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Published: September 6th 2012
After an early boat from Isla Amantaní gets me back to Puno I make my way by bus along the lake's southern shore to Peru's border with Bolivia. There are two border crossing points in the Titicaca area, at the Peruvian towns of Desaguadero and Yunguyo. Desaguadero has a particularly unsavoury reputation (smuggling, criminality, generic border unpleasantness) and besides, Yunguyo is right on the edge of the lake and far more convenient for reaching my first stop in Bolivia: Isla del Sol.
Isla del Sol is one of several islands on Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side, and by some way the largest on the entire lake. The island has long held great importance for both Aymara and Quechua-speaking peoples in the area, the island's name coming from its role in local creation myths as the birthplace of the Sun. The mighty Inca themselves held the island in great reverence: Manco Cápac, the legendary first Inca and founder of the city of Cusco, and his sister-cum-wife Mama Ocllo - both children of the Sun-god Inti, were believed to have appeared on Earth on the island. The island is also home to a large, sacred rock called by locals "The Rock
of the Puma" - in Aymara, Titi Kharkha -
one possible explanation of where the lake's name comes from. The island is famous for its many Inca and pre-Inca ruins as well as its scenery - certainly worth a stop in my book!
The island is reached by ferry from the Bolivian town of Copacabana - which, while it lies right on the lake's edge, doesn't quite have the glamourous beach of its Carioca
namesake (the famous beach in Rio was, in fact, named after the Virgen de Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia whose image is housed in a magnificently over-the-top cathedral a couple of blocks from Lake Titicaca). While this pleasant lakeside town is well known by Bolivians as the home of their patron saint, it might be even better known to Peruvians, for a rather different and, frankly, bizarre reason.
Day in, day out - especially at weekends and in apocalyptic numbers in early August and at Easter - vehicles with Peruvian numberplates drive up the hill into the heart of town, the Plaza 2 de Febrero (so, Bolivia shares Peru's, Ecuador's, Colombia's, Chile's and Argentina's obsession with naming streets and squares after dates...makes remembering
directions so easy...), and sidle right up to the cathedral, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana. They might be family cars, they might be minivans, they might be intercity buses, they might be huge trucks - they just come and come. Just outside the basilica an interesting and motley collection of people are assembled: priests, photographers, beer vendors and gaudy paper decoration-sellers. They are all part of one plan: the bendición de movilidades
("blessing of the vehicles"). Indeed, Peruvian drivers come to the border in huge numbers annually to have their vehicles blessed. The process, to the outsider, looks rather complicated: a large number of multicoloured paper flowers and garlands are purchased from one of a number of nice ladies who just happen to have a wide selection available, and stuck all over the vehicle to be blessed, with a particular emphasis on the windscreen. A priest/monk (not sure, I'm not really an expert in these things but they were dressed in a sort of black potato sack with a rope as a belt, so I'm thinking the latter) then approaches and proceeds to bless the car - I assume that this service does not come for free, but
Sailling from Copacabana to Isla del Sol
The beautiful Cordillera Real and Isla del Sol's twin, Isla de la Luna
I also assume that priests/monks taking payment for blessings is not necessarily bien vu
by Catholic authorities (modern ones, that is...we all know the things they got up to in centuries gone by), so any bolivianos
(or, for that matter, soles
- I'm sure the priests accept all manner of currencies) changing hands do so very discreetly. Once the blessing has been given the vehicle is liberally sprayed with beer (yes, I'm sure I've about that in the scriptures somewhere
) and a large number of tremendously noisy firecrackers are lit near the bonnet (yup, sounds perfectly safe and an excellent idea). Bob's your uncle! Or, as they say in Spanish, movilidad bendecida!
All that remains is the celebratory photograph - oh, how convenient! Lots of photographers with portable printers! Right here! - and the purchase of the Commemorative Tacky Red and Gold Banner reading "Bendecido en Copacabana"
. The whole process takes only a few minutes, and even on the relatively quiet Saturday I was there, there were dozens of vehicles waiting to be blessed. Simply amazing! The fact that Peruvian long-distance bus companies actually send their fleet over the border to Copacabana shows just how seriously this oddball tradition is
After a night spent in Copacabana - nice surprise: sleeping in Bolivia is cheeeeeap! One night in a perfectly respectable place, two quid fifty - I hope on the ferry from the beach to Yumani, Isla del Sol's main settlement, on the island's southern tip. The trip is a very pleasant two hours over the lake's calm, sapphire waters, with the stunning backdrop of the Cordillera Real to gawp at along the way.
I spend two days on Isla del Sol wandering the island's kilometres of rough walking tracks - there are no motor vehicles here and, wonder of wonders, hardly any feral dogs (no
dogs is a luxury almost no place in South America can boast, from what I've seen) and almost no noise. There are no shops other than a few simple grocery stores, no lights at night - and it's indescribably wonderful. At one point I had wondered if a visit to Isla del Sol would be worth it, thinking that a Titicaca island is a Titicaca island is a Titicaca island. Well, no: Isla del Sol, with its crystal-clear waters, sheltered coves, profusion of ancient temples, mythological significance and delightfully welcoming locals, would
Temple on Isla del Sol
Is the smiley face original? Who knows...
not be out of place in Greek waters. Even the island's food has something about it - fillets of pejerrey
baked in foil with basil, washed down with a glass of Bolivian red (yes, Bolivian
red! It's not very well known, it's not exported and it's definitely no Mendoza malbec but I certainly didn't turn down a second glass). Delightful.
Stunning sunrises over the Cordillera, sparkling night skies, reading in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, sitting on gorgeous lake beaches just wishing
the water were a few degrees warmer. Isla del Sol is an absolute gem of a place - the Incas weren't wrong.
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