The dwellers of Isla del Sol (Bolivia) have long known how to survive technological isolation and the western culture. Nevertheless, in the last few years, and as a consequence of the development of tourism, there have been episodes of conflict and tension that exemplify the daily challenges of the modern world when juxtaposed with the cosmogony of an ancient people.


Nearly three thousand people of Aymara and Quechua origin dwell in the inhospitable Isla del Sol in Bolivia, located to the East of Lake Titicaca, enduring extreme climatic conditions. For almost half of the year the area is battered by freezing temperatures, extreme winds, and very little oxygen as a result of the height —a little over 4,000 meters— which contrasts with perpendicular dazzling sunshine.

The slightly weathered faces and hands of its inhabitants (who still dress in their traditional costumes to fight the cold weather) reflect both the strength of the wind and harshness of the sun. Their skirts and ponchos help them stay safe from the freezing wind sweeping the region. Some locals still cook over a wood fire, and use and drink water from the lake.

Shy and introvert, they lived without electricity until the year 2000. This service was installed only in the central and south zones, given that the north still remains inaccessible. This improvement caused tourists to start arriving to the island, yet it also caused rupture among the locals as it sparked off dispute over the control of tourism in one of the areas.

These are hard times for a people that lived off tourism for nearly 20 years. The Challa and Challapamba communities —from the north and center regions— are fighting over the territory where the emblematic Chincana ruins are located.

Looking inside the island

The area of the island is just 14kms and its border is Lake Titicaca. Life on the island seems to be peaceful. Children still play hopscotch and they walk to school all together. The windows in some of the houses serve as small stores that ‘provide locals with essential items. Everyone knows each other and say hi as they go by. It is a small town.

There are neither cars nor smog. Livestock like pigs, sheep or donkeys are not tethered and walk freely. Milk and dairy products are fresh and they are not subject to industrial processes. Air pollution is zero. However, the waters of Lake Titicaca are becoming more and more polluted as a consequence of garbage and mining waste dumps that come from the north-east area of the lake, on the border with Peru.

Regarding tourism, accommodation services in the north of the island do not offer the features of the grand city hotels. There are no credit cards or tickets here. Accommodation is arranged by talking directly with the owners of the cabins, and bargaining is usual too. There is no Wi-Fi, no technology, and no hot water. Sometimes, tourists seeking accommodation may even have to try to find the owner of the estate around the town.

These are precisely the characteristics that inevitably attract those of us who are on the lookout for some sort of shelter from postmodern life and technology. These are the conditions sought by those who want to escape the hectic and frantic urban pace. A small town surrounded by the mysticism of Lake Titicaca, where time stands still; a spot isolated from the city noise and clamor, and the beeping sound of incoming messages from our cell phones.

Interacting with the locals is another factor that definitely makes an exceptional place of it. The elderly are the ones in charge of keeping the ancient memory of these lands alive through storytelling. Once a trust bond is established between one of them and a visitor, the elders agree to share their stories, which they do in a rudimentary Spanish.

One of the locals points out that ‘this is the origin of the world’ while heading towards the Chincana ruins. Over there, its inhabitants speak Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. They are proud of their heritage, and they walk upright and swiftly. In spite of tourism, they still dedicate themselves to fishing, agriculture, and craftwork.

In addition, the lake has its own genuine personality. Its voice is made up of the sound of the waves and the wind. The inhabitants harmonize with it perfectly as the rhythm of their steps seem to follow that of the freezing Lake Titicaca. Nevertheless, right when you would think you could not ask for more, the consequences of tourism arriving from the modern world fall upon you.

The north sector has been indefinitely closed down due to a conflict among the locals over the monopoly of tourism in the zone.

The origin of the Andean peoples in dispute

The Chincana ruins, located in the northern region of the island, are considered to be a strategic enclave by the native identities of Andean peoples. These structures maintain a direct relationship with the Tiwanaku culture, which is thought to be the ancestor of the Inca Empire.

According to the extinct Tahuantinsuyo, the origin of the Incas was located just a few meters away from these structures, on a stone called Tik Sikarka. The legend speaks of Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo ‘having been created by the father sun to found the Inca civilization,’ as mentioned by Garcilaso de la Vega in his writings in 1605.

The linguistic evidence in the zone is tangible. People speak Quechua and Aymara fluently, and Spanish is only used as a second language for trade and tourist purposes. The reason for this is the hermetic culture of the inhabitants of the island, which has made it possible for their ancient knowledge to be preserved.

In fact, nearly two decades ago, the dwellers of this territory used to live almost exclusively off fishing —which they carried out in their small, woven reed vessels known as caballitos de totora—, agriculture and craftwork. In time they have been progressively adapting to the globalization routines as a result of their new activity: tourism.

Y2K was the year of the arrival of foreigners to the island, tourists who mainly came from South America, North America, and Europe. It marked the beginning of international tourism in the zone. The impact was profound since it brought about major changes in the lifestyle of a people who, until that moment, had been isolated from any contact with the modern world.

Nonetheless, tourism –which translated in significant economic progress for this native community– sparked off a dispute which damaged the peaceful living atmosphere of its inhabitants. This, in turn, created tension and ended up blocking their tourist and commercial activities.

The dispute arose upon the destruction of five tourist cabins located 100 meters away from the Chincana ruins. The people of the Challa community, who live in the center of the island, had built these cabins after getting the permit from the local Town Hall and the Ministry of Culture. Nonetheless, the Challapamba community (the residents of the north region) thought these historical remains could suffer damages, and tore down the new tourist complex.

These acts unleashed violent clashes which ended up in the Challa community blocking the use of the north part of the island for tourist purposes. Meanwhile, the consequences brought about for this ancient village have been isolation, scarcity, and losses.

Tourism or the purchase of ancient cultures

At first, tourism in Isla del Sol was perceived as a solid element which would benefit the economy of the inhabitants of the island. A large part of its small population gradually started abandoning fishing and agriculture so as to adapt themselves to the tourist market. The noticeable social distance on account of their culture along with their language would keep their identity apparently impregnable.

Nevertheless, this new economic strategy would result in their dependency on the globalized society. The systematic changes adopted in order to adjust themselves to the competitive tourist market would end up turning the culture of this people into somewhat of a commodity.

And this happens without them or us noticing so. Globalization and its processes tend to homogenize individuals and to create stereotypes through the classic western view of the world. This can be understood quite simply if we stop to analyze the origin of the civilization that created it, and how we have thus progressively become a global village.

On occasions, and as a consequence of this phenomenon, tourism in aboriginal populations exhibits certain commercial features. We yearn for their traditions, lifestyles, and cosmology. We behold their culture from the criteria our own perspective establishes. However, and much to our regret, in the context of Isla del Sol, the peculiar ones are us.

Taking a look at the faces of local inhabitants upon the arrival of tourists is enough. Some children stare at them at a distance, while the elderly smile and try to conceal their astonishment at the various gizmos we carry around with us. Binoculars, sun-protecting suits, loud and shiny colorful thermal clothing, sunglasses –some of which resemble the eyes of a fly—and our endless number of gadgets.

Though simple, this is a point which invites us to reflect about our capacity to value and respect various forms of culture, particularly in a context where the modern world’s dominant vision sneaks into the native communities and creeps into their territories only to take over them.

Our —perhaps millennial— challenge will be to create a world where we can learn to understand others and to connect with them parting from their own perspective and not from ours. This could finally break the biases that make it impossible to build our sole common identity: the human one.


LATE es una red sin fines de lucro de periodistas que cuentan el mundo en español