Text by Erik Foreman
Photos by Erik Foreman and Keith Ambrose


In April 2015 Keith Ambrose, Curt Bowen, and I were in Guatemala exploring a deep volcanic caldera named Lake Atitlan and already planning another trip. My suggestion was Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol. Located on the Bolivian end of the lake, a small group of islands include the Isla del Sol, Isla del Luna, Chullo, Koa, and Pallalla. Many ruins remain on these islands abandoned by the ancient cultures of Tiahuanaco and Inca. For the Inca, the island represents one of their most sacred locations. Belief that the first Inca mother and father came from this region is a central theme running throughout Incan mythology.

At a height of 12,500 feet, the atmospheric pressure is nearly half of that at sea level. The isolation and altitude would be a real challenge. Very little diving has been conducted in this remote spot. In 1968 Jacques Cousteau took his crew and equipment there to explore the lake. Divers spent days searching, but found nothing man-made. Cousteau concluded the legends were a myth.


In 1992 stone boxes containing gold artifacts were discovered in an area known as Marka Pampa off the north end of the island. These treasures are on display in the Gold museum near the village of Challapampa. In 2000 an international team of scientists investigated the legends of a submerged city and reported finding what appeared to be a 160 foot wide Holy Temple. Very little research was conducted because of the technical difficulties of diving at altitude. In 2005 my buddy Ron Jacobsen and I travelled to the island. With minimal equipment, we dove for two days, exploring the lake bottom at a depth of 80 to 100 feet. We saw giant frogs and a wide range of underwater topography. Ron found several pieces of pottery including a beautiful ceramic cup. Now it’s January 2016 and time to return with more gear and most importantly our rebreathers which would give us extra diving days and extended range.



Trans-filling and boosting oxygen in the streets of Lima, Peru into our rebreather cylinders at a local welding supply company.


Keith had been the team coordinator on several Advanced Diver magazine expeditions. He speaks Spanish, and knows how to get things done. It was going to take his expertise for any chance of success. Without a single dive shop in either Peru or Bolivia and very little support, the mission becomes giving yourself the best possible chance to dive once you reach the target. On a trip like this, nothing is a guarantee. We were bringing almost everything we needed which included rebreathers, regs, computers, backplate and harness, drysuit, camera and lights, four 40 CF tanks, gas booster, mask, fins, gloves, tools and spares. Condensing all this equipment into two 50 pound suitcases and two carry-ons leaves very little room for anything else. The plan was to fly to Lima, rent a truck at the airport, drive to the hotel and meet our Peruvian friend Feliciano, pick up diluent, drive gas and oxygen. Next we had to get Feliciano and the tanks on the bus then return the truck to the airport and fly to Juliaca, spend the night and meet the bus in Puno the next day. Keith had managed to secure use of six aluminum 80’s; four for drive gas and two for diluent. He had also arranged for oxygen to be delivered to a local address.

Driving in Lima involves many sudden lane changes, few road signs, and a maze of crowded one-way streets. We found and picked up the 80’s, but when it came to finding the apartment where the oxygen was, our driving directions became useless. Running low on time and almost ready to give up, we pulled over for a break. To our amazement we found ourselves less than a block from the right apartment. Setting up a makeshift fill station on the sidewalk, we pumped gas for about an hour, loaded everything back into the truck and left for the bus terminal.

The awesome view of the Andes Mountains from our hillside hotel at and altitude of 12,500 feet.


With Feliciano and the tanks on the bus, we returned to the airport and flew to the lake. At the hotel in Juliaca I tried to get some sleep but the thin air made it hard to breathe. Keith slept like a rock while I considered finding a hospital.
Totally exhausted I finally fell asleep. In the morning we took a taxi to Puno.

Like most buses in Peru, Feliciano’s was running late. We waited in a small pizzeria having lunch and enjoying the national beer “Cusquena”. It was cold, something that would be much harder to find the closer we got to “La Frontera”, what the locals call the border with Bolivia. Feliciano finally arrived. We loaded everything into a taxi and headed south. The drive took two hours and it had gotten dark out as we arrived. It was too late and the border crossing was closed. We would have to wait until morning to cross. Finding a near-by hostel we checked in for the night. The altitude makes everything harder.

Explorers Keith Ambrose (left) and Erik Foreman (right) standing in front of the welcome sign to Isla del Sol

Carrying gear or climbing stairs required a break. I turned on my Shearwater Predator and the display was showing .14 on all three cells. No wonder just walking around I felt out of breath. The next morning we crossed the border. Placing all our gear on two bicycle taxis the drivers rode up the hill and into Bolivia.

At the port in Copacabana, we hired a boat. The island was finally in sight. The decision had been made to stay on Isla del Sol in the village of Yumani. Just sixty minutes away the hardest work was about to begin. Reaching the island Keith volunteered to walk up and pay the entrance fee. As soon as the boat landed we were determined to conduct a check-out dive right away. Several workers from our hostel “Jacha Inti” came down and helped us carry gear to our room. We got to work building gear and were soon standing on the beach ready to dive. The entry was rocky and soon dropped off on a steep sandy slope. Swimming down to 50 feet everything seemed to be working alright. We turned to the right and followed the slope for about 30 minutes looking for anything man-made. We saw some frogs but not the giant ones I had seen 10 years earlier. Turning around and decreasing our depth to between 10 and 20 feet, we slowly made our way back to the entry point. A crowd of Bolivian tourists greeted us enthusiastically, taking pictures and asking questions. With all the gear working correctly it was time for dinner and next day dive planning.


