Isla del Sol

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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » Isla del Sol
January 22nd 2020
Published: March 24th 2020
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Rotary Obelisk Rotary Obelisk Rotary Obelisk

First thing you see when you cross the border from Peru to Bolivia. Probably they erect these things (there are many around all South America and specially in Bolivia) to declare the expenses as charity in return they can advertise to their club, not help the poor people at all and maybe also have discount on smuggling big quantity of cocaine into western countries.
Another border, another experience! But this time I have our previous experiences to help us. Crossing from Peru to Bolivia had a similar plot to that of Mexico/Guatemala; a bus that leaves you at the border of the leaving country, then change all the money left into the new currency, then walk into the new country, having the passport stamped and then leave with another bus.

At the point of changing my last Peruvian Soles for Bolivianos (the local currency in Bolivia) I moved away from the crowd, checked before what the current exchange rate is and then asked another cambio (as the Japanese girl did at the Mexican border) and yes I got a better rate, actually some pennies more that what internet said. I got £5 more than what the first guy offered me. And 5 quid in Bolivia is the daily rate of someone’s job. Experience is the best teacher!

Walking across the border was easy, just 200 meters, there were a few people selling stuff, most of them for locals, mainly puffed corn and something like beans that people eat everywhere. These beans have a thin yellowish skin and
Migration controlMigration controlMigration control

Takes more time than to get into the States, inside there is a big glass window where people stick their stickers. They don’t have the small cameras used in all migration control booths around the world, they have proper Canon SRL cameras.
you eat the inside. To this day I still don’t know what it is and regretfully I didn’t try it.

Passing below an arch that I think represents the proper physical border you find first a Rotary club mini monument that welcomes you to Bolivia in not good condition and then, 20 metres after, the immigration office, a toilet and then the desert.

One hour after, with a bus, in our case a Bolivia hop bus, we arrived in Copacabana, nothing similar to the famous tropical Copacabana in Brazil (I never been but I imagine very different). Through dusty unpaved streets we arrived to the port, some small piers run into the water, few little touristic offices offer you boats to go to the famous Isla del Sol - important to the Inca religion because it is supposedly the place where the god of the sun took the actual sun and put it in the sky.

We were recommended by a friend of mine to go to the north part of the island and after reading various blogs about it we decide to book a place to stay in the north
The boat on the way to the islandThe boat on the way to the islandThe boat on the way to the island

This is the luggage area where all ladies bring on their shoulders and that make them hunchback at the age of 35. But tradition is kept very seriously in Bolivia, for example, they continue chewing coca leaves and loosing their teeth also sugary fizzy drinks contribute to their teeth loss and are not their traditional drinks, but that’s another story.
for a couple of days despite knowing that the place is extremely untouristy and most of the accommodation did not even have electricity. We booked this eco cabaña with solar panel electricity and solar powered shower, a gas kitchen and an amazing view of the beach through the kitchen window.

Arriving at the copacabana “harbour” I went to ask around where to get a boat to the north of the island, the answer was, “you can’t go there”. But we had read on blogs that even though people say it’s not possible to go to the north, there are non tourist boats that will take you to the north side. Our host told us in a what’s app message that there will be a boat departing close to the harbour’s main marine office, so the question changed to where is this marine office, the answer was more effective, just a finger pointing to the right, we moved fast in that direction and we found two local boats, one going straight to the north side. An old lady with dark skin burned by the altitude of the sun and without teeth told me she was waiting for us
The eco houseThe eco houseThe eco house

This was meant to be the eco-house that we were to stay in at Benjamin’s place...
and that she was the mother of our host, named Benjamin.

She looked 200 years old, dressed in traditional Bolivian clothes and bow hat. Most of the ladies in Bolivia wore traditional clothes, mainly the elderly people but also younger ones especially in the rural country side. They are called Cholas.

The 2.5 hours on the boat to go 16km from the shore was very interesting, proper immersion into the cultural uses and costume of Bolivia and this remote place. On the front part of the boat the older men where divided in two groups playing cards and chewing coca leaves. On the back side the ladies and the kids. The first were dressed in dark colour, wool jumpers, not traditional manufacture, some had cowboy hats, no one had teeth. They all were happy chatting and laughing. The ladies side also didn’t have teeth, the elderly were dressed in traditional Chola clothes, the youngest were dressed in up to date modern type of clothes. The elderly were eating this type of Lupini beans and taking care of the babies, the younger ladies just playing with their smartphones. We were seated near a group of 4 or 5 older ladies, there were 2 meters distance between us and the people seated in front of us, in the middle there were all the luggage they bring with them on the island and our bags too. Their luggage was like big tortellini made with beautiful traditional textiles, filled with god knows what. I think all sorts of stuff, mainly food. This is like their type of rucksack, they carry this luggage on their shoulders all their life, when they are 50 their back is arched and round like Benjamin’s 200 year old mother.

