Wednesday, April 11, 2012
It was cold in Bolivia. As my bus wound its way around Lake Titicaca, rain spat at the windows and wind whipped across the roof. Gone was my sunny day on the floating islands in Peru. I was entering a new country en route to the famous Isla del Sol, and I was beginning to think that that when the Incas named the Island of the Sun they were playing a cruel joke on the world.
Getting to the island proved a bit more difficult than I anticipated. The border crossing on the Peruvian side was rainy, but smooth. On the Bolivian side, however, I hit a snag. Despite having everything I needed for my visa (passport photos of a specific size, my yellow fever certificate, etc), the only thing the official at the desk wanted from me was US$135 in cash. I handed it to him, and he promptly handed back two of my 20-dollar bills.
Apparently they were “damaged.” I fought him over it, as the small tear in one was barely visible and the ink stain on the other didn’t obscure any vital information. But he refused. I had no other cash on me besides British pounds, which both the official and the women at the money exchange desks outside laughed at. Apparently Sterling is the equivalent of Monopoly money in Bolivia.
I finally convinced one woman to change the bill with the ink stain and ran back to the bus to beg 100 bolivianos off of the guy sitting next to me. I got my visa, but it wasn’t the best introduction to Bolivia.
Thankfully, things looked up after the border crossing. The bus pulled into the lakeside town of Copacabana shortly after I fled the visa desk, and I was able to find a working ATM to get cash. The touristy town had many vendors selling ferry tickets to the Isla del Sol, so I purchased one and killed time in a cafe testing whether my food-poisoned stomach would hold down a Coke (for the record, it would).
The ferry departed an hour after my bus arrived, and an hour-and-a-half later it pulled into a small harbor on the island. There I was met by a woman from my hotel, which was called the Ecolodge La Estancia. She wrapped my bag in a colorful woven cloth, threw it over her back, and set off up the trail.
I scrambled after her, trying to take the steep steps as fast as she did. We first made our way up through an Inca garden complete with bright green vegetation and a waterfall. Once we reached a set of switchbacks, the woman unhooked a llama from a grazing post and the three of us continued on our way.
Maybe it was luck, or maybe it was the island finally living up to its name, but as soon as we reached the next ridge, the sun burst out from beneath the clouds and I finally got to see the Isla del Sol in the shining light of the sol itself. The wooded hills were dotted with simple houses, and all around the edges of the isle the waters of Lake Titicaca sparkled in the sunshine. I was beginning to see why it was one of the Incas’ most sacred islands.
Not long later I arrived at my accommodation on the Isla del Sol. The hillside on which the small cottages rested was in full bloom with all kinds of flowers, and the views from where they rested were stunning.
I checked into my room, which the ecolodge had offered me for the night, and set down my bags. The interior had a table and two chairs, a bed, a bathroom, and a separate area with solar panels for heating. The hotel was known for its dedication to environmentally friendly practices, and the panels were the first of many signs I saw of it.
Up in the lodge, there was a long table set for communal meals, as well as a lending library and some board games. I asked the reception staff for a recommendation for a walk, and they pointed me in the direction of a nearby village.
On the way I passed by an abundance of farm animals, from llamas and pigs to sheep and goats. A neighborhood dog adopted me as I walked along the muddy path between the houses, and soon I reached the village. There I found a few hotels and restaurants, a souvenir shop or two, and lots more grazing llamas.
Up the hill a trail beckoned and I followed it to an observation tower on the highest point in the area. As soon as I arrived, the sun, which had been hiding in the clouds again, revealed its golden face. I had spectacular views over the Isla del Sol and Lake Titicaca below, and stayed until the sun disappeared again.
Back at my hotel, I ate dinner in the lodge. It was the first solid food I had consumed in over 48 hours, and it was a good reintroduction to the culinary world. The chicken was flavorful, and it didn’t take much until I was full.
That night I went to bed early, if for no other reason than that the lack of heat drove me under the thick blankets on my bed right after dinner.
The next morning I was up early and off to catch my ferry back to Copacabana. The rain once again poured down throughout the chilly ride, but thankfully the sun came out shortly after we arrived on the shore.
I had an hour to explore Copacabana before my bus to La Paz departed, so I decided to walk around and see if there was anything more to the place than the touristy area around the lake.
Thankfully, there was. Up the hill from the thousands of animal-shaped paddle boats sat a pretty town square with a beautiful church. The interior was faded and peeling, but it was evident that it had once been a majestic place. In fact, Copacabana was one of the most important religious pilgrimage sites in the country.
Near the church was a colorful vegetable market where I saw more potato varieties than I ever knew existed. It was adjacent to the main road, where all of the touristy cafes, restaurants, and bus company offices were located.
Outside of one of those was where I caught my bus to La Paz. As it wound its way out of Copacabana, I looked across Lake Titicaca to the Isla del Sol in the distance. The isle was as enchanting from far away as it had been up close.
As it receded into the distance, I couldn’t help but feel a desire to return someday. My Bolivia visa is good for the next five years, so there’s no reason not to take advantage of the fact that I won’t have to go through the painful application process again. And hopefully on my next visit to the Isla del Sol I will get warmer weather. And sun. Lots of sun.