Copacabana sits on picturesque Lake Titicaca, whichat 3800 mts/12,500 ft, is the world's highest navigable lake. I'd first visited in March when passing through from La Paz, Bolivia, to Puno, Peru, to meet Brendan Vermillion, a Travelblog friend. It's about three hours from each of these cities and a weekend/holiday getaway for urbanites wanting a little nature and fresh air. It also provides a stopover for travelers going between the two countries and visiting legendary Isla del Sol--so lots of tourist facilities (and touts).
On my first visit in March, the summer rainy season, the Andes were covered with snow and the pre-Incan, Aymaran agricultural terraces that climb up the hills and around the lake were green and covered in crops. In Copacabana, skies were gray, it was moderately warm, and the hills and terraces were a rich green that complemented the deep blue lake.
When I returned to stay in July, the winter dry season, Copacabana had completely changed with generally clear skies (except for the occasional rain, hail and snow), arid brown hills and freezing cold weather. Oh yes, and lots of tourists. It was the high season.
Somehow, I always had a bit of travel trauma getting to Copa. When I'd first come from La Paz in March in a succession of little local vans, I'd run into the infamous Bolivian roadblock (see my blog on Puno). This time, I was coming from Cuzco with a stopover in Puno to break up the long haul.
An internet site, Wikitravel, often had helpful info, so I followed their advise and took a room on the second floor of the terminal. What a mistake! At about 4am, touts started shouting destinations, and my rest was finished. Rooms in a terminal seemed a great idea for catching early buses, but trust me, it wasn't. I arrived in Copa pretty knackered, grabbed a room nearby and tumbled into bed. I'd explore later.
Exploring Copacabana was great fun. It's charmingly nestled between two mountainous peninsulas with fine trails for daily hikes up to miradors/viewpoints with indigenous ruins on one hill and a busier Catholic pilgrimage site on the other. Lots of tourists and pilgrims visit the town, and the main street was lined with shops selling colorful Andean handmade goods and cheap souvenirs and tourist
restaurants. I, of course, got my food from the marketplace and street stands where the locals shopped.
The town sloped down to the lake where there were often great sunsets. The shore was set up for action and lined with a chaos of brightly-colored kayaks, swan-shaped pedal boats and ferries to the islands. Behind this, little shacks sold cheap, farmed trout from the polluted lake and behind them rose a few high-rise, fancy tourist hotels with lake views. Fortunately, I didn't have to walk far around the lake to escape the crowds and find peace and solitude. However, I did have to skirt a big pipe dumping raw sewage directly into the lake--no swimming on this trip.
A Black Virgin and the Blessing of the Cars
Every day I visited a highlight of the town, the huge Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Copacabana. It was built in the 16c in Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque styles with domes, arches, a cupola, and Portuguese ceramic tiles and on top of a sacred Aymara temple. I loved watching the traditional women with their bowler hats, fringed shawls and flouncing skirts carry armloads of gladiolas in to set before
the Virgin. While Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, its churches are the most flower-filled--curious.
The basilica is a major pilgrimage site for indigenous Aymara and Quechua Peruvians and Bolivians for it shelters the black Virgin de Copacabana, carved and carried from far away Potosi, Bolivia, by an indigenous believer more than 450 years ago. Many miracles have been attributed to her, such as saving some Brazilian sailors from drowning on Lake Titicaca. In gratitude, Rio de Janeiro named its famous Copacabana's beach after the Virgin.
The basilica is fronted by a line of stands selling flowers and brightly-colored plastic decorations for a curious ritual, the Blessing of the Vehicles. Each morning, cars, taxis and trucks would line up in front of the basilica to be decorated, sprayed with a bottle of sparkling cider and then blessed by a priest with his bucket of holy water. In the old days, decorations would have been made of reeds, fronds or paper. Now, they are sadly of non-biodegradable, non-recyclable plastic. Still, the ritual was entertaining--at least when it wasn't crowded.
feast days of the Virgin, August 6, pilgrims had been arriving from all over Bolivia and Peru. Suddenly, there were double lines of vehicles belching black fumes, blocking the main street and stretching for blocks waiting to be blessed. Not a good sign.
This feast day is also Bolivia's Independence Day (she's the country's patron saint) and holiday makers were pouring out of the capital, La Paz, to enjoy the parades, traditional dances and food at specially set up stalls. Street vendors appeared selling yummy slices of pineapple, sugar cane juice, and hopelessly ugly tat, toys and virgins. Prices doubled everywhere--time for me to leave.
I'd been paying $6 for the luxuries of a private room, bath, TV and wifi (I love Bolivia!) and so my planned few days had stretched to three weeks (including five days at the Isla del Sol). I probably would have stayed longer had the holiday not arrived. As so often happens, I rarely make the decision to leave but let higher prices, a booked hostel, or an expiring visa make the decision for me. A slacker's approach, but hey, it works for me.
I´m a one-way ticket, slow traveler, relishing the freedom of the open road and trusting serendipity to guide my journey. When I was younger, I used to travel for a year at a time. Then a few years ago, I roamed Europe and North Africa for three and a half years and liked that even better.
On August 1st, 2010, I left my peaceful Mission Canyon paradise in Santa Barbara's mellow summer and emerged from a couple of planes a day and a world later in the teeming, sub-zero streets of Buenos Aires´winter. Now, with the Andes, Amazon and Galapagos between here and home, will three years be enou... full info
Bolivia, named after independence fighter Simon BOLIVAR, broke away from Spanish rule in 1825; much of its subsequent history has consisted of a series of nearly 200 coups and counter-coups. Comparatively democratic civilian rule was established in 1...more history