By Michelle Sacks
Say the name Copacabana in a crowded room, and most people will either think of oiled-up near-naked Brazilians or a showgirl called Mona who Barry Manilow made famous. But there is another Copacabana, secreted away on The Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, which is both deliciously unknown and spectacularly beautiful. Like many South American destinations, getting there is no mean feat. But even the longest, sweatiest ride aboard the most dubiously held-together bus should not deter you from making the trip.
Built upon the foundations of an early Incan shrine during the Spanish colonial period, the sunny lakeside town of Copacabana is home to the Native Madonna Bolivia’s most important religious sanctuary. It is also the point of departure to reach the birthplace of the Incan civilization on Isla Del Sol. Add to that the fact that the impossibly blue waters of the world’s highest navigable lake lap at its edges, and you’ll soon understand the extraordinary sense of tranquility that overwhelms you upon arrival.
Apart from the Madonna housed in the town¹s 16th century cathedral, which draws a fair share of pilgrims each year, Copacabana holds very few tourist attractions in the traditional sense. It may just be what saves it from becoming yet another over-touristed spot. Nonetheless, for those who are happy to just be in a place and absorb its essence, it is heaven on earth.
In Copacabana a blend of indigenous Bolivians, dreadlocked tourists who’ve moved in for good and characteristically begrimed backpackers co-exist with good-natured indifference. There’s also a sizeable population of South Americans from neighboring countries who have taken up residence here—no doubt because on a continent that’s renowned for being dependably unstable, this sleepy town is an oasis of calm. Bolivia’s political turmoils go unnoticed; the town and its people go about life anachronistically and proud of it. Time isn’t the enemy, it’s just irrelevant, and no one seems the worse for it.
The locals make their living fishing trucha (trout) from the lake, selling their locally made crafts or working in one of the many restaurants that line the main street.
Apart from the occasional llama and the odd jewellery-selling ex-pat hippie who might cross your path, there is little to disturb siesta time—even if you decide to enjoy it prostrate in the middle of the main road. Which, bearing in mind the views, is not nearly as bad an idea as it may sound.
Indeed, the town is sleepy; but dull it’s not. The colors are bright, the people are fascinating, and the tourists here are of a different breed. Even the characteristically obnoxious North Americans who visit are hard-pressed to find anything to complain about—which seems to shock them as much as it does everyone else. Yet, for a place as small as Copacabana, there is an astonishing amount to take in. You can easily while away an entire afternoon walking just two blocks, having a cerveza (beer) at a lakeside café, practicing your Spanish with some obliging locals or bargaining for beautiful local artifacts.
And if all else fails, there’s always the Internet café—a cultural anomaly in a place where the only bank won’t change your dollars, but then cultural anomalies are abundant here. Like the indigenous musicians who frequently pop into the restaurants while you’re having a meal—first to play their quaintly traditional music, and then to punt the CD. On most menus, traditional fare like roasted guinea pig is listed alongside Hamburguesa Americana and in some places (and for only the bravest of travelers) sushi. Walk into any store, and amongst alpaca ponchos and replica Incan figurines, you’re guaranteed to find a battered old black-and-white TV playing South American soaps at any time of the day. And then of course, there’s Bob Marley, who seems to provide the official soundtrack for the place. Yes, dreadlocks are big in these parts, but whether the ganja came before the pseudo-Rastas or it was the other way around is anyone’s guess. Whatever the case may be, for the perpetually stoned and the sober alike, you can’t be in Copacabana without feeling, well, stoned. Everyone you meet is just so happy, and it’s alarmingly contagious.
A 90-minute ferry ride away from Copacabana is the beautiful Isla Del Sol which has got to be one of Bolivia’s greatest treasures. A place of much cultural, historical and spiritual relevance, the tiny island is, according to Incan mythology, the birthplace of the Sun. From here, the Sun sent its two children, Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo, to found the Incan Empire and bring wisdom and knowledge to the world. For those of Incan descent, the island is where all life began. The south side of Isla Del Sol has some fairly impressive ruins to visit, but for most travelers who come to Copacabana via the grand-scale glory of Peru’s Macchu Picchu, they’re unlikely to wow. If you are keen for a view of Incan architecture, there’s the Inca Garden, Inca Steps, Inca Spring and the Sun Island complex to take in. But by far the greatest view is the view from the island—a never-ending panorama of different perspectives of the lake, the nearby snow-capped Andean peaks, and the lush valleys below.
An exhausting, but infinitely rewarding hike from the south to the north side of the island is the best way to appreciate the surroundings. It takes a good three hours even if you don’t stop to breathe, refuel or take pictures, but the slower the better. You’ll bump into local families leading laden llamas nimbly over the makeshift path, children eager to pose for pictures in exchange for money or caramelos (candy), and the odd fellow traveler heaving up the hills. And don’t be surprised if a few nonagenarian locals scuttle past you at the speed of light, because for the Bolivians who call the island home, the altitude, the heat and the incline are all in a day’s work.
When you reach the north, bedraggled and be-sweated, there’s a fair choice of lodgings for the night, from a small backpackers’ hostel to a more up-market hotel or two, but rest assured, there are no neon signs, McDonalds or taxis in sight. You won’t even spot a car. Everything about the island is designed to complement it, and even the priciest hotel is a rustic natural stone construction. Hot water is not likely to find its way into your pipes and in fact, any water you may get will be a trickle rather than a gush (if you’ve done a bit of travelling around South America, you’ll be well prepared for the workings of their electric showers). But when you learn the lengths the locals go to in order to source it from one of only three springs on the island, you’ll soon realize the insignificance of your inconvenience. Indeed, Bolivia can be very humbling at times.
If water is in short supply, hospitality is not. Locals open their kitchens to visitors—and that’s about the extent of fine dining—but you’re unlikely to find friendlier service or fresher fish anywhere else. While the parents do the cooking, the children serve the beer, set the table, and chat with wide-eyed curiosity to any foreigners who can string a few words of Spanish together (and even those who can’t). Bring these kids a gift of a pen or a little writing paper, and they’ll positively glow. But if you have a picture of your home country or your family on hand, that’s first prize, because you’ll be able to connect with them in a profoundly simple way.
A night’s sleep on Isla Del Sol could easily qualify as a religious experience in itself—whether it’s the altitude (12,580 ft), the hike, or the local cerveza that does it. Either way, watching the sun set at night and rise the following morning, you can’t help but feel that if the Sun was born anywhere, it did well in choosing this place.
Hotel accommodation on Copacabana: $20-30/room
Hotel accommodation on Isla del Sol: $20/room
(prices quoted are for top-of-the-range options, though bear in mind that the Bolivian equivalent of 5-star lodgings is a far cry from the Hyatt)
Meal in a restaurant: $5
Local beer: $1-2
Ferry ride to Isla del Sol: $5