Occasionally they use these textiles (called Lana Antigua/antique wool) for all other types of purposes; one of the ladies near us had the daughter/grand daughter (we didn’t really understand ages and relations between kids and ladies) falling asleep, so she wrapped the baby (she was 2/3 years old) inside the tortellini textile and put her together with the other luggage on the floor - Daria didn’t realise this and nearly stepped on her!

The driver/captain was young, maybe 17, wearing a Barcelona football jacket, he was listening to music with his phone and chewing coca.

All the groups of chatting ladies had kids, all the kids had snacks and both ladies and kids were drinking bright coloured fizzy cola drinks (supposedly, the reason why they don’t have teeth). This brand was called Quinoacola. Already in Peru we realised that these fizzy drinks were cheaper than water, probably because water is bought just by tourists and anyway most of the bottled water sold were produced by Coca Cola and cost easily double than in a supermarket in England.

On the boat, every body was openly drinking their fizzy drinks, but we realised that eating wasn’t something that they do so openly, they hide when they eat, just turn to one side and eat in a way that you couldn’t, at least, see what they are eating. We realised when we start eating our food from the tupperware and the people looked at us not in the same way they were looking at us before, as if we were doing something very weird so we asked each other why they were looking at us like this and we started reflecting why and looking around we see that other people were eating too but they
the kitchenthe kitchenthe kitchen

Daria in her survival outfit, cooking in the survival kitchen, from riches to rags.
were hiding while doing it, and so we realise that actually in Cusco too the people were always eating in the street but facing the walls or hiding somehow. We looked as the silly disrespectful tourists.

We landed on the island after 2.5 hours of been in contact with the locals (nobody chatted with us) and learned some interesting costumes.

We paid a small amount for the journey, maybe £4 but Benjamin’s mother told £2 so I asked: Por los dos? (for both?), she looked at me, made a crying face and in a crying voice she reply: No, cada uno (no, each one). We then realise another thing. In Peru and obviously also in Bolivia, when people had to tell you negative answers, they cry, obviously not really crying, just pretend, to show you that they are so sorry to answer negatively and they answer negatively most of the time. You ask: is there hot water? They answer crying: no, sorry, there isn’t.

We had just arived on the island and already had understood many interesting uses and culture of this country, so what else was awaiting us?

The northern beachThe northern beachThe northern beach

Where we missed the opportunity to swim into the Lake Titicaca

To arrive to Benjamin’s guest eco-house we had to walk and cross a hill to then come down to another beach. There are no cars, taxis or any motorised transportation on the island, or you walk with your luggage or you walk and your luggage is carried by a mule, in our case, we had to walk with our bags.

Arrived to the top of the hill some donkeys arrived and walked over and a man arrive behind them, their owner, he ask us where we were going and told us that this was the entrance of the natural reserve and we had to pay the fee. Because he didn’t look like a park ranger or any type of natural park authority, I smartly answer that obviously we were paying this fee, we were going to Benjamin’s house and we would do it with him. The man was clearly not expecting so much confidence with the language and the prompt answer just replied: just be sure you pay the fee. And we continue walking towards the beach destination but finding strange the fact that a donkey owner ask us questions and money. Then we started the way down to the beach, we meet some llamas or alpaca, whatever they were (we didnt really understood which is which) the view was stunning, we were excited and we totally felt that the effort to arrive was worth it, really it was like a paradise.

We arrived to the house, the door had a lock on the outside, so nobody in it, we looked around, the place looked deserted, just a donkey was parked there.

We decide to leave the bags on the wooden table outside and explore a bit the beach while waiting for Benjamin to come back. White sand, pristine water but cold (we are at more than 3300 metres above sea level) this is the other side of the lake Titicaca, it looks so different from the floating islands we visited a day before.

Daria and me were so excited thinking that this place will be our home for the next three days, there will be no extra comfort than the necessary essentials but who said that paradise has comforts, it’s just paradise. We have everything needed, including love and good quality pasta.

We saw Benjamin’s mother and another man coming down from the same place we came down from.

At first we thought it was Benjamin with her but then getting closer we thought that this couldn’t be the lovely man we were chatting to on the phone, this one was looking like the Goonies retarded monster with the eyes settled back in his skull.

