Copacabana & Isla del Sol, Bolivia

This is the last in our blog series for Bolivia. To read from the start of our Bolivia travel journal, click here

Getting to Copacabana was pretty stressful as it was Easter Friday, and travelling up the replacement Death Road was pretty full-on, with our taxi driver swerving everywhere at first, then ultimately getting stuck in traffic! We did manage to see some of the tarmac bit of road without the mist though, so that was pretty cool.

After a quick stopover in La Paz, we caught the bus-ferry route to Copa, which was pretty fun (the ‘ferry’ was a TINY boat!) but once there it was a bit of a scramble to find accommodation as there’s a big pilgrimage on Easter Friday of indigenous folk, from La Paz to Copa, so all the hostels were booked out and there were lots of stranded looking families everywhere!

Our ‘ferry’ across the lake to Copacabana!

Festival vibes and families camping on Lake Titikaka

But we managed to find a 5-bed dorm in a pretty ropey hostel (winning the room over a family, which was pretty guilt-inducing!) And once we were settled in, me and Sam headed out for a much-needed ‘date night’ as the girls had friends in town.

The evening was pretty bizarre, I’m not gonna lie. The town enforced a power cut for the ‘solemn procession’ that we’d read about, to celebrate Semana Santa. So after seeing a pretty sunset on Lake Titicaca, we ended up wandering the streets in semi-darkness looking for (and failing to find) the parade! All the restaurants were candle-lit, so we ended up in a kookie hippy restaurant where we had bizarre pizzas, including one with three kinds of potatoes and Andean spice on it! We then wandered round town a bit more, and ended up in the cathedral, which was super beautiful, and also where the procession ended. Hannah informed us (as an eye witness!) that it was really weird – people dressed up in KKK-like outfits, following a Jesus statue in a glass coffin, and a few candles. Hmm!

A ‘cha’lla’ or blessed vehicle, that get dressed up on their way into town. This van has a TOP HAT, FML!!

The next day, we split off from the girls for a bit of couple time, and went for brunch down by the lake, and icecream, and checked out the ‘challa’ed’ or ‘blessed’ vehicles and festival activities by the lake, then caught an afternoon ‘ferry’ (again, TINY boat!) across to Isla Del Sol. It was a bumpy, long journey, but we met some fun young Londoner girls who we sat on the roof with, and chatted to pass the time. To our dismay, when we reached the Island, we realised the boat was actually taking us to the North, whereas we (and the London girls) all wanted to go South, as all the accommodation is here! So I finally got to practice some Spanish, as I explained the situation to the driver (some random lady had taken our ticket so they had no idea!) and we all got transferred onto his mate’s boat halfway up the island. It was pretty lol, as we had to basically climb onto the front of the new boat, with a load of Bolivians laughing at us, then scramble to wherever there was space! Sam sat on the front all the way back…!

Me and Sam enjoying some sun on the long boat to Isla Del Sol

Isla del Sol itself was so, so beautiful. On arrival, you have to climb the ‘Inca steps’ which nearly killed us (think hundreds of uneven stone steps, with a giant backpack on, at 3800m+ altitude!) but once at the top, it was totally worth it. We found an (almost) deserted hostel with a few friendly French guys in, and the most INCREDIBLE view of the island and the lake, and we decided to stay put. There was a shop on the cobbled hill nearby, so we did what true Brits would do, and went to buy a load of wine and rum, then settled in for a game of cards. It was a really fun game, with 6 of us, playing ‘President’, and we chatted and giggled away, whilst watching our first ‘moon rise’ over the lake, which was INSANE.

The testing Inka Steps welcoming us onto the island

Our first ‘moon rise’!!

We then went out for a group dinner to a nearby restaurant where a really sweet lady accommodated us, drunkenly barging in and rearranging her furniture for our group! We had a bargain set meal of quinoa soup, milanesa/omelet with potato and rice, and banana and chocolate for dessert, for about 3 quid. We were also joined by a fellow hostel mate Diana, who weirdly we’d been in a dorm with on the mainland in Copa, and she regaled us with her travel tales – amazingly, she’d travelled for 8 months on about 2 grand, sleeping under bushes, hitchhiking, volunteering, and relying on strangers’ kindness to keep her going. Amazing stuff! We also bumped into Hannah and India on the island, whilst hostel hunting and also at dinner (I think Sam’s voice was booming out of the restaurant, unsurprisingly!) and was really nice to see them, despite only being separated less than a day!

