Basking in Bolivia

Last Sunday I bid Arequipa farewell, shaking off the hungover crowd at Wild Rover and taking the bus South to Puno, my last stop in Peru. Situated just a few hours from the border to Bolivia and just steps from the shoreline in Lake Titicaca, Puno is Peru’s second most-visited destination. 

However, the tourist attraction comes almost entirely from the allure of Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world. Although elderly travelers and families bus their way to Puno on the circuit from Cusco or Lima, the city is generally not safe outside of the center and severely lacked in charm compared to my previous stopover in Arequipa. 

The bus arrived after sundown and I was immediately met by biting winds, chilling me to the bone and making my teeth chatter at the bus terminal. At 3600 meters, Puno is higher than many mountain peaks in North America and the weather is indicative of such tremendous altitude. 

On Monday I was still cold when I woke up at 6:30 for a day trip to some of the islands that dot Lake Titicaca. Stretching 189 KM across and spanning a volume of 58,000 KM, Lake Titicaca is one of those sights that exudes magnificence simply in its sheer size. Upon disembarking from the dock, our boat drifted through the deep blue waters, touched only by groups of tall reeds sticking out of the surface. We followed these formations out into the open water; just a half hour boat ride from civilization lay the first of Los Uros, the lake’s legendary floating islands. 

More than 30 of the man made structures are inhabited on the lake, each one consisting of a small group of huts, each housing an entire family. Constructed by securing large chunks of tree roots to the lake’s surface and layered every few weeks by a new crop of reeds once the lowest ones disintegrate, the tribes have been living in the middle of the lake for much longer than America has been a country. 

Originally created to escape the incoming Spanish conquistadors, the islands and their people serve as one of the last outposts of indigenous culture and languages in both Peru and Bolivia. Ironically, this promise attracts tourist hordes by the hundreds every single day, destroying any sense of authenticity.
In fact, profits from tourism are now the main source of income. Immediately upon stepping foot on the tiny patch of reeds, our group of 25 more than doubled the island’s population and triggered the women to begin setting up handmade cloths and trinkets for sale. We received welcomes from the villagers in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, then the President of the island, Lucio, welcomed us with a highly scripted briefing of life on the islands. 

Afterwards, we had free time to explore the tiny huts where the live and take a ride in their two story boat built specifically for hauling gringos around. 

Despite all the fake authenticity and overt capitalism, the young children of the island provided a spark of delight, wandering around the tourists in search of cookies and clutching their prized possessions: coloring books. 

From Los Uros we took a long ride out to Isla Taquile, a 5.5 KM long island deeper into the middle of the lake and in sight of Bolivia. One of the coolest parts about the islands of Lake Titicaca is how distinct each culture is. For example, dating apps like Tinder haven’t quite made it to Taquile yet (nor has wifi, roads, or pretty much anything else). But not to worry, the locals devised a clothing system to denote relationship status hundreds of years ago and they still use it today! For men, red hats signify the married while red and white hats indicate those who are single. Women, on the other hand, must sport black dresses if married but can wear more colorful versions while still single. 

We were left off on the side of the island on a makeshift dock with no one else in sight and the tour group began slowly climbing up the hill on a boulder-strewn trail. The hillside we landed on was terraced into farm land, supporting potatoes, quinoa, and wheat during the growing season. 

The one hour walk to our lunch spot at a lookout on top of the island was nothing short of sedative. Without cars or any form of transportation besides your own two feet, a tranquil state envelopes the island. It’s quiet enough to truly hear yourself think. 

From the top we could see across the island, with the lake stretching out on the other side all the way to the distant Cordillera Real of Bolivia. The lake’s weather patterns herald all day sun this time of year, so while in the distance we could see a ring of clouds above Bolivia, lunch was a delightfully sunny affair. 

Although the only thing on my mind after lunch was a long nap as I was still sleep-deprived, we first busted our knees on a 600 step staircase descending towards the boat parked at the island main deck. That afternoon we slowly cruised back to the mainland as almost everyone passed out under the spell of the boat’s engines. 

During the trip I made friends with two Brazilian girls and that evening Puno the three of us had a blast wandering around the city streets. Over a couple of beers in the plaza they gave me a lesson in Portugese sounds absent from the English dialect, then we found a homely and delicious family run pizza place, where they bombarded me with eating recommendations for my eventual travels to their native Sao Paolo. 

Tuesday was a long day of traveling. By 7AM I was on a bus to Bolivia. Even before dawn, the bus terminal was packed with backpackers arriving on the night bus from Cusco and either heading to Puno or going straight for Bolivia. One of the travelers going straight to Copacabana, right across the border, was Dante, who I met as we were loading onto the bus. A fellow American, we were both understandably apprehensive about the Bolivia border crossing. 

