Located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, and the largest high altitude lake in the world, Copacabana is an unassuming town rich in history and legend.
At the centre of the sacred Inca heartland, Lake Titicaca has long since held favour as a place of veneration and worship. The lake’s deep blue waters dominate the folk landscape and by fate draw a curious mix of local and international travellers. There’s plenty to entertain adventurers and amateur anthropologists alike with opportunities to explore on water and on foot.
At the local market in Copacabana
Down at the lakeside, there is no escaping the amicable festival feel to proceedings where pedal boats shore up beside makeshift shacks frying up local fresh trout from the lake. Come here in the early morning and you will see the chief draw of Copacabana: a flotilla of local boats bartering for some last minute trade offering day trips to Isla del Sol, the largest of the islands on the lake which was believed to be where the sun and the moon were created by the Inca god Viracocha.
The town empties out as travellers head off in search of the relics of Inca empire giving explorers the opportunity to view one of Bolivia’s oldest churches, a sixteenth century Roman Catholic cathedral which holds a shrine to the Virgin of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. Arrive on a holy day and you will see streets lined with Ayamara women hawking nuts and snacks along with religious memorabilia of the Virgin while a fleet of battered and decrepit looking cars await their own unique religious blessing.
For Bolivians, a trip to Copacabana is something scared, to be revered and a stop-over here provides an insight into the Andean spirit all the while affording some alpine-esque lakeside views.
Places to stay in Copacabana
As Copacabana is as popular a holiday spot with locals as with international travellers, there is a range of budget options available. Accommodation is generally cheap but with no frills. As is the rule in much of Bolivia, most of the budget places don’t accept online bookings. Popular options include
Hostal La Cupula, Calle Michel Perez 1-3 – High above the town, this hostal offers rooms with panoramic views of the lake. Out of the price range for many on a shoestring budget, but this place is probably the best spot in town.
Hostal Colonial, Av. 6 de Agosto esq. 16 de Julio – Located minutes from the main bustop off the main drag, this budget option offers a basic breakfast, airy en suite doubles and spectacular views. It’s worth checking out the roof terrace at sunset.
Ecolodge Copacabana, Av Costanera s/n a orrillas del lago – The Ecolodge may suit those who are looking to get away from it all with bungalows which have great views of the lake. A hefty thirty minute walk from town- at altitude- may deter anyone but the most determined of backpackers.
What to do in Copacabana
Visit Isla Del Sol Visit on day trip or stay overnight, but either way make sure that you make your way to this rocky outcrop- the largest of the islands on Lake Titicaca- to see the ruins and relics of the Inca Empire. As common to these parts, don’t be surprised by the minor ‘arrivals’ tax imposed on visitors.
Locals knit at the harbourside in Yumani on Isla del Sol
A breathless walk to the north of the island guides you to two major archaeological sites: a large rock where locals believe the Inca god Viracocha created the sun and the moon; further on lie the ruins of chincana, a complex where the Inca nobility were said to have lived. A museum in Cha’llapampa holds artefacts from underwater excavations which date from Tiwanaku and Inca times.
Visit the Cathedral in Plaza 2 de Febrero A 16th century cathedral with the look and feel of an andalucian basilica and home to a sculpture of the patron saint of Bolivia. According to local folklore, the legend of the Virgin of Copacabana originated from a carving created by a sculptor with the intent of converting locals to Catholicism in the sixteenth century. Later, miracles are said to have been performed in the presence of this image and Our lady of Copacabana is now recognised as the national saint of Bolivia.
Hike Cerro Calvario A steep hike on a hill begins at a church at the north end of Calle Bolivar and continues for around 30 minutes. Another pilgrimage site – the views of the beach and the town below are worth the breathless hike, and the trek provides hikers new to high altitude with the chance to prepare for greater treks ahead.
By bus Buses arrive from La Paz and Kasani at the Peruvian border and head onwards to Puno and Cusco and Lima. The bus stop is just off Plaza Sucre near the main street and a number of agencies run buses of varying comfort and cleanliness. Note the bus to and from La Paz involves a short boat ride where you will have to leave the bus as your bus is shipped over the passing on a small ferry.
Where to go Next?
Puno – The Uros floating islands are now a major tourist site, and while the crass commercialisation can grate- however it is worth a trip to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca to see the structures and the costumes and culture of the Uros people who live there.
Cusco – Continue on your Andean adventure, and visit the home of the Incas and prepare to acclimatise for the Inca trail trek.
La Paz – A five hour trip from Copacabana, the chaotic and frenetic energy of Bolivia’s capital city can overwhelm. Be sure to check out the Witches Market and other food markets but take time to catch your breath- the hills and the altitude can be crucifying at times.
About the Writer: Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin is an Irish blogger and writer who has travelled extensively, most recently on a solo trip around the world. You can catch her witterings and observations on all things travel at www.rtwchronicle.com.