02/08/12 – 05/08/12 – La Paz, Bolivia to Copacabana, Bolivia
Just a quick stop-over in La Paz, in the same hotel and the next morning we were picked up at the door by a tour company in a bus full of gringos. Suddenly we had gone from local buses full of natives to tour buses full of dithering travelers. We were well and truly on the gringo trail. Getting out of La Paz through the highest city in the world El Alto is a true test of patience. Typical 3rd world traffic jams and unfiltered exhaust fumes mixing with the dust of the altoplato. But we also had a bunch of yabbering old Italians in front of us that made it their business to complain the whole time. They even wrote ‘BAD SERVICE’ on the passenger list as it made it’s way around. I thought we had a gearbox problem on the bus but it was just some old Italian woman going ‘tsk tsk tsk’ all the time.
Eventually we got going and it was the yellow, dusty, thatchy scenery of the altoplano once again, peppered with little mud-brick homes and hand painted signage of local businesses ‘Taller Jefry’ or Jefry’s workshop.. or Fanny Salon. You get the idea.
It wasn’t long before the enormous lake crept into the scenery, it’s rich fresh-water blue sparkling under the high-altitude sunlight. We got off the bus, paid a small fee and got into a small boat to traverse the lake to San Pedro on the other side. The bus squished itself onto a wooden barge and did the same. We sat around poor little San Pedro, with it’s port vendors selling Pringles and water until our bus arrived and we boarded again to finish the 5 or so hour total trip to Copacabana. At 3850m it’s immediately noticeable on the respiratory system when walking step-by-glorious-step up the steep hills to our hotel. The surrounding hills are parched of any real flora, just that dusty yellow thatch stuff. There’s a few paved roads and cobblestones as well but generally the roads are dusty. We were fortunate to roll into town to share in the Independence Day celebrations which are oddly a week long. Drunk Bolivians sprinkle confetti on their cars, strap on some streamers and adorn the roof with golden hats. All along the waterfront, there’s little barbecues set up cooking the most awesome smelling seafood, and in amongst those, some of the more enterprising Bolivians have set up rides and attractions. A push-it-yourself merry-go-round, and a pose with a novelty lion plush toy. There were foose-ball tables setup and many-a-vendor of beer to keep the celebrations lively (and the public urination continual). But it also meant that the streets became marketplaces, full of life and colour and pickpockets (evidently.. we were warned but never saw any).
Granted the town is hallmark on the Gringo trail there’s a fine selection of great restaurants and coffee houses to just hang out at. Plenty of good food and juices. We visited a french breakfast restaurant run by an ex-pat french woman who cooked everything from scratch and made a disclaimer to the effect of ‘good food takes time.. don’t get angry if you have a ferry to catch’ or something. We ordered a great breakfast there.. complete with french toast and fried cheese.
The real star of the show of this area though is the vastness of Lake Titicaca, and the nearby islands. In amongst the yellow thatch of the landscape the rich blue and clear skies are a welcome oasis. The nearby hills of the islands and surrounding areas are all terraced for crop cultivation, a legacy of the Incas and prior civilisations, no longer utilised but a permanent mark on the landscape.
Probably the most popular thing to do here is visit the revered Inca site Isla del Sol, a 2 or so hour put-put boat trip from Copacabana. 15th century Inca’s believed this was the birthplace of the sun god, so we made a trip down to the lakes edge to catch an 8:30am boat to see if they were right or not. You could be continually mistaken for believing the lake is an ocean given it’s vastness.. it disappears into the horizon like an ocean, has currents and chop like an ocean and in all degree of manner wouldn’t present otherwise. Some 2 and half hours later, with one or two gringos having relieved their stomachs of breakfast we arrive at the dock at the north of the island. There’s a small town here, the island itself has some 500 or so inhabitants. It’s basically a port frontage with small cafes and ladies selling sandwiches. We find a small path between some buildings which opens out to a the white sandy beach of Ch’alla and turquoise waters of the lake. Local farmers have bought the cows and calfs down for a drink (oh.. yeah its freshwater) and some local hippies emerge from their beach tents to play bongos or guitar or juggle something.
The beach path winds up to a nearby cliff path passing local mudbrick houses, and inhabitants in typical altoplanto clothing.. plaits and little hats and bright dresses on the women. Little piglets, lambs and donkeys run around the town paths, feeding on grass and local vendors lay our tourist souvenirs on towels on the ground for us to peruse as we walk past. Shortly the path turns to stark sand and dust and we’re shortly at the main historical site on the northern end of the island. There’s a ceremonial stone here, and the sacred rock from which the sun is said to have emerged, and mankind created for the second time after a flood. There’s also remnants of stone walls. At nearly 4000m we’re taking it pretty slow and keeping our inspiration by the spectacular scenery. Endless blue sparkling water dotted every now and then by the terraced geometric shapes of the nearby islands.
From this point you can evidently do a ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts and walk the 8 kilometers or so across the ridge to the southern part of the island. We decided to take a boat. Lazy.
We met the boat at the port after eating some sandwiches and sat atop the boat to soak in the sunshine and view across at the Andes. Some 45 minutes later we emerged at the Southern port and climbed the Incan steps to the fountain of life at the top. There’s a really distinct pattern of terracing here which seems to have more recently been utilised to house hostels and some fine restaurants. Once at the top of the steps, which are markedly surrounded by greener vegetation we climb around the some of the terraces and perch ourselves on a ledge above a few llamas to take in the view.
But its a short 15 minutes or so and we’re walking back down and getting the boat back along the glassy surface of the lake to Copacabana.
The festival in town seems to have picked up a notch and we indulge in the celebrations by getting a beer at lakeside bar/restaurant that has a bunch of deck chairs set up. There’s gringos chatting about their exploits and a few local drunks; and it’s not long before one of them, toothless and grubby sits down next to us and rambles away in Spanish. We pick up a few words here and there.. something about countries, clothing, women and paying the bill. But we politely indicate we’re not much in the way of multi-lingual conversation and he soon disappears, not without kissing my hand. A nice touch. What a gent.
That night, fireworks and explosions reign out from the nearby peaks from which celebrations at local shrines are conducted. A concert STARTS at 2am. We wake early, have an amazing breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, jams and cereal and yoghurt before heading out to the bus station to start the trip to Cusco, Peru.