins of Tiwanaku brings both a sense of fascination and yearning for more. This once great capital fills you with a sense of mystery, both because of the seemingly impossible building methods used by the inhabitants over two-thousand years ago as well as the lack of knowledge that we’ll ever have because of the condition of the ruins. Unfortunately, many of the stones that originally made up Tiwanaku are now used in the walls of the homes in the surrounding villages. It has also suffered from a lack of preservation by the Bolivian government, which doesn’t seem to have the same sense of history, despite the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As with pretty much everything that we visited while in Bolivia, when we walked through the ruins of Tiwanaku, we were virtually by ourselves. Other than the small market outside of the site, hoping to sell trinkets to whatever tourists made their way to visit this important piece of history, we walked the trails along the walls of the ancient city alone. Our guide, Ricky, told us of the history of Tiwanaku, which dates back to about 200 B.C. or possibly even earlier. Most of the remaining ruins are those of the three temples that celebrated the three worlds revered by the inhabitants of Tiwanaku, Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. It isn’t the Heaven and Hell of the Judeo-Christian beliefs, but simply the belief that there were three different worlds that their gods inhabited. Our understanding is that the pre-Incan people that inhabited Tiwanaku believed that all life on earth came from the depths of Lake Titicaca, which was much larger back when Tiwanaku was a bustling metropolis and its shores probably extended to the site of the ruins.
One of the greatest questions about the building was the skill in which the stones of the walls were carved to fit perfectly, without any gaps and without any kind of mortar. Scientists have tried to recreate building the walls without the use of modern equipment and have not been able to replicate the work done by those ancient people so long ago. And, as with other ancient sites such as the pyramids of Egypt, large stones were quarried miles away and somehow carried to build these temples, a feat that is seemingly impossible. That has led some people to speculate that perhaps the ancient people of Tiwanaku had help from some sort of extra-terrestrial beings, but it is far more likely that they just had skills and techniques that have been lost over time.
We enjoyed seeing some of the amazing things that still remained though, including the “Gate of the Sun”, which we were told contained an ancient calendar. One could easily imagine the ancestors of the Amarya people using the different stone structures as a celestial calendar to determine the seasons. The site itself is very vast and there apparently has been some recent attempts to use ground penetrating radar to determine if there are more ruins to be found in the surrounding area, perhaps buried just below the surface. As we stood at the site where the priests would recite prayers and give speeches to the people, Ricky explained that there were other stone platforms every few hundred yards where lower priests would repeat the words of the head priest so that all of the people in the large city could hear what was being said. It takes a little imagination, standing there pretty much alone in these ruins, to envision it filled with thousands of ancient people.
Tiwanaku, despite its condition, was still definitely awe inspiring. Walking amongst temples that were built in South America long before Europeans would make their way to the shores of these lands provides a brief glimpse into the pride displayed by every Bolivian that we met. There was such a vast civilization with cities and buildings that have withstood the ravages of time that is truly fascinating to see. If you visit La Paz, Bolivia, taking time to go to Tiwanaku is certainly worth taking the time to visit.