Isla del Sol in Copacabana, Bolivia

Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
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Trip End Sep 19, 2006


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Thursday, August 31, 2006

My apologies, to all 4,966 of you
I can't possibly imagine the anguish you must be going through. The intense fear. The anticipation. I really appreciate your concern, and I want you to know that I am doing well and am still quite alive. Undoubtedly you have noticed that my entries terminated abruptly in Puno, Peru, leaving you disagreeably positioned on the edge of your seat since last August. So here's what happened: I was somewhere in Bolivia and had a decision to make. The evening is approaching. Do I (1) go out and explore the city or (2) settle into an internet cafe for a few hours of travelogue updates?

This decision brought me back to a quote that has stuck in my mind ever since I first saw it on the statue of sailor-historian Samuel Morison on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston:

"Dream dreams and write them - aye, but live them first."

Who can argue with that? I mean, he uses the word "aye"! I can only hope to one day have a quote attributed to me that has the word "aye" in it. So the decision was made. I would put the travelogue on hold so that it could grow deeper. I would stop writing and start living (more). I did, however, take daily notes on where I had been, who I had met, what I did, and what I paid. All this so that I could synthesize that data, along with scores of pictures and memories, into a complete travelogue ending for you, the reader. I know, I'm a saint.

At last count, this travelogue has received 4,966 hits. That's a lot of people waiting for an ending! Actually, I'm pretty certain that 4,946 of those hits are from my mom. The other 20 are likely from me updating the travelogue. So, mom, I proudly present to you, with no further adieu, the second chapter in my South American Adventures:

Bolivia and Beyond
(I hope you like it)

cart to bolivia

My trip from Puno, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia was excruciatingly mild and safe. Joao Carlos and I took a van packed full of people to the edge of the border around noon (this was actually one of the most uncomfortable rides on the entire trip for me as I just couldn't fit in my seat). We then hired an old man riding a bicycle carriage to take us to the actual border. There was some misunderstanding regarding the price of our ride that ultimately led to a heated argument between Jaoa and the "driver", followed by our exit from the bike and walk for the rest of the way. The border crossing was fairly painless, and upon crossing Joao and I sat down for a beer while we waited for a vehicle that could drive us into Copacabana.

Turning Water into Wine on top of Cerro Caldivario
Copacabana is a quaint town on the Bolivian edge of Lake Titicaca. It has a slight "beach" feel to it, with heavy boating and fishing industries. There are a number of opulent churches (like in every South American town I've been through), as well as a couple of sprawling marketplaces and a large hill overlooking the lake. In what seems to have become a trend on my trip, Joao Carlos and I decided to climb to the highest point we could see, which happened to be a hike up Cerro Caldivario.

Before starting our trek up this hill, we found a hotel to leave our stuff at and bought a bottle of wine for our enjoyment at the top. The hotel seemed nice enough, within a few blocks of the water and conveniently located. Oh, and did I mention it was only 10bolivianos/$1.25 per night? Gotta love the 8:1 exchange rate.

The hike to the top of Cerro Caldivario was a little strenuous, but relatively short and scenic (it took just about half an hour). There are two things you will note should you ever climb to the top of Cerro Caldivario:
1. Like many peaks in Latin America, it is adorned with Christian symbols. Early missionaries knew how indigenous cultures praised mountains as being gods. Thus, they shrewdly placed crucifixes atop nearly every apex in Latin America. As you hike up Cerro Caldivario, you pass through each of the stations of the cross, to reach a large sanctuary at the top. It is a mini pilgrimage for many people to climb this hill.
2. Like many places in Latin America, it is littered with trash. There doesn't seem to be much of a widely-accepted environmentalism or cleanliness movement in most of Latin America yet. You will constantly find beautiful scenery scarred with dots of waste. Cerro Caldivario was no different. It was a little sad.

Upon reaching the top, Joao and I opened our wine and a couple of candy bars we had purchased from a child on the hike up. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but if you look at my pictures for this entry you will find a "miracle" that occurred on top of this peak.

Joao Carlos and Copacabana

From the top of Caldivario, we could hear the perpetual hum of festive music coming from somewhere below, deep inside the city. We scanned the rooftops and gardens, attempting to triangulate the source of this music. We decided to find the festivities upon our descent back into the town.

