Back in Bolivia…strange goings-on in Copacabana

Copacabana is a quiet town, stuck on a peninsular between glorious Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It has become a centre for travellers transiting between the two countries and a jumping off point for the exquisite Isla del Sol, home of the Inca creation myth. Its a sleepy place that normally has a low-key traveller vibe, but on weekends it comes alive with a very Bolivian mix of fun and faith.

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

When I say faith, I mean that peculiar Bolivian blend of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs that have been merged to create a religion that celebrates the old and the new(ish). First, there is the true oddity that is the blessing of the cars that takes place outside the cathedral. Getting your vehicle blessed, and decorated, brings good luck and promises safe conduct for those inside the vehicle.

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Judging by the number of roadside shrines, this isn’t a fool-proof way of getting from A to B in one piece. Personally I’d prefer it if Bolivian drivers drove more carefully: you know, at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not chatting on mobile phones, trying not to eat and drink while overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend on a mountain pass. That sort of thing.

Failing that, it would be good if fewer people got behind the wheel after a skinful of chicha or singani – particularly bus drivers. During our last month in Sucre there were two bus crashes on the road south, one, very serious, with multiple deaths and injuries. Both were the result of drunk driving. Getting your bus blessed won’t help if you’re pissed.

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

A friend in Sucre once told me how the bus she was travelling in was stuck behind a truck moving at a snail’s pace. The bus driver was honking his horn, but couldn’t get the truck to pull over so the bus could overtake. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the very, very drunk driver simply fell out of his cab while the truck veered off the road. Bless that if you can.

The second oddity is the very public performance of traditional beliefs right under the watchful eye of a statue of Christ and the stations of the cross leading up Cerro Calvario. I walked to the top of this 3966 metre mountain to take the view, at the base of the hill there were a number of traditional priests performing indigenous rites for people. I’ve seen these same rites performed all over Bolivia.

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Even at the top of the hill, alongside the Catholic shrine, people are using traditional rites to honour the dead, ask for health, wealth and success. Its a strange sight, but one I think is entirely appropriate for a country that had a very strong belief system, accompanied by a very successful culture, before the Spanish introduced Catholicism at the point of a sword.

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Although a restful place, we had to move on from Lake Titicaca. We were headed for Coroico in the truly awe inspiring Yungas region of Bolivia. Despite the altitude, we managed to do a nice walk around the lake shore and observe some the traditional life on the lake before we left.

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

Back in Bolivia…someone turn the heat on, it’s bloody freezing

I’m not kidding. After three months lounging around warmer climates next the the ocean, returning to the Bolivian highlands in winter is a shock to the system. We arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia after four days of fairly relentless travel, tired but happy to be back. The sky was bright blue, the sun shining and the air temperature barely above zero. When the sun went down the temperature plunged and we had to put all our clothes on.

Don’t even get me started on the effect of suddenly being back at 3850 metres in altitude again. Let’s just say that viewed from the other side of a splitting head the following day, those two celebratory pisco sours were a serious mistake.

Rewinding a few days…we left Cartagena, Colombia at midnight and the temperature was hot and humid. An hour or so later we arrived in Bogota airport where we were going to have to spend an uncomfortable night waiting for the 5.30am flight to Lima. Its been a long time since I spent a night in an airport, I can’t recommend it.

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

At least our flight to Lima was on time. The second I was in my seat I was asleep. I woke three hours later just as we were descending over the magnificent Cordillera Blanca towards Lima airport. Lima was covered in dense fog, something that happens often, and you could barely see the tops of buildings.

Avianca, Colombia's national airline

Avianca, Colombia’s national airline

Negotiating Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, and wishing I was anywhere else but Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, we eventually arrived at our B&B. Luckily it had a room available there-and-then. We woke up around seven hours later, and if we hadn’t been hungry we’d have put in another seven hour sleep shift. What was left of the day was all the time we had in Lima – we were heading to the Bolivian border as quickly as possible.

As a resident of Bolivia you acquire a peculiar status…the Bolivian authorities don’t like you leaving the country. Perhaps they think you might have more fun in a neighbouring country and won’t come back…a sort of Shirley Valentine romance with an entire country. Whatever it is, they make you pay to leave Bolivia (tourists go free) and you can only leave for a period of three months in any calendar year. We had to be back in Bolivia before the 90 day limit.

