The worn, sun-bleached swans looked out across the waters with seemingly doleful expressions. Crude metal cage frames protruded from their plastic bodies. The overcast sky above showed no signs of changing. Walking along the pebble-stoned beach, with its abandoned swan-shaped pedalos I suddenly felt as though I was back in England. There is a very unique melancholia that penetrates an English resort town during winter – the eerie stillness of a place that come summer is usually filled with a cacophony of hawkers shouting their trade and children screeching and laughing as they play. The untouched, defunct rides serving as a permanent reminder of the absence of laughter and fun. As the wind whipped around me, I tugged my fleece jacket tightly across my body and hurried along into town.
I had arrived in Copacabana the previous evening with the hopes of exploring Isla del Sol the next day, an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca which according to local legend is the birthplace of Inca Civilization. My plan was to sort out a boat ride to the island and a bus ride to the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Copacabana itself is a small town, actually to call it a town is too generous – it in fact consists of two squares with one main street running through them. At the top of the main street is a cathedral and at the bottom the harbour and all that lies in between are countless restaurants and tour operators. Travellers outnumber the locals and there is a continuous wave of new arrivals throughout the day. The influx of tourists has certainly eradicated any charm Copacabana had originally possessed, if it had possessed any at all, and yet frustratingly for a town that now seemed to exist solely to exploit trapped tourists, there was little in way of amenities for us. Take the ATM situation.
I had spent the day sorting out my onwards travel and my trip to Isla del Sol, traipsing about from one tour operator to another. I say tour operators but essentially I was dealing with pre-pubescent kids. Everywhere you go it seems it’s the children behind the counters, the children who deal with the money, the children who handle the businesses. That’s a huge responsibility and amount of trust you are placing in a child – but maybe the Bolivians are onto something. This may be a very sophisticated marketing ploy. Are you really going to start haggling prices with a kid? Are you going to complain and get self-righteously aggressive with a kid because you’re not happy with the service or demand a refund? No, because a kid is disarming, they have big sad eyes and you start to give them a tragic back-story to explain why they are behind the counter and not behind a desk in school. Anyway by the time I had sorted out everything I realised I needed to get some cash to pay for my accommodation before heading off tomorrow. I search for an ATM, asking for directions and find myself going round in circles until I finally find one by the police station. But it soon becomes apparent that it is out of order. Desperate, I rush into an internet cafe to browse the net for a solution. Travel forum after travel forum berate the lack of ATMs in Copacabana and advise visitors to bring as much cash with them before arriving. Now I’m visualising a life spent in Copacabana, unable to escape because of my inability to access my money. The thought is unbearable – to spend an eternity in a place where you already start arranging an exit ticket within an hour of arriving is not my idea of hell – it’s my idea of purgatory! After further perusal on the internet I discover there is another ATM with an armed guard outside it. I rush to the place, realising that I had passed it at least ten times already on my previous ATM hunt. But as I proceed to enter the alcove with the ATM, the guard shakes his head at me and points to the bank next door. I head inside and explain my situation to one of the clerks. He explains that I can withdraw money from one of the cashiers, as long as I present them with some form of identification, such as a passport. Such as my passport that is currently ensconsed in my backpack in my hotel room. The bank is closing in ten minutes and to get to my hotel and back would take at least forty minutes. I concede defeat and resolve to be at the bank first thing in the morning, passport in hand.
The next morning I am a whirl of activity – rushing from the hotel on the outskirts into town to finally get money out at the bank and amend my travel arrangements. Then back to the hotel to pay my dues and collect my backpack and off again into town, running past the wild rabied dogs that stalk the hotel’s surrounding area and lunge at passerbys. I found a cafe, directly in front of the pier where I would be boarding my boat to Isla del Sol, and smugly settled down to pass the remaining hours writing, reading and eating. In Copacabana, there is a lethargy which seeps through the air encircling the town and its inhabitants in a tight grip. If anything moves at all, it is at a slow pace and everyone is laid-back to the point of being horizontal. Perhaps it is for this reason that quite a few hippies and rastafarians seemed to have suspended their travelling and ended up setting up root here, opening businesses and restaurants. These places entice you with the soft, bouncing rhythm of Bob Marley or Manu Chao’s experimental reggae that they play outside. You wander into the restaurant and no-one comes to greet you, so you search for a menu and seat yourself at a table. After deciding what you’d like to order, you scan the place for a waiter but no-one’s around. Eventually the person who saw sat chilling outside, smoking away, saunters over to you fifteen minutes after you’d arrived. Turns out they’re the waiter and are finally ready to take your order. Unfortunately they don’t have your first choice, nor your second. Luckily your fifth choice is available, and even though hardly any cooking is needed to prepare the dish it will take about a further half an hour before you can start eating. Yeah, the customer service skills have yet to acheive rudimentary levels.
