Copacabana — it’s not Brazil

Whether we are tired out of cities, or just tired out of Bolivia we’re not sure but we left La Paz to retire for the weekend on the shores of Lake Titicaca at a small town called Copacabana. Lake Titicaca is two lakes joined by the Straits of Tiquina and has several small islands that can be visited. The waters are a beautiful blue, reflecting the hills and the distant Cordillera Rey Mountains. The lake borders both Bolivia and Peru and close to the border is Copacabana, 158km from La Paz on a paved road! So our journey here was comfortable with stunning scenery as we passed through the farmlands. First sights of the lake were stunning and you could really feel yourself relax in the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the views.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-012To get to Copacabana and avoid crossing the Peruvian border twice, we had to cross a narrow strip of water by ferry. The little craft still use poles in a ‘plant and push’ punting method that would not be out of place on the Thames.

The little town of Copacabana has a lovely, albeit heavily restored, Moorish-style basilica which contains a famous 16th century miracle working ‘Dark Virgin of the Lake’, one of the patron saints of Bolivia. The basilica is notable for its main chapel with one of the finest gilt altars in Bolivia. Externally the basilica is clean white, decorated with tiles, arches and cupolas.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-020One of the side chapels is completely without light except for candles. The candles are used to determine the health and wellbeing of family and friends: if the candles burn without crackling, that is good omen. The wax is then used to draw on the walls the materialistic things that are desired – houses, cars, wealth etc. Definitely not something we would expect in a Catholic Church!

It is curious how traditional belief and superstition and the Pagan gods intermingle with Catholic religion. People happily worship both and the Church openly tolerates its competitors.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-022Outside the basilica the most bizarre ceremony takes place every day of the week and twice a day at the weekends. Those that have just bought vehicles, either new or second-hand, bring them here to be blessed by the Virgin of the Lake. Heavily decorated, the vehicles are blessed in-front of the church in a ritual that is conducted by a priest, who blesses the car or truck, then splashes holy water all over it outside and inside, and finally over the owners. At the end of the blessing, the owner sprays beer or cheap champagne over his vehicle, garlands the windscreen with some more flowers and then lets off a load of firecrackers. Thereafter the cars and trucks are driven down to the shore-line for a big party! People come from all over Bolivia for this blessing, and as far as Buenos Aires – and all because they believe that the blessing will bring them luck, fortune and prosperity now that they own a car or truck.

Copacabana is also famous for its popcorn – the ladies sell bags & bags of the stuff, all very sweet popcorn to visitors, and probably eat the rest themselves given the size of many of the women. Copacabana is a very popular day-trip destination for the La Paz people and they buy the popcorn to take back to their friends and rellies as a treat from the sunny shores.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-027On the headland that overlooks the town and harbour is Cerro Calvario on top of which is a pilgrimage site called the Stations of the Cross. We decided to make the very steep walk to the top to take in the views of the lake and the town. It was steep but worth it, and not surprising at the top were a number of local traders selling ‘wish baskets’ and candles for the pilgrims who go there to pray. Our observations were that most people were there just to admire the view, as we were, or to have a cuddle and a smooch away from parents prying eyes!

To enjoy this area to the full you have to take a trip out onto the lake. We decided to go out to the Isla del Sol, a short distance by boat. This short distance was, however, made much longer when the 2 lads in charge of the boat managed to mangle one of the props on some shallow rocks on our way out. On the way back they managed to lose one of the engine blankets! We can’t imagine their father is going to be happy with their days work.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-013The island supports a small community who farm the land on terraces and try to sell woollen goods to visitors. The best ruins were an Inca temple, Pilcocaina, a 2 storey building with domes, individual rooms and superb views across the lake. The other was Fuente del Inca, a pure spring at the top of steps leading up from the water’s edge. Aside those two Debbie was more interested in the number of donkeys walking up the slopes carrying all the produce and goods that had arrived in on the boats for the locals. Another unusual ritual in this rural community is that once a year there is a huge party for all the singletons (eat your heart out Bridget Jones). It goes on for 3 days during which time the girls and boys ‘chose’ one another. After 3 days the singletons are all very drunk but are supposed to have made a choice depart and start living together. Tragically some girls get so drunk they are carried out by a boy – what if it’s the wrong one? For it is expected that they will remain together for life, any misdemeanours amounts to the individual being ostracised. We were surprised that there were so many singletons to have a choice, particularly when we’re told that the youngsters are leaving the rural areas for the cities.

copacabana-bolivia-suenson-taylor-017We returned to the town, just in time to take a seat on the balcony of the hostel and enjoy the sunset, shame there were no G&T’s to settle down with. It was a lovely break in a beautiful place; on Monday we get the chance to visit the lake from the Peruvian side – apparently even more lovely.

Copacabana — it’s not Brazil
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