The Unexpected Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana, Bolivia is, at first glance, nothing special. It’s a town of approximately 6,000 people and is made up of nondescript houses, a few main streets and a single malfunctioning ATM machine. If you’re going there I would suggest withdrawing money beforehand to avoid relying on a money exchange. Copacabana had one thing to lure us with; its proximity to Lake Titicaca, one of the highest lakes in the world, which stretches out before it like a shimmering blue jewel.

The bus-ride to Copacabana from Puno, Peru was an easy border crossing. The company got us there on time and helped us organise our visas for Bolivia. At the border, we were thrown off the bus and had to walk 300 metres to cross into Bolivia. We then had to wait in a long line to get our passports stamped. The man behind the desk eyed me suspiciously when it was my turn. He asked me something in Spanish and I blinked like an idiot.”Lo siento, hablo un poquito español”. Sorry I only speak a little bit of Spanish. “How old?” He asked in a heavy accent. “Venti dos.” I replied. 22. Geez, even in South America they didn’t believe me. He smirked to himself before stamping me into his country. What was it with people and my age? Everyone seemed to think I was younger than I looked.  Outside, we waited for the rest of our busload. In the distance we could see a spectacular view of the lake shining in the sun.

When we disembarked in Copacabana, there were a crowd of hostel owners fighting over us like seagulls after a chip. “Pick me, pick me!” they squawked as we fought our way past them with our eighty litre packs. Instead, we relied on our Lonely Planet Guide that recommended a place with a washing service and a relatively comfortable room complete with bathroom. We booked 3 nights there, giving ourselves time to explore the lake as well as this small, local place (and wash our dirty clothes too).

The first day was spent walking aimlessly around the town. This took an hour before we had seen the majority of what it appeared to offer. This included a grand church, some dusty roads and a range of restaurants and money exchangers.  To take the edge off our disappointment, we had a long lunch at a cosy place that served surprisingly tasty Greek food and overlooked the lake. I enjoyed a beetroot tortilla. Not something I expected to be eating in Bolivia. The entire theme of the restaurant/hotel was Santorini and it imitated the famous blue and white houses that we had visited earlier in the year. The view out the window was the first glimpse I had of the magic of Copacabana. The houses that seemed so average from street-view boasted character from this vantage point. There were spotted with bright yellow daisies and overlooked the magic of the lake, reflecting the sky. From a distance, Copacabana came alive.


In the afternoon we wandered around the higher ground, taking in the view of the lake. We booked a trip to Isla Del Sol, the famous island in the lake, from a local travel agent. For a place of such a small population, there was no shortage of travel agents. They each had a dark room with an ancient computer and a range of brochures detailing Bolivia and Peru’s main attractions.

On the walk back to our hostel I noticed that the majority of the population I’d seen were indigenous. The women wore colourful, pleated skirts and traditional brown bowler hats, mostly with their hair tied in long braids. They smiled at us as we passed, and some of their children chattered away to us in their local dialect, hardly pausing to take a breath. I read that around 60% of Bolivia’s population are indigenous. That’s a pretty amazing fact. I like to think that some places in the world can keep their traditions over time.

We had dinner at a quiet pizza place (as over half the restaurants specialised in pizza only). After around 7 pm the streets were quiet and there were only few people to be seen. The entire town seemed to be lacking in excitement. We went to bed early and enjoyed a restful night’s sleep.

In the morning, we sauntered toward the lake’s edge where our boat wasn’t yet set to take us on the one hour journey to Isla Del Sol. The lake sparkled at the end of the street and we absorbed the sedative-effect Copacabana seemed to create. The local children rode their bikes past us, and a carefree vibe radiated from them on their way by. We bought a loaf of bread from a lady on the side of the road and broke it to pieces.

Arriving on time at 7:30, we were early for our boat-ride. They operated on a slightly different time schedule in South America. If someone told you to wait for them 7:30, it was more likely to be just after 8:00. Don’t take my word for it though as you may get the odd critter who surprises you.  Anyway, we sat taking in the scenic lake and talking idly about plans. Around 8: 15 am we noticed a cluster of local people and a few tourists, begin to board our boat. We followed suit and continued to wait on-board for another 20 minutes until the driver was ready to start the engine and, finally, take us out onto the lake.

The boat crawled at ant’s pace toward Isla Del Sol. We met a couple on the boat from England who knew someone else we had met on our Peruvian travels. We also chatted with a girl who had been following us on another walk we did of the Colca Canyon. She looked like the actress Emily Blunt. The backpacker world is small, small place.