The lethargy not only affects people but time as well. Every clock I looked at in Copacabana had a completely different time, but having seen two with the same I decided this must be the correct time – turns out I was wrong in my assumption. Funny that! I was an hour behind and almost missed the final boat that day to the island. As I gazed out at the lake, I noticed that one of the boats at the harbour was filling up fast with tourists, but I still had an hour to go before mine departed. However, people were rushing to the boat as if it was about to leave any minute and panic started to set in as I knew deep down that that was probably my boat. I dashed out of the restaurant to the guy in charge of the harbour and flashed him my ticket. His eyes widened and frantically gestured for me to get on board. I rushed back to the restaurant to grab my backpack, pretty much emptying my pockets to cover a bill I hadn’t seen and hurried back to cram myself into one of the few remaining spaces on the lower part of the boat.
After an hour and a half ride the boat arrived at Yumani, the Southern and most popular part of the island. As soon as you step of the boat you are hounded my little kids (again!) promoting hostels. A cute boy, who looked no older than ten and was an absolute chatterbox won me over and we headed on up to his hostel. Isla del Sol is 3810m above sea level and so combining the high altitude with walking up steep paths makes for a quickly exhausting experience. After climbing uphill for fifteen minutes we reached the hostel – the hostel that was still being built. Losing the will to continue going further on to another hostel I settled where I was, pleased to find that at least my room had been finished. Well, when I say finish I mean it is enclosed with solid cement flooring and a bed in the middle. The en-suite shower is non-functioning and the only water pouring out of the taps is freezing. There were also a few personal, homely touches such as the ornamental doves which I presume were meant to look endearing but actually looked as though they were midway through a particularly aggressive fuck session.
I was aware that to trek from the South of the island to the North would take approximately two and half hours and the time was already 3pm. I wanted to head off as soon as possible, although my gut was saying I should be sensible and wait till tomorrow morning. However on my brief stay in Copacabana I had noticed that the weather always behaved the same. Cold, windy and rainy in the morning; perfect sunshine and clear skies in the afternoon. I was going to take full advantage of the good weather and nothing was going to stop me. So waved off in the general direction of North and without a map, I began my trek. The day was absolutely beautiful. The sun was beating down hard, the azure coloured sky and the rich blue waters merged into one another in the distance. The colours and landscape were similar to those of the Adriatic coast. The mediterranean feel of the place was unmistakable. I wandered onward, barely passing another person, relishing the peace and solitude. Even though the island was swarming with tourists, I didn’t bump into any. It soon came to my attention however that I was not following the Island trail but rather free-styling my way across the island.
I passed through people’s farming land, greeting them as I carried on, carefully avoiding the llamas eyeing me up suspiciously. I crossed over streams and scrambled up steep rock faces into dense forests. Peering down to the side I would often spot a remote beach and longed to climb down to relax on its sands. After about two hours and a half I had reached Challapampa and immediately regretted my decision to stay the night in Yumani. Challapampa was small but more peaceful and idyllic compared to it’s Southern counterpart, plus most of the hostels were right by the beach, no hiking up steep hills! I wandered over to one of the stalls to find out the time. It was quarter to seven. Noticing that light was now diminishing I asked what time the sun set usually. ‘Half past seven,’ was the response. Considering how long it had taken me to trek the length of the island I knew I wouldn’t make it back to Yumani before sunset. Looking out to the pier before me I saw an incoming boat and asked the stall holder if he knew how much it would cost to hire someone to row me back to Yumani. The sweet old gentleman with a smattering of wispy white hairs that barely covered his baldness promptly set off to ask around for me. But when he returned he shook his head apologetically. No-one was going to go out now, with the wind starting to pick up and the water becoming choppy. He suggested that I stay at a hostel here for the night before returning to Yumani the following day but I knew I’d resent paying for two hostels when I’d only be staying in one. Besides my backpack was in Yumani with all the warm clothes I would need for the chilly night ahead.
So running against time I thanked the old man for all his help, turned on my heels and headed back South. The scenery I had been admiring earlier on was gradually being consumed by the darkness, the cold set in and I thanked the Lord that I’d had had the rare good sense to carry my miniature torch with me. The island now became different depths of black, passing by homes which quivered with the faint glow of candlelight. The only people that passed me were shepherds gathering their flock. Reluctantly I switched on my torch and found that half way through my trek back I had found the official trekking path. I could only imagine the Inca ruins that I was passing by that I should have seen during the day, now hidden from my view by night. After about two hours a signpost welcomed me to Yumani. A brightly lit hostel drew me in and as I stumbled into the gated area, the owner came out. I asked him if he could direct me to my hostel but as it was new, still being constructed, he hadn’t heard of it. Internally I cursed the little boy with the cute smile and gift of the gab. Onwards I trundled with a constant stream of cozy scenes surrounding me of couples and groups of friends huddled around fires, blissfully unaware that outside was a girl who had pretty much trekked five hours straight, with no food and barely wearing any layers to shield her from the cold. I stopped at restaurants and shops asking if anyone knew the way to my hostel until one owner recognised the name and after ten minutes I was finally back in my room. But the chill didn’t stop at the door so I found myself in bed sleeping with my socks on, leggings, trousers, a top, fleece, my coat and several blanket layers. It was the coldest night I had ever experienced.
So with little sleep, after spending the night busy shivering to keep warm, I dragged myself onto the morning boat and sped back to Copacabana, the drizzling rain chasing us away. With a whole afternoon to