The Highest Quiet Little Town In the World

I have a confession to make. I was really reluctant to go to Bolivia. As a matter of fact I almost didn’t. When we first started planning this trip, Bolivia was on my list of “don’t need to go there” countries. Also in the planning stages, Lea and I discussed the idea of splitting up at some point and traveling independently for a week or two. When that came up, the obvious choice in my mind was for Lea to head out to the Bolivian salt flats while I made my way down the Pacific coast to some nice little beach town in Chile.

Instead, how about a nice little beach town in the High Andes?

Why the prejudice against Bolivia? In all honesty I had it built up in my mind as an impoverished slum of a country much like Tanzania, which Lea and I visited in 2012. Tanzania was a mix of staggering natural beauty and horrifying poverty, and even for travelers living conditions there were far below anything I ever wanted to experience again. Knowing that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America (except for Venezuela, which is in total economic collapse), I expected much the same.

I’ve never been happier to have been so wrong. Wow, do I love Bolivia.

Copacabana on a sunny day.

I’m writing from a hostel in the heart of La Paz, but this week I just want to talk about the little resort town on Lake Titicaca that completely changed my mind: Copacabana.

We bused into Copacabana from Puno, the main Peruvian city on the lake. The difference was staggering. Puno was bigger and more westernized, also with a big tourist sector, but like many of the cities we visited in Peru it looked like a giant garbage heap. In Copacabana, suddenly everything was pretty and not just the landscape. Yes, the buildings were dilapidated and under continual repair, but suddenly they were in color. Vibrant blues, greens, and orange-painted walls were everywhere. The main church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, is a blazing white with glistening green and orange tile work on the spires and Moorish-style domes.

The Basilica stands out in the center of town.

What I’m trying to say is that yes, Bolivia is poor, but the people here make an effort. My first impression of the country is that Bolivianos take pride in where they live and despite the hardships they do what they can to put their best foot forward. I know I may be an arrogant, spoiled American talking out of his ass about things whereof I understand very little, but I’m here to tell you that crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia was like stepping from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

Start to finish, this mural went up in less than eight hours.
Even the stray dogs just want to chill.

And Copacabana is so laid back. It’s a tourist town for sure, but it’s not a pushy tourist town. There are hostels, restaurants, and travel agencies everywhere, but no one’s chasing you down the street to make you shop at their store. It’s possible to just sit on a bench and stare at Lake Titicaca in peace and quiet for as long as you’d like. For just a few dollars more, you can do the same from the roof of a backpacker’s bar while sipping 2-for-1 Cuba Libres.

Sitting on the dock of the bay…
…complete with paddle swans.

(It was in Copacabana that I feel we really caught up with the Backpackers. In Peru we were among more traditional “two week package with luxury accommodations” tourists.)

The only trouble with Copacabana is that it’s so damn high. The elevation is 3,841 meters and the tourist maps don’t stop reminding you that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. That’s fantastic, unless you’re in your mid-to-upper forties and your body is already showing signs of wear and tear from extended travel. After a week at this elevation (counting the time in Puno) Lea went ahead and traveled “down” to La Paz (highest capital city in the world). Like a dork I stayed behind for two days to do a couple of hikes – because 3,841m just wasn’t high enough.

The first was to climb this thing:

Cerro Calvario is the hill that overlooks the city. On its peak is a series of monuments representing the Stations of the Cross. From below it was obvious that the views from on top were spectacular. And since the trail starts right in the middle of town, I thought “won’t be too hard, just bring some water and take it slow.”

Abandon hope ye who enter here.

It took me about an hour to reach the top. The steps and ramps on the path up were wildly uneven and it was all I could do to sit and breathe when I reached the summit. The views were fantastic, however, as you can see from all the aerial shots in this article. Having reached the top, I made sure and stayed as long as I wanted. The way down, though less taxing on the lungs, was far scarier. Once I exited the path from the hilltop, there were three choices of streets back to the center of town. I chose the shortest, but it ended up being so steep and slippery that halfway down I turned around and climbed back up so I could take a longer, gentler route.

At the summit.
This cat was waiting to claim my soul if I passed out and died at the top.

The next day I rode the ferry out to Isla del Sol, which according to myth is the birthplace of the Inca. Every square foot of the island is terraced and I swear they call it “Island of the Sun” because there isn’t any shade. At present there’s a feud between the people on the south side of the island and the north (something to do with the northerners allowing development on sacred ground) so only the south end is currently accessible to the casual hiker.

I did *not* take a paddle-swan to Isla del Sol.

Nevertheless, I took the boat to the village of Yumani, climbed the Inca Stairs, and walked the long donkey trail to the south tip of the island, then back up (and down) to Templo Pilkokaima, the main archaeological site on the southern end. I had five hours from when the ferry dropped me off in the morning until it went back to Copacabana in the afternoon, and I needed almost all of that for the hike.

The Inca Steps begin here…
…and end here.
Isla del Sol from the southern tip.
The road block for this episode of The Amazing Race.
Woman and alpaca.
Templo Pilkokaima.
Pueblo Yumani.

Despite hiking my body right up to the limits of its endurance two days in a row, I felt more relaxed in Copacabana than I had anywhere else on our South American trip since Mindo, Ecuador (another peaceful backpacker haven – I see a pattern forming). Still, there was a lot of continent left and it was time to move on.

Fun fact: Copacabana is on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Titicaca and, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, does not connect to the rest of Bolivia except through Peru. Since border crossings are a pain, the buses ferry across Lake Titicaca to get to the road to La Paz. Thankfully, they make the passengers disembark and cross on a separate ferry. Otherwise, we’d have been going across the water like this:

I kept telling myself, “They do this every day.”

The Escape Hatch will return in just three days for a special La Paz report before I lose the Internet entirely in the wild Bolivian desert. ¡Hasta pronto!