The Real Life Wedding Crashers: Copacabana
After a quick meal by the water and some investigative questioning of the locals, Joao and I discovered the music was coming from a wedding. Apparently the whole town had been invited. We found our way to the party, that was being held in a gated courtyard. Have you ever wondered what grandma would look like if she was completely wasted...and Bolivian? Well, wonder no more. We had made it to the post-wedding debauchery. Everyone was dressed up and dancing around as they sang and greeted each other merrily.

wedding drinks

Joao and I skirted the edges of the celebration, leaning in a little nook by the entrance. We noticed a pattern. A guest would approach the gateway to the courtyard, carrying a crate of beer. They would enter and be immediately greeted by the bride, the groom, and a terribly sloshed old woman who I can only imagine must have been the mother of one of them. The greeters would hug the new guests, and pour confetti on their heads. Then, a couple of waiters would appear carrying trays of alcoholic beverages. The guests would go through each of the drinks in turn, gulping down the intoxicating goodness. This sure was a way to party. I don't want to imagine grandma's hangover the next day. Check my photo section for the brief video clip I took when I worked up the courage to brandish my camera.

Goodbye, Joao Carlos
Joao Carlos and I had decided to catch a boat the next morning to the Isla del Sol ("The Island of the Sun"). The Sun figures prominently as the greatest of all the gods of the Incan people. This island was a part of the mythical capital of Incan heritage. Along with Machu Picchu, it was a link in the chain of the supernatural.

At 7:15am the next morning, having rested very well for only $1.25, Joao Carlos and I woke up to the shouts of our host at the Arcoiris ("Rainbow") hotel. You see, we thought we would have plenty of time to make it to our 8:30am boat ride to the Isla del Sol. What we didn't realize, however, was that we had unwittingly passed into a new time zone upon entering Bolivia. It was 8:15am and I was very thankful for having passed the details of our plans along to the hotel manager.

As another unexpected turn of events, Joao informed me he would not be joining me on the tour. Instead, he would try to find his way to a bus in order to make it back to Brazil. You see, Joao had been traveling for quite some time. He started in his hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and continued north along the countless amazing Brazilian beaches. He then cut into the jungle and passed (nervously) through Venezuela and Colombia, continuing down into Ecuador and Peru (where I met him in Puno). However, he had a fixed date at which he was to meet with his girlfriend in southern Brazil, and that date was fast approaching. He figured the only way he could make it in time was to leave that morning. So we exchanged contact information and parted ways as I headed down to the docks for the next adventure.

In search of the Great Puma on the Isla del Sol
I barely made it to my boat on time. I couldn't argue too much about the price, though (17bolivianos/$2 for a round trip ride to the island). I would be left off on the north side of the island, and then make my way south to a port where the boat would pick up all the passengers who had chosen to hike across the island. There is an easier option of staying overnight on the island, but I decided I would not gain that much from an extra night on this island, and I was eager to continue on my journey south into Bolivia. I figured one day would be enough to explore this magnificent place.

On the boat ride, two passengers boarded who caught my attention. One was a relatively young, light-skinned girl with her hair dangling lazily in amber dreadlocks. Her companion was a darker man, who lacked some of the harsher features found on the local peoples. I struck up a conversation. As it turned out, Laura (pronounced "La-oo-rah") was from Colombia, but lived for a period of time in Florida with her family when they moved there. Aaron was a mexican student studying abroad in Cordoba, somewhere in central Argentina. They had met each other just the previous day.

The three of us formed a bit of a trio and continued together upon entering the northern shore of the island. At that point we also ran into Julien. Julien is a swiss guy who was traveling through South America for almost a year. He spent a very large amount of time just in Ecuador learning spanish and immersing himself in a family there. He is a testament to the power of fully embedded language learning. He lived with a family on the scale of months and raised his skills close to the level that I had attained after studying spanish on the scale of years (about 9 years, to be a little more exact). It was interesting hearing some of his stories. I really enjoyed speaking with him.

We eventually found the great Puma rock. Legend has it that the first Inca sprang from this very spot. I thought it looked more like a frog.

puma rock

The hike was truly amazing just for the spectacular scenery. The Isla del Sol is basically a long ridge with various mounds dotting the way. We walked mostly on the spine of this island, allowing us to get amazing views of Lake Titicaca in all directions. This is definitely a place worth visiting again.

