Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bolivia – Copacabana...where it all began

This is where it all began:
Chincana, Isla del Sol
We are on the way to Copacabana – take number 2.
It would be a bit of a cheat to say that we are heading back to Copacabana because we loved this place on our first visit, we are also not really coming back to give it a second chance. The honest reason is that we have to cross through Copacabana to get back to Peru.

Copacabana is also the jumping-off point for the famous Isla de Sol, where the world started – according to Inca mythology. So we are back where it all started: our Bolivia trip and the world. Follow us for attempt number 2.

Is she moving to Copacabana?
We find a completely different town this time around. The streets are lively, the temperature more comfortable and the many people that stroll on the streets a mix between Gringos and locals (at least that's what we thought in the first few hours). It turns out that Copacabana (in this week leading up to the Bolivian Independence day) is completely overrun by Peruvians that come here for the Our Lady of Copacabana (the patron saint) festival. Gringos are actually the minority tourist group.

We stay again at Hostal Sonia (which after a month of traveling in Bolivia) now looks like a very nice place especially for 60B. In fact, it's one of the nicest rooms that we've had in the country. Ironically, when we crossed over from Peru, we were not too impressed by this guesthouse. Now after a month in Bolivia, we have gotten used to the rather basic Bolivian standards – sometimes a trivial thing as a working power outlet becomes a luxury feature.

One stop shopping: Car decorations
The town keeps getting more crowded by the hour and we are surprised that literally every car has Peruvian plates and that all the shopkeepers and restaurant workers repeatedly warn us to be careful of Peruvian pickpockets (mucho rateros peruanos). Of course we fully buy into the idea that all the thieves are from Peru and none from Bolivia ;-)

Offerings for worldly rewards
We climb the little mountain Cerro Calvario which is the main pilgrimage destination for most visitors that arrive to ask the gods for greater worldly possession such as houses, cars, trucks, money. To show the gods what exactly the pilgrims want (the heavenly world may not be familiar with worldly possession), they carry miniatures of their desires up the hill and then place them in front of burning candles and dozens of empty/emptied beer bottles. We are not sure if the beer is offered to the gods or a way to get the pilgrims in a state of mind that leads them to believe that their prayers are actually working.

This family has a big wish list
Some of the miniatures are made of paper replicas that remind us of the hungry ghost time in Singapore. The more elaborate replicas are kids toys such are play cars, trucks, and doll houses. The most unusual item for sale in town was a 15 inch plastic leaf blower. Who would wish for that? Perhaps, someone wanting to open a yard maintenance business in the US?

Wax paintings are a good substitute
for miniatures: Cars and houses are
in big demand
Despite many miniatures of fancy sports cars being carried up on the hill, we didn't find any of them parked at the foot of the mountain when we walked back down. Maybe the gods need more time to work their magic!?

Another interesting addition to all the activities was how seamlessly Catholicism and the ancient Pagan beliefs all melded together. After the priests blessed (with holy water and incantations) the extravagantly decorated cars in front of the Catholic church, the soothsayers and shamans performed their magic. We saw some cars in front of the lake being blessed again with smoke and even more beer and sparkling drinks. These men were clearly dressed in traditional indigenous clothing,

Somehow, we sense that he is not
giving her very good news
One the steep steps leading up to Cerro Calvario, there were loads of fortune tellers. A few were using playing cards but most were holding a mass of metal and interpreting it. It took a while to figure it out but we saw they melted tin cans over a hot burner and then poured the molten metal in water which created this sculpture. Then they used this form to "answer" the question of their paying customer. It was fascinating to watch.

Shaman performing traditional ritual
We also saw more smoke incanting shamans on the way up. Smoke and alcohol were a big part of this festival: from smoking vehicles being doused with billowing smoke from altars being attended by men dousing their thirst with beer. We also noticed that amidst the hundreds of lit candles, there are people using the wax to make images and words on the walls. They are actually drawing their wishes now.
The many crosses on
Cerro Calvario
The same waxen artwork was also being created in a side chapel at the church below. The devotion and belief is perplexing and yet fascinating.

Oh, on the top of the hill, after all the Stations of the Cross, is a large Virgin Mary statue. This is the reason that the pilgrims climb up. They are bringing all the miniature items that they are wishing to receive in life-sized versions up to her to be blessed. The queue is long and patient.

