Copacabana, Bolivia – Two months living on Lake Titicaca

Copacabana, Bolivia is like my home away from home. Having lived here for an entire summer two years ago, it felt great to come back for another summer. After a bit of effort at the border to get Kirsten’s visa, we made it to Copacabana around lunchtime and dropped all our stuff off at our home for the summer before wandering around town for a bit. We arrived about a week before our professor, so we had plenty of time to rest and see the sites around town before things got busy. Since we’ve now been here about two months, I’ll list the highlights of our stay here and the general things to do in Copacabana when visiting.

  • First and foremost, El Condor and the Eagle Cafe and La Orilla are two must-try restaurants in town. The former for breakfast and the latter for dinner (especially the pepper steak). We ended up having dinner with a writer for Lonely Planet there a week ago which was pretty awesome.
  • The Basilica of Copacabana is a huge pilgrimage site for Peruvians and Bolivians, and you can watch cars get blessed and purchase holy water if you do so desire  
    Basilica of Copacabana
     
  • Intinkala is an Inca site of unknown purpose located near the center of town. There’s not much information known about it but entry is free so it’s worth checking out for a few minutes. 
    Carved rocks of Intinkala
     
  • The Calvario is the mountain on the edge of town which has a Catholic shrine on top. The climb up the stairs is brutal but climbing up the dirt trails on the side is really nice.   
    Stations of the Cross on top of the Calvario
      
    Copacabana from the Calvario
     
  • Horca del Inca is another Inca site located on the opposite side of town from Calvario. It was an Inca (and probably earlier) astronomical observatory used on the winter solstice (June 21). We met some fellow Americans during our visit here who were great and we ended up hanging out with them in Copa for a few days.   
    Horca del Inca
     
  • Baño del Inca is located about 2 km away in Kusijata, and was a former Inca bath there pilgrims would have to purify before being allowed to enter Copacabana. There’s also a natural mummy in the small museum here, though it’s degrading due to water damage in the case.  
    Baño del Inca
     
  • Boca del Sapo is another religious site which is in the shape of a frog. People throw champaign bottles at it for good luck.   
    Boca del Sapo
     
  • Salteñas are available in the main plaza for 4 Bs and they are amazing. The only downside is the olive hidden somewhere inside.

Copacabana is quite small and everything can be visited in a few days. The charm of the city is its lakeside town atmosphere and laid back vibe. It’s not just a place to spend a day on a trip between Cuzco and La Paz, it’s a destination in its own right. If in the area, try to spend a few days in town to visit the islands and relax in this chill lakeside town. Take a stroll down the beach or climb one of the surrounding hills. There are lots of options for activities, especially on the weekends when tourists from La Paz also come to visit the town.   

The Milky Way over Copacabana

A short post about Copacabana sunsets

This post diverges from the usual trip report type entries I usually post, but I have to acknowledge the gorgeous sunsets that I’ve seen for the past 2 months in Copacabana. I’m lucky enough to have a stunning view of the lake out of my bedroom window, so I’ve been spoiled with the magnificent array of sunsets that occur every evening. Sunset is probably the most beautiful time of day in Copa, and if you visit you must watch the sun drop below the lake from one of the rickety docks along the shore, but I digress. Anyway, here are some pics of the amazing sunsets over Lake Titicaca!

 
     
    
   

The fair of Copacabana – Bolivia’s largest Independence Day celebration 

The fair of Copacabana is a week long celebration for Bolivian Independence Day. It occurs during the first week of August and lasts about ten days. During this time, thousands of Peruvians come to town to visit the Virgin of Copacabana in the basilica and get their cars blessed in front of the church. The entire city fills with people and stalls selling random junk appear in every main street and both plazas. Each night, tons of fireworks were shot off and lots of love music was played through the night.  

 

Blessed car on the beach
 
It’s generally a crazy time, considering how quiet the town generally is during the rest of the year. There was street food everywhere, as well as miniature ponies and baby alpacas for people to take photos with in the plazas. It’s almost impossible to drive anywhere at this time due to the large number of cars parked along the streets and on the beach. Many restaurants in town close for the week because of how insane the whole thing is. You can buy almost anything you want in the city during that week, including knock off coats, ceramics, kitchen supplies, Bolivian textiles, and dried llama fetuses.  
The most impressive part of the fair is probably the large firework displays which are attached to giant bamboo structures. The fireworks would shoot in every direction or spin around on a wheel attached to the bamboo thing, often right next to the crowds watching. I personally kept a safe distance as the things were terrifying, but fascinating to watch. Regular giant fireworks were also shot up in the air from the same location and would explode right over our heads.  

 

Anticucho vendor
 
It’s a great time to visit the city, but it’s a completely different vibe than the usual quaint lakeside town. If visiting during this time, be aware that most prices in town are much higher due to the crowds, and paying in Peruvian Soles gets you terrible rates for everything. Also, avoid the street food in the main plaza, only eat at the stalls in front of the local market, as they don’t reuse oil or cook old/questionable meat.  

