Copacabana & Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.

After we arrived in La Paz, we looked into our options of taking a tour that would transport us to Isla del Sol (Sun Island), then on to Puno, Peru. We talked with the Turisbus representative in the lobby of our hotel, but ended up booking with Kanoo Tours, a company I had researched on-line before our trip that has an office in central La Paz. The price of Kanoo’s package was more in line with our budget and their itinerary more closely matched what we were looking for.

We weren’t quite sure how the tour was going to work out–if we’d be part of a large group or a small party. Early the morning of our departure, a Vicuña tourist bus stopped to pick us up at our hotel. Booking travel this way can be confusing–the agency will have one name, the transport they hire to service you will have another, and your guide is likely an independent agent that works with multiple agencies. We were among the first to be picked up, but as the bus made its way through the downtown La Paz streets, more and more passengers boarded. Were we all on the same tour? Finally, a gentleman came over and introduced himself, telling us that he was our guide for Copacabana and the Sun Island. We asked if there were others on our tour. He told us it was just us, a “private” tour–the others were just using the transport service to Copacabana. Because we weren’t sure what was going on we must have looked a bit concerned because he said, “trust me–I’m here for you!” And indeed, he was. We later learned his name was Marcelo.

The bus wound its way up to El Alto, making one potty break at a gas station. During our whole trip, this was probably the worst bathroom situation we encountered–western style toilets that didn’t flush with no seats. There were attendants to pour buckets of water down after you finished your business. What we could see of El Alto was bleak. Sprawl that seemed to stretch on and on in a state of half-development. We learned from our guide the he and his wife live in El Alto. His wife is a teacher and it takes her 2 hours to commute to work each day–one bus takes her to the center of El Alto, then another takes her out to her school.

Common scene in El Alto.

Common scene in El Alto.

We finally made it to the countryside and continued on to the town of San Pablo de Tiquina, where we had to catch a ferry across the Strait of Tiquina to San Pedro de Tiquna. Bus passengers were responsible for buying their own ferry tickets, but Marcelo surprised us with ours–special because that wasn’t even supposed to be included in our package.

It was fun to watch such a big bus get on such a wee little ferry. Because of weight limitations, us passengers had to take a separate boat across. Marcelo explained to us Lake Titicaca at this point. Lying on the border of Bolivia and Peru, it covers 3,232 square miles and is the largest lake by volume in South America. The Strait of Tiquina separates its two sub-basins–the upper, Lago Chicuito, and the lower, Lago Pequeno. Marcelo made a convincing case for Bolivia’s claim to the most natural and beautiful part of the Lake.

Click on any photo to view larger images.

The remainder of the bus ride to Copacabana was breathtakingly beautiful, with views of the Lake out various directions. The land at this point is a sort of peninsula jutting from another peninsula with a road perched high above the lake.

Arrival in Copacabana

When we arrived at Copacabana, we were able to leave our bags at the Vicuña travel office. We were assured our large backpacks would be safe until the next day while we took just our smaller overnight packs to the Sun Island. When you’re on a trip like this, you just have to trust that is the case and take as many of your important, small valuables with you as you can.

During our Turkey trip, I discovered a smart phone app called CityMaps2Go. It’s not perfect, but it’s free and you can download maps to your phone so that you don’t have to use data, yet it still works with your phone’s GPS. You can also drop pins of places you visit, which is helpful in situations like this where you need to remember how to get back to a place.

Marcelo then led us to the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana and gave us an informative tour. The Moorish exterior is beautifully stark white, while the interior is magnificently colorful. People make pilgrimages to this site to visit La Virgen de Candelaria, a statue of the Virgin Mary sculpted by the Inca craftsman Tito Yupanqui in 1576 and believed to work miracles. Marcelo himself believes he owes his life to the Virgen after surviving an automobile accident several years ago. Outside the Cathedral, Aymaran ladies sell trinkets representing the hopes of the purchasers–homes, automobiles, even babies complete with birth certificates.

Lunch both days was included in our package at the Coffee-Shop Copacabana and both times I ordered the trout. Once again, we were met with more food than we could consume–including soup, bread, the main course, and a small dessert. The restaurant is on Copacabana’s main drag–lined with restaurants catering to tourists. The place has an interesting, bohemian vibe to it but we were glad to get away to the island for our overnight experience. The yellow cast in the photos is due to the overhead awning!

Ferries to the village of Yumani on Isla del Sol leave twice a day–we caught the 1:30 ferry, for which Marcelo bought our tickets. The ride is about 1.5 hours long. You have two options: sit inside and deal with breathing in the fumes from the engine or go above deck and deal with the cold wind. Not being a fan of heights, I chose to sit inside.