Pretty in Pink. Dressed up to see the statue of Virgin Mary

Welcome to Isla del Sol
The next morning, we get an early start to visit the famous Isla del Sol (island of the sun) where the Inca empire originated – hence according to Inca mythology the whole world started from the Isla del Sol. It's a major tourist destination (mostly for Gringos's, the Peruvians stay in town and keep begging on top of Cerro Calvario for a bigger house). After 2 hours on a little boat, we reach the northern part of the island where we are greeted by an islander who briefly explains the options for exploring the island. He will be our guide if we buy the appropriate entrance ticket. Many backpackers arrive and just want to look for accommodation and chill out on a nice island with sandy beaches. We buy our tickets and are firmly navigated into a museum that shows some broken ancient ceramics that were retrieved from the lake.

Beautiful tranquil beach of Kollabaya
on the northern part of Isla del Sol
The main reason for the museum is to charge tourists a 10 Boliviano ($1.30) fee that also includes the entrance to Chincana – the birth site of the Incas. We continue to be herded like a group of innocent sheep by our designated guide of the island. The pace is a bit slow and since we want to walk all the way to the southern part of the island and need to catch the last boat at 4pm back to Copacabana, we soon depart from our guide and speed ahead. (Many people take the boat to Yumani in the South instead of walking.)

Home with sea views!
The Chincana Ruins and the Rock of the Puma are very important historical sites to the Inca but somehow lack the mystery of other Incan sites such as Machu Picchu. Although we do see a man dressed as a shaman by an altar near the site, but we are not sure what he is doing here: performing a ritual or waiting for tourist tips to take pictures of him.
Shaman waiting for "business"
Despite being a bit short in time now, we decide to hike up to the Cerro Tikani to get a scenic overview of the island's northern part – and what a view we have from up there, truly amazing. After weeks of having bad luck with weather in Bolivia, we are finally blessed with the perfect day, no clouds, only a light breeze and temperatures that are comfortable (with 2 thick jackets).

The view from Cerro Tikani
When was the last time that you
stood at the birthplace of earth?
Many ways lead to Rome,
but only one to Yumani
Back down the mountain nearby the rock of the puma (where Titicaca gets it's name from), we are informed by the guard that it is an 8km (5 mile) walk to the south part of the island, a good 2-3 hours. We only have 2½ hours before our boat leaves... that means that we need to walk very fast now!

The walk south is along the crest of the mountain ridge that stretches from north to south and has some up and down sections that test our fitness level. Thankfully we've been at nearly 4,000m (13,100ft) for the past 2 months and don't need to break often as we climb up to the peak at just over 4080m!

The views from the south are simply gorgeous

There are hardly any other people on the path. The reward is tranquility and incredible views...oh, and another ticket! Yep, if you walk from one end to the other, you are stopped at the middle of the road (and the middle of nowhere) by two friendly men that firmly request that you pay a passage fee.
Another ticket gate!
We are prepared as we read about the crossing fee in our guide book and hand him the 10 Bolivianos. But he asks for 30B and shows us the ticket with the 15B price tag printed on it. We firmly insist that it is only 5B each and finally he pulls out another ticket booklet from below. Surprise! This one has the 5B price tag printed on it. We later solve the mystery: if you cross from the north to the south, it is 5B. The other direction it is 15B as it also includes the entrance to the north part of the island and the ruins (which we paid already when we got off the boat!!!!). But for their convenience, they just sell the more expensive boleto to tourists – nice try to make extra money.

We are told that the money that tourists pay is used to maintain the nice walking path that resembles the ancient Inca trails and also used to collect the rubbish that tourists leave behind. But Patrick has a different theory about the lack of litter, since most of the walkers are Gringos --there is no garbage. Sadly, even the most remote landscapes of Bolivia and Peru are all "decorated" with colorful plastic bags and bottles when they are easily accessible by vehicle or an important destination for locals. Unfortunately environmental awareness has not yet reached this part of the world.