The boat rolled up at the north side of Isla Del Sol. From a distance it looked like a basic island, with a harsh terrain and a lack of flora. We disembarked the boat and paid the usual five cents to use the bathroom. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t get the toilet paper. They held all the power in that negotiation. While I waited for the boys, I observed a group of locals and a lamb gathered on the edge of a jetty. They were a breathe-taking sight against the back-drop of the Lake and the distant Andes.

We proceeded toward the ruins where it was said the Sun God came into existence. On the way, we passed a beach with transparent green water and stone terraces. There were vocal donkeys and sheep tied to trees, protesting furiously as we passed by. I find it hard to describe how beautiful the lake was that day, the 360 degree view of it was mesmerising as we absorbed it from the edge of Isla Del Sol.

This view paled in comparison to the magic of the ruins set on a cliff. This was a spectacular scene. According to Incan mythology, the Sun God was born in this exact place. If I followed this religion, I think it would be easy to accept that something other-wordly happened here. I wanted to stare all day. To commit the image to memory so that it would never be forgotten. The crisp blues against the earthly browns of the ruins. I still haven’t forgotten.

We continued on toward the highest part of the island, at around 4000 metres. This wasn’t the first time I had been at this altitude and my lungs were slowly adapting to the shortage of air. In the distance, the Andes towered proudly above the lake. They looked amazing, half covered in cloud and half in snow. I felt a million miles removed from Australian life.

The walk took about an hour. For most of the way we had a mesmerising view of the lake. We were surprised to encounter eucalypts half-way through the walk. Maybe, we weren’t so far removed from Australia after all. It was a strange feeling, smelling the familiar scent of eucalyptus and staring out at the famous Andes. Like we had one foot in Australia all of a sudden.

In the afternoon we went to the place where the boat was due to meet us in an hour. In the distance I saw a strange-looking boat on the lake. It had two heads at the front and looked like it belonged somewhere in the Viking era.

We boarded the boat with the others at 3:30. It was chilly and the afternoon breeze sent goosebumps up our arms. When we arrived at the dock of Copacabana I noticed again how scenic the city appeared from a distance.

In the late afternoon we climbed a hundred stairs to get a glimpse of the sunset. The walk was steep: a slow and torturous incline at this kind of altitude. We arrived just in time to see the orange-glow coating the town below. The lake sparkled in the afternoon sun. We watched in silence as the sun sunk below the horizon.

The next day we spent lazily exploring the outskirts of the town. We strolled past locals who smiled and waved at us like we were dear, old friends. “Hola chicos!” They yelled at us. We wandered up to another viewing point that was less well known. We were the only tourists in sight as we clambered up some steep rocks in search of a spectacular view. We were rewarded with one.

I changed my mind about this place. Copacabana was something special. It was a feast for the eyes with what seemed like a never-ending supply of fantastic views. We sat on the rocks for a while, just staring at the town spread out below us.

In the afternoon, we went in search of some famous ruins that were apparently near our hostel. When we finally found them they were nothing more than a rock in the shape of a seat. I can’t remember what they were for, but they provided a temporary resting place to soak up the sun.

We ventured back into the town centre for lunch, which was much more lively that we had witnessed before. There was loud exotic music playing and we could see locals dancing in the street, twisting and turning in perfect harmony with each other. We watched as they past us, smiling happily – without a care in the world. Their bright pleated skirts swished as they moved and as I danced hopelessly along, one of the local men approached me and twirled me around before walking off laughing. I imagine he would have mumbled something about my lack of rhythm.

Later, we ventured back out to the town for dinner. We had heard about a fantastic vegan curry place that was hidden somewhere in the town centre. The Bolivian lady who ran it welcomed us into the restaurant. At that stage it was empty, and the chairs and tables were every colour of the rainbow. There was a cluttered book shelf with everything from old games of Spanish-style scrabble to dog-eared travel guides. The owner spoke perfect English as she took our order, asking us where we were from. She had many Australian friends, and showed us her collection of Koalas that were dotted around the room. She spent almost an hour making our dinner from scratch, and to this day I still I remember it as the best curry I have ever had. The place is called Cafe Bistrot Copacabana and the address is Calle Zapana esq. Av 6 de Agosto on the upper floor. It is one block down from Plaza Sucre. If you ever find yourself in Copacabana I highly recommend paying her a visit.

The next morning we packed our bags, rolling our clothes into tight balls as usual, so we could cram as much in as possible. We checked out of our hostel and went to explore the town again to fill in time. We spent the rest of the day in a cheap internet café before finally boarding the bus to La Paz. I had a quick toilet stop on the way and noticed the lady who operated the toilet had one of the friendliest, toothless smiles I had ever seen.

On the way to La Paz, I looked out the window as the lights of Copacabana grew further into the distance. My first impressions of the place had been wrong, despite its touristic and sometimes bland façade, Copacabana was a special place after all.


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