Lake Titicaca is not only a hilarious place name, it’s also where the world was first created according to Incan mythology. The first Incan King was born here too, making it an important destination for local communities. Straddling the border of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is a firm fave on the gringo trail. Of the many reasons to visit the area and its surrounding islands, Isla del Sol is pretty high on the list. Literally, and figuratively.
Getting to Isla del Sol from Copacabana, a rural town in Bolivia (not to be confused with the hedonistic beach town in Brazil), takes two hours by boat. We set off on the first boat of the day, under the cover of some angry-looking clouds. The sea was calm, but a storm was brewing ahead and it wasn’t long before the rain came. No problem, we thought. After all we were heading to Isla del Sol – surely the island will live up to its name?
Upon arrival to the so-called island of sun, there wasn’t much sun to be seen but donkeys aplenty. Nothing cheers you up quite like a donkey. The port was buzzing with locals waiting for their latest loot to be delivered from the mainland. Donkeys waited in the wings, ready to be loaded up like pick-up trucks and start their daily ascent to the top of the island.
It had been our intention to hike from the south side of the island, to the north, taking in the remarkable views and ruins along the way. It goes without saying that no hike is complete without snacks. Of course, being the #shitbackpackers that we are, we’d neglected to stock up before arriving to the island. Our saviour – or so it seemed – came in the form of a small child-like woman hovering in the doorway of what looked like a broom cupboard. Above her, a hand-painted sign reading ‘tienda’. Bingo. Her innocent face showed no remorse as she charged us £8 for two tubes of pringles, two packets of cookies and a bottle of water. Oh, and a banana. Demonstrating equal proportions of British Politeness and Kindergarten Spanish, I payed the daylight-robber and sheepishly went on my way.
Fuelled by an intoxicating combination of Pringles and Chips Ahoy, we were ready for a good day of hiking. From what we’d heard on the gringo trail, it would take three hours to reach the north and another two to return back to the south. Plenty of time to make it back for a beer or two while watching the sunset over the lake.
After 45 minutes or so, we arrived at a checkpoint – albeit an informal one – comprising a rotting wooden bench and rusty metal sign. Four toothless men and an old woman with braids down her back greeted us. Well, not so much greeted, as warned us away. Go no further, they told us. The route north was closed and dangerous, they explained. Rich developers were planning to build new hotels on sacred sites in the north, and the locals were rebelling. The area was blocked off by angry islanders, protecting their sacred land. We later found out that some tourists had rocks thrown at them when they attempted to pass. Serves them right. We might have spent £8 on snacks, but at least we didn’t get stoned by the locals.
The south of the island doesn’t have all that much in the way of entertainment so we were *forced* to find a bar overlooking the lake and settle in for the famous Isla del Sol sunset. There were two problems with this plan. The first was that the clouds had other ideas, cruelly withholding any slithers of sunlight. No biggie, we would just drink in the endless lake-views and enjoy ourselves. The second problem, was that – given my earlier incompetence with the snack-buying – if we wanted to stay in budget, we had just enough money for one beer each, unless we were willing to go hungry for the night. And, while everyone knows that one beer isn’t ever really a thing, no dinner isn’t either.
Most of the restaurants on Isla de Sol are generic and overpriced. We braved the darkness and – guided by our trusty maps.me – sought out the infamous Las Velas restaurant. Las Velas, literal translation ‘the candles’, is special for a few reasons. It’s cosy and warm; a welcome safe-haven from the gusty Isla. It’s run by an inimitable and formidable duo, Pablo and his wife (Eva?) who run the restaurant with no electricity. None. Nada. Zilch. They cook, literally, by candlelight. The entire restaurant is pitch black, lit only by a few candles. Pablo is a single-handed waiter, sommelier and chef – it’s amazing. Oh, and they have UNO which – while fun – is pretty hard to play in the dark because the only colour you can differentiate is yellow.
The menu of Las Velas is small, but perfectly-formed. Since Pablo cooks everything from scratch, we had to wait about an hour and a half for our food, but the atmosphere of the place is captivating so (combined with a wine or two) you don’t mind the wait. We enjoyed the local speciality – Trout with vegetables and quinoa. The trout came wrapped in foil; it was fresh and lemony and delicious. I can take or leave quinoa but got VERY excited about the broccoli. Only those of you who have travelled long-term in South America will really understand how precious fresh vegetables are.
Bolivia isn’t exactly known for its culinary prowess but this was easily one of the best meals we’ve had in the whole of South America. Potentially enhanced by two bottles of wine (there were four of us, before you judge) but absolutely delicious nonetheless.
Pablo showed us around his humble kitchen after dinner, which made the meal even more impressive as he really was making something remarkable out of nothing. We don’t usually write restaurant reviews, but this place was so original that it deserves to be shared with the world. Excuse the terrible photography. It was dark. You’ll just have to pay them a visit so you can see for yourself…