Isla del Sol

Considered the most famous and largest island on the lake, Isla del Sol is the legendary birthplace of Manco Cápac (first Inca ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco, c.1200), his sister-wife Mama Ocllo, and the Inca believed, the sun itself. About 2,500 people live on the island with no vehicular traffic. There are two larger villages–Yumani on the south side and Ch’allapampa on the north side. We only visited Yumani but those with more time might enjoy the three-hour walk between the two. Marcelo said he didn’t like the walk because villagers charge multiple tariffs as you pass through. As foreigners, we had to pay a small tariff upon disembarking to visit the island–Bs.5 per person.

Locals collect a small admission fee as tourists arrive at Isla del Sol

Locals collect a small admission fee as tourists arrive at Isla del Sol

After arriving, you’re greeted by the Inca Stairs and soon realize why leaving your large backpacks in Copacabana was a good idea. The stairs, which gain about 650 feet in altitude in less than 0.6 mile are crisscrossed by channels that carry water down from the “Fountain of Youth”–Yumani’s natural springs. It took us about an hour by foot to reach our hostel for the night, Inti Phajjsi. It is a relatively new place, having opened just a couple of years ago. Each room is its own little hut with private bath and amazing views out over the lake and toward the snow-capped peaks of Janq’u Uma, Qalsata, Janq’u Uyu, and Huayna Potosí–part of the Cordillera Real mountain range in the Andes. While walking to the hostel, our guide pointed out mud bricks drying in the sun, used by islanders to construct buildings that are finished with stucco.

Before enjoying a home cooked meal and good conversation with our guide, he took us to see the Inca ruin of Pilko Kaina. The two-level Palacio del Inca is believed to have been constructed by the Incan Emperor Tupac-Yupanq. This was our first opportunity to admire close-up Inca construction that we’d get to see again along the Inca Trail and at Machu Picchu. While wandering the island, locals have souvenirs to sell to tourists. This is a good place to buy a souvenir–you can be sure your money is directly benefiting the local people and we found later in our trip that the prices were good. We only bought a Bs.10 hand-decorated necklace of the southern cross and wished we had bought some dolls we were offered as we didn’t find the same quality elsewhere.

Sun set early and we headed to the hostel’s dining building for dinner. The three of us were the only guests that night. The price of dinner was not included in our package so we were able to pay our hostess directly–the total for us both was less than we had budgeted for just one of us! After dinner, Marcelo took us outside to view the constellations. The Milky Way was more visible than I had ever seen it in my life! After I retired to our room, Brian stayed out with Marcelo trying to capture the perfect shot of the Milky Way–I think he succeeded! It was very cold but the room was well equipped with lots of warm blankets.

The next morning, Brian got up early to hike farther up and see the sunrise. He got some beautiful shots (and I sort of regret not joining him now)! After breakfast it was time for us to pack up and hike back down to the dock to catch the 10:30AM ferry. Having seen all the independent travelers arrive, struggle with large backpacks, and wandering aimlessly looking for their reserved hostels, we were quite pleased with having booked a package. We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more informative guide and I don’t think we would have had the understanding we gained if we had visited on our own.

We endured another, even more fumy return trip to Copacabana. This time, Brian rode on top while not just one, but two engines spewed fumes into the boat’s cabin. At one point, Marcelo noticed how ill several of the passengers (including me) were feeling and asked the drivers to turn off one of the engines. Conditions improved immediately but our speed was greatly reduced and it must have taken an extra half hour to get back. By the time we reached Copacabana, I was dealing with a case of motion sickness.

We made our way back to the restaurant for lunch and had an opportunity to tip Marcelo before he left to catch his bus back to La Paz. After lunch and a leisurely rest, we stopped by the Vicuña travel office to check on our bags and make sure we had our bus tickets settled for our continuing trip to Puno, Peru. Once we were satisfied with that, we decided to explore town a bit more.

Cerro Calvario

Marcelo had told us there were beautiful views from Mount Calvario, which overlooks the city so we decided to make the hike to the top. The day before we had climbed the Inca Steps so what’s another little climb, right? Besides, we were training for our big trek–the Inca Trail! Well, it turns out it was a bit challenging but I kept seeing young toddlers in sandals pass me by so I figured I could suck it up. And, wow was it ever worth it! Along the way you pass 14 stations of the cross, which were built here in the 1950s. Halfway up, we were able to observe a “holy man” performing a traditional blessing ritual with a couple:

And finally, at the top, we were rewarded with beautiful, panoramic views looking out over Lake Titicaca all the way to the Sun Island.

We hiked back down to town, stopping for a “meh” pizza dinner at a different restaurant–we should have stuck to what we already knew we liked! We wanted to spend our last Bolivianos before heading to Peru so we bought a couple of traditional Bolivian music CDs and spent our last Bs.14 on adorable finger puppets.

3 responses to “Copacabana & Isla del Sol, Bolivia

  1. Pingback: Bolivia and Peru – Summer 2014 | my ahas·

  2. Pingback: Puno, Peru | my ahas·

  3. Pingback: La Paz, Bolivia | my ahas·

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