No showgirls in this Copacabana (not even Lola!)
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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After finishing the Machu Picchu trek and getting back to Cusco we headed south. A six-hour bus ride took us to the town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca where we spent the night before busing it south for another few hours. Our destination was just on the other side of the Peru/Bolivia border, the town of Copacabana. This is the original Copacabana; it held the name long before the beach in Rio, and was definitely here way before the Barry Manilow song was released! Named from the local Aymara language term "kota kawana" meaning "view of the lake" it is a cute town perched on the shores of Lake Titicaca. A small Inca observatory on a hill overlooking the town, its proximity to the Isla del Sol (the mythical birthplace of the Inca founders), and a major pilgrimage site at Copacabana Cathedral give the town a historical context far beyond the fact that it is also popular place for foreign and Bolivian tourists
Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake at 12,500 feet above sea level (for you US West Coast readers, that is 1,200 feet higher than the summit of Mt. Hood!). So despite the fact that we had become relatively acclimatized to the altitude, it still made for some restless sleeping with the intermittent gasping for air. The high elevation only enhances the beauty of the lake and its chilly sparkling-clear waters reflecting the snowy Andes Mountains made the all those silly childhood giggles at its name seem all the more ridiculous. Being on a lake with shores stretching far beyond the horizon made me feel like I was on the ocean; yet the land surrounding the lake was a desert with scrubby trees, dusty soil, and plants one would normally find above the timberline at a ski resort. A unique and very strange geographic experience!
Other than trying to stay oxygenated (read as: loafing around or reading a book in a hammock) we did take a daytrip to the nearby Isla del Sol (Isle of the Sun) that is a few miles off shore from Copacabana. We visited a few small Inca sites on the island and managed to hike its 5-mile length with many breaks along the way to catch our breath.
I wish we had arranged to spend more time in Bolivia and see more than just one small slice of its landscape. Although economically it is much poorer than its neighbors, I found it to be culturally intriguing and the people to be so genuine. The soft-spoken locals were far less accustomed to tourists than in most places we've visited. But rather than treating us as aliens, we felt at ease and welcomed amongst them. I know Bolivia is a place we definitely come back to
Since we have been in South America, I have been taking a crash course in Spanish trying to remember what I learned in high school. Thankfully, there is an excellent podcast on iTunes called "Coffee Break Spanish", which has 20-minute lessons every week, focused on Spanish for travelers. It has been so helpful, because as it turns out, there isn't a lot of English spoken in Bolivia. Each time I succeed in having a "conversation" with someone about changing money, what type of room we want, or if I want tomatoes on my sandwich, I feel like the most fluent Spanish speaker in the world. Of course I'm not, and I frequently get tongue-tied, numbers confused (particularly 14 and 40), and tell people good morning in the evening, but hey... at least I am trying! I am thinking of taking a two or three day course with a full time tutor soon, since we will be in Spanish speaking countries until the end of July.
I really didn't have an image of Bolivia before we arrived, other than lots of mountains, subsistence living, women with braids and bowler hats, and some type of political turmoil (which I wasn't even sure if this was the case). The mountains and subsistence living part was true, but if there was turmoil, I would have a hard time imaging it affecting the average villager going about their daily lives, which have probably been similar for hundreds of years. Just like the traditional wardrobe of women, which is quite unique... fancy flowing skirts that go to the knee, tights and legwarmers made of sweater material, and alpaca sweater over some type of undershirt, covered by a poncho, and a brightly colored blanket with a little baby nestled (or cargo) inside tied to their back
Lake Titicaca is beautiful, and it is certainly worth spending a few days hanging around in Copacabana. There are a few hikes to do around town that end up in good vantage points to see the lake and the snow capped Andes in the distance. There is also an easy day trip to the Isla del Sol that is worth doing, although I would recommend staying overnight there in one of the cute guesthouses.
While we were waiting for our return boat trip back to Copacabana from the Isla del Sol, we made friends with 5 little girls selling tourist trinkets. As we have found throughout the trip, little kids really just want to have fun and are easily distracted from their selling tasks. Todd entertained them with the "pulling off your thumb" trick, the dropping water sound, and by cracking his knuckles. We then moved on to English/Spanish lessons for about 30 minutes, then on to "Head, Shoulders, Knees and toes" in English and Spanish, and ended with one of the girls braiding my hair in the traditional Bolivian style. We really enjoyed hanging out with the girls and were sad when it was time for our boat to depart.
I wish we had more time to spend in Bolivia. We would have loved to spend some time in the Salt Flats and in the Amazon jungle, so we will definitely have to make another trip here in the future!