Near the southern tip of Isla del sol

The rest of the walk south to the village of Yumani is downhill and we are once more stopped at a ticket booth. This time they want to collect 5B to enter Yumani village. At this point, we have no time for sight seeing as our boat is leaving in 20 minutes, so we give the lady at the ticket booth a smile and simply say that we are not going to visit the town and head straight to the jetty. She seems puzzled but we don't take the time to discuss it any further.
For most of the time it is just
the two of us on the path
We soon know why she was so surprised, the only way to the jetty is leading straight through the village. But the village is not a special ruin or site, it's just a village catering to sell stuff to tourists. We have enough of this "take out your wallet out and pay for this fee and the other fee"... Enough is enough!

Yumani village is very commercial, we see Pizzeria after Pizzeria (note that Bolivians think that Gringos only eat Pizza). Occasionally we also see a guest house amidst the Pizzerias and souvenir shops, but there are only very few authentic looking buildings. Somehow this place looks like it was built as a tourist attraction. The north of Isla de Sol is much more authentic.

The final stretch is a steep descent on what is called: Inca stairways, which are massive rocks that are lined up to resemble stairs. We are so glad that we are now walking down and not up. The locals use donkeys to carry goods up from the port. So, besides steep steps you also have to navigate lots of slippery, recycled donkey food.

The boat leaves shortly after we are onboard and we are happily stretching our legs after a moderately strenuous 14km (8.7miles) walk. It is nice to look at the landscape from motorized transport; the slight rocking motion of the boat lulls us to sleep.

Is she looking out for the next boat full of tourists?
When we get back to Copacabana, we are shocked to see that the town has turned into a Zoo in the 8 hours that we've been gone. The streets now are packed with visitors and also people selling everything that you can imagine (and even not imagine!).

This is just the beginning of the festival and in 2 days (during the Bolivian Independence Day) when Bolivian tourists join the Peruvian party, sparks will fly! The peak is around the corner and we get confirmation of this from the owner of our guesthouse as she keeps asking if we are sure that we would be checking out tomorrow. She wants to rent our room (which has is actually a 3 person room) for more money. "Don't worry, Señora. We are leaving for Peru first thing in the morning. We don't want to be here when all Hell breaks loose and the fireworks explode!"

Our last night in Bolivia ends early, we are tired from a full day of sunshine and walking so we hit the sack early to catch our 8:30am bus to Peru.

Bye Bye Copacabana,
and bye bye Bolivia!
The ride to the border is only 15 minutes and we are again warned by the driver of our bus to be extremely careful at the border: "Stay together and watch out for pickpockets!" he says in English. When we are at the border we understand his warnings. The quiet little town that welcomed us to Bolivia 4 weeks back is now packed full. Everyone seem to be leaving Peru today. Thankfully, we are heading the other way and clear customs in a breeze. The same friendly Bolivian immigration officer that greeted us with "Suizas" greets us again the same way and doesn't even look close at our passports when he chops the exit stamp – we wonder if he even noticed our visa extension.

We arrive in Puno before noon and directly buy an onward bus ticket to Arequipa. The ride from Copacabana to Puno was one of the most pleasant ones we had in the past month. Fortunately, we were not aware of the armed robbers that blocked this very road yesterday, robbing every bus that passed. They were reported to have collected more than half million Soles ($182k). We only learned about this robbery a few days later...thankfully.

So this is goodbye to Bolivia which was high on our "want to visit" list when we started this trip. Now that we visited for 32 days, we look back at a trip of numerous extremes. Bolivia is one of the poorest nations in South America and it shows: infrastructure is missing or in poor repair. Road transportation is close to torture and worse than in most countries we've visited (India is a close contestant). Hotels are plentiful but overall very simple and in poor maintenance. Freezing cold is a constant and heating nearly non existent. Food is fairly monotonous (but we never got sick, unlike in Peru) and many of the places of interest can only be visited by overpriced or unreliable or downright dangerous tour operators.
But then, there are the people: Bolivians are extremely friendly and curious, we felt everywhere (except Uyuni) very welcome and appreciated.

Bolivia is certainly worth a visit but we found it the most energy draining country on this trip, mainly due to the freezing temperatures and the tough bus rides. But we've heard that the rainy season can be even more painful and exhausting. (We didn't see a drop of rain though!) Our tip: Check the season that you plan to visit Bolivia and bring a thick sleeping bag for those night bus rides!

Map of our Isla del Sol trek

View Isla del Sol in a larger map