After a chokingly long week in congested La Paz, Paul arrived and at our first chance we were off in search of cleaner air, a less-harried town, and some water in land-locked Bolivia. I had finished my first week with Kiva, happily making friends at the Emprender loan offices and completing a couple borrower visits. It was time to celebrate my recent success with Paul!
So off we went to Copacabana on the shores of the magisterial Lago Titicaca. Standing at 3,812 m (12,507 ft), the lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The Copacabana region, or kota kawana in Aymara (which means “view of the lake”), was considered by both the Tiwanaku and Incan empires strategically, economically and spiritually important. Consequently Copacabana was settled long before the Spanish arrived.
Today it is a quaint town of 6,000 residents and a tourist hub for both backpackers and Andinos alike. The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, a hallowed shrine dating back to the 16th century, is home to the patron saint of Bolivia. This so-called “Dark Virgin” purportedly has magical healing powers. Her reputation is so great that pilgrims flock to the cathedral all year long. Revered far and wide, the Virgin even inspired the naming of a now-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Paul and I instantly bonded with Copacabana. Laid-back, friendly and geographically and culturally interesting, we both relaxed within minutes of getting off the bus from La Paz. On the ride there, I couldn’t remember if I passed through this town back in 1999 when I made my first Andean circuit with my brother Erik. At the time, I recall, I was quite ill from the flu and my recollection was fuzzy at best. But as soon as I saw the distinctive Basilica, fashioned in the mudéjar style of Islamic Spain, I instantly remembered being here.
One tidbit I do remember from my first visit was changing $100 USD at a local bank since Copacabana was my first stop in Bolivia, having just arrived from Peru. There were no ATM’s in the town then and the bank teller patiently counted out a pile of small-denomination Boliviano notes. I made my way back to my hotel with a stack of bills as thick as a brick, what a feeling!
The first afternoon Paul and I just wandered idly around town, poking about the markets, climbing the Cerro Calvario which has great views of the town and the lake. We enjoyed a cold beer as the sun sank on the western shores of Lake Titicaca and delivered an almighty sunset. The vote was unanimous — Lake Titicaca was a perfect place to be for a few days.
The travelers’ vibe in Copacabana is overwhelmingly bohemian with casually hip cafés, good restaurants and great-value accommodation. There are far more Bolivian tourists than backpackers so we found ourselves simply watching the pilgrims about town: the filled buses arriving and departing, and the remarkable ch’alla sacraments in front of the Basilica. In these colorful rituals vehicles are decorated with flowing streamers, wreaths, flowers and talismans, doused with beer or potent cider, and summarily blessed by priests and/or Aymara spiritual women.
Interestingly, the pouring of libations (i.e. offering to the Pachamana-Mother Earth goddess) is still widely practiced in the Andean region, I even saw it the prior weekend when I was building an adobe bathroom – the local Aymara women who came in the morning to watch us (out of curiosity) poured beer at the door of the loo under construction. For the automobiles in Copacabana, this blessing is done in hopes the Virgin in the Basilica will look after the occupants and ensure their safety. Having witnessed wild Bolivian drivers and the windy Andean roads, I can say this is probably worth the trouble.
The Virgin must have been looking after us as well since we scored an awesome hotel on the slopes of the Cerro Calvario with unbelievable views of the town, the bay and the indigo waters of the lake. We had our own suite, replete with an oversized bed, floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the lake, a small kitchenette (stocked with coffee!), and a wood-burning stove (all prepped and ready for a match) to eliminate the night chill from the lake and altitude.
The bathroom was groovily designed with cascading hardwood sinks and a whimsically-tiled double-headed shower. The front garden featured abundant bloom, hammocks swinging under a palapa, and a stone picnic table fittingly facing the lake sunsets where we enjoyed Bolivian Campos de Solana wine (an acquired taste). Incredibly private, our only visitors were an occasionally rabblerousing puppy and a gregariously meowing cat.
The price? $40 for both of us – amazing deal, probably the best-value hotel we ever had. We were so enamored of the place that we even calculated the dimensions and noted the design; it is definitely the kind of place we would love to live in someday. If you ever pass through Copacabana, don’t miss Hostal Las Olas. There’s even a pleasant restaurant adjacent, perhaps the best dine in town.
We headed to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) about a 1.5-hour boat ride on Lake Titicaca from Copacabana. One of the most sacred religious sites to the Inca, legend has it that the universe-creator god, Viracocha, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun here. Pilgrimages began around 500 AD during Tiwanaku rule but it was the Inca who really transformed the site to a major pan-Andean destination.
Maize was grown on the island in the plentiful terraces that date back over a thousand years, still the most pronounced feature on the island. Due to its sacred origin, most of the corn was used to make chicha (fermented maize beer) for use in ritual ceremonies. Pilgrims would return to their homelands with kernels of maize to ensure bountiful crops in their fields.
Our first day, however, the sun could hardly be found on Isla del Sol. We hiked to the top of the nearest hill to enjoy the spectacular views and witnessed a thunderstorm moving slowly towards us. The whole atmosphere was dramatic to the south: black gathering clouds, thunder and lightning, dark sheets of pouring rain falling to the lake. And far to the north was abundant sunshine illuminating the distant white Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real. A mighty moment, full of theatrical contrast.
We made it back to hour hotel just in time. As we listened to the pounding rain, we sipped Paceña beers and chatted with our fellow travelers: a nice duo from Australia doing a tour of South America and Yvo from Holland. I enjoyed a long discussion with Yvo about microfinance, he was interested to learn about my Kiva fellowship. It turns out he works for a company currently partnered with Kiva to create a Dutch site for microlending. As they say here: el mundo es un pañuelo, “the world is a handkerchief”, i.e. it’s a small world!
The next morning we awoke to better weather but after breakfast we headed to the boat to take us back to Copacabana, our time running out and our plans to do a longer hike thwarted by the previous day’s storm. No matter, it was an agreeable stay on the island, however brief.
We did get a chance to take an afternoon walk outside of Copacabana in search of some Inca ruins and enjoy the farms in the area. Our destination was the Baño del Inca, or Inca’s Bath, a natural spring where pre-Columbian pilgrims would purify their bodies before entering Copacabana and moving on to the Island of the Sun. Unfortunately the gate to the site was locked (we arrived during siesta) but we remained entertained by the donkeys, llamas, pigs, birds, dogs and cats that greeted us along the way.
I was interested in the unique raised farm beds along the shore, in varying states of repair. The Tiwanaku developed these innovative sukakullos over 1500 years ago, which used canals surrounding the fields to protect the crops from altiplano frost, periods of drought and flooding, and soil exhaustion. It is estimated that these sukakullo farms, that today produce enough food for 7,000 people, could feed well over 100,000 people a thousand years ago. An astounding difference! No wonder some projects underway are trying to reintroduce these techniques to farmers in the region. We have much to learn from our antecedents, things in this world don’t necessarily always improve with time.
Our visit to the hallowed Lake Titicaca over, we headed back to Laz Paz for a final night before moving on to continue to my Kiva work. Our next destination was Cochabamba, a city blessed with less congestion, milder climate and more oxygen for our lungs. The next adventures were soon to come.