Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Isla del Sol, and Chucuito

Our last morning in La Paz we ate breakfast in the picnic area and chatted with the other overlanders, comparing the size of our vehicle and feeling as though perhaps we were coming up short…

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We had planned to escape La Paz early on Tuesday morning – since it was a national holiday we hoped that would mean little traffic and an easy exit. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Driving out of La Paz on Fat Tuesday turned out to be perhaps the most stressful drive of our trip. And a trip that looked like an innocuous 20 minute drive on the map turned into a tow hour ordeal. Climbing out of the canyon and back to the altiplano turned out to be the easy part, but once we climbed up, our car somehow couldn’t quite adjust to the altitude and suddenly lost the ability to idle completely, which meant Wolf suddenly needed a foot on the gas at all times in order to prevent us from stalling. Every time the clutch went in the car would start to stall so we enjoyed two hours of stop and go traffic while also fighting our own engine. Without three legs to work the clutch, brake and gas all at once, Wolf perfected a technique using the handbrake to prevent stalling. Navigating through the outskirts was a nightmare – every intersection was clogged with huge markets, or big Carnival parties, or just parked cars that caused backups several miles long. All this combined with the worst air pollution we’d seen made for a sour end to our stay in La Paz.

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Finally out in the countryside we made our way towards Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the most amazing sight along the way was a Western couple cycling their way through South America with two little kids in tow – one little family of four on two bikes… it certainly made an impression on us.

We reached San Pablo de Tiquina where our road ended directly into Lake Titicaca. There waiting for us were a series of flat barge-like ferries, bringing vehicles back and forth across a short channel.

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We waited in line for a few minutes so I jumped out to grab a few supplies at the corner market. By the time I came back out, Wolf, Ciaran, Anas and our van were already sailing away from the dock, leaving me running down the street, wondering if I would be able to jump from the dock and make it onto the barge, or if I’d be stranded. After hopping from the dock and from barge to barge I managed to finally jump onto our boat just in time.

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On board, the car in front of us had puzzling plates that said “Armenia”.

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We were baffled as to where the car could be coming from, so we chatted with the owner and learned they were from a part of Colombia, heading back from a long family road trip. The man was so unbelievably kind – after chatting for a few minutes in broken Spanish, before he even caught our names or heard much about what we were doing, he pulled out his map and pointed out where he lived, wrote down his address and contact information and told us that we should come stay with him when we reached Colombia. I was touched by his generosity, welcoming four strangers into his home.

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We made it to the other side in one piece and a short drive later, arrived in Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We learned that it is common in Copacabana to have your vehicle blessed at the local church, and we saw a few families celebrating Carnival down by the lakeside with cars that had been blessed and decorated accordingly.

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The same was true of all the boats lining the harbor, most of which were covered in streamers and balloons, looking pretty as they sat on the shoreline.

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We had arrived too late in the day to make it onto a ferry to the neighboring island of Isla del Sol. After spending a few minutes inquiring about private boats, we decided to wait until the next morning’s ferry and set about settling into Copacabana for the night. Our first stop was the campground a few hundred meters down the beach.

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The scene was a real hippie heaven, full of backpackers and riff raff… it would certainly be fine for a night or two and would be an easy place to leave our car while we visited the island. We sat on the patio and enjoyed the view over the water, chatting about plans for the following day, and then we set out to run a few errands and gather supplies.

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When dinnertime rolled around we were happy sitting down for a meal that included nachos, tacos, falafel, and a few other dishes that reminded us of home before turning in for another night camping in the van.

By the time the next morning rolled around, we were packed and ready for a night on Isla del Sol.

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We’d decided to bring small daypacks and planned to take a ferry to the northern end of the island, and from there hike down to southern end where we would spend the evening. Piled onto a big boat with plenty of other tourists, we were greeted by the captain of the ship who then jumped off the boat and waved goodbye to us from the dock, apparently leaving his 10 year old son to ferry us across the lake – all pretty hilarious as usual. It felt great being out on the water and our sunny, scenic trip out to the island was a treat.

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On board they kept telling us that we needed a guide, but once we arrived on the island we decided to set out on our own, which was definitely the right idea.

