I traveled from Cusco to Bolivia on an overnight bus, and Copacabana was, first, just a rest stop before La Paz. While I slept in the bus on an almost full bed, I kept an eye open as travelers had told me that the buses in Bolivia are theft-prone. The bus didn’t stop anywhere, and nothing unpleasant happened. Our minivan crossed into Bolivia, and though the bus driver was reluctant to bring us to Copacabana, he left us in the town( thanks to some Chilean travelers who almost made the fraud driver cry.)
After getting down at Plaza Sucre, I strode straight towards the Casa del Sol homestay that my travel friend Alison had finalized for our Copacabana stay. Things to do in Copacabana Bolivia were many, and she wanted to stay rooted in one place in this lakeside village of Bolivia. That was my first time in Bolivia, and I didn’t know that the country would later surprise me with its indigenous culture, delicious salteñas, historical sites, and relics, imposing mountains that never leave you alone, high cities, and the consumption of an insane amount of coca leaves to keep it all going.
Recommended Read: My Comprehensive Bolivia Travel Guide
I trudged up the cobbled lanes with my rucksack, passed by the main market, crossed the Basilica of the Virgin of Copacabana, turned to the left, and descended a very steep lane to find the homestay nestled in the sunshine for the weather was pleasant at that time of the year (March). I had been used to the high altitude (almost 3900 meters above sea level) for by then I had done many things in Peru, including exploring Cusco and visiting the many islands of Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side (I had been on a South America backpacking trip for almost seven months).
Lake Titicaca is a giant lake sprawling over 3,200 square miles or 8,300 square km which is roughly the size of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This lake is so huge that you cannot tell if it is an ocean or a lake when you stand on its shores (If you love lakes that have their entire ecosystem, do visit the Inle lake in Myanmar). Many say that this lake should satisfy Bolivians’ craving for an ocean that Chile took from them in the war of the Pacific.
I had carried the Lake Titicaca in my memory from over the Peruvian side in its deep-blue and calm waters, the indigenous villages atop the islands, and never-ending hills. But Copacabana brought a different cultural side to the lake.
Though people believe that Copacabana’s name comes from the Aymara word kota kahuana, meaning “view of the lake,” a scientist found an ancient archive about the indigenous which mentioned that “Kotakawana” is the Andean god of fertility, much like the Greek goddess Aphrodite or the Roman Venus. The androgynous god lives in Titicaca, and the popular Basilica of Copacabana was built where the main temple of fertility stood (as per Copacabana Wikipedia).
I didn’t know about the Kotakawana god, but I did see temples and shrines full of penises in the small villages on the islands and in towns next to Lake Titicaca.
The 6000 Bolivians of Copacabana forgot to mention the god to me but this happy-go-lucky town is popular for its Basilica or the home of the Virgin of Copacabana, trout, and its proximity to the legendary Island of Sun or the Isla del Sol. As per Andean mythology, the Inca god Viracocha created the sun and the moon on this island. Isla del Sol is currently under dispute for the Northern and Southern people of the island are fighting amongst each other over some accessibility issues.
The Virgen de Copacabana or Virgin of Copacabana or Our Lady of Copacabana is the patron saint of Bolivia. The Basilica, her shrine, has been in Copacabana since the 16 century. If you happen to be in Copacabana on February 2, which is the day of Purification of Mary, or on August 5, a day when the Virgin is celebrated, you will see how both the indigenous and Catholics come from all over Peru and Bolivia to worship the saint and get blessed.
And why wouldn’t they? The virgin is a symbol of mix Catholic and indigenous believes. People say that when during the time of the Spanish colonial rule, Catholicism was introduced, the indigenous Aymara and Quechua tribes adopted the majority of the Catholic beliefs while following their own folklore and traditions. The statue of the Virgin has a historical tale of origin, but the locals will vouch that many miracles happened in the presence of the statue.
I missed both the holy dates. But on a regular Sunday, I saw a teaser of what would have been a long movie on a holy day. Cholitas lining outside the cathedral to sell religious objects, decorative items, and snacks. Much like any Indian street rolling away to a temple is busy with hawkers selling flowers, a ready-made set of Prashad, popular street food, and kitschy souvenir shops. The cars decorated with balloons, ribbons, flowers, and frills looked like the horse carts that attract many tourists in Indian fairs.
I only saw a handful of cars and people, but travelers (I later met) told me that in August the Basilica was swarmed over by worshippers who had brought their tattered-battered and shiny new cars to get them blessed. The cars and the owners only leave after the priests have sprinkled water over the cars, its seats and engines, and even the head of each family member.
The Bolivian people are known for strong religious beliefs. After a theft in which all the gold and silver got stolen from the Basilica in April 2013, the faith still prevails.
Also Read: Why you must visit Santa Cruz Bolivia, a rich city in the east of Bolivia.
Copacabana surprised me with its historical and religious buzz.
What to do in Copacabana Bolivia.
Visit the Basilica of the Virgin of Copacabana in Plaza 2 de Febrero –
It is a 16th-century Roman Catholic church. I have already told you the history of this beautiful white building that has seen millions of worshippers over centuries. Now go see it.
Climb Cerro El Calvario —
After visiting the Basilica many devotees hike up to Cherri el Calvario for lighting candles and tributing toy cars to the shrines at the top of the hill. Though the half an hour hike up to the summit wouldn’t be strenuous in normal conditions, you would be out of breath at that 4000-meter altitude.
But what caught my attention at the top was the view of the shore and the town of Copacabana below. And I couldn’t help but think that why do you always have to strive to experience good things.
Go to the church end of Calle Bolivar to start the hike.
