Sunday, August 25, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Copacabana And Isla Del Sol

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Say the word "Copacabana", and the first image that comes to mind may be the sunny beaches of Rio de Janiero. Unbeknownst to many, however, is the fact that the famous Copacabana Beach is actually named after a small town along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The town's preeminent basilica, one of the oldest churches in Bolivia, houses a revered statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria, to whom many miracles have been attributed. Carved in 1583, the statue turned the community into a pilgrimage site, and its fame quickly spread throughout South America. A replica was created in Rio de Janiero, and a chapel to house it was built along a white-sand beach, whose name was soon changed to Copacabana.

A beautiful place in its own right, Copacabana feels a world away from the rather dingy atmosphere of Puno. The streets were bustling, and the vibrant beach on Lake Titicaca were packed with tourists and locals alike. Maybe it was the gorgeous weather, or perhaps the relaxed demeanor of the locals, but something just made me feel completely at ease here. After a detour by the lakeshore, we hiked up a steep road (no easy feat considering the town is at 12,600 feet) and found our hotel, Hostal Las Olas, prominently situated on a steep hillside.

Main street in Copacabana


Out of all the places I stayed at on this trip, I was most looking forward to Las Olas. Take a look at their website, and you'll probably understand why. "Hostel" is definitely a misnomer here, as each of the seven suites that make up the property is its own bungalow. And each bungalow has been individually designed like a life-sized art project. I imagine the owner to be some sort of eccentric recluse, because the creative quirks that went into each of these buildings is really quite impressive.

Hostal Las Olas

New seashell suite being constructed

View from the reception

We booked Suite 7 for the three of us, and it was an absolutely steal at $58 USD per night (although it has gone up slightly since then), cash only. This was the newest of all the buildings, and absolutely massive when compared to a regular hotel room. The entry level featured a kitchenette with all the cooking utensils you need, a dining table, and a large circular bed for two people. A beautifully designed full bath was off to the side, and contained a large walk-in shower with two nozzles.

Entry level with dining table and bed




The second floor had yet another circular bed for two people, as well as a twin-sized bed. A lovely lounge area in front of the large windows provided a commanding view of Lake Titicaca and the town below. It's hard to describe all the strange and peculiar details of our suite, such as the little alcoves behind the bed with tiny sculptures, the mosaic-like floors, and all the hand-made furniture, but I remember going to bed at night and feeling like I was in the midst of a strange fantasy come to life.

Second floor

Twin bed and circular bed

Lounge with a view

Further up on the third floor was another lounge area with a table, two chairs, and a hammock strung onto the walls. This was a great place to unwind and read, especially with the amazing views. WiFi was available for free, but unfortunately, I could only get a decent signal on the third floor. Breakfast was not included, which wasn't a problem since there were plenty of options in town. There was, however, coca leaves, tea, and an electric water kettle for guest use.

Third floor

View from the top

The property, although built on a hillside, was meticulously manicured with delightful gardens and secluded areas for lounging and sunbathing. A number of hammocks were also strung up outside. The owner appeared to be further expanding, as another suite shaped like a seashell was in the midst of construction while we were there. A sister property called La Cúpula was also next door, and featured simple rooms at a more affordable price.

Be aware that Las Olas was definitely not handicap-friendly, and it took some energy to climb up and down the hillside to get to the reception or to go into town. Suite 7 was probably the easiest to get to as it was the closest to a back door that led directly to the street below. Also, water temperature in the shower was not well-regulated. I alternated from being frozen or burned as the water fluctuated from one extreme to the other. There was no fix for this other than to grit my teeth and bear through it.

After getting settled in, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon checking out the sights around town and also booking our boat trip out to Isla del Sol the next day. Copacabana is very small and easily explorable by foot. Further up from the main street leading to the lake are a number of small alleyways lined with shops and restaurants. 

Once you reach the Plaza de Armas, you'll see the famous basilica housing the Virgen de la Candelaria. We actually arrived on Palm Sunday, so there was quite the commotion outside, with colorful flowers and palm leaf weaves being sold by local artisans. The interior of the church was incredibly majestic and ornate. Sadly, no pictures were allowed inside. Look for the beautiful wood carvings on the entrance doors, as well as a statue of Francisco Tito Yupanqui, the sculpture of the Virgen de la Candelaria, just outside.


