After a 4 hour bus ride including one ferry crossing we reached the town of Copacabana near the border between Bolivia and Peru.
Lake Titicaca is a source of great pride for Bolivia and quite rightly so. It is the world’s largest high altitude lake and sits at 3,808 metres above sea level. The Bolivian Navy has been based on the Lake since they lost their coastline during the Pacific War with Peru, a very sore point to this day.
Copacabana is the main border crossing between La Paz and Peru and given the attraction of the lake itself the town is crawling with tourists. It is clearly a backpacker bottleneck and not surprisingly on the night we arrived we bumped into some people we know – an English couple and 2 German girls who were on our Salt Flats tour. As is usually the way they told us what they had done and then suitably inspired, we then changed our plans.
They had spent a night at a tiny village by the name of Sampaya further round the coast, sleeping in lodging built to attract tourists to come and see the town. They described beautifully their night eating with the villagers and dancing the night away. The town sounded well off the tourist trail and a great way to immerse ourselves in Bolivian culture.
The next day we found a taxi to take us there and set off. The road was a dirt track and in places was blocked by landslides. These were quickly cleared though and we soon found ourselves in the most picturesque village. The high street was grassy, the houses were all built of stone and not a soul was in sight. The taxi driver led us to the lodgings and had a brief shouted conversation with a guy with some donkeys. We were aware that we may have to wait around but we were confident that the donkey man was seeking the people responsible for the lodgings so we sat down to wait.
After an hour or so we started to get a bit bored. I wandered off, Spanish dictionary in hand to find out what the score was. The first chap I found had an aggressive pig and he told me that the people we needed were in Copacabana for the day. But he pointed across the valley to a house.
(Sampaya High Street at rush hour)
I climbed down the stoney cobbled footpath and climbed up the other side but by this point I couldn’t find the house. But I did find a woman who must have been 90 years old leading her sheep down the narrow footpath. After realising she was hard of hearing I shouted loudly in her ear and she pointed me towards the town museum, but this was also locked up and deserted.
I returned to Claire who was by now sunbathing. Then a man herding sheep shouted from across the valley. I shouted back 300 meters across the valley in my finest Spanish “I ONLY SPEAK A LITTLE SPANISH”. He waved his arms in the air and continued on his way.
I concluded that sunbathing was a good idea and joined Claire. But as we sat there we realised that given the lack of phones, people and taxis in Sampaya there would come a point where we could be stranded in what seemed to be an almost abondoned village with nowhere to stay and limited food and water.
We quickly came up with an alternative plan. We would hike along the road to reach Yampupata from where we would find a boat to take us to Isla del Sol, the large island on Lake Titicaca.
We set off and immediately had to climb a big hill. At this point we were still struggling with the thin air so it was slow going. Gradually we reached the top only to see a descent and another climb followed by another descent and a climb. It was exhausting. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Yampupata. We had already realised that not many tourists come this way and this was demonstrated when a young boy of about 7 ran out of his house and hugged my leg. He was happy to see us!
We pressed on to the port where we found 2 men. One was in his 20’s, was dressed in sports clothing and was holding an ipod. He offered us a ride in his motorboat for about £8. The other guy looked to be in his 70’s and for £5 he would row us the 3km to Isla del Sol.
This is the kind of scenario that often seems to present itself in countries like Bolivia. At first it is easy to feel sorry for the old guy and choose the motorboat. But the reality is that the old guy probably needs the money more so we chose him despite the protestations of ipod man.
We set off and after 2 minutes our Captain passed me the second pair of oars. It was clear he expected help and I was more than happy to oblige. Claire immediately pulled the camera out which prompted himn to retrieve a Bolivian flag from his pocket and tie it to the mast.
After a while I tired so Claire had a go and we swapped a couple times more before we reached the island. On the way our captain spoke a lot of the sea and was clearly interested in the fact that we came from an island. The landlocked status of Bolivia was clearly the source of much sadness to him. But we had a laugh when the tourist ferry came past us and the tourists started waving and taking photos of us in our little boat.
As we disembarked he asked for his fee, but I insisted he take more. I told him to finish early and go home for a beer, which he appreciated greatly.