She came to us and start a strange crying sound saying, in not very comprehensive way, something along the lines that Benjamin had been arrested, that his wife was a lier because she told the police that he had another woman and for this reason he is now in jail in Copacabana. She threw herself on the ground, opened a bag full of keys, the old mother (who didn’t look that old when she was coming down from the mountain, she was basically running!) started moving the keys around gave some keys to the Goonies monster with some words, he ran away to the back of the house where a couple of other semibuilt places were and continued crying that she didn’t have the keys for the door, that poor Benjamin was in jail and that this was a tragedy. The Goonies monster scream something to the mother which got her up and said that fortunately they found the keys to another place and we should stay there because she can’t find the key to the eco-home we booked, and what has happened to the family is a tragedy. She showed us the place, which was minimally better than a cave because it had a door, a bed and a window, but the level of dampness was the same of a cave. Then she showed us something like a kitchen that was looking like a toilet and a toilet that I don’t even remember because at that point I was so upset to have lost my dream of the paradise I had built in my mind that I basically said to the old lady that we didn’t want to stay in this rescue place, and we came there to be in the other well built eco house. The lady at first tried to convince me continuing to say that that there was this problem with her son and so we should accept this other shitty accommodation. Then seeing that her crying wasn’t enough to convince me, she change the crying face to a witch’s face and said: Vayanse, Vayanse! (Go away!) this place is sacred and I don’t want you here! Daria was trying to be nice with the lady but it took me 2 seconds to go back to the bags, put them on my shoulders and start walking back up on the mountain. Fuck you Ugly witch! We are going to find another place where to go, but no way we stay in that place because you don’t want to open us the right door and I don’t believe your words and your crying attitude from the moment of paying her for the boat journey.

Coming back to the paradise topic, once you have love and good quality spaghetti, we can make our paradise easily at another place, and so we did.

We were the only tourists on the boat and so, the only tourists on this part of the island.

In the end we found a “good” place where to stay, we needed a kitchen so just a double room with toilet wasn’t enough, Benjamin told us to bring just food, anything else was provided, so we brought enough pasta, rice and vegetables for the next three days. The lady said there was no kitchen available, but since we were the only tourists at her hotel, it was in her interest to provide us a space where to cook, and she did it. We had the worst kitchen ever, with the worst kitchen gear ever but we managed to make decent spaghetti and tomato rice, even scrambled eggs in the morning.

The rest of the time on the island was spent exploring, walking around the north beaches, the best beach was the most far out, we had to cross the island, climbing up the mountain and then going down through an archeological site to reach this amazing beach divided in two by a concrete pier that was already falling apart.

The beach was about 1km long, rocks on both sides, water extremely calm and pristine, no fishes, no algae. 25 degrees, the mountain sun hit heavily, we decide to swim.

We got into the water up to our thighs and decided that the temperature was good enough and we start taking off our top, when, from the steep side of the mountain we heard a lady voice screaming at us “no se quiten la rapa por favour!!!” (Please don’t take off you clothes!)

Basically this was a lady with her family screaming at us. For the respect of the locals getting annoyed at our behaviour we abort the idea of swimming. Ten minutes later we saw a tourist coming down to the beach, he didn’t even check the water, he took off his clothe and easily dived into the lake. He was English, his name is Marco, he lives in Glastonbury and he got the room below us at the hotel. Another at Isla del Sol!

The day before at the hotel checked in a couple of Argentinians, young guys with backpacks, than 3 french guys and also Marco. The day before, we were having breakfast on the front deck of the hotel, on a table made of rock slabs, when a boat arrived minutes before at the beach dropped off some tourists, one of them was Marco and then a nice couple from Argentina. We spoke with Argentinian couple, we told them that the place was the only one that we found, they decide to check in. Probably the English Marco had the same idea. In the end, all the tourists ended up in the same hotel.

Nehuen and Lara were the names of the Argentinian couple. They told us they had been to the south side of the island and they decided to come to the north walking through the entire island, but half way there, they were stopped by local people and they had to come back to the south, get a boat to copacabana and then take another boat back to the north (probably on Benjamin’s mother’s boat).

Basically, we have been told, that three years ago a Korean girl that was walking through the island a night was found dead and people of the north were blamed for her disappearance and death. From that moment the north of the island has lost all its tourism. Then locals told me that actually, it was the people of the centre of the island that actually killed the lady and that there is a mafia made of the centre and southern parts of the island that decided to keep the north out of business. Anyway, we didn’t understood very well the situation but we felt that even if the mafia from the south is to blame for not allowing tourists to cross into the north, we were able to take advantage of this beautiful, calm and pristine place that has kept a rural life of 100 years ago. It was an amazing experience for us, Daria even said she loved it so much that even the very basic living conditions didn’t matter. Maybe it was the most basic of the all our travel so far, yet she thought it was the best part of the travel so far.


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