Updated March 15th, 2019.
Located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, and the largest high altitude lake in the world, Copacabana Bolivia 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.
Read more about backpacking in Bolivia!
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 sacred, to be revered and a stop-over here provides an insight into the Andean spirit all the while affording some alpine-esque lakeside views.
Where 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 with no frills. Here are four of the best.
Hostal Joshua, Calle Bueno – Focuses on living a vegan and sustainable lifestyle and aims to educate their guests. As such, no smoking or drinking of alcohol is permitted on site and there is a 10 pm curfew. If you are looking for a few lazy days to recharge your batteries, this place is perfect but those looking to party should go elsewhere.
Hostal La Cupula, Calle Michel Perez 1-3 – High above the town, this hostel offers rooms with panoramic views of the lake. Out of the price range for many on a shoestring budget, this place is probably one of the best spots in town.
Parentheses Cabins, Prolongación J.P. Mejía Nueva Esperanza – Only 10-minute’s walk to the centre, Parentheses offers very stylish rooms in a rural setting that seems to be to everyone’s liking. The house receives exceptionally good reviews. Give it a look!
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.
Things to do in Copacabana
Visit Isla Del Sol
Visit on a 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.
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 Challapampa holds artefacts from underwater excavations which date from Tiwanaku and Inca times.
Update: Mar 2019
Since 2017 there has been social unrest between the communities located on Isla del Sol. Supposedly the dispute comes from a disagreement over tourist revenue and as a result, it is currently impossible to visit the north of the island. Many of Isla del Sol’s most notable spots are located here, including the most famous of the ruins. It is not advisable to try to cross the blockade which is manned by locals.
Explore Kopacati and Inca Banderani
Embark on the two-hour hike to the small village of Kopacati, close to where the Inca Banderani ruins are located. At the site, you can find an Incan throne as well as numerous caves hidden in the rocks.
Although there is some signage in English, you will need to ask a local to help you find the caves. Simply ask for ‘cuevas’ and put on your adventure hat. There are two routes to Inca Banderani, the most scenic is not well marked so ask a local for directions or alternatively, follow the road. Carlos at Hostal Joshua can mark the route for you on Google Maps.
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.
Feast on trout by the lakeside
The stalls along the side of the lake may not provide the most aesthetically pleasing backdrop but you can guarantee you will get your fill of the local dish. Trout was introduced into Lake Titicaca and actually wiped out all the native species of fish.
As a result, it is nearly always on the menu in these parts. A portion of trout with rice, chips and salad will set you back just 25 bolivianos (just £2.50)! Whilst the hygiene standards of these stalls are very good, avoid eating the salad if you have had stomach problems in 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.
Climb up to La Horca del Inca
This pre-Incan astronomical observatory (named the Incan Gallows by the Spanish as they assumed this was its purpose) was built to allow studies of the moon and the stars. Entrance fee into La Horca del Inca costs 10 bolivianos per person and the top of the climb gives way to amazing views of Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. Despite its unsuspecting appearance, the altitude can make this climb deceptively tough.
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. There is a 2 boliviano fee per person to board the boat.
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: Written by Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin. She 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.