We set off climbing the hill up to the main town on the island and passed a Bolivian woman with 4 pigs. As she passed us she started shouting at our Captain who in turn shouted back. It got a bit heated so we stopped to watch. The last we saw of him he was struggling with the woman to load the pigs into his boat. The beer would have to wait.
After yet more climbing we reached the town of Yumani. I say town but Isla del Sol has no vehicles and the terrain is harsh. The town consisted of a number of houses located on various footpaths and tracks, all of which were pretty hard to walk along. We looked at the first hostel we found and seen enough had a nice room with a stunning view.
The main high street in Yumani is great. It is a walkway hacked out of sandstone upon which is located a handful of small basic restaurants. We chose one based on nothing else but its name and ate soup, freshly caughttrout from the lake, chips, rice and vegetables for a little over £2 each.
The next day we decided to explore the island and its various Inca ruins. We bought a map from a small shop that showed only two paths. One for tourists and the other for local people which the shopkeeper described as “mas dificil”. We took the tourist path which was well made but still tough going as it climbed up and down various hills. After a tiring 2 hours we reached the north of the island and some ruins. We saw few tourist on the walk as most take the boat, because the walk was well worth the effort. After some exploring we decided to head to the nearby town of Cha’llapampa to have lunch.
(a young donkey)
On the way I noticed a small hill and decided to climb it to take a photograph. As I stood admiring the view I noticed Sandy and Helen from the Pachamama Bus and salt flats tours. I sat and chatted to them for a while forgetting Claire was waiting. After a while she appeared over the hill concerned that I may have fallen.
We sat and exchanged stories with Sandy and Helen for a good hour. After we left them in Potosi we had headed in separate directions but it transpired we were in La Paz at the same time as them. From there we discovered they had stayed in the same hostel as us in Copacabana and in the room next to us but the day after.
They headed off to look at the ruins and we pressed on to find lunch. After a hearty meal of quinua soup and mystery meat we pressed on, this time on the local people’s path. Immediately the terrain became tougher. And noticeably tourists were very much absent. After 2 strenuous climbs we reached a small settlement where the map suggested we should head inland. But sadly the route wasn’t clear and we ended up scrambling up a steep rock face searching for a route. After a while we found what looked like a path but it ended in a garden. We backtracked and scrambled higher and eventually found a half decent trail.
After a short while some children came out of a house and asked us for “caramelos”. We only had one large sweet so we instructed them to share, though I suspect they didn’t.
The path was still hard to follow and a few minutes later three young brothers appeared, predictably also asking for “caramelos”. I felt guilty as we only had bananas left. We handed them over and they were over the moon. I felt a little ashamed.
I asked the oldest, Juan (aged 8) the way to Yumani and immediately all three of them started to lead the way. After 5 minutes or so Juan started to insist that his two younger brothers go back. The youngest, who can have been no more than 4 was left in a field hugging his banana. A short while later the next youngest was berated and looked like he was going to cry. So I quietly slipped him payment for his assistance and he happily headed back.
(Claire following local guide Juan)
Meanwhile Juan was pressing on, shoving donkeys from our path and patiently answering my badly worded questions. After 15 minutes or so we became concerned that it looked a little like we were abducting him, so we suggested he should head back. I asked him how much his excellent guiding was worth, and gave him a little more.
From here the path was clearer but still hard going and clearly not used by tourists. Endless traffic of animals passed us in the form of sheep and donkeys and we passed through many tiny settlements.
After a couple more hours we sighted the junction with the main tourist trail and pressed on up the hill, past children playing football rather well with an orange. We eventually made it back just after 6pm. The 7k in the morning took 2 hours. The 8k return took over 5. We were exhausted.
When chatting with Sandy and Helen earlier in the day we made some loose plans to meet up with them in Yumani at 7pm if they decided to walk the 7k with their heavy bag. We suspected they wouldn’t (it was a very heavy bag!) but at bang on 7pm we found them. They had beaten us to Yumani by 3 hours and found a place to pitch their tent.
We went for a meal at the restaurant next to their tent which turned out to be an excellent vegetarian pizzeria without any mains electricity. The pizza’s were great and we had a good catch up.
(Restaurant without electricity but superb pizzas)
The next day the four of us took the motor boat back to Copacabana where we stayed an extra night before catching our respective buses to our next destination.
(Sandy and Helen try on sensible headwear)