South America – Bolivia – Copacabana, Lake Titicaca and La Paz

Lake Titicaca from our roomThe early morning sun rising over Lake Titicaca as seen from our balcony was a beautiful sight. Peaceful, gentle, relaxing; I could have easily spent a day just looking at it. But there’s no time to relax on this holiday. So it was quickly on to the coach for our two hour drive to the Bolivian border.

ChucuitoEn route we passed the town of Chucuito where there are two great faces carved into the rock either side of the road, signifying a gateway to Lake Titicaca. Although it looks Disney, it’s the real Incan McCoy. We also stopped at Juli, a little town noted for its four Colonial churches, and which was founded by the Dominicans in 1534 as a hub for training missionaries for Paraguay and Bolivia. We saw one of the churches – it was quite attractive.

KasaniThe road to Bolivia was remarkably underdeveloped – considering it’s an international border, it’s little more than a dirt track. The Peruvian travel agency were leaving us here, in the little town of Kasani, and we were (hopefully!) going to be met by their Bolivian counterparts On The Other Side. When you get off a coach, and have to march with your belongings along the road to a border you always feel a little like the subject of a hostage situation. There are always loads of bits of paperwork to complete going in and out of South American countries, and it’s easy to get confused as to who needs to see which form, whether they stamp it or not, whether they keep it or not; and the advice you’re given is always the same – who cares if you lose your passport, it’s no problem, it can be reissued. If you lose the little piece of paper given by immigration – then that’s a problem. There was a bit of a hoo-haa with two of our intrepid co-travellers, Kannen and Kala, because they were travelling on American passports. But once they’d handed over an additional hundred dollars, everything was plain sailing.

Copacabana ChurchOur first stop in Bolivia was the town of Copacabana; and yes indeed this was the place that gave its name to the famous Rio beach. The main sight in the town is the church. Actually not so much the church itself, which is pleasant and spacious, but what happens on a daily basis outside. Rather extraordinarily, people gather from miles and miles every day to get their cars blessed. Bless this carThere are rows of stalls outside the church, selling everything celebratory from fireworks to champagne, from balloons to bunting. The vehicles arrive clean and wildly decorated; a junior priest has the job of blessing them; and then the celebrations begin. It’s almost as though they were getting their vehicles confirmed. It certainly does put a new perspective on the idea of taking your car in for a service.

Lake Titicaca from Moon IslandFrom there we strolled down through the market to the lake where we were greeted by our hydrofoil; and off we went cutting a dash through the waves over Lake Titicaca. I can’t stress enough how beautiful it is. The highest navigable lake in the world, it has crystal clear water, a backdrop of stunning snow capped peaks, and attractive little islands. Our first stop was Moon Island, which was where the Incas believed the Moon was born. There is an old monastery still in existence here. Religious happeningBut more interesting than archaeological relics was the sight of a group of young people all sat round and listening to the wise words of a local shaman. They were having a little open air religious ceremony all by themselves in a corner of the monastery grounds. It was very reminiscent of the kind of thing you would have expected the Beatles to have done in India in 1968. Although I think they are worshipping the sun or moon or maybe Mother Earth, I’m not sure.

Sun IslandWe moved on to Sun Island (you guessed it, where the Sun was born), which was where we were to have our lunch. It was a fantastic setting, for a rather bland meal, but you can’t have everything. We took a walk up to see the “Fountain of Eternal Youth” – you can’t turn a chance like that up – but in reality it’s more of a puddle of eternal optimism.

Dried potatoBack on board the hydrofoil we were shown dried potato – look, there’s one – and taught the local way of saying “cheers” (which of course we couldn’t do without a glass of the local firewater). It goes “Arriba, abajo, al Centro, al Dentro” and over the four stages of the chant you move your glass from your forehead to your tummy, back to your face and then you knock it back. Of course you have to do several rehearsals to become word perfect.

A reed boat off the floating islandThen came the highlight of the day – a visit to one of the floating islands. Chisawa Island is really tiny and probably has a population of about ten. When you walk on the island, it feels spongy and bouncy beneath your feet. Not surprising really, as it is made purely of reeds. The people live in little reed huts, they do their cooking in a communal kitchen reed hut – and have to be very careful not to set light to the reeds – and the only industry apart from selling reed-based souvenirs (we bought two tablemats) is fishing from boats made of, you guessed it, reeds. The people were charming. It was an honour to visit them.

CookingWe ran out of time to visit another island, as had originally been intended; and also to see the brothers involved in making the Kontiki raft – but I always thought it was a hugely ambitious programme for the day. We arrived in Huatajata in darkness and there was still a 90 minute coach ride to get to La Paz.

La PazIt was a shame that we never saw La Paz by day, as I am told it is a stunning sight. It was about 8.30pm when we arrived and checked into our hotel, the Hotel Europa. Such a shame we couldn’t stay longer as it was a beautiful hotel and we had a massive, very well appointed bedroom. But we made the most of our time and decided to skip an evening meal (yet again) and simply go for a walk in downtown La Paz and watch how the locals enjoy a Saturday night. So in the company of intrepid co-travellers John and Vicky, and fighting breathlessness (at 3600m above sea level, it’s pretty goddam high), we ventured on to the Avenida M Santa Cruz to check out the city.

CathedralIt was very lively! People of all ages, singles, couples, groups were all out for a good time. The majority were very well dressed and I realised this is a much more sophisticated place than I had expected. There was a party bus, mind you – a big bus driving along the streets and inside everyone was partying. I remember a very nice looking girl leaning out of a back window, glass in hand, cheering and smiling at everyone as she went by. I’m sure she had a good night. The well lit buildings looked stately; there were late night markets everywhere; it all felt very safe and secure; and we were definitely the only westerners on the streets. There are no McDonalds in La Paz – it’s the only capital city in the world not to have one, apparently. Burger King is, indeed, king. Although I bet there isn’t a McDonalds in Pyongyang either.

Avenida Santa CruzWe couldn’t stay out for too long as we were being collected at 5am. 5AM!! So we barely had eight hours in the city, and most of them would have to be asleep. Definitely a city and country I would like to return to; to see it by day, and maybe to visit Sucre too. Something for the future. But as far as tomorrow was concerned – Argentina calls!

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