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Meanwhile in Lima, we had a bus to catch. The great thing about Peruvian buses is that for US$70 you get a seat that would put first class airplane seats to shame…they also serve meals and have video on demand! Despite that, I wasn’t looking forward to a 17 hour overnight bus from Lima to Arequipa. The bus was great, but 17 hours on a bus is probably a human rights violation. We arrived in Arequipa fairly bedraggled, but determined to push on.

A quick check of bus companies unearthed a Puno-bound bus leaving 15 minutes later. Just enough time to brush our teeth and grab some water and bananas. Seven hours later we arrived in Puno where we decided enough was enough. We took a taxi to a hotel and collapsed onto the bed. Sadly, we were up early the next morning to catch the bus to Copacabana. Time was ticking away and we wanted to be back in Bolivia a day before our deadline, just in case…

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

So here we are in Copacabana, only three weeks of our adventure left and soaking up some of that famous Lake Titicaca high-altitude atmosphere…that is, barely able to breath in an atmosphere of 3850 metres above sea level. It may be time to stock up on some llama wool items before we go anywhere else…it is bloody freezing here.

Bolivian Sunset

It might be my love of the sundowner that makes me an aficionado of the sunset, but the stunning extremes of colour that sunsets provide is something I’ll never tire of watching – especially if it comes with a vodka and tonic. I can’t say I have the same feelings towards sunrise, I’ve seen a few but it’s not my favourite time of day.

Sunset is a magical time, especially for a keen amateur photographer like myself. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some beautiful sunsets in some extraordinary places around the world – the sunset in the desert north of Timbuktu will live long in the memory. Bolivia’s diverse landscapes – from the high Andes to the Amazon Basin – have provided sunsets to match any I’ve seen before.

The hills of the Corillera de los Failles that form the backdrop to our home in Sucre have been the setting for many a pleasant sundowner while watching the sky explode with colour. It is an ever changing palette and now the rains have come the scattering of cloud has made sunset even more impressive.

Sunset over Sucre, Bolivia

This photo was taken as the sun set and a tremendous storm ranged across the mountains, there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain – but none of the rain landed on Sucre itself.

Sunset and a storm over Sucre, Bolivia

Sunset and street lights over Sucre, Bolivia

Although Sucre’s backdrop of mountains is impressive, you’d have to go a long way to find a backdrop to match that of La Paz at sunset.

La Paz sunset with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Travels around the country have also witnessed some stunning sunsets. These are from the high altiplano in Sajama National Park, the first was taken just as an adult and baby llama crossed in front of me.

Sunset and llamas, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

The next shots come from the Amazon basin, first in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos where the entire village seemed to gather at the nearby lake Isiboro to cool off, most people left as the sun went down but a few people stayed in the water until darkness descended.

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Walking back from the lake to the village of San Ignacio several vehicles kicked-up enough dust to get this pattern in the sky and the haziness in the trees.

Sunset in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

I love the way water and sky combine at sunset, there was no better example than when we sailed up the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Amazon Basin, Bolivia

Sticking with the water theme, I’ll finish this montage of sunsets with two from Lago Titicaca.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The birthplace of the Inca, Isla del Sol

Today’s Isla del Sol is a sleepy place without a single combustion engine to ruin the experience of being on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca with spectacular views of the Cordillera Real. The main form of transport is the donkey and the main form of noise is also the donkey – in the quiet of the island it is astounding how far the noise of a braying donkey will travel.

The view from the ridge of the Isla del Sol, looking back towards Copacabana

It takes a little imagination to visualise how the island must have looked in the sixteenth century when it was home to one of the most important religious sites in the Incan Empire, and was considered the place where the sun was born as well as being the place where the Incas were created.

The island is beautiful, with four or five small villages that are home to the islands permanent population and tremendous views wherever you look. There is a 20km walk that cuts over the spine of the island to the Chincana ruins, the islands biggest Incan ruin, and returns along the coast passing through a few villages. It takes a few hours to complete the circuit, but it is worth every breathless step.

