All was well in the morning. I got a hot shower but the drying off and getting dressed was very cold. Days are warm here but the nights are quite cold. My plan was to visit the basilica and maybe something else in the area. I didn’t have enough time to go to the Isla del Sol because I needed to be on a bus by 3 pm to go to La Paz
. The trip to Isla del Sol is at least six hours and even better is to stay overnight on the island and come back the next day. I headed down to the main street for some breakfast. For a couple dollars I got scrambled eggs, bread, a crepe with honey, fresh-squeezed orange juice and hot chocolate. After breakfast I wanted a coffee so I stopped a few doors down.
Blessing of the cars
There were only five tables in the little place and only three occupied but the service was laughably slow. A young girl was relaying orders and requests to someone in the kitchen but nothing was emerging. Then after awhile an old woman came out and repeated the orders to the tables but mixed everything up. Patiently every relayed their order to her and she went back to the kitchen. She smiled at me and asked what I wanted. I told her that I would like a coffee, nothing more and she smiled again. Time went by and a few items came out but then when the little girl came out again she was putting the wrong things down at the wrong tables. Then the old woman came out again and corrected the girl, only she got it all wrong herself.
The famous Virgin of Copacabana
By this time we were all looking around and laughing at the situation. The old woman looked at me and with a look of surprise said, “oh my, I forgot your coffee!” By now it was a half hour since I had entered and by the time I had left breakfast had taken me almost two hours. I was worried that the basilica might not be open since it was near midday.
I gave some coins to the wizened beggars in the plaza outside the church, and I stopped to talk with the owners of the cars that were bedecked with flowers, statuettes and other trinkets. They were there waiting for the traditional blessing of the priest for new cars. The things on the hood of the car apart from the statues represent things they are hoping to acquire.
From the carved wooden portals
One car had a house (complete with garage and car and second story) and a guitar and the other car had two big houses on it! Nothing like big wishes I guess! Once inside I visited the museum which was a typical basilican museum. It featured paintings, items once used in the Latin liturgy, and other accretions. Then I visited the Capilla de las Velas, the Chapel where the famous statue of the Virgin of Copacabana
is kept. The candle sellers on the plaza offer a wide array of candles for purchase, from small to very large and elaborate. To light a candle and say some prayers I had to try to block out the ostentatious old woman who was chanting her prayers loud enough for a whole crowd of people to hear.
Under the statue on the wall were plaques of thanksgiving from devout faithful whose prayers had been answered. The statue has an interesting history. It was carved by the grandson of Tupac Yupanqui, the last Incan emperor. This sculptor wanted to carve a statue of the Virgin but his skills were rudimentary and he was refused permission by the Church authorities in Potosi’, Bolivia where he had presented his model of the statue. He went away undeterred and studied for some time in the studio of another artist. Finally he carved the statue, modeling Mary’s features on those of the indigenous peoples. When he finished and presented it, popular acclaim won over the authorities and when placed in the church in Copacabana it became the center of pilgrimage and venerated by Bolivians and Peruvians alike.
She is the patroness of Bolivia. The famous Copacabana beach in Brazil takes its name from the Copacabana on Lake Titicaca.
After visiting the church I went to check my email and then have some lunch. When I approached the plaza where the buses stop I was told that my 3 pm bus for La Paz was leaving now. “But it’s only 2 pm,” I protested. I had forgotten that Bolivia was an hour ahead of Peru and I hadn’t reset my watch. So I had to skip lunch and just get on the bus. We picked up my luggage from the hostel and were on our way. The beautiful route to La Paz threaded through the peninsula that at parts was so small that as the bus rounded corners the lake appeared on different sides. The changing scenery of lake views, rocky hillsides, small villages, little islands in the lake, distant snow-clad mountain peaks was beautiful and kept my attention for the couple hours until we crossed a small isthmus where the bus had to be placed on a ferry and continued on to the flat altiplano on the final approach to La Paz.
Ferry to the mainland
High mountains to our left framed the plain and small settlements scattered here and there to our right. I knew we were close to La Paz when we reached the outskirts of a vast shantytown that must have been El Alto. Traffic grew more chaotic and a sea of unremarkable monotone brick structures stretched out almost as far as the eye could see, punctuated only by the steeples of churches. El Alto is the other half of La Paz, the poor city that perches high on the flat plain above La Paz, continuing right to the rim of the canyon in which La Paz lies. I will write more about La Paz later.
When the bus reached the rim of the canyon all of the sudden the bottom dropped out and there in the valley was La Paz. It took my breath away.
Imagine taking a clay bowl before it is fired and pushing and pinching in the sides randomly. That gives some idea of the canyon where La Paz is situated. Ridges and spurs and many different colors of rock give definition to the canyon, apart from the tall buildings in the center, the wealthier areas to the south, and the poor zones clinging on the vertiginous hill faces to the very top of the canyon. They say that La Paz is one of those cities like San Francisco and Hong Kong, whose geographical location is awe-inspiring and unforgettable at first sight. That was certainly true. Anita and her friend met me an hour after my arrival at the bus station in an unsavory area. They were delayed by traffic and their unfamiliarity with the area but soon we were on our way.
Schoolkids in El Alto near La Paz
I was famished and after we dropped my stuff off we had some late dinner in a busy trendy café in the commercial district of the Zona Sur, where the middle and upper class lives. Every manner of nice restaurant and shop occupied the area and I was surprised by how international it seemed. The general rule that money lives in the hills does not hold true in La Paz. The higher you go, the poorer it gets. I could feel the close to 700 meters difference in altitude between El Alto and the lower valley of Zona Sur. It was easier to breathe and the air was warmer. It was already dark by the time I arrived at the station so my first views of La Paz were limited. I’d have to wait for the next day to get an idea of the city.