We had left La Paz early in the morning in our faithful truck Rosita, and our first day on the road took us to Lake Titicaca and Copacabana on the shores of the lake. Copacabana feels like a little seaside town. Paddle boats and white fisherman’s trawlers line the shore, and the lake is so huge it feels more like an ocean of shimmering blue.
The town can only be reached from Peru across the Tiquina Strait, the deepest, narrowest part of the lake which is patrolled by water taxis. Watching them move their rickety boats in place to receive the cars & trucks defied belief, and even more so when they didn’t sink into the depths.
In the area there is some contention over a proposal to build a bridge across the straits; which would of course make crossings much easier. On the one hand the taximen and little communities on either side of the strait thrive on tourists stopping off along their journey, and would lose their livelihoods if a bridge was built.
But quick and easy access to the mainland in case of emergency is vital for the residents (the taxis finish their working day at 6pm, so if you need to get across to Peru for medical care for example, you have to wait till the next day).
It will be interesting to see who wins the battle.
Our guide Leo explained that the name Copacabana, which we all assumed was names after the famous beach in Rio, was in fact here first, and comes from the Aymara language “kota kahuana” meaning “view of the lake”.
Legend has it that a Portuguese sailor was lost at sea, and prayed to the virgin of Copacabana to save him. When he finally washed ashore he named the beach where he landed after his virgin saviour – Copacabana. I am sure that the residents of Copacabana in Rio have a different version of events, but I like this one!
The town itself is quite small, nestled between two hills and the lake. We ate lunch on the ‘sea’ front, I had a tasty trout fillet; a non-native fish introduced to the lake which has now become a traditional dish. Once the food had settled in our stomachs my room-mate and I tackled one of the hills overlooking the town.
As is commonplace in Latin America, at the top we found a shrine, where locals and visitors leave offerings and light candles; the blend of indigenous religion and Christianity evident here as I have seen throughout my journey.
At 3812 metres above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. So the hike up the hill at this altitude wasn’t easy! Once again I was amazed by the dedication & ingenuity of those who brought the huge stone blocks and crosses to the top of the hill.
I was out of breath every few minutes, and had to keep stopping to regain my composure, and admire the views. This is all training for the Machu Picchu trek I told myself, as I rested on a rock, breathing heavily. I hadn’t realised how much altitude would affect everything; from dry skin to gasping for breath, sluggish digestion & difficulty sleeping – no-one had mentioned these side effects!
I missed the sea, and as much as Copacabana looked like the Med, the altitude made sure I didn’t feel too much like Barcelona.
The view from the top of the hill was worth the effort though, as we are rewarded with beautiful vistas from all sides. I was tempted to wait for the sun to set over the lake, but a climb down in the dark didn’t appeal, so we descended and caught the sunset from below instead.
That evening, a light dinner followed by cocktails and live music in Nemo’s bar finished the day off nicely!
The following morning, an early start took us back down to the shores of the lake, to take a boat to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). The largest island on the lake, the Inca settled here too, and ruins of homes and agricultural terraces still remain.
We walked the length of the island, reaching a high point of around 4200 metres above sea level – yet more practice for the trek to Machu Picchu! The views were stunning, and the water a beautiful blue.
We spent another night in Copacabana, had an early dinner at Café Bistrot, Leo’s Mum’s restaurant, then we all headed to bed after a day of fresh air and fun!
The following morning we headed to the border, and crossed into Peru. Exactly 2 weeks after I had arrived, I was sad to leave Bolivia but excited for the adventure to come, and for the new stamp in my passport!
Puno was our first stop, on the other side of the lake. I wasn’t enamoured with Puno. Our hotel was dark and dingy, with frankly disturbing paintings, and a bedroom window which didn’t close, which at that altitude was not a good thing. Thankfully we were soon whisked off by cycle taxi tuk tuks to the port where we caught a boat to the Uros Islands.
I am still in two minds about my visit here, where the Uros people live on man-made islands of reeds floating in the lake. I had been looking forward to this since I saw an episode of the British TV programme Holiday, where the presenter Judith Charmers gushed about the beauty of the islands and their people.
Of course that was 20 years ago now, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Leo explained that the Uros culture had actually died out years before, but the Peruvian government realised the importance of preserving it and subsidised the local people’s income to encourage them to return to the reed beds and build homes, schools and communities there.
One could certainly argue the importance of cultural preservation, but artificially maintaining it for tourism perhaps missed the point. It was certainly interesting to visit the islands and to see how the Uros lived among the reeds, and built their floating homes, but I am still sceptical about the authenticity of the ‘show’.
That afternoon we returned to our dingy hotel, and took moto-taxis to the main square to find a spot for dinner. The following day we set off for Cusco and I felt my excitement build in anticipation for Machu Picchu!
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