The Island of the Sun is divided into three communities: Yumani, Challa, and Challapampa. It is difficult to know precisely how many people live full time on the island, as many families now own houses and businesses in La Paz, Bolivia's thriving and modern capital city, and in Copacabana, the beautiful Inca and Colonial town on the lake shore two to three hours away by boat. The latest census indicates a few thousand people live or own property on the island.
For years, the Island of the Sun was controlled by two haciendas. The 1950's revolutionary reforms that swept across Bolivia redistributed the land to the farmers who actually worked it. Today, all land on the island is privately or communally. You can see one well preserved hacienda house in Yumani and the remains of the other in the plaza of Challapampa.
The Island of Moon is considerably smaller than that of the Sun. It currently supports between thirty and forty individuals. The island was, until about thirty years ago, used as a prison for political prisoners. Today, portions of the island are owned by the villagers and other parts by the national government.
The people who live on the islands speak the Aymara language. Aymara is also the name of their ethnic group. They are the descendants of people who have lived on the islands for thousands of years. While the islands are famous as places where the Inca built major shrines to the Sun and the Moon, the people who live on them are not descendant from the Quechua-speaking Inca peoples, but are related to the aboriginal inhabitants who occupied the high Bolivian plateau (the altiplano) when the Inca conquered the Titicaca.
The principal economic activities of the islanders today is farming and fishing, a lifestyle that has predominated throughout most of history. Visitors will see innumerable stone terraces on the islands. Although difficult to date, it can be presumed that most of the terraces were in use in Inca times, and many may even predate the Inca. Traditional crops are still grown on these terraces, including various types of potatoes, corn, and quinoa (a grain indigenous to the Andean highlands). Many of the terraces may appear to be abandon, but they are not. The fallow system of the islands requires that the land rest 8 to 12 years between planting cycles.
Besides farming most households earn an important part of their income by fishing. The two most important commercial fish from the lake are trout and pejerey. These fish are sold to venders in Copacabana and La Paz. A number of islanders also own motorboats and run transport businesses from Copacabana to ports on the islands. In the last several years, the economy of Bolivia has stabilized dramatically and grown, and there has been a concomitant increase in tourism. Several hostels have opened on the Island of the Sun, and there is a brisk tourist industry emerging in the region.
A visit to these islands in the late 20th century may be the last opportunity to appreciate their unique ecological beauty. The islands have no electricity or roads. There are no motorized vehicles of any kind. As a result, the landscape has been untouched by modern heavy construction. This situation will not continue, of course, as Bolivia is rapidly developing an industrial infrastructure. The residents want the best for themselves and their children and are actively seeking electrification of the Island of the Sun. As tourism grows, the number of people who visit these islands increase. The best time to see the islands in their entirety is now.
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