Lake Titicaca: Puno and Copacabana

With the new way I had decided to travel – land border crossings – I ended up at Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. So I figured why not see the lake while I was here.

We started with a day on the Peru side in Puno. Puno itself doesn’t have much to offer at all, but our hostel had an assortment of half and full day tours to book so we opted for the half day Uros floating island tour. This is the main highlight from the Peru side, and it had some interesting qualities to it, but more so it left me with an impression of hypertourism.

The interesting part came from how many ways this community has used the reeds that grow in the lake: a group of houses made from reeds sits on an island constructed from the reeds, floating on blocks assembled from the roots. They even eat the reeds. The hypertourism was evident in the entire experience: first we boarded a boat where a guy was playing The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di on a guitar and reed wind instrument, and after finishing he of course asked for money. When we arrived at the island, they reenacted how they construct each community with miniature models. Then we were divided into pairs and brought into houses where they tried to sell us things; and as we later learned, most of them didn’t even live in these houses, they were there just to show the tourists. As we left on a traditionally constructed rowboat (for an extra 10 Bs), they sang a few songs, and after rowing for about 10 minutes a motorboat came up alongside us and attached, motoring us to the next island, where they sold traditional quinoa bread and would stamp your passport. The entire thing felt manufactured and a bit exploitative, both of this community and us. No wonder the Uros who still do live traditionally don’t want these tours coming to their islands.

The Bolivian side was much better. To cross the border, we booked a “tourist bus” through our hostel. It left at 7:30 am from Puno and we were at the Bolivian border about 3 hours later. After being rushed through a cambio (money change) and our exit stamp, we walked over to Bolivia for our entry stamp. At this point the bus driver ran up to me, the only American on the bus, to escort me through the visa process. As an American I had to fill out a visa application and pay $135 in pristine, unripped US dollars. At least after this painful process I got to cut the line for my entry stamp. I now have a 90 day Bolivia visa that is good for 5 years, so if anyone wants to go to Bolivia any time in the next 5 years let me know! I have to make good use of that $135. (Same goes for Brazil and Argentina, those are good for 10 years and cost me $160 a piece.)

Copacabana, Bolivia is right on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and it seems to be the town where hippies go to retire. People attempted to lure us into lakeside restaurants while juggling, promoting 2 for 1 happy hour all day from their rooftop restaurants. Seeing how it was lunch time, we did end up on the roof, and I enjoyed my first watery Bolivian beer in sun with a view of the lake. I also started to learn that Bolivianos are an annoying conversion: 7 to 1. Dividing by 7 was not a common occurrence in my life before, but I got very good at it during my time in Bolivia. So that 600 ml beer for 20 Bs cost me less than 3 dollars. Sweet. And our private 3-bed (we picked up another traveler in Puno) ensuite “hostel” room that was more like a hotel room and came with a fantastic breakfast for 60 Bs per person was actually less than $9 a night. 

Our only full day in Copacabana we spent on Isla del Sol. The boat ride to get there was a slow 3 hours but the island itself was beautiful. We started on the north, wandering through and past ruins built high up on the island’s hills, before we walked all the way to the south. At 4100 m elevation, if you have any elevation issues I don’t recommend attempting this walk. Our boat dropped us off an hour late, giving us only 4 hours to complete this hike. Jasmin was not doing well with the elevation so we took it a little more cautiously, but even so we made good time. Not good enough though.

Our boat was leaving from the south at 3:40, and we realized we were cutting it close so I moved ahead to get to the port in time while Jasmin and Val kept their pace. I arrived at the docks at exactly 3:40 to see our boat leave. It knew we were coming to meet it but that didn’t matter. We were forced to pay another 20 Bs to get the 4:00 boat back or stay the night on the island. It was hard to not see this as a way to make more money off of us.

Leaving aside the unfortunate boat incident, the island itself is worth a visit. The walk was satisfyingly hilly, making me feel like I got some exercise (which was very welcomed after 3 days on buses) and the scenery was stunning. We traveled past white sand beaches and tree-covered hilltops, all with a view over deep blue water and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The next day we hung out on a rooftop again before taking the 1:30 bus to La Paz. It was a short visit to Lake Titicaca, but any longer I think would have been too long. The chill town of Copacabana was a nice stop, and if you like just hanging out on a roof with a beer and not much else to do then it’s definitely for you. 

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