Greeted by an Incan statue at the base of the Incan stairway, Isla del Sol

Of course before you can set out on a tour of the island you have to get a boat across the lake and then climb one of the steepest stairways on planet earth to reach the village of Yumani. We stayed at the Estancia Ecolodge (www.ecolodge-laketiticaca.com), a group of adobe cottages ingeniously heated by traditional Incan technology set above Incan agricultural terraces facing the Cordillera Real. If there’s a better spot on the island to watch the sun set with a cold beer in hand I didn’t find it.

The route across the ridge of the island, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

A woman walks her pig, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

The Chincana ruins at the northern tip of Isla del Sol, Bolivia

The Chincana ruins are a complex of buildings located above a small beach, they blend into the landscape so well that it is difficult to spot them at first. The main feature is a maze-like complex of stone walls known as the Palacio del Inca. Arrive early enough and you can have the whole complex to yourself with only the sound of the breeze for company.

The Chincana ruins complex, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Doorway, Chincana ruins, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Ceremonial table, Chincana ruins, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Village on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Heroes of the Isla del Sol painted on a school wall

The Isla del Sol’s location is ideal for sunset watching, and it didn’t disappoint during our stay with some cloud cover creating a dramatic contrast between sky and water.

Sudden downpour across Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Sunset over the Cordillera Real from Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Leaving behind the delights of Isla del Sol, next up is a bus trip to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu…

Is that the beach? The highs and lows of Copacabana, Bolivia

There is probably no other name that conjures an image of tropical paradise (sparkling ocean, fabulous beach, beautiful people) quite so strongly as Copacabana. It’s a name redolent with meaning and association – who could forget Astrud Gilberto’s sultry The Girl from Ipanema or, for that matter, Homer Simpson in a thong? So it is understandable that a visit to Copacabana should fizzle with excitement.

Unfortunately, Copacabana, Bolivia, doesn’t quite live up to its more famous counterpart in Brazil. That’s not to say it isn’t a charming and tranquil town with a dramatic location overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Titicaca. It’s just that it fails to excite the imagination in the same way that the other Copacabana does, which is unfair because it is also the gateway to Isla del Sol, birthplace of the Inca creation myth and a gorgeous place to spend a few days relaxing before heading to Peru.

From La Paz the journey north towards the lake is itself pretty dramatic, skirting the jagged snowcapped peaks of the Cordillera Real and offering travellers spectacular views.

The Cordillera Real en route to Copacabana, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to Copacabana, Bolivia

To reach Copacabana it’s first necessary to cross a part of Lake Titicaca that cuts Copacabana off from the rest of Bolivia. The crossing is done on a barge, which isn’t without excitement. A few years ago a barge carrying a bus and its passenger capsized with a number of fatalities. Since that tragedy buses and passengers go on separate barges.

Bus crossing the Estrecho de Tiquina, en route to Copacabana, Bolivia

Barge crossing the Estrecho de Tiquina, en route to Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana itself is a fairly small town set between two large hills on the edge of a crescent-shaped beach lined with duck-themed pedaloes.  It is a pleasant place to spend a day before taking a boat to Isla del Sol, and for exquisite views of the town and lake a lung bursting climb of Copacabana’s iconic Cerro Calvario is obligatory.

Copacabana beach on the shores of Lake Titicaca

Copacabana from Cerro Calvario

The route up Cerro Calvario is severe and marked by the Stations of the Cross. The top is home to a Catholic shrine, although if I’m honest the actual worship that takes place there owes far more to pre-hispanic, pre-Christian beliefs performed by traditional priests practicing ancient rites that are anything but Catholic.

It’s not uncommon to see libations of beer or spirits being offered to Pachamama, the pre-hispanic earth mother, or the burning of coals and incense wafted over the heads of individuals undergoing a traditional rite.

The Catholic shrine on top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Beer and burnt offerings, Copacabana, Bolivia

Of course not everyone feels inclined to walk to the top of a big hill at 3800m altitude, or to admire the magnificent view that one gets from all that exertion. No, some people feel that all they need for a good time is a hammock. Faulty logic in my opinion, but what do I know…this hammock can be located at the Hostal Las Olas (http://hostallasolas.com/) which has unique and really wonderful rooms-cum-cabins to stay in, plus tremendous views over the lake.

Hammock time for the perennially lazy