Seeing the world, one country at the time

Copa, Copacabana

Some people associate the name Copacabana with Rio de Janeiro’s most famous beach or Barry Manilow’s famous disco hit, but the original Copacabana is on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia. The name derives from the Aymara kota kawana, meaning "view of the lake" and was a famous Christian pilgrimage site before it became what we relate it to today.

Copacabana was the easiest route into Bolivia, our next destination. This was not on our original itinerary, but we had heard so much about Bolivia and it was on our way, sort of, to Chile. Besides, we had promised our friend Shobha that we would visit the world’s largest salt desert, located in the south of the country. We discovered that the terrible reputation Bolivian busses have is well-deserved, as we sat at the back of our bus to Copacabana, the constant bumps wreaking havoc on our kidneys. We made light of our discomfort by listening to our iPod and bouncing to the rhythm of the music. I don’t think the bus steward appreciated our humor, however, as he scowled from his perch next to us.

Once on the border, we also discovered that the copies of our departure cards weren’t valid, so we had to get in line to get duplicates made. These cards, we learned, are receipts to prove when you enter and exit a country and you must always present one at a border control. The bureaucrats were stereotypically unpleasant. We had to pay ten dollars for a slip of paper no one told us to hang onto in the first place. We got shuttled off to another office, then stood in line once again with our new scraps of paper. Noticing that we were delayed by bureaucracy, the steward decided this was a perfect opportunity to retaliate for our bus dance.

He caught up to us as we were walking to the Bolivian control and ranted about us being late, claiming that we were holding everyone up. That was a blatant lie, since we were not the last in line. Back on the bus I noted that there were still people missing and commented that we should leave, since we had been holding everyone up. He then admitted that the others had gone shopping. I found that every time I had fun on a bus, someone took offence. It made me wonder if they were upset that we were happy. It sounds silly, but jealousy is a strong emotion and I have no other explanation for it.

Lake Titicaca, shared by both Peru and Bolivia, is huge. We had been following its shores for hours now, and this was just a fraction of its circumference. There were colorful kites flying above its indigo waters. We bounced by a big animal auction in a bullring. The only work in all the area was agriculture. The political slogans on buildings and along the road now read “President Manfred” instead of “Alan Garcia”. Elections were coming up soon and before long, President Manfred’s hopes would be quashed as the leftist Evo Morales was elected into office.

My mood wasn’t helped by having to pay the bus boy two bolivianos to enter the Copacabana “sanctuary”. Only foreigners needed to pay, of course, and we had no bolivianos yet. I gave him one Peruvian sol, about the equivalent, and he gave us a slip of paper in return. Two bolivianos is nothing, but we wondered just what this payment was for and whose coffers it was going to fill. Copacabana is not only a pilgrim site, but a tourist hotspot. Besides Christian pilgrims, Copacabana lures travelers with its proximity to the mythical Sun and Moon islands off its coast, which are said to be the birthplace of the great gods Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, founders of the Inca dynasty. Copacabana happens to be the closest port, so it is the jumping off point for tourists on the “gringo trail”, the invisible “path” that foreigners blaze through South America as they hit each of the main tourist sights. This trail was one we became all too familiar with and often tried to escape, and did, thanks to friends outside its borders.

After arriving, we bumped into Laura, our Inca Trail companion, at a bar. This tends to happen on the gringo trail. She and her boyfriend Douglas suggested camping on the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), but we had already bought our “been there, done that” tickets for a half-day tour. We wanted to continue south and it was still uncomfortably cold at this altitude, despite the sunshine. I suffered and longed for shorts and tank top weather. Leaving port, we passed the navy yard where sailors were diving and bathing. Brrrr! A few asked to dive from our boat and the captain changed course to get close enough for them to climb aboard and jump. We enjoyed a beautiful two-hour cruise on the lake, which in itself was worth it, as we stared at the impossibly blue sky and water, even if it meant suffering the stiff breeze while sitting on the roof. It still amazed us that we never saw a yacht club or any sort of recreational sailboat out on the lake since we’d first arrived on its shores back in Puno, Peru.

The Isla del Sol itself was disappointing, probably because we had no idea what we were supposed to see there. We climbed the Inca Steps at the dock and up the steep face of the island, which was lovely but tiring. We saw nothing but small hotels and restaurants everywhere. There were NO signs of any Inca ruins. I had to ask the locals, “Is there anything to see on this island?” Granted, the views FROM the island are spectacular, but the island itself is…okay. This place didn’t seem much like paradise. I can think of many more idyllic islands. Plus, it’s COLD! I didn’t want to camp there, though it would have been worthwhile to spend the whole day enjoying the walks and the views. We missed the ruins but found a dusty path down to the beach crowded by panting farmers following their loaded donkeys and greeting us as we passed.