Terrifying fireworks

Archaeology on the Copacabana Peninsula

I’ve spent two summers in Copacabana as part of an archaeological field school offered through my anthropology department. Because of this, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of the archaeological sites along the Copacabana Peninsula in Bolivia. This area has been populated since the Preceramic period (5000-1500 BCE), and it houses quite a few sites which are still considered sacred to the local population. There are a number of sunken temples in the area which are associated with a pre-Tiwanaku tradition known as the Yaya-Mama. These temples are located in various parts of the peninsula, generally on top of hills outside of modern villages. Three of these sites have been partially excavated, but the fourth, located in the village of Chi’si, has been fully excavated and restored to its original form during the early 1990s (the project was funded by National Geographic and an article can be found in the March 1992 edition in Spanish). This temple is roughy a thousand years older than Tiwanaku, and is definitely a predecessor to the sunken temple found in front of the Kalasasaya temple at that site. Research conducted on the remains found at the site have indicated artificial cranial modification and trepanation occurred at the site for over a thousand years (see this article in Forbes). This site is open for visitors, and a museum should be open sometime in the near future with the items from the excavations. For anyone visiting the area who is really into archaeology, it’s a worthwhile visit, especially once the museum is ready for visitors.  

Sunken temple at Ch’isi

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (also known as Coati) are two islands located in Lake Titicaca, not far from Copacabana. Isla del Sol is the most popular with backpackers as it has great trails for day hikes, however both islands are great to visit. Isla del Sol is the larger of the two, at about 8 kilometers long. Isla de la Luna is much smaller, and only consists of one village and an Inca ruin on the other side of the large hill that splits the island in two.  
Kirsten and I visited Isla del Sol on Aymara New Year in hopes of seeing the festival which we had heard would be going on that day. Unfortunately we did not make it on time, as it had apparently started at 5 AM and the boats don’t leave Copa until 8:30 AM. However, it was still a lovely day for a hike, so we began at the north end of the island and began the 4 hour hike to the village of Yumani at the south end. There’s a small museum at the town on the north end, which includes a couple sets of (commingled) human remains. You have to buy a 5 Bs ticket here to continue along the trail toward the Inca ruins. Once you leave the museum, it’s about a 45 minute hike to the Inca ruins located at the far north of the island. These ruins are pretty pathetic compared to those in Peru, but they still make for nice photos.  

 

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol
 
From there, continue uphill toward the second checkpoint, where there is a 15 Bs fee to walk across the center portion of the island. This is the most beautiful section of the hike, so don’t skip out because of the fees to cross. There’s nothing in particular to see in this part of the island, other than the breathtaking (literally) landscape and deep blue colors of Lake Titicaca. There are two killer hills in this section, so make sure to bring a lot of water and some snacks as there’s only one place to buy stuff and it’s way overpriced. You’ll have to show your ticket a couple of times on this part, but don’t have to pay again until reaching Yumani.  

 

Stacked stones in the middle of Isla del Sol
  
Hiking trail across Isla del Sol
 
At the end of the hike, you reach the village of Yumani, which is where the boats that return to Copacabana are docked. This is the largest of the villages on the island and it has the most options for hostels/hotels and restaurants. I personally don’t think that it’s necessary to stay on the island overnight, while others say to spend at least two nights, so it’s a personal preference. I would definitely recommend starting the hike at the north end, as Yumani has a very tall and long set of stairs which take forever to go down, so climbing up that at the beginning of the hike would be awful. Boats return to Copa in the late afternoon, and usually arrive between 5:30 and 6 PM. The roundtrip boat ticket should cost no more than 40 Bs ($5.81).  

 

Village of Yumani at the south end of Isla del Sol
 
Isla de la Luna is also accessible from Copacabana, though at less regular times due to the few people that visit. We went to the island on a private boat with a resident of the island, as we were invited to their house to have lunch. The lunch consisted of potatoes, oca, fava beans, and pork, which were cooked in a stone oven (called watia). This was the first time I had seen food cooked in a stone oven, I had only seen earth ovens prior. The flavor of the stone oven was different, and it made the food substantially less dirty than the dirt oven. After lunch we hiked over the hill to visit the Inca site located on the other side. The site had earlier been excavated and partially reconstructed by archaeologists, however, in the past two years the locals have taken it upon themselves to “restore” the site. This actually means that they built a bunch of new “Inca ruins” which are quite poorly done. Comparing photos from two years ago to this year’s visit shows the drastic changes that have occurred in that short amount of time. Even with the problematic “restoration” process which is going on there, the ruins are still interesting and worth visiting if spending a few days in Copacabana. The island really survives on tourism, and there are a few cheap guesthouse in the village for those who want to relax in a quiet place for a night or two. To reach the island, talk to one of the people in the ticket booths along the beach in Copacabana and ask for the rate for the day – there is definitely a combination ticket for sale with Isla del Sol and the Floating Islands with one of the companies. 

 

Stone oven cooking on Isla de la Luna
  
Inca ruins on Isla de la Luna