Centre of the World - Isla del Sol

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Hostel Las Islas

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The drive between La Paz and Copacabana (on Lake Titicaca) is stunning. First, you climb out of La Paz, a road that doubles back along the valley side giving a view of thousands of tiny adobe houses clinging to the slopes. Then you reach the sprawl of El Alto on the altiplano (fast-expanding to accomodate the overflow from La Paz). It's a city of adobe houses, hundreds of honking collectivos, thousands of street sellers and numerous people in indigenous clothing, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes. After a time, the city gives way to countryside, bright yellow for the hay that's grown to feed livestock, and to make adobe bricks and roofs for houses.

The road continues to parallel the Andes passing through villages humming with celebrations for independence day. We're frequently stuck behind processions of locals in festive dress heading for the main plaza, accompanied by brass bands.

I can't believe how blue Lake Titicaca is as it appears through the bus window on the left. The contrast of the yellow-brown land, blue water, and sky, makes it look as if they've been outlined and coloured in.

At one town the bus comes to a stop, and we're asked to get out and buy a ferry ticket. We watch in amazement as the bus is driven onto a wooden raft (hardly bigger than the bus itself) and ferried across a narrow strait with outboard motors. The water's a bit choppy due to a stiff breeze, and at times it seems as if nothing will stop the bus from going overboard. I must admit we feel relief, firstly because we aren't on the raft with the bus, and secondly, that our backpacks don't go down with the bus!

Copacabana is crazy-busy, packed with locals and tourists. It's an effort to push through the streets with large backpacks. We find a launch for Isla del Sol, a small island on the lake, and two arse-cramping hours later (due to very uncomfortable wooden seats) we've arrived - well almost. We still have to ascend 200m of stairs and narrow paths with heavy backpacks to the small village perched near the crest of the central ridge. We're very envious of daytrippers with tiny daypacks, and package tourists paying for their luggage to be carried by porters. Our philosophy is that you should be able to carry your own stuff - possibly a stupid idea, but there you have it.

Isla del Sol reminds us of the Greek Islands. Can't say exactly why - maybe all the oregano growing wild, or the temperate climate, or the vivid yellows and blues. It's definitely got a relaxed feel about it. Things seem to move slowly, with the rest of the world revolving on the periphery. The Incas believed that their proud race was created here.

And you're not woken by roosters - it's the braying of donkeys at about 4.30am, followed by the clomping of their feet on cobblestones as the locals do the first water-run of the day. Lucky locals have pumps to bring water up from the lake (at least when the electricity supply is functioning), and those without, use donkey trains to transport 5 litre bottles.

We have a couple of dinners on the island, one notable for a beautiful view of the setting sun, followed by a two hour stint baby-sitting the 3 year-old daughter of the restaurant owners. Turns out her favourite food is trout and she certainly isn't shy about helping herself to the trout Anna has ordered. Very cute. During the dinner she proved her skills as waitress, dancer, singer and tried her hand at selling souvenirs too.

It seems that every kid on the island receives commercial training when they're growing up. i.e. if you see a tourist, try and sell them something whether it's a souvenir, boat trip, drink or dinner. The asking price of a photo of a kid is 1 euro or dollar. We do not take photos specifically of kids unless they ask for it to be taken, and certainly do not pay them for a photo. In our view this is not a healthy habit to encourage. This jaded view of tourists is obviously carried by the adults and we certainly felt this about the owners of our hospedaje (Hostel Las Islas) who did not provide good value (for independant tourists) for the money they charged. Having said this, we did meet and talk to some lovely locals on the island.

The walk to the north island is an ideal day activity with several archeological sites and grand views of Lake Titicaca. At the northern end there is also a small village with a beach, which on reflection would have been a better place to stay (though without the vista).

All in all, a relaxing place to stay if you can cope with a little extra hassle (compared to other parts of Bolivia).
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