The boat was pulling out just as we arrived. We sat on top with a motley crew of foreigners: Spanish, Swiss, German, Argentine, Ecuadorian and Nicaraguan. They were all friendly and talkative. The Swiss was entertaining. He had come to Bolivia for intensive Spanish classes and he spoke surprisingly well. A lot of foreigners do that, at a very cheap rate. The temperature dropped as clouds moved in and the wind picked up. The captain had been adamant about sailing times, due to the typical storms that blow up on the lake in the afternoons and can create huge swells, which our tour boat couldn’t endure. We stubbornly refused to take shelter and did our best as a group to stay warm. Cold air was preferable to the choking gasoline stench below.

Back in town, we took an exploratory walk around and watched a blood-red sunset over the beach. People were still renting paddleboats or sitting under the awnings of outdoor fish stalls, eating fresh catch. At one, three women sat and chatted, six large empty bottles of beer on the table and a child between them. The smell of grilled fish filled the air. Near our hostel we found the market where women lined the streets selling gargantuan bags of jumbo popcorn (four times the size of normal kernels) and other grains. Oddly, so many sold the same thing; they had no concept of product differentiation or niche marketing. There is so much competition that I don’t know how they can possibly sell it all. Being a popcorn addict, I was tempted to wrap my arms around one of these bags and stagger away with it. Anyone who saw me would see a bag with feet floating through the streets. I would be hidden by its magnitude. I abandoned my daydream but decided to try some before leaving, since I was curious about the elephant-size popcorn.

We strolled to the Cathedral. It was large and seemed especially oversized for this little town. The size reflects the importance of the Cathedral as the most visited pilgrimage site in Bolivia. In front was an extensive but well-maintained courtyard. The building was whitewashed with light blue and green tiles. Inside, opulence was displayed in a sizable gold altar with the Virgin de la Candelaria, or “Dark Virgin”, statue at its heart. She is the patron saint of Bolivia. On the doors wooden carvings depicted Indians and Spanish, with a focus on the vision of Francisco Tito Yupanqui, nephew of the Inca emperor Huayna Capac, who sculpted the virgin, which later became famous throughout Bolivia and Peru for its miraculous healing powers.

The religious fervor of these native people is surprising, considering Christianity’s bloody history in the region. Even amidst the Catholics are a growing number of evangelicals, who we found at the town community center, where loud, high-pitched chanting caught our attention. We peeked through the door to find a religious revival in full swing. The numbers were small, but their zealous singing amplified the sound to give the impression of hundreds. In the middle of the hall, young girls and women stood in formation playing the tambourine and waving handkerchiefs. What a contrast from the cavernous silence of the church we had just left.

The next morning we woke up exhausted. Bolivia is two hours ahead of Peru, even if they are neighbors. We were leaving for La Paz, but wanted to catch the morning car blessings at the Cathedral. These take place on Sundays and holidays and have the purpose of protecting drivers on their long journeys through the highlands of the Andes. The quiet plaza in front of the Cathedral had become a flurry of activity; cars, vans and buses crowded the street and people congregated between the vehicles. The sidewalk in front of the Cathedral was lined with brilliant carts selling plastic flowers and ribbons of every color, as well as religious icons and beer.

We sat and watched as alternately, a Catholic priest, a monk and a medicine man went to each car, blessing it in his own particular way. The priest and monk, dressed in a collar and brown robe, respectively, swung an incense burner and sprinkled holy water over the engine and the passengers, praying over them. The shaman, wearing a wool hat and a poncho, sprayed the vehicles with flower petals and “chichi”, a fermented local beer. Every car was adorned with garlands of flowers and had beer bottles standing conspicuously underneath the front carriage. Once a blessing was uttered, the beer would be sprinkled under the open hood and over the passengers, before they themselves partook of the alcohol, passing it around the circle. This odd blend of faiths is typical of South America, where native religions have been integrated with or disguised as Christianity. Surprisingly, these two conflicting faiths live side by side without major problems, although many would argue that they are not true or pure faiths, from either perspective. Either way, if they protect those drivers from the dangers of the treacherous roads of Bolivia and Peru, they are an effective and strong faith, if not pure, and that may be enough.