Copa, Copacabana…what do you mean it’s in Bolivia?

Copacabana, as well as being the subject of a famous song, is a small town 8km past the Peru/Bolivia frontier on Lake Titicaca. Nestled amongst hills and on the shores of the lake, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a beach resort. Perfect for a few nights.

The trip from Puno to Copacabana was uneventful. At the border we all poured off the bus: police check, Peru exit, currency exchange and into Bolivia where after a short queue we received our stamps. US citizens have a harder time here (that’s why Alison uses her UK passport) being forced to pay $135 visa in crisp new notes. We gather that it’s retaliation for the stringent conditions the US place on Bolivians.

In general we’ve found the border currency exchanges across Central and South America to be quite reasonable: no commission, close to official rates and accepting of small notes, sometimes even coins. They normally look a bit dodgy and there are the usual stories about poor rates and calculator scams (dividing instead of multiplying) to underpay you. We use a smart-phone app called XE currency and always do our own calculation alongside the money changer to try and prevent that. So far we’ve always managed a decent exchange. But we haven’t hit Argentina yet and there things get a bit complex.

Copacabana is touristy, with shore-front bars and tourist-tat shops. Every day three bus lines disgorge their gringos around lunchtime and the bar/restaurants fill. An hour later many jump back on the bus to continue to La Paz, leaving the place a little quieter. In any case, further up the hill the main town plaza sits next to a local market and the atmosphere is different. The white Basilica is impressive for a small town. Some guide books rate it as more impressive than the one in La Paz. [Having been to La Paz by the time of writing, we agree.]

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Over the weekend, there was a series of parades. Every shop seemed to have a union or local association and the merchants march behind their ornate banners dressed in their Sunday best. Children paraded dressed as Incas or in marching bands. The town all seemed to be drinking and the atmosphere was happy. It was a local festival and the tourists were somehow held at a distance: taking photos, watching but not participating.

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Serendipitously, one day as we exited the bank machine (they are all in little lockable booths here) we bumped into some of our Tarqui fellow volunteers David and Sylvie. We’d hoped to catch them in Bolivia. Being over-landers, driving from Canada to the Cape, they have some very different and more extreme experiences than us. But happily, they’re staying for a day or two so we can share some meals, catch up and take a trip.

 

La Isla del Sol

I can think of few nicer ways to spend a day than a visit to La Isla del Sol. Having run into our over-landing friends David and Sylvie, we set out to negotiate passage with a local tour agency. Sylvie’s bargaining technique is impeccable (and proven) so David and I left it to her and Alison. This process was aided by the fact the agents were drinking large quantities of beer and wanted to stop work and party in respect of the local holiday. After an hour of negotiation, the girls re-appeared having shared some beer and with a half price deal cut. Result!

Next morning 8am sharp, we set off for the dock. Cue the first argument of the day as the boat driver – when he saw our receipt and the price we paid – decided we can only have purchased the outbound journey, not the return trip. After a quick phone call he let us aboard, indicating we needed to discuss this later. The journey was non-eventful and tranquil, so much so that most of us snoozed the hour or two away amidst the beautiful scenery.

 

 

As we arrived at the north end of the island, our driver again attempted to recoup some cash. We left him with strong words and under no no doubt that the issue was the agency’s and if they wanted to drink and offer cheap rides, that was their problem: they should pay the difference and honour our deal. Beneath the bluster we silently wondered if he’d agree to take us home. There are worse places to be stranded.

From the North of the island there is an Inca trail across the peaks towards the village of Yumani in the South. On the way, stunning vistas, warm sun and a series of boleterias (ticket offices). As you pass through the different communities on the island, each exacts their toll of 5-15Bs. There are some cliff-top ruins to see accompanied by local ladies selling their trinkets, but for the most part it’s solitude, warm sun on your back and a fabulous three-hour trek.

You need to keep a healthy pace to ensure you meet the boat for the return trip, but there’s time for a pack lunch and, for a few hours, nothing can dent the feeling of being out in the open in an amazing land and sea/lake scape. The snowy caps of the Bolivian Andes glimmer in the distance.

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As we neared the end, civilisation started to return. First some lovely young girls with their llama. Having requested permission and taken their photo we gave them each a small tip. They wanted candy in addition … and before we knew it had grabbed Alison’s bag, still on her shoulder and were opening it in search of sweets, sure her bag must be full of delights. As we gently scolded them and walked off, a series of extremely professional raspberries were blown our way! Outside an island hostel we bumped into Roberto, a cheery Italian chef from Ireland who pops up randomly and frequently in our travels (Bogota, Ecuadorian border, Otavalo, Cuenca, Macchu Pichu and now La Isla del Sol). He was so enamoured with the place that he’d decided to chill for ten days with his guitar and walk the island’s inlets and hidden coves. For all we know, he is still there.

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Eventually we hit the dock, full of donkeys and llamas. Cue Alison taking an abundance of photos and silently (and, perhaps, sometimes aloud) saying “don-KEEEY” (per the Shrek films) all the while.

Taking a few last minutes in the sun we boarded nervously, anticipating yet another argument about our fare. But our driver shook his head in disbelief at our ticket and gave a wry grin as if to say: “smile, you got away with it”. Perfect!

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