Bolivia | The Copacabana Side to Lago Titicaca

Our first few days in Bolivia were based in Copacabana, a cheery town on the grand Lake Titicaca. Even if it runs on tourism, it is undeniably pleasant. We settled in a shabby little hostel with a pretty courtyard and dined in little local eateries (not without difficulty – they are tough to find) that laid out multi-course set lunches of Bolivian staples. Happily, we caught a rare occasion in Copacabana; the Virgen de Copacabana, a lavishly adorned statue that only leaves her glass encasing during certain fiestas, was being carried through the main street in a festive parade. The narrow road was packed with people throwing confetti and cars covered with floral arrangements and other decorations. One car was topped with a group of plastic dolls operating on one another in doctor-like outfits, which was a strange scene indeed. The parade eventually led into the “Moorish Cathedral,” the town’s clear center point, which is so large that it devours a solid town block. Its style is clearly different from any cathedrals we have seen so far, with bulbous archways and roofs capped in nautical tiles of turquoises, greens, blues, and browns. The Virgen was placed just to the right of the alter, where families brought offerings and posed their children in front of her little frame for photographs. In addition to the beautiful Moorish Cathedral, there is another holy sight in Copacabana, known to most as Cerro Calvario. This is the looming hill that provides the town with its dramatic appearance and, despite its size, Bolivia’s most important Catholic pilgrimage sight. One can climb the mountain in an hour or less along a trail that follows the stations of the cross to the summit, where a wide platform provides a nice view of the town and lake below. Here, where tributes are laid and prayers cast, the line between modern Christianity and tradition is much thinner. Like Buddhist offerings, glimmering candles and gifts of rosaries, alcohol, and food clutter the summit.

After exploring these two things, however, Copacabana quickly runs out of activities for the visitor, and its time to move on. We caught an afternoon boat to the Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun, the birthplace of the Incan dynasty, which took a painfully long time to inch its way to the famous destination. Upon arrival in the settlement known as Yumani, a group of locals blocked the dock, demanding the Bs. 10 peso fee to use the walkway and climb the Inca steps. Obviously, there was no choice but to pay the piper, and Bs. 20 later, we were sweating and panting on our way up the ancient stairway, despite carrying only bare essentials for the ascent. The old woman that runs the Inka-Pacha hostel has surely never touched a computer in her life, yet we magically found our names penciled into her worn logbook. (We had to make a reservation for entry to Bolivia.) There is no running water and minimal electricity on the island, so we were not expecting much from our lodgings, but were pleased to find clean beds and a balcony with a stunning view of the distant, snow-capped mountain range on the northern Bolivian peninsula and the nearby Isla de la Luna, or Island of the Moon.

Further up the mountain and through a eucalyptus forest, there is a simple restaurant called Las Velas, which is apparently run by a “gourmet chef,” though the only person we ever saw was a weathered little lady. The hut that claims the restaurant was under an all-over reconstruction, but because I had read rave reviews of the tiny place in a traveler advice journal, we agreed to eat outside and enjoy the sunset. We were the only customers. The food at Las Velas is cooked in a wooden oven, and therefore takes a very long time to prepare. In the couple hours we spent there, we were befriended by some local Belgian campers who built a campfire behind us and invited us to share the warmth. The vegetarian pizza was, thankfully, very good.

We retired early and rose equally so to begin the popular trans-island hike, which ended up taking much longer than planned, mostly because we kept losing the trail. The sun was painfully hot and strong; this is a fabulous way to get a superb sunburn. Because the Isla del Sol is the largest island on Lake Titicaca, measuring 9.5 km long and 6.5 km across, it takes some time to cross along the mountainous terrain, following the longer stretch of land. Aside from taking a boat, however, it is decidedly the only option. Several hours of goats, donkeys, and dirt trail later, we finally arrived in Challa Pampa, after having started in Yumani (on the other side of the island). The trail cost Bs. 15 each, though I’m quite sure that it’s actually more for the entire circuit. Our trek continued on and finished in Chinkana, the only notable ruins on the island, where the Incas built a complex of rooms and plazas near the spot that they believed their creator god to have created the sun and moon. The Isla del Sol was apparently the cradle of Incan civilization, but I certainly did not see the extensive shrines and temples promised. Chinkana is neat, but I strongly suspect that the island’s Incan remains are exaggerated for the sake of tourism, which has been on the steady increase, though you can still walk the length of the island and not see a single foreign soul. Perhaps the better draw is the lake itself, which is the largest high-altitude body of water in the world. From the narrow isle, its size and serene beauty certainly show – it’s perhaps worth a night here just to appreciate a proper sunset and unparalleled view of the Bolivian mountain vista.

Tips: Be warned, the boats to and from the islands leave strictly on time, and there are often only two departures in a day, despite the appearance of multiple boat companies. Be prepared for a long voyage. It is not unwise to store your luggage in Copacabana to avoid the strenuous vertical hiking. The sun is really strong and the altitude staggeringly high, so there is high risk of exertion and dehydration. Copacabana’s post office has only finite hours due to its afternoon siesta, so plan accordingly. Mail is much cheaper from Bolivia than from Peru, Chile, or Argentina. Finally, if you order nachos in Copacabana, there is a chance that you will receive nacho-flavored Doritos covered in cheese. This, my friends, is nowhere near delicious.

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