Important Note: sun dog Should you ever find yourself hiking on the Isla del Sol, please make sure to look up at the sky periodically. I was wearing a hat at the time and might have missed an incredible natural occurrence had Aaron not been more perceptive. You see, on the Isla del Sol there is a rather frequent ambient occurrence known as a "Sun Dog." A what? A Sun Dog. They don't call it that there, though. There it is just an "arcoiris" or "rainbow". But this isn't any rainbow you've ever seen before. This is a full circle. That's right. A ring of rainbow. And on top of that, there were multiple rainbows at the same time! It was amazing. It really would have been a great "I told ya so" moment for my dad. When I was younger he used to say I was blocking out 30% of life by wearing a hat. He was right.

Late nights and cold showers
Laura and Aaron had been planning on staying overnight at the island, but after we spoke with Julien (who had stayed over the previous night), we decided it really would be better to take the evening boat back and continue with our respective journeys. However, upon our return we found that there was absolutely no way to leave the city. All methods of transportation were currently shut down in what was commonly known as a "Paro". This was basically a strike...performed by the entire transportation industry on a regular basis, and seemingly at random times for random durations. And it was dangerous to violate this paro (you could be attacked or stoned). So we settled down for another $1.25 night at the Arcoiris hotel. Laura, Aaron and I went out to a bar that night and had a lively conversation with a Paceno (term for a man from La Paz, Bolivia). He told us about how much he loves this country, regardless of its small problems (like the sporadic collapse of all national transportation). After having a few drinks, we found ourselves completely locked out of our hotel. We tried climbing up a pole to no avail (the window for our room looked out on the street). Finally, we decided to pound on the uninviting steel door, and then cower several yards away. The manager eventually came and opened the door for us. He did not look happy, and I'm pretty sure he was cursing at us. I guess you get what you pay for.

international association

Aaron left very early the next morning (the three of us had shared a 3-bed room that night). I guess he was in a rush to get to the next place on his journey. Laura was more concerned with getting a hot shower (which was promised on the sign in front of the hotel). However, she found the water to be meticulously set at penguin-loving sub-arctic temperatures. This resulted in a very interesting "conversation" between her and the hotel manager. I sat in the room as I listened to her yelling (in spanish) at the manager. It went a little something like this:

Laura: "This hotel guarantees a room with hot water, and the water is freezing!"
Manager: "You already took a shower with hot water."
Laura: "What?? I have not taken a shower here yet!"
Manager: "Yes you have."
Laura: "Are you calling me a liar??? Do you want to SMELL ME???"

She won. She ended up getting him to open up a hot shower in another empty room. I was happy to get a hot shower, too.

After wandering the streets of Copacabana that morning, we decided to do some shopping before heading out. There were a bunch of artisans with goods sprawled on blankets on the sides of the street. Many of them were actually from Colombia, and my association with Laura bought me high status with these wandering gypsies. I ended up purchasing an earthen-toned woven bracelet from a very nice Colombian woman. I remember how carefully she tied it onto my wrist. I haven't taken it off since. Not out of some mission to wear it forever. That would be weird. More because I've never had a particular reason to take it off, and she did such a good job of putting it on anyway.

Laura was going to be continuing south towards Buenos Aires, so I thought I might have found a travel companion for some large chunk of time (and a Colombian at that!) Of course she'd be able to negotiate our way out of any future hijackings. Alas, things don't always work out as you'd hope. Laura ended up deciding to stick around in Copacabana a little longer with the street hippies. They were going to be continuing south to some festival a bit later. goodbye laura I considered joining them, but decided I had to continue on my own path for now. So with that, Laura and I decided to part ways in hopes that we'd run into each other again at some point between there and Buenos Aires.

You know, as I always say: "Friendship makes the travels grand - aye, but solitude makes the traveler grand. Aye keep it real."

And you can quote me on that.

Quantifiable Summary
Van ride from Puno to Bolivian border (10soles/$3, 2.5hours, very cramped)
Hiking Cerro Caldivario (~30 minutes, great views)
Wedding Crashing (free, priceless)
Hotel Arcoiris in Copacabana (10bolivianos/$1.25, good location, have to fight for hot water)
Isla del Sol Boat Ride (17bolivianos/$2, 8:30am til ~6pm, amazing scenery)
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Where I stayed
Arcoiris Hotel

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