Dancing and Hiking in Copacabana and Isla Del Sol Bolivia (by Nathan)
A trip through Bolivia would never be complete without seeing Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. Carmen insisted that we stop here and we discovered a small cultural center tucked into a beautiful lake bay.
The most delicious thing about a town positioned on a lake is that there is access to fresh fish. For weeks we had been chanting “trucha!” as a way to bring up spirits and remember the funny feijoada experience in Rio. Now, in Copacabana, there were restaurants everywhere serving trout twenty different ways. And they are all really good. We found a lakeside kiosk and ordered up one fish “de la diabla” (spicy red sauce) and another “a la plancha con aji” (grilled with garlic). The fish was tender and juicy and by far the best trout I have ever had!
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. We arrived to Copacabana from La Paz on a bus. The bus saves some time from driving around the large peninsula and we all had to ride a short ferry ride across the bay. Even the bus was loaded onto a barge and carried across. Then the bus weaved its way in and out of the fingers of the lake and eventually dropped into the cute little town. We expected a calm, tranquil town, but instead found thousands of people and a raging party.
Our arrival in Copacabana coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Bolivia, La Fiesta de la Cruz. It begins around May 3 and lasts for four non-stop days. Everybody participates and everyone was part of a color coordinated group. The women wore brightly ornate dresses with bulbous flowing skirts and of course a bowler hat. The men performed in marching bands or wore lantern-like costumes. Each group of 100 to 200 people would parade up and down the streets and eventually arrive at the Iglesia de la Sagrada Cruz.
The party did not stop there. These groups would converge onto two main plazas. The marching bands would stand on concrete bleachers swaying to the music, blowing their horns and slamming their drums. Everyone was dancing in a sway and twirl back and forth. The dance actually mimics a fighting style as this festival used to be a way for men of different tribes to compete for land. Supposedly these fights still happen, but we did not see any.
Throughout the day the song of the bands was only broken by the sharp crack and pop of fireworks. At night the pyros had a feast of lights, sparks, flames and kabooms to entertain the crowd. Carmen and I sat watching as what seemed one in ten rockets failing to explode in the sky came crashing into the plazas below. At one point they brought out this crazy PVC pipe apparatus thirty feet tall. Upon lighting it the pyro’s shoulder catches fire from the twirling sparks. He pats it out and runs for cover as the sparks and flames fly out in all directions. The colors and light illuminate the people that continue to dance next to this thing. I looked over at Carmen and there is a mixed expression of fear and intrigued excitement . The structure ends with sparks spewing out of a cross with high-pitched whistles then the whole thing catches fire.
Outside of the partying, Carmen and I found the nicest hotel we have ever stayed. It was called Las Olas. Our dining table overlooked the beautiful Copacabana bay. Our room included indoor and outdoor hammocks, comfortable beds and a kitchenette all for $42 a night which was a splurge for Bolivia.
The festivities were a ten minute walk from our scenic overlook. At sunset our hammocks seemingly rocked to the rhythms of the trumpets. Throughout the night the horns entered our dreams and at sunrise hundreds of people were still drinking and dancing.
The city itself is very picturesque. The nearby hills provide wonderful overlooks and the bright cathedral is magnificent. Carmen and I wandered the streets maneuvering around the parade and tasting everything the street vendors had to offer.
One dish I could not walk away from was a woman serving heaping bowls of ceviche from her plaza tent. People crowded around so the turnover looked good. The end result was sour, spicy and crunchy with crisp roasted corn kernels.
Copacabana was just one reason for this destination. The other was to experience and see more of Lake Titicaca. This lake is enormous. The size of the lake is roughly four times that of San Francisco Bay and 0ne hundred times deeper. The lake is one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet.
We hopped on a ferry and travelled for two hours to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun). The island was sacred to the Inca who believed it was the birthplace of humans. Our plan was to spend the night and hike the ruins and across the whole island.
That evening we met some new friends Chris and Megan from Brisbane. Sitting in the sand and watching the sun set we swapped travel stories of their camping in Africa and ours of eating through Asia. We shared some bottles of Bolivian red wine and ate several aromatic plates of trucha. It was an unexpectedly fun night in a village of less than fifty people.
The alarm went off when it was still dark. We wanted to see sunrise on Isla del Sol. In the faint light of dawn, pigs blocked our path, and then we met a puppy that wanted to hike with us. These were our first Inca ruins and we were excited. The ruins included a village of stone buildings and a sacrificial table that were five hundred years old. And we were disappointed! Bolivia does not protect or care about its cultural treasures. Our sunrise hike discovered a group of vagrant backpackers that had cooked dinner on the sacrificial table leaving their trash to scatter the site while they slept on the ruins. A wrong turn in the stone structures and we found where they used the restroom. How disrespectful can these people be?
The buildings themselves were small and not the high quality masonry we would see in Peru. The best part about Isla del Sol was not the ruins, but the walk itself. The sacred Inca trail followed the ridgeline of the island and allowed for endless views of Lake Titicaca. The water was deep blue that met the terraced hillsides that were cultivated five hundred years ago. We climbed and dipped along the islands spine arriving to the south side for the island. Another ferry and we bobbed our way to Copacabana. We immediately grabbed a bus and we were on our way to Peru. Copacabana and Isla del Sol already a memory of culture, a lake and trout.