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Since there are no cars on the island, the trail we hiked was the main thoroughfare between the island’s villages and it was a lot of fun to see a sliver of life there.

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Our route brought us down along the shoreline where we made friends with the local livestock, all seemingly enjoying a beach holiday.

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Murals of local heroes lined the local elementary school, with portraits ranging from Evo to Che to ancient Inca leaders.

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The whole scene was incredibly charming and we kept chatting about how the island reminded us so much of the Mediterranean.

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We stopped to make peanut butter sandwiches for lunch in the shade of a local square and chatted with a few other hikers, dolling out immodium tablets to a fellow traveler suffering from “Bolivia Belly”.

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I loved our hike. We couldn’t have had a more perfect day – the sun was shining, the atmosphere was peaceful and happy, even the donkeys and cows and sheep seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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We arrived in the town of Yumani, passing a few locals working on their crafts out in the beautiful weather.

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We’d booked rooms for the night at a lovely hostel and were happy to find a very kind hostess and her sidekick daughter who was adorably outgoing and wanted nothing more than to sit in our laps and show us her doll and have Ciaran chase her around the yard. After a long hike we rewarded ourselves with a few beers looking out over the Lake.

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Since Yumani is perched on a ridgeline we sought out a restaurant for dinner that looked west across the lake and into Peru.

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Over some delicious grilled trout we watched the sunset over Lake Titicaca – another lovely evening with good friends in a beautiful place.

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The next morning we enjoyed our breakfast on the patio with a view of the Bolivian side of the lake, and reluctantly packed up for the hike down to the dock and a ferry back to the mainland.

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We enjoyed our last hour on the island and shared the trail with many of the cute inhabitants.

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We took time for one last coffee with a view and made it just in time for out boat back to Copacabana.

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Making a beeline for our car, we took a quick break to deal with our gas can, whose cap had burst with the pressure of the high altitude, leaving us with a big gas leak all over the roof and dripping down the side of the car. Wolf and Ciaran emptied the remaining gas into our tank and with that, we were ready to leave Bolivia.

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Just a few kilometers past Copacabana we reached the Peruvian border. As usual we showed up behind a tour bus so we waited in line and took turns using up our remaining Bolivianos to buy supplies at the corner store. The Bolivian side was pretty easy – they stamped us out and then we returned our permit to the aduana agents who barely glanced at us. Crossing over into Peru we spent a few minutes sorting out our entry stamps and then sat in the Aduana office as they processed a new vehicle permit. A few minutes later we were on our way and had successfully crossed into Peru!

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We drove along the shoreline of Lake Titicaca, making our way towards Puno where we wanted to spend the following day.

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On our way we stopped in the tiny town of Chucuito in order to check outthe camping we’d read about at Las Cabanas.

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The incredibly friendly owners welcomed us in and helped us figure out our plans for Puno the next morning. We were relieved that we didn’t need to head all the way into Puno yet and set up our camping for the night. The place had quite a few cabins available for rent but also opened their doors for camping overlanders like ourselves. The grounds were beautiful with a garden right in the center.

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The entire town was incredibly cute with high stone walls on every block giving the feeling of a forgotten medieval town.

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Isla del Sol and Copacabana had been nice enough but they sat squarely on the gringo trail – the requisite stops for every single backpacker travelling through Bolivia and Peru. Here in Chucuito we felt like we were off the beaten path and quite happy to have arrived in what felt like a hidden gem. That night we walked to the town square and each had a trout dinner and some amazing fried cheese – one of the best meals we’d had in a long time.

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We sat on the deserted square, eating at the only open restaurant in town, and enjoyed watching the evening set in while looking out at the remnants of Spanish occupation in the area, trying to ignore the taxi that had decided to leave his car running while parked right up close to us so that we could enjoy his exhaust along with our meal. Certainly in the completely deserted square it makes sense that he would make this choice. On the walk back to the campsite we identified constellations in the southern skies, laughed about our taxi companion during dinner and stopped to pick up breakfast supplies which included a can of milk that left us again laughing and quite puzzled. We turned in for the night happy to have made it to Peru. Check!

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