In this series we look at the towns around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia as well as the commonly visited islands and attractions nearby. Last week we visited Taquile Island.
Puno to Copacabana
For most independent travellers, the trip from Puno, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia is a piece of cake. The easiest and most cost-effective way is to travel on a coach, which leaves at ever-changing times from the bus station in Puno. However, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.
At the border, you’ll disembark and get stamped out of Peru. You need to visit two offices: the first to have your arrival card checked, the second for it to be double-checked and to get your exit stamp. After that, you walk a short distance to another office on the Bolivian side. There’s normally a steady stream of people as well as a reasonable amount of signage to help you along.
Although many nationalities can spend up to 90 days in Bolivia without a visa, we did not see anyone have any success with having a 90-day visa issued. The border guards tended to give out 15-30 day entry stamps, requiring long-staying travellers to have their stay extended in La Paz. Needless to say, this didn’t please some people who wanted to spend longer without having to visit La Paz.
There were absolutely no customs checks and, after everyone was through, we boarded the bus once more for the short drive on to Copacabana. A friendly tout joined us, organizing accommodation and onwards tours and transport for most people on the bus.
Things to do in Copacabana
The lakeside town of Copacabana is situated at the foot of a hill that ends in a wide bay facing Lake Titicaca. It’s the first Bolivian town that many travellers encounter as they make their way south from Cusco, Peru. Practically this creates all sorts of problems, as Copacabana has neither good internet access for further research nor an ATM for local cash withdrawals. It’s highly recommended to bring a good supply of Peruvian soles or, even better, US dollars for exchange. The rates we were quoted for other major currencies, like the Euro, were diabolical.
Our cashflow problems solved by a stash of emergency dollars, we were free to wander the long rocky bay and start to explore the small heavily-touristed community.
Any street leading downhill will eventually spit you out by the water. At the corner of the main street a ridiculously large green anchor stands alongside a few huts selling ferry trips and tours to the nearby islands. We walked left from here, past a row of tarpaulin-covered restaurant stalls and continued along the dirt road towards the point.
On our right, close to a hundred paddle boats sat forlornly by the lakeside, the paint peeling off the fiberglass representations of swans, dragons, and an assortment of Disney cartoons. By their numbers, I guess they’re quite popular when the weather is hot, but in the cool autumn they were abandoned.
Following the bay is an uneventful experience, but be sure to wear good footwear for the uneven, rocky shore. Your reward is a clear view back towards the town and a quiet uninterrupted walk away from the touts and other travellers.
Touts do throng the main street and even more so the plaza at the far end — however they’re mainly polite and not overly persistent. To be honest, you’re more likely to be bothered by the unavoidable numbers of fellow travellers chilling in the cafes or examining bead necklaces and the ever-present woollen handcrafts. Bars and internet cafes feature heavily along the strip, both offering slow, unreliable service.
The Cathedral — or, better called the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana — is easily found by following the main street away from the water. It’s an impressive building, both inside and out, with a large courtyard in the front. The Moorish style reminded me more of Istanbul than anything else we had seen in South America!
There are lots of little spaces to explore by following a door near the left of the main altar, and also a candle-filled room accessed from outside the Cathedral. Of course, these are all dedicated to housing statues of the legendary Our Lady of Copacabana.
Stations of the cross
Just a few blocks from the centre of town, you’ll find the ramshackle starting posts for a short but rather difficult walk. It isn’t technically challenging, but at thousands of feet above sea-level the slope makes for heavy breathing!
As you walk up, you find several posts designed to let you meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Many people I saw were using them as a chance to recouperate! It isn’t all spirituality: the hill affords great panoramic views of the bay and out to the islands.
Part of the attraction of Copacabana is leaving. Dozens of day-tours leave daily for the Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (Island of the Sun and Island of the Moon). When we were there the Isla de la Luna was closed, but there were great day-walks and camping possibilities around the mystical, sand-bordered Island of the Sun.
Do be careful though, and carry extra cash. It seems every community on the island wants to get in on the tourist dollar, and they do so by selling passes to walk the northern, central and southern stretches of the island-length day-hike. If you don’t have the money, you might end up retracing your steps and missing the ferry home.