Indigenous farming community on Isla Del Sol

We were basically squatting in the hostel, as the owner hadn’t materialised all night, so we were happy to meet her in a drunken slurry state before bed time (we’d scribed a note to her in Spanish explaining the sudden influx of Brits, just in case!) and she was super sweet and took our money – all THREE POUNDS A NIGHT (our cheapest accommodation yet!) – for our stay.

View from our hostel on a cloudy day, Isla del Sol

The next day was SUPER sunny, so me and Sam took a walk around the island. It’s basically all indigenous farming community, so our walk took us through tressed sloping fields, with pigs, llamas, alpacas and donkeys phanging out in back gardens, and donkeys ambling up and down the hills carrying water and food (oh, there are no roads or cars on the island either!). We walked up to a couple of miradors in the centre of the island which gave us some great views (one was just the roof of an old pizzeria that someone had built steps up to!) .. but walking was really hard work (hills+bright sun+extreme altitude!) so we soon packed it in, in favour of finding somewhere nice for lunch.

Taking a breather during our high-altitude walk around the island

Casual backyard alpaca!

As it was Easter Sunday by this point, lots of restaurants were shut (and we started freaking out that we would starve, as there are only tiny corner shops on the island with CRAZY inflated prices!) but by mid-afternoon places were buzzing, and we went to a super cute restaurant overlooking the West side of the island, where we watched baby sheep playing around, listened to MENTAL sounding donkeys, and ate some very bizarre sweet pizza (when will we learn!?)

Eerie sweet pizza, but you can’t beat this view!

That evening was a pretty chilled affair, as I was pretty sunburnt, so we wrapped up warm and took our rum and coke out to the terrace, where we watched the sun set, the moon, and all the crazy bright stars (it looked like a Disney film!) whilst eavesdropping on the young London girls’ chat about Made in Chelsea and boys (I think they were early 20s!)

The next day was a bit of a washout. We’d planned to walk the island to explore some pre-Inca ruins, but the Isla del Sol proved to be an Isla del Clouds, so we took the opportunity to have a chill day, and snuggled in bed watching the skyline and the snow capped Cordillera mountains, blogging, watching LOTS of Community, and venturing out at lunch for another lovely set meal, including my first taste of rainbow trout, which was really good!

On our last day, we got up super early and ended up getting an even TINIER boat back to Copa with some locals, and hung out eating an expensive touristy brekkie, before catching the bus across the border and into our fourth country, Peru…!

Welcome to Bolivia!

Bolivia’s a strange, but very cool country. If, like us, you’ve travelled from Argentina clock-wise, you’ll really notice the difference in Bolivia after Argentina and Chile. It feels significantly more South American – everyone looks less European, and has a distinctly darker skin tone, and very obviously Bolivian features. I’d describe it as fairly similar to India in terms of fondness for markets and general bustle, but here are a few specific Bolivian qualms to adjust to, for any would-be Bolivia traveller:

1. Food poisoning / upset tummy

The dreaded, yet delicious, market cheese that caused our first round of food poisoning

It’s super common in Bolivia, and in our language school, at least a couple of people were sick at any time. The water’s not potable, the food’s (usually) not refridgerated, and there’s a lot of importing going on (it’s wedged between the rest of South America’s countries), so sadly it’s inevitable. Even if you’re a control freak, you’re bound to eat some salad that’s been washed in tap water, or a too-old bit of cheese or meat. Things will improve by Peru. Just hang on in there.

2. The sea has disappeared!!

Lake Titikaka: sea-like

Unlike most of South America, Bolivia is tragically, totally land-locked. In its tumultuous history, it ended up giving away its scraps of sea to Chile and Peru (the bastards), so it’s now cut off from the coast (but it does get access privileges for trade. THANKS CHILE!) It’s quite noticeable, given there’s so much lovely coast elsewhere, and lots of Bolivians (including our ‘brother’ in our homestay) have never seen the sea! Whilst we were staying in Sucre they had the ‘day of the sea’ festival where they annually mourn their loss. So sad. But on the upside, Lake Titicaca is pretty huge, so that’s kind of like the sea. Right?! On a related note, don’t eat fish here outside of Lake Titikaka, as it’s been imported REALLY far.

3. Terrifying (electric) showers

We lucked out in that our first hostel had a strong, hot hose of a shower. But after that, it was all downhill. Your typical Bolivian shower situation is: weak, tepid, electric, scary, occasionally freezing. Everyone in Bolivia seems to think it does actually get hot, and if you wait long enough, occasionally it does. We’ve coped by overdosing every time we’ve had a good, hot shower, and getting in and out as quick as poss when we don’t!