Flowers for Palm Sunday

After visiting the church, we went to a couple of different tour agents to inquire about the boat rides to Isla del Sol. We quickly realized that each of these agents were basically selling tickets to the exact same boat operator, and prices and times did not vary at all. So we went ahead and purchased our tickets for the 8:30 am departure at 35 Bolivianos each. We decided not to visit the smaller Isla de la Luna since that would mean a very rushed visit to both islands, and we definitely would not be able to hike Isla del Sol or see the historic Inca sites.

Towards the late afternoon, we walked up Cerro Calvario to see the sunset. It was a strenuous 40-minute climb up the mountain, but the views from the top were absolutely worth it. I would say this is a must-do if anybody ever decides to visit Copacabana. A series of small monuments mark the route to the summit, representing the 14 Stations of the Cross, culminating in a long procession of crosses at the very top. There, you are treated to unobstructed views of Lake Titicaca and the entire town below. We stayed until the sun set beyond the horizon, and I must say, this was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Hike up Cerro Calvario

Monuments at the top

Panorama of Copacabana

Sunset over Lake Titicaca

Moon and valley on the way down

The next morning, we headed down to the pier at 8:00 am for the two-hour boat ride to Isla del Sol. As most visitors guides would say, a visit to Copacabana would not be complete without a trip to the sacred Sun Island of the Incas. Unlike the flurry of excitement in town, Isla del Sol is an oasis of tranquility. There are no motor vehicles of any kind, and only a few dusty trails traverse the island from north to south. Donkeys are the single mode of transportation you'll find here.

On our way to Isla del Sol

One tree island

Our boat dropped us off at the village of Cha'llapampa on the north end of the island. There was not much to see here besides the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), where recently discovered artifacts from nearby underwater archaeological sites are on display. Paying the 10 Bolivianos entrance fee also grants you access to the Inca ruins on the northern tip, so it makes sense to go in and take a look if you already plan on visiting the other sites. A few stands near the docks sell sandwiches that are great for a quick lunch if you plan on hiking the 8 kilometers to Yumani.


Following the trail north takes you past the Sacred Rock, the Inca Table, and the maze-like ruins of Chincana. Afterwards, you head back south, climbing to the highest elevation through the middle of the island. The views from these vantage points are breathtaking, and you can make out the beautiful farming terraces along the steep slopes near Challa. Throughout the island, there are locals who have set up checkpoints to collect tolls from tourists. In all, an extra 30 Bolivianos was spent to hike the length of the island.

Northern end of Isla del Sol

Chincana ruins

The terrain of Isla del Sol is harsh and barren, devoid of virtually any large trees, so it can be a strenuous hike under the intense sun. After approximately three hours, we arrived at the southern village of Yumani, where most of the accommodations and restaurants are located. We rested for a bit, taking in the views from above, then descended the ancient Inca Steps down to the docks to wait for our departure time. Be aware that the boat may not be identical to the one you arrived in. However, there should only be one or two boats leaving at the designated time. As long as you show them your ticket and confirm that you're headed back to Copacabana, there shouldn't be a problem.

Toll before entering Yumani

Descending the Inca Steps to the docks

While I enjoyed Isla del Sol, I don't know if I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the region just to see it. If you were in Copacabana already, then it would make sense to take a day trip there. The views were beautiful, but the island itself was arid and rocky. Most importantly, I was slightly disappointed with the Inca sites. The Chincana ruins were interesting, but you probably could have walked by the others without even noticing. Finally, the checkpoints felt like nothing more than opportunities to fleece the tourists. While 30 Bolivianos is less than $5 USD, I would have much rather paid that amount up front and not have to be surprised with toll payment after toll payment along the way.

Copacabana, on the other hand, was a beautiful place worthy of an extended visit. This is the sort of idyllic town that made me fall in love with South America. Take a day to stroll through the narrow streets, dip your feet in the chilly waters along the beach, enjoy the famous Lake Titicaca trout in one of the many restaurants, or just relax on a hammock at Hostal Las Olas and breath in the panoramic views.

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