The $2 a night hostel where I stayed...private room too!
The morning was at least sunny and I set out early to round up everything I needed for my visa to enter Bolivia. Since the USA requires a visa for Bolivians, the leftist president and friend of Chavez, Evo Morales, made it necessary in 2007 for Americans to obtain a $100 visa before entering Bolivia. I had to show financial solvency, my itinerary and reason for visiting, where I was going to stay (at least one hotel or private residence), a passport sized photo, and plane ticket out of Bolivia, or similar continuing passage out of the country. I found out at the consulate in Puno that I could do all that at the border so I didn’t waste any more time. I got my things together and took a microbus the few hours to the border near Copacabana
There are three routes from Puno into Bolivia, but I chose the latter because I had read that it was a nice town on the shores of Lake Titicaca
. My original plan was to spend a day visiting one of the islands on the Peruvian side but I revised it because I wanted to get to La Paz
by Thursday evening instead of Friday. I had a friend in La Paz and she wanted to visit her family in Cochabamba
for the weekend, which meant we’d have to take a bus on Friday afternoon. I didn’t have any regrets about not getting to the islands because I knew that even in La Paz I was less than half a day away from the border.
The main drag
On the way I met a fellow traveler from Argentina. He writes as he travels and keeps a travel blog and submits pieces to various publications. He and his girlfriend are traveling in South America by hitchhiking although this combi bus was an exception. He told me that in years of traveling all over the world he never had a single incident or problem with hitchhiking. The most impressive travels was the two years he spent making his way from Ireland to Thailand, including a stint in Argentina. That was his most scary time because of the situation on the ground there and the ever present danger of being kidnapped or worse. His photos and reportage from the area, focused on local color and daily life, is being made into an exhibit that will be shown in Argentina and then internationally possibly.
We talked quite a while in Italian, the second language of many Argentinians, and I was embarrassed that it took me so long to be able to speak in Italian again without confusing many words with Spanish. It’s understandable because for weeks I’ve only been speaking English and Spanish and it’s hard for the brain to just switch like that. But after about a half hour I was comfortable speaking it again with hardly any problem.
The afternoon had resolved itself into a nearly cloudless brilliant blue sky and the views as we skirted the western shore of Lake Titicaca were beautiful. The quality of the air at this altitude is something different, it’s clearer and purer and the sun is also less filtered so everything shines in a special way. The sun and warmth followed until we reached Yunguyo, the town just a mile or so before the border.
Stations of the Cross
I negotiated with what I thought was a taxi to go to the border but when he motioned to his bike with a passenger compartment welded on the front I felt bad. He was going to have to pedal me and there was a long slight hill to go up. At a bit more than the halfway mark I couldn’t tolerate his huffing and puffing anymore and I got out to walk, but then he was pedaling fast enough to force me to walk at a very brisk pace uphill and I got frustrated. But finally we arrived and I gave him an extra sol for all the work. On the ride there I was thinking about how difficult it is for some people just to scratch a living together. It’s common for so many hundreds of millions of people in this world. In the US we have it so easy relative to much of the world.
View to Copacabana from Monte Calvario
I had no problems at the border. The officials didn’t ask me for any of the particulars on my visa form so I didn’t need a copy of my bank statement or address of hotel or plane ticket or anything like that. They just took the money, gave me a stamp in my passport and I was on my way. Another taxi took me the few miles to Copacabana and I got the local rate – half what the driver had told me – because I asked the other passengers what the standard fare was. I’m getting used to this traveling thing! I chose a recommended cheap hostel - $2 a night for my own room! Granted it was with shared bathroom and shower but I couldn’t resist paying that little for a room. It turned out to be fine, except for the tiny bathroom and shower that made keeping my clean clothes dry a bit of a challenge.
View to the Bay
I wanted to explore the town and get some lunch so I just dropped my luggage and walked towards the lake. Copacabana was sun-drenched and the colors were vivid as I walked past the cathedral with its large plaza and multi-colored Moorish style tiling. On the main street leading down to the lake I ran into Kym, the wife of Darcie, whom I had met in Huacachina where we were staying in the same hotel. We had played email tag going through Arequipa and Puno and I was surprised to find them there in Copacabana. They had gotten waylaid in Puno where Kym caught a stomach bug. They had some money stolen from their hotel room there and that information did nothing to improve my image of Puno. But all was well in Copacabana as we sat and had some lunch by the shore of the lake, enjoying the first sun we had felt in days.
They entertained me with their stories of the insensitive tourists they encountered on their visit to one of floating islands made of tightly packed reeds, and they told me that they were thinking as they listened to the stupid comments made by a couple English ladies and some Americans, “oh where is Andrew!” I also recounted my adventures in the Colca Canyon which they skipped because they thought the weather was too bad. They regretted that they didn’t go with me, but they are only a couple weeks into a many month trip that will take them to Africa and then to northern India where Kym’s aunt is a nun and runs a charitable organization. They’ll stop there for some weeks and then finish with a climb up to the base camp of Mt. Everest in Tibet. They actually said that they were glad that the robbery happened so early in their trip, because they would be very careful about everything from now on and prevent something worse from happening later in their trip.
View of the lake from Monte Calvario
Kym recommended that I climb the hill that looms over Copacabana in the afternoon to see the sunset over the lake. She and Darcie had done it the day before. They were planning on making a twelve mile trek to Yampupata, the closest land point to the Isla del Sol, the famous island in the lake near Copacabana that has many Incan remains and ruins. It’s the most popular day trip from Copacabana, with most people taking the boat directly from the town. But a hike around the point looked very promising, especially after I saw the solitary wooded route from the top of the hill.
So I set off stopping frequently to catch my breath. I wasn’t accustomed to the altitude yet. The path was well marked and at intervals I stopped before the stone crosses that are part of the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
When I reached the top, I saw a shrine to the Virgin of the Candelaria. A nice man was lighting candles there and I asked him to explain to me about the statue and shrine. He told me that he comes every year after a promise he made to his uncle. The shrine and stations of the Cross were erected after apparitions in 1947 of Mary to some local children. Since then the Cerro del Calvario hill has become an important place of pilgrimage, especially on February 2nd, the feast of the Virgin. Thousands of people come from all over Peru and Bolivia to Copacabana to take part in the festival. I stayed for an hour at the top of the hill to wait for the sunset and quietly appreciate the beautiful views before it began to get chilly. The descent was much easier than the ascent!
That evening I had a headache that wouldn’t go away, despite drinking mate’ de coca tea and taking some aspirin.
It had to be the effects of the altitude and the climbing. I hung out for awhile in a little café owned by Argentinians (by now I can identify them immediately from their Spanish and accent). A young guy played a specific guitar and sang tangos. I talked to him for awhile afterwards and he invited me to some drinks but I had to decline because of the headache. So I went back to the hostel and got some sleep.