Friday, July 2, 2010

Bolivian Rhapsody

Copa, co-pa-ca-baaaa-na ....

Okay, the Copacabana I went to was in Bolivia (definitely not north of Havana), and has nothing to do with Lola the showgirl, but I still felt compelled to sing the song incessantly while there.

I got to Copa (as I shall henceforth call it, Copacabana taking entirely too much effort to type) after a hideous night bus ride from Cusco.  Well, "hideous" might be too strong, but it wasn't fun.  (I think I got much too spoiled while travelling in Argentina -- anything less than that level of comfort is a let-down.)  Anat, my Israeli friend from the Machu Picchu trek, and I canvassed a few different companies at the bus station, and picked one that was both reasonably priced and whose ticket clerk swore up and down it was a comfortable "cama" ride and we'd only have to change buses once, at the border to a minibus.  We also learned that you can bargain for bus tickets in Peru -- who knew? -- as he started out quoting a price of 75 soles and ended up at 60 when we were prepared to walk away.

Well, he lied, on both fronts.  Definitely not "cama", seats were much narrower and didn't recline that far.  We were also given, strangely, one blanket between two people -- since I was travelling with a friend, this wasn't a huge concern, but what if I'd been alone and ended up next to a dirty old man?  There's just no way that would have ended well.

About 6:30 a.m., we were woken up and thrust unceremoniously off the bus -- it carried on to La Paz and we were shuttled off to a small and decidedly uncomfortable minibus.  Our backpacks were tossed haphazardly onto the roof and (sort of) tied down, but had the bus travelled at any semblance of speed or hit a big enough pothole in the road, I think the backpacks would have gone flying.  (I'd love to travel lighter than I am right now, but losing the entire contents of my backpack would be a little TOO light!)

At the border, we were dumped on the side of the road, by the Peruvian border post that had not yet opened for the day.  It was supposed to open at 7 a.m., and we arrived about 10 minutes to 7, so it shouldn't have been too bad ... but apparently Peruvian opening hours are more "suggestions" than hard-and-fast rules, as the office didn't open till nearly 8.  From there, we had to hike with our backpacks across the no-man's-land between border posts over to the Bolivian; poor Anat (who likes to shop and has collected many souvenirs) struggled under a backpack that was probably bigger than she was!  (Granted, she's pretty tiny, but it was still a very, very large pack.)

We got through the Bolivian side without much delay (except for an American girl who had shown up optimistically with an expired visa -- Americans are the only ones who need one for Bolivia -- and hoped that she could just get a new one at the border.  She couldn't.).  Then we waited around for yet another minibus to carry us the final 10 km or so to Copa, and by the time it finally arrived and made its ponderous way to town, we were at least an hour and half behind our scheduled arrival time. 

No matter ... Copa is pretty quiet this time of year, and we got a hostal room without difficulty (hostal = cheap hotel, not to be confused with hostel).  I didn't know it was possible to get a reasonably comfortable room, with our own bathroom and shower, for $3 a night ... but in Bolivia, at least, it is.  For 10 Bolivianos more (about $1.50), we could've had an ensuite bathroom; as it was, it was right next door, with a padlock on the door to prevent anyone but us from using it.

Copa is touristy, as Bolivia goes, so it's well supplied with restaurants and souvenir shops.  Sellers are not as aggressive as in Cusco, so I didn't feel too much like a "walking wallet" and could actually just wander around and enjoy the town.  It's laidback to the point of sleepiness, with one main street heading through town from the lakeshore, and the streets get quiet after about 8 pm.  The view from the harbour is breathtaking -- the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca stretching to the horizon and beyond -- and there's an impressively (and unexpectedly) grand basilica in the main square.  Local women and men stroll the streets in traditional clothing, the women especially eye-catching in their multi-layered skirts and colourful shawls.  There are few cars on the streets, just the buses and collectivos that ferry passengers further into Bolivia or over the border to Peru; most locals cart their goods around in huge bundles on their backs, wrapped up in one of those colourful shawls, or wheel them around on adult-sized tricycles with large cargo baskets in front.

Transporting stuff the hard way on Isla del Sol
It's definitely a different world.  It's even more so if you venture to the Isla del Sol out in Lake Titicaca.  It was a mystical place for the Incas, site of their creation myth and the birthplace of the Sun God.  It's still a little otherworldly:  it's a slow 2-hour ride by rickety boats to travel the few kilometres out, and with scarcely 5,000 inhabitants mostly clustered into two small villages at either end of the island, the island and its Inca and Tiwanaku (pre-Inca) ruins are yours to roam in peace and solitude.  The tiny museum that greets you when you step off the boat can send a few shivers down your spine; among other things, it displays real human bones recovered from archeological sites on the island, scattered somewhat haphazardly on a counter top. 

From the north end, where the boat let us off, we walked south across the length of the island.  It`s a peaceful hike along the ridgeline, once you climb to the highest point, and I`d have no trouble with hills that size at sea level, but this hike STARTED at 3,800 metres -- Titicaca is one of the highest-altitude lakes in the world.  It isn`t just my lack of fitness that had me gasping a little on the uphill stretches -- the air really is thinner up there!

So we definitely earned the right to have a big dinner out -- with Aditi, an Indian girl (living in Dubai and volunteering in Bolivia for a few months) we met on the boat ride over, we spent a relative fortune at Pueblo Viejo cafe (by ''relative'', I mean it cost about 3x our hotel room -- big money for Bolivia!). 

I headed back to Peru the next day (counting down the days till I need to be in Quito) and Anat headed onward to La Paz.  So I`m travelling solo again -- nice to have company for a few days, it can get wearisome managing everything on your own! 

p.s.  The biggest benefit of a travelling companion?  Having someone to watch your stuff in the bus station when you have to head to the bathroom ... seriously, have you ever tried managing a tiny bathroom stall with a large backpack in tow?

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