Chill in the town and watch sunsets over Lake Titicaca —
If you have read a few articles of mine you would know that I never rush through any place. Even if I have a day and need to make the most out of it, I would rather go to one site and see and experience it joyfully rather than ticking through 5 must do’s of that destination.
The lakeside town Copacabana offers the right ambiance and opportunities to relax. You can stroll at the shore, hop onto a boat and paddle into the lake, or sit at the rooftop cafes to sip coffee while watching the sun go down the giant lake Titicaca. The golden sunsets there are unforgettable.
Go to Isla Del Sol —
I have talked about Isla del Sol’s history above but apart from being the legendary place of the creation of sun and moon, the island is a beauty. Imagine hills standing next to the deep-blue lake, yellow flowers jutting out of the mountains to form a curtain between you and the water while you watch the ever-still pool, fat sheep and cute donkeys grazing on the dewy grass in their quiet corners, farmers wearing colorful clothes working in the terrace-fields, and miles and miles of peace and nature.
Though now the intra-island dispute restricts the tourists to stay in the South, when I went there the island was open to exploring. The gorgeous walk to the North of the island from the South would have left you gasping. In the North also lies two archaeological sites, one is a holy rock also known as Titi Khar’ka whereas per mythology the Inca god Viracocha created sun and moon and the second one are the Inca ruins of Chincana.
Maybe by the time you go the issue is resolved. (And do let me know if that happens for I need to update the article to let other travelers know. I will be very thankful. ).
You can still take a boat from Copacabana to get off at the South of the island (earlier you could have gotten down even at the North). As you walk off the boat, locals from the Yumani community, who lives in the South, will ask for tourism tax. Pay that off and walk further and then many families will be waiting for new tourists which they can bring to their homestays.
You can either do a trip or just go and spend one or two days on the island. The South also has Inca ruins, even though the North is more popular for the same. So even if you just see the South, you would get to indulge in both the nature and the historical experiences of the island.
I had a heavy cold when I visited Isla del Sol and had trouble breathing at that altitude with a blocked nose and couldn’t walk much. So I mostly relaxed and rested in the sun next to the shore. Watching the sunset from the island was blissful as the golden hue spread on the distant horizon while water played in front of it. You can only catch the sunset on the island if you stay overnight for the last ferry to Copacabana leaves the island at 4 pm, and the sunset is after 6:30 pm.
Buy some basic stuff like toilet roll, snacks, water as these things are expensive on islands. You can find coca leaves and coca tea on the island so don’t worry about carrying coca.
Eat Trout at lakeside or cook it — One of the must things to do in Copacabana Bolivia
Near the pier and in the town there are many Cholitas-run stalls selling fried trout. I ate at many different places while enjoying the picante(chilly) sauce that the ladies gave with the fried fish along with potato chips. You can also cook a wholesome meal in your hostel kitchen for the fresh produce in the grocery market was very enticing. Of course, trout is available in abundance.
The stalls at the pier were the best, and I want to go back.
Hike and bike in the Copacabana countryside —
I won’t tell you to go to any specific place. Though nearby (about an hour’s hike) lie the Incan baths. And La Horca del Inca is also a recommended hike. But even if you don’t have any particular place to visit in mind, just walk around in the countryside. Enjoy the views!
Have a good Indian Chai(along with delicious food) at the El Condor and the Eagle Cafe—
I had been traveling nonstop for nine months when I stepped into this cafe. Needless to say, I was craving for Indian food, but much more for the Indian chai as I hadn’t had a cup in a long time. (Apart from that one time when I had a cup of steaming masala chai at the authentic Indian restaurant in Arequipa run by an Indian.) I was thrilled when I read on the menu that they had the Indian chai and decided to give it a go.
To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes. But when I sipped the chai that was already calming down my soul with its cardamom scent, I was a happy girl. The chai tasted like the one we make at home, full of ginger and cardamom and other masalas. When I asked the Irish owner about it, he told me that his Bolivian wife had learned cooking in Dharamshala.
Sipping on the masala tea and thinking about the South American way of living, I also wrote a story in their travelers’ notebook. Visit this place and read my story if you have time.
Where is Copacabana –
Copacabana is a quaint town on the shores of Lago Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake that Peru and Bolivia share. Copacabana is about 15 hours by bus from Cusco (Peru) and about 4 hours from La Paz.
How to get to Copacabana, Bolivia —
If you are crossing into Bolivia from Peru, the nearest city to Copacabana is Puno. But I came to Copacabana with a direct bus from Cusco which took about 15 hours.
If you are in Bolivia, you can take a bus or a shared collectivo(taxi) to arrive at Copacabana. The bus will drop you off at Plaza Sucre. You can get a collectivo in La Paz or catch a bus from the bus Terminal in La Paz. The journey takes about 4-5 hours.
Where to stay in Copacabana, Bolívia—
I stayed in Casa Del Sol, which is a beautiful home with a sunlit courtyard, a furry dog, a great kitchen, and wonderful owners. I almost felt at home there and recommend you to stay there.
Or you can choose from the many Copacabana accommodations on the Booking.com page for Copacabana here.
How is the weather in Copacabana?
Copacabana is the driest in June and the wettest in January. Though the average maximum temperature never goes above 20-degree Celsius, the hot months are from November to March and the coldest are June and July.
For your Copacabana travel trip, I would suggest you choose a month with a dry and moderate temperature.
What is the altitude of Copacabana, Lake Titicaca?
Copacabana is situated at an altitude of 3,840 meters above sea level. Get ready to feel breathless, often.
Though Copacabana is generally only a rest stop for travelers, I took away a lot more from the town rather than just thinking of it as a touristy lakeside place. The culture of the people, their religious practices, and the peaceful pace of the locals slowed me down and gave a different perspective on Bolivia. Do give this place a few days and see for yourself.
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