Isla del Sol

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Not long after leaving La Paz the sun starts to shine brightly across the expanse of green and yellow agricultural fields we pass through on the bus. It feels satisfying and exciting to be leaving the urban sprawl of La Paz behind as we head to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titcaca.

The bus stops at Estrecho de Tiquina, where we have to take a short ferry ride across the southern part of lake Titicaca to (a) avoid going in Peru and (b) shorten the driving distance. In San Pablo de Tiquina I see a memorial for the lost war of the Pacific, where the victor, Chile, annexed the last remaining Bolivian coastal strip on the Pacific over 100 years ago. The memorial states in clear terms that Bolivia wants its access to the sea back again. For now the Bolivian Navy contents itself tooling around in Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3700m, whilst formulating the master plan to take back its lost coastline.

We buy our ferry tickets for 1.50 Bolivianos (about GBP0.10) and jump on to a small motor launch, whilst the bus driver carefully manoeuvers on to a rickety wooden barge to make the crossing. Our boat has the smallest imaginable outboard motor for the size of the craft and so we have plenty of time to take in the surroundings. The barge containing the bus lists precariously, and we can see why they seperate us for the crossing. Apparently a bus sank recently.

We rejoin the bus in the squalid town square of San Pedro de Tiquina, and drive on to Copacabana. There are expansive views of the blue sparkling lake and the surrounding terraced countryside. Copacabana looks colourful and welcoming little town from high up in the hills. The bus stops in Plaza Sucre and I can see from the garbage and dust that its not quite so nice close-up.

We head off in the direction of our hostel, La Cupula, which is just a short breathless walk up a small hillside at the edge of town. Rachel has reserved a room in advance (USD$14) at the hotel because it was so warmly praised in Lonely Planet Click here to jump to more info on La Cupula. The German owner, Martin, a modern-day tourism missionary, has created a little paradise with a cluster of domed whitewashed buildings set in tidy gardens. The rooms are quaint, laden with art, and there are comfy hammocks in the garden. To top it all off, Martin has built the place to German build standards, so none of the broken beds, leaky showers, broken taps, or smelly loos that feature commonly in other budget Bolivian accomodation.

Feeling fatigued from our time in La Paz, we head immediately upstairs to the artistically designed restaurant, which has vividly colourful stained-glass arched windows, and a few tables outside on the balcony. We have a peaceful view over the lake and the town (which as we said looks good from a distance), whilst eating delicious grilled local fish.

In the afternoon we wander along the beach and sip a coca cola whilst watching life pass by. We meet with Bev (from South Africa) and agree to climb the steep hill with crosses overlooking the town. We walk past her hostel so she can collect her jacket, and I nip in to use the toilet. The owner of the hostel is angry because as a non-resident, I used the toilet. I offer to pay but he continues his rant. It seems that many Bolivians involved in the tourist industry are not very service oriented.

At sunset we walk up to the top of Cerro Calvario, the steep hill overlooking the town. The ´stations of the cross´ line the route to the top of the hill and on Good Friday thousands of pilgrims flock to the town to walk the route. Now, after Easter its quiet again with just a few tourists at the top admiring the views of Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol. Despite the warm rays of the setting sun, in the distance I can see that its raining in Peru, as lightning forks down on to the far off coastline.

In the evening we take a short walk into town to buy some water and supplies for the next day, when we will visit Isla del Sol. Copacabana seems a very touristy town, but all of the numerous restaurants are empty. The one we eat in suffers from unsmiling staff and lack of heating.

We take the ferry the next morning to the northern end of Isla del Sol for 15 Bolivianos (about GBP1.10) each. There are probably too many people on the ferry for its size, especially since there are only a few life jackets. Downstairs in the glass enclosed area its too hot, and there´s no room left upstairs on the roof where everyone else is freezing. The ferry takes over 2 hours to get to its destination as it only has a single underpowered outboard motor.

Its clear though that our destination is going to be well worth the discomfort of our transportation. The car-free island looks peaceful, beautiful and welcoming.

We jump off the boat at Cha´llampampa and wander over to a small museum where there is a messy collection of Inca artifacts that were dug up on the island. We spend just a few minutes and then head out to walk to the Palacio del Inca an hours walk away on the north west tip of the island. As we walk along we pass locals getting on with island life. A family group dig up potatoes on a small terraced field using crude wooden hoes. A man leads his donkey and its cute big-eared foal along the path. A old woman dressed in a black top hat climbs the path slowly carrying an enormous burden on her back.

At Palacio del Inca, our museam tickets (10 Bolivianos or GBP0.70) allow us to enter the ruins, which are a complex of stone buildings overlooking Bahia Kona del Norte. To my mind the ruins appear poorly reconstructed, but they do provide lots of shady spots to enjoy lunch. While Rachel relaxes I climb Cerro Tikani which looms invitingly behind the palace. From the top the blue view over Lake Titicaca encompasses white Andean peaks in the distance, and the brown terraced massif of Isla del Sol with its complex hills and bays. I can make out the tiny curve of Isla de la Luna in the South East. Behind me the arc of a midday moon shines mysteriously in the cobalt blue sky.