In Bolivia everyone gets a 90 day visa for free except Americans, who are nailed by a $160 USD fee. The border stop went smoothly on the Peru side, but the Bolivian immigration official informed me I needed to have 4 pages of information printed out, of which I of course had zero. Scrambling over to a tiny store with a photocopier and internet connection, I quickly printed out all the necessary documents and tried to get back while the rest of the bus passengers were waiting in line. 

Miraculously I procured all the necessary information and hustled back to pay. The official took my cash, but just as he pasted the full page visa into my passport I heard a lurching sound and whirled around to see my bus slowly pulling away with my bag onboard. I ran for it, hurdling the steps three at a time and accosting the driver into giving me two more minutes while I got my departure card stamped. Finally back on the bus and out of breath, Dante even told me that while he had been rummaging through his bag he caught the border official suspiciously typing something into a phone while staring at his bank statement. All in all, we were happy to have made it through unscathed and made a vow not to ever try to get mixed up with Bolivian bureaucracy. 

By the time I caught my breath we were basically already in Copacabana, an entrance point to the islands of Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian side. Packed with travelers, restaurants, and rooftop cafes overlooking the lake, the tiny town was the perfect stop to grab lunch and enjoy stunning views of the enormous lake. 

Dante and I purchased 1:30 ferry tickets and set off for the popular Isla del Sol, a legendary place among Incas as the birthplace of the sun and one of the highlights of any trip to Lake Titicaca. On the boat ride over from the mainland, we befriended Solenne and Pauline, two French girls just four days into their own South American adventure. 

None of the accommodations on the island have internet, making online bookings unrealistic, so we were met at the dock by a pack of children and proprietors hawking rooms. We picked one not too far up the steep hill in front of us and began hauling our bags upwards. 

Dwarfing its twin Isla del Luna in the distance, Isla del Sol rises up to a peak of over 4000 meters above sea level and was primarily home to subsistence farmers for hundreds of years before the economy was recently spurred by an influx of tourism. Yet the island is still home to no cars or roads and primarily consists of terraced hillsides, providing a very calm feeling. 

Immediately upon arrival and gaining a little elevation towards the hostel, the lake’s eery, other-worldly presence came to dominate our view. The rolling hillsides of mainland Peru and the snow-capped peaks of Bolivia were visible in the distance, but all paled in comparison to the stunning silence and stillness of the lake. Throughout the afternoon the sun began slanting towards the West, casting its warm rays of light onto the hills and reflecting off the water. 

The four of us set off on a hike towards the Southern side of the island, followed along the entire time by a friendly yet horny puppy who was overly eager to make some friends. Along the way we were surrounded by gorgeous views of the island and the all-encompassing lake. We hopped over rock walls and traversed across terraced farm land, interrupted multiple time by passing herds of sheep or trains of donkeys. 

Never quite finding the ruins we had originally set off towards, the four of us ended up just relaxing on one of the hilltops, enjoying the ridiculous views and waiting for the sunset. Yet the sun hung up in the sky for hours on end, as if suspended in place and unable to fall below the horizon. 

Eventually we made our way back towards the small town of Yumani just as the sun finally descended, casting deep hues across the horizon and eerily lighting the mountains on the other side of the skyline in a translucent purple. 

On Wednesday morning the sun again constantly awed us by its majestic presence, starting off the morning by waking me at 5:30 with hues of reds and purple lighting up the mountains in the distance, then beginning to warm up our side of the island with its strong glow, reflecting the lake’s water into rays of shimmering light. 

On Wednesday morning the sun again constantly awed us by its majestic presence, starting off the morning by waking me at 5:30 with hues of reds and purple lighting up the mountains in the distance, then beginning to warm up our side of the island with its strong glow, reflecting the lake’s water into rays of shimmering light. 

This turned our terrace into the perfect spot for a morning yoga session, which ended up being highly necessary for the day’s impending 15 mile hike. After breakfast we set off towards the much larger North end of the island, excited to explore. 

The scenery and entire energy of the entire island never stopped short of incredible. We started by climbing upwards towards the largest village on the island, Yumani, getting lost in its tiny pedestrian streets and rocky paths. Eventually we found the right path that wound along the Eastern shore towards the North tip of the island, but starting above 3700 meters, every step uphill was a slog. 

Along the way we crossed through tiny villages built into the countryside, home to farmers and wildlife going about their daily chores. Isla del Sol is perpetually occupied by an eery silence. With the exception of squealing donkeys and barking dogs, there’s nothing audible except the sound of the wind in the trees, which made for an incredibly relaxing setting. 