4. Toilet paper – BYO

Toilet paper no longer exists for you in the outside world. You must learn to carry it with you, take it from hostel to hostel (it’s not really in hostels for the most part) and also take an emergency stash to restaurants/bars, as there probably won’t be any there either. Ditto hand sanitiser, because soap is also pretty hard to come by!

5. Lack of personal space

Crazy La Paz market with an unreal variety of potatoes

This is where the India reference came from. Everyone’s super lovely and friendly (and quite shy in comparison to other fiery South Americans), but when it comes to selling, and markets, it’s another story. Chullitas will get on a bus screaming ‘CORN!!!!’ as they pop down their hot, heavy basket of goods on your lap. A guy will approach you to sell you sellotape as soon as you step on the street. You’ll virtually trip over ladies selling their wares on the pavement. Kids seem to rule the roost, sitting precariously on laps on buses, getting up in your grill for conversations (or to shine your shoes… even when you’re wearing sandals). It’s all very sweet, but also takes some getting used to!

6. Transport will probably go wrong, and also be a bit mental

Bolivian bus drivers are known to be a bit over-zealous (and sometimes drunk) and you can see how this is true when you catch a long-distance bus. Roads are bad anyway, but you will REALLY feel the twists and turns in the road, the bumps, and there will probably be some altercations between other passengers and the driver about where he decides to stop. The driver may leave a bunch of people behind when stopping for a loo break. For the best part, we’ve made our journeys fine, but we’ve got on a boat that’s gone to the wrong place, and also suffered a 12 hour night bus WITHOUT A TOILET (but with an insane amount of leg room). Priorities are sometimes a little out of whack, to say the least! Take day buses where you can, or go with the most popular bus companies.

7. Jeez, it’s smoggy out there!

Central La Paz: hard to breathe!

The altitude probably has a bit to contribute here, but you’ll find that it’s often quite hard to breathe in big cities because of the amount of smog and car pollution around. Generally Bolivian buses and cars are shipped in second hand (a lot of the buses still have Chinese writing on them!) and they have mad exhaust fumes that make them huff and puff their way along the narrow streets, leaving a trail of black smoke behind them. It’s tolerable, and not dissimilar to London, but so much more noticeable at 3000m+ above sea level!

8. Another day, another festival!

Indigenous festival in the village of Tarabuco, outside of Sucre

Pre-election madness on the streets of Sucre

They love a festivity in Bolivia. In our 30 days there, we witnessed the following festivals: annual indigenous festival in Tarabuco, the ‘day of the sea’ as previously mentioned, local election campaigning (x3 festivals and marches), local election voting, Good Friday ‘solemn candle-lit procession’ with pilgrimage from La Paz to Copacabana. In and around these festivals and public holidays, it’s sometimes impossible to buy booze, lots of things close, and it’s tough to get around/get accommodation. Plan around these events! We heard of people even having their Salt Flats tour cut short because of stuff like local election voting. They take it PRETTY seriously.

9. Cool, indigenous outfits

A chullita on our funicular ride up La Paz

After fairly Euro-centric Argy and Chile, it was a nice surprise to see some local outfits appearing as we entered Bolivia. Chullitas have a pretty unique style – full colourful skirts, embroidered long-sleeved tops, long plaits, and either a straw hat or felt bowler. It’s amazing how uniform the look is, and despite heat and altitude, these ladies stick to these outfits (plus often a cardigan or thick tights) and they’ll haul around babies or goods wrapped in shawls on their backs. I’ve seen them climb steep cobbly hills, run across roads, and multi-task like you wouldn’t believe, preparing their stalls and goods for sale. Hats off to them! (No pun intended). Now, with Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Chullitas are gaining reputation, and there’s even a Chullita modelling school. There’s also ‘Chullita wrestling’ in La Paz, but this feels like horrible touristy exploitation to me. Boycott!

10. Umm, where’s the supermarket?

We came across a couple of deserted supermarkets in our time in Bolivia, but largely, it’s a country of manic food markets. This can be quite disconcerting for a European (especially when you know there are no prices on the market, and as a Gringo you’re gonna get super ripped off, whether you speak Spanish or not!) So you kinda have to buy all your different bits and bobs as and when you see them and try and work out how much things SHOULD cost. It’s a bit of a minefield, and often resulted in just eating out for us, as it all seemed like too much effort! Buying priced-up stuff from corner shops and haggling on markets soon wears thin. You’ll never under-appreciate a good food store again, trust me!