I walk back to the ruins, and then we set off together on the 3 hour hike to the south of the island, passing alond the central ridge. There is a well-made stone path which climbs and decends steeply making us take frequent rests along the way. As we promised ourselves in La Paz, the weather is perfect with a few puffy white clouds in an otherwise blue sky, allowing us to enjoy the grand vista of Lake Titicaca.

After a couple of hours we get to a check-point where two smiling local men try to tell us we need to pay 10 Bolivianos each (about GBP0.70) to pass. Not sure what its for, I try to get them to explain slowly. All I can work out it that there is a conflict between the North and the South of the Island, and we need to pay to go into the South. I tell them we are not visiting any other ruins or museaums in the South. They have a little conflab and agree that we can pay just 5 Bolivianos each. We decide to pay as its so little and we don´t want any hassles. It rankles me though that I am not sure what I am paying for apart from avoidance of a fight.

We eventually get to Yumani where a little boy sitting by the path outside town asks us if we have accomodation. We follow him to his family´s place (Puerta del Sol) where mum and dad are hauling water from the well, using a bucket and rope, to fill the roof water tank. We take a room with three windows on the second floor for 20 Bolivianos each (about GBP1.50) which looks out in all directions over Bahia Kona.

We ask what time dinner is, and the friendly dark-skinned landlady tells us the its not until 7.30pm. Rachel rubs her stomach hungrily and her husband suggests a serving of 'Papas Fritas' on the terrace to keep us going. We sit watching the run slowly set over the distant Peruvian mainland, as the bay turns red-orange, eating the most delicious home-made chips ever.

At dinner that evening we compare notes with a French couple, David and Helene, who are in the middle of a round-the-world trip that bears a striking resemblance to our own. For dinner we have soup followed by grilled trout, rice, vegetables, and more delicious papas fritas (20 Bolivianos or GBP1.40 each). We sleep well after an energetic day in the big outdoors.

In the morning, we eat a simple breakfast in our guesthouse for 7 Bolivianos (about GBP0.50). As we leave the guesthouse the village is coming to life, and we see plump old ladies moving their skinny sheep to new pastures, men heading out to the terraced fields with their donkeys, and children walking sleepily to school. The low sunlight and the fragrance from flowers and trees in this simple rural environment make me feel very alive and glad to welcome the new day.

We walk down some steep inca stairs where there is a gushing stream alongside that waters some carefully tended terraced gardens. At the bottom of the steps there is a little harbour and a few men playing cards at an old wooden table. I approach and ask them if we can take a rowing boat over to the mainland village of Yampupata. One of them directs me to another trilby-sporting gentleman who informs me there are no row-boats but he will take us in his motor launch for 70 Bolivianos (about GBP5.00). I ask him if he can stop at the ruins en-route (since we´ve paid for it now) and we agree to go with him.

We chug out into the bay and shortly pull up at a wooden pier beside Piko Kaina Inca ruins. These seem to be in much better condition than the ones we visited in the north of the island. There are trapezoidal doorways with single stone lintels, and domed ceilings constructed of stone.

We bump into an Australian couple, Josh and Nicky, who were staying at the same guesthouse as us. They ask us if they can jump on our boat back to the mainland.

It only takes a few minutes to get to the village of Yampupata, and we give the boat owner 90 Bolivianos for all four of us (GBP6.00). He leaves with a big smile on his face happy to have had some business that day.

The village has a school fete on and there is loud music from the field next to the school buildings. A boy involved in the festivities, dressed in a colourful hat, passes by a gaggle of school girls who giggle at his outrageous headgear.

A lady opens up her front room cum shop for us and we buy some water and snacks to help us survive the 17km hike back to Copacabana. After walking a few minutes I taste the water and it has a digusting note of chlorine. We can´t be bothered to go back, and fortnunately Nicky has some dehydrated lemon drink that improves the taste.

The walk along the main road to Copacabana is a pleasant one, passing through little villages where everyone that sees us shouts 'Ola' or 'Buenos Dias'. There are lots of people out in the fields harvesting their crops who gaze at the strange foreigners passing by. The five hour walk passes quickly in the pleasant sunshine and banter of the day.

Rachel and I say bye to the Australians and head back to our hostel, La Cupula. We enjoy an afternoon of relaxation after the walk. In the evening we slob around watching 'The name of the Rose' on DVD. The waiter brings our food from the restaurant down to the living room. Its a long time since we ate dinner on our lap watching TV.

The next day we take a look around the church in Copacabana which has an unusual Moorish architecture. Inside there is a startling golden alter, covered with statues and flowers. In a dark candlelit side chapel we see the wooden virgin of Copacabana above hundreds of brass plaques, from a variety of institutions and individuals, that thank her for her help.

We take advantage of the video collection at our hostel and enjoy ´The Motorcycle Diaries´ which we last saw just before starting our around the world trip. It now seems strange to be reminded of the places and people that we have visited which were only just a dream before leaving home.

In the evening we bump into our Belgian friend, Gaelle, who we last saw on the Easter Islands. For the past few weeks Gaelle has been travelling through Bolivia on a guided tour with her parents. Gaelle meets us in our hostel kitchen. We feel relaxed after our stay in Copacabana but comparing ourselves with Gaelle notice how travelling independently is tiring.

This brings us to the end of our time in Bolivia. We have already seen lightening-struck Peru in the distance and I feel mentally prepared to move on. I just hope it doesn´t rain on us.
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