We even met an alpaca with a striking resemblance to Bob Marley. 

In the distance shortly after, we could spot our first beach of the day, a beautiful u-shaped inlet curved out of the rocky hills. On the way down through the valley towards the lake, we passed through the first of many Eucalyptus groves, the pungent trees filling the air with their distinct smell. 

For the next few hours we hugged the shoreline, ascending when necessary but primarily walking along the lake, it’s beaches populated by joyous schoolchildren and a small crowd of campers who set up shop in the sand. 

t was almost 1pm by the time we reached the town of Challapampa, where we temporarily halted pace for a street food lunch of fresh sandwiches and bananas. Along the docks of the bay sat sunbathers waiting for the ferry and fellow hikers pausing for a break, but the town was otherwise quiet. 

From Challapampa we heard it was about 45 minutes uphill towards the ruins on the Northern tip of the island. As we gained elevation the views across the other side of the island began to materialize, offering tiny isolated rocks in the otherwise pristine water, and the coastline of Southern Peru just barely visible in the distance. The lake was noticeable solely for its stunning emptiness, the placid surface never moving in the afternoon sun. 

Perched on top of a plateau that rises above most of the island, Isla del Sol’s sacred rock offers panoramic views of the endless water. Archaeologists believe the spot was used for animal or even human sacrifice hundreds of years ago, but now it’s just a tourist sight with a woman at the entrance charging 10 bolivianos for entrance.

Just a few steps away is Chinkana, a ruined temple with downright perfect views of the crescent-shaped bay below and the majestic lake in every direction. We spent the next few minutes exploring the different vantage points and ogling at the intricacy of the architecture, highlighted by Dante not ducking low enough to pass through one of the doorways and severely banging his head. 

From Chinkaka we completed a loop that runs along a ridge in the middle of the island, which aptly translates as “The Sacred Path of the Eternal Sun.” The sunlight was now behind us on the way back, but it gave no signs of decreasing in intensity or even beginning to set as we traversed across the higher path. On the right we got our first good glimpse of the West side of the island, which was strikingly bare, with just terraced farmland and very few houses. 

In front of us lay the well-marked path, which seemed to stretch forever. In the distance we could see at least two steep climbs ahead, not sure of what lay beyond. On the way back fatigue definitely begin to set in, but after we easily got up the first hill, Dante and I were itching to try and run up the second. Not warning me until afterwards that he had run track, Dante at first opened up a solid lead, which I tried to close as the top appeared to come into sight. But the next time I looked up the summit was actually much further away and we both collapsed in exhaustion, hearts racing and lungs burning. By the time we did finally make it to the top, both of us were sufficiently gassed. 

At the top we took in the 360 panorama then hurried along, hustling to get back to town. Now that we had passed the highest point the Southern side of the island and mainland Bolivia came into view, reminding us how much ground we had already covered and also how much was left to get back to town. After just under 7 hours, we stumbled back to our hostel, worked ragged by the long day of hiking yet also feeling proud of our undertaking, which the girls' guide book calls “ambitious.” 

Thursday’s dawn brought the sun’s bright rays back into my eyes before 6AM, streaming through the bedside window and destroying any hope of additional sleep. Having thoroughly explored the tiny island, our foursome lounged the morning away, first on our hostel’s terraced patio and afterwards below at the dock waiting for our 10:30AM ferry. With a long day of travel ahead, no connectivity with civilization, and nothing to do but bide the time, I ripped through the last hundred pages of James Michener’s epic, “Hawaii.” 

A sprawling expanse of historical fiction with apically detailed descriptions and intermingling genealogy charts reminiscent of Game of Thrones, the book is certainly going down as one of my favorites of all time. Even though the front cover of my paperback from 1978 fell off the first day I started reading it, the book held together across the span of 5 weeks and 3 countries. Finally back in Copacabana, all of us were eager to access the internet for various reasons; unfortunately we hauled our big packs from one restaurant to the next, never finding any wi-fi faster than a glacial pace. 

By 1:30 in the afternoon we boarded the gringo-packed express bus to La Paz, Bolivia’s largest and wildest city. But just an hour into the ride we were ushered off the bus and to purchase boat tickets to cross a narrow stretch of the lake. We hopped on one boat and our bus on another, precariously floating parallel to each other.

A few hours later we rolled into the outskirts of La Paz, welcomed by ridiculous sights of the expansive city and huge traffic jams. Tomorrow morning my friends Tim and Ryan arrive, sparking a 10 day jaunt through Bolivia. I’m not quite sure what will go down, but if the last few days are any indication, it’s sure to be a wild ride.