Rebreather diver Keith Ambrose discovers a small stone carving. (age undetermined)

The hotel boat we hired for our lake exploration. The boat had no diving ladder so it make getting back in the boat a little more challenging.


Explorer Erik Forman makes friends with an Inca dog 


The days were mostly sunny and hot with thunder storms in the evening and chilly temperatures at night. Our room was comfortable with plenty of space to spread out our equipment. The food in the small restaurant was very good and all prepared from scratch by the owner’s wife.

We decided to spend our first full day of diving trying to find the Sunken City site reported in 2000. The three small islands of Chullo, Koa, and Pallalla form a natural triangle. The reported site was in the center of this triangle. We hired a boat and captain who could take us there. Time for bed; I was finally starting to acclimate to the altitude and fell right asleep. The next morning after eating breakfast we loaded the boat and headed toward the target area. The ride took about an hour, following the shoreline we could see steep terraced slopes and natural caves just above the water line.

After reaching the approximate center of the three islands and using a line and weight to gage the depth, we determined the area was well over 200 feet deep. Not the 30 feet reported by explorers in 2000. We moved the boat and again tested the depth; still over 200 feet. Could the reports have been exaggerated or were we just in the wrong spot? Moving the boat back in the direction of the main island we stopped when we could see the bottom and decided to enter there. Rolling off the boat and descending into clear cold water, the bottom was 30 feet deep.


I checked my compass and began to navigate underwater toward the original target site. Swimming and stopping occasionally to take photos we passed thick weeds down to 50 feet then a zone of sand and tiny shells. At 80 feet, rock formations began to appear. Large individual boulders gave way to long vertical rows of exposed rock at 100 feet. Had we found the roads and causeways reported by earlier expeditions? Comparing the formations in my mind to those in other lakes I concluded these were part of natural weathering processes. After 20 minutes of decompression we surfaced and returned to the hostel. Disappointed but not discouraged, a bottle of wine and a good dinner raised our spirits.

At dinner our host suggested that searching in front of the Temple del Sol or Temple of the Sun might produce some discoveries. The Temple of the Sun is a small ruin where we had first stopped to pay the island entrance fee and not far from Yumani.

Our hillside hotel on lake Titicaca


The thunder and lightning started up again. As the temperature dropped we returned to our room and a giant stack of blankets. Up early for breakfast, the sky was cloudy and we could hear thunder on the other side of the island. Not knowing if the thunderstorm would get worse, we decided to load the boat and take advantage of the weather window. A short ride later we were in front of the Temple Ruins.

Diving from the beach we immediately saw many medium-sized frogs hiding in the thick weeds. Making our way straight forward we swam for 30 minutes. The weeds were thick and the mud thicker. I knew we would not find anything here. We turned and headed back. With only one dive day left, choosing tomorrow’s dive site was critical. Upon returning to our hostel, one of the locals told us he knew someone who had been to the sunken city site, had a boat, and was willing to take us there. It was worth a shot. We arranged a meet time for the next morning and changed tanks and Sorb. I began to daydream of a Holy Temple, long causeways, massive stone walls and terraced gardens lying in the cold depths of Titicaca. Our new guide told us the top of the ruins came very close to the surface and could be seen easily from the boat. Were the legends true after all?


Photo above left: Dual headed dragon boat in our Marina on Lake Titicaca
Photo left: Explorer Erik Forman and our Peruvian Guide Feliciano getting ready to go diving. 


We woke up early, loaded the boat and headed back toward the same triangular section where we were exploring the day before yesterday. Along the way the boat stopped and picked up two young boys who we were told could help determine the precise location. We arrived at the area and began driving back and forth, crisscrossing between the three islands. Suddenly there it was; the top of a rocky pinnacle about 10 feet below the surface. I couldn’t wait to get in the water. Donning our gear quickly we entered the water and began searching. I recognized several large blocks of stone randomly strewn about. The formation itself was the shape of a three-sided pyramid and the blocks of stone were cut at right angles but appeared to me to be the remains of a breakwater or moorage, and not a temple. We swam around the entire site. As we came around the far side, Keith noticed several ceramic pots and signaled to me. I swam over and began to take pictures. The pots had been placed upright under overhanging rock and were partially filled with sediment. We carefully looked around and seeing nothing else, we called the dive.

Surfacing with a sense of personal satisfaction, I realized in a lake this size we could dive every day for years and only cover a fraction of its depths.

Back at the hostel we drank a well-deserved beer, and started planning our next Advanced Diver magazine expedition…

Erik purchases a chef jacket from La Mar, his favorite restaurant in Lima Peru

Explorer Keith Ambrose holding the prize discovery of the expedition, an ancient ceramic relic discovered within Lake Titicaca.