Copacabana is the most popular stopping-off point for people travelling overland from Peru to Bolivia. After driving along the bottom of Lake Titicaca — the world’s highest navigable lake — you cross the border between the two countries, and Copacabana is the first place you see. Is it worth a stop? I’ll tell you why I think so.
It was warm and dusty as we hopped off the coach in Copacabana, deposited on a nondescript corner of a small Bolivian town. But we had made it into Bolivia after some fast talking at the border, and it was time to explore. Here are the five most important things to do in Copacabana, plus a look at the festival that made it famous.
Views from the station of the cross walk
Catholicism, which is strongly held to in much of Bolivia, dictates 12 points of meditation which are practised by the devout throughout Easter. These ‘Stations of the Cross’ can be found throughout the world, but on the Cerro Calvario they lead the visitor to stunning views. A great walk to do on your first day, the Stations of the Cross will help you understand the layout of the town and the position of nearby islands, and the views of Lake Titicaca on the way up and at the summit are worth the 20 minutes of uphill walking.
After you pass the small bar-and-grill restaurants that fringe the town, you’re walking along the lakefront on quiet residential roads. Walk as far as you can, or until you find a quiet spot to sit and watch the birds over the water. When you’re done, pick your favourite bar for a cold Bolivian lager and cool off. During summer the water is fine for a swim, and vendors rent small boats and paddle-ships to help you get around.
Hiking on the Sun and Moon Islands
Down this way, you’ll also find small tourist sales offices that will book you a day trip to the Isla del Sol and the Isla de la Luna in addition to a “floating village.” The hiking on both islands is great, but take cash with you as the islanders have imposed a tourist tax in the form of a hiking pass that must be bought at each hamlet for the privilege of walking on their paths. Also take plenty of drinking water and weather protection too, as an open shop or bar can sometimes be an hour or more away.
You can easily find overnight accommodation on the Isla del Sol, and those I talked to there loved the solitude and relative lack of tourists after weeks or months of backpacking South America.
Skip the ‘Floating Village’
Most day tours to the islands will visit just one island and will include a stop at the floating village. The last is a complete farce: it’s a few construction pallets moored and covered with straw, with a bar on top. Avoid a stop here if you can, and instead make the most of the Uros islands which are accessible from Puno, Peru; they’re Disneyfied, but at least they represent something authentic.
It’s impossible to miss the Basilica on a map of Copacabana: it takes up a whole block! The stark white building is decorated with Portuguese-style blue tiles and rounded domes, and at first glance it looks more Moorish than Christian. The treasure inside is the Camarin de la Virgen de Candelaria — a statue carved in the 15th century which is said to be responsible for countless miracles. It’s also said that if she’s removed, Lake Titicaca will rise in rebellion and flood the town. Not so good.
The Virgin is on a mechanical turnstile, so depending on what day of the week you visit, you might pass through the dark, candle-lit side altar or the elaborate church to see her. The duck-egg blue inside really sets off the golden altar — just a note for any aspiring home decorators out there.
The festival of the Virgin of Candelaria is in early February, and is a great chance to see Aymara dancers, people dodging bulls a la San Fermin, street parties and religious pomp. Easter is another big date on the town’s calendar with pilgrims arriving from Peru and from all over Bolivia. It’s over 150km to La Paz from here, but some pilgrims walk it before their meditations and penance on the Cerro Calvario. Depending on your travel plans, these are either great or terrible times to be in town, but if you’re coming through at these times, book in advance!