Day 87 – 28 May 2015
Lago Titicaca sits on the border between northwestern Bolivia and southeastern Peru. It’s considered to be the highest altitude navigable lake in the world at 12,507 feet. Copacabana, on the Bolivian side, is charming and peaceful, which bears a stark contrast to Puno, on the Peruvian side, with it’s industrial and noisy vibe. As a backpacker crossing the border, it’s almost compulsory that you visit both, if for no other reason than Copacabana and Puno provide a solid stopping point before continuing on to Cusco or La Paz.
It takes only 3 hours to reach Copacabana from La Paz and I was looking forward to the quiet a few days at the lake would promise. However, this was no ordinary bus ride and I was soon to learn that the travel wizards had a surprise for me before I could relax. Final arrival in Copacabana required a ferry ride both for myself….and the bus. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, but alas, this is routine procedure in this part of the world and I could do nothing but watch.
Hard to beat, I had booked a private room in Copacabana for $10/night. The streets were crowded with hippies from all over the world, selling everything from handmade jewelry to homemade baked goods. I had arrived just in time for an amazing sunset. This is why we travel.
Two days at my leisure, I climbed Cerro Calvario for great views of the lake and the town itself and visited the Basilica our Lady of Copacabana. While definitely possible to do both in half a day, I was glad I had more time and felt no need to rush.
Cerro Calvario is a hill on the side of town and while not a difficult climb, the altitude definitely leaves you winded. There are many religious monuments along the way and the summit is loaded with rubbish and graffiti. Other climbers I met on the path were very disappointed in the vandalism, but I found it to be fitting and unsurprising. Typical of what I would expect in Bolivia, it exhibited a rare kind of beauty nevertheless.
The Basilica is a gleaming white building that sets itself apart from the rest of the town, mostly because there is no graffiti and it retains a somewhat ethereal status on a hilltop. It’s free to enter and walk around the grounds, which have a guarded presence since the Basilica was robbed of most of its gold embellishments just a few years ago.
Few people visit Copacabana without also visiting Isla del Sol, the island located offshore, where internet doesn’t exist and llamas are more populous than people. For about $3, you can take a ferry to Isla del Sol for either a day trip or to spend the night. I wanted to spend at least one night with the possibility of two. By this time, my forward planning abilities extend to about 12 hours so I had no idea what to do when I got there, but I definitely wanted to experience this little island paradise. Upon arrival, I met 4 girls from Switzerland, Stefanie, Laura, Simona, and Yvonne, who were negotiating accommodations with the locals. Local innkeepers from both downhill and uphill were awaiting us and offering a room for the night. Downhill meant that the inn would be less than a 5 minute walk from the port and also seemed more expensive. Uphill meant that we would have to trudge up a steep incline to the “town” for about 30 minutes with our luggage and get to pay a lesser price. Mind you, the difference was $12 for downhill or $6 for uphill. I overheard one of the Swiss girls tell the downhill innkeeper that his accommodations were too expensive so I followed suit and said the same. In hindsight, this seems negligible under the circumstances but the sunrise we were treated to from up on that hill was unmatched (and I am admittedly, NOT a sunrise person).
The following day we took another ferry to the other side of the island to check out the beach area, but it was undoubtedly too cold to actually take a dip. Every once in awhile, I have those travel moments where I am in awe that this is actually my real life. Sitting on this beach, the cool breeze stinging my skin, sharing the real estate with pigs, dogs, and the lady that sold us stale cookies, was one of those moments. Doubled over in laughter after realizing how awful the cookies tasted and fighting the ferry attendant to get change for the cost of our ferry ride, it was all part of this amazing adventure I am on.
Three hours further afield, my next stop was Puno, Peru. A lengthy nighttime border crossing and I arrived in Puno in time to go directly to bed. I only had one full day and my only desire was to visit the Uros floating islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. I had been told they were incredibly touristy, which proved to be completely true. Islands that have to be constantly rebuilt due to corrosion, there is always someone assigned to go out and cut more reeds to add to the base of the island, rather than risking its dissolution into the lake itself. It was a unique venture, but I got the feeling that if it wasn’t for tourists like me, the residents of these ill-fated islands would have long ago packed up and moved ashore. They gave us a demonstration of how the islands are built and then they systematically took each of us aside for the hard sell on their handmade wares (that you can also find at any other Peruvian gift shop) or encouraged us to eat at one of their restaurants that existed only for tourists. You could also get your passport stamped on the main island. I didn’t have my passport with me, but this seemed like such an obvious gimmick that it left me feeling disappointed in how this culture had become so exploited.
Having traveled to Peru before, in 2011, I knew there was a more authentic experience out there than what Puno and the floating islands had shown me. I was on my way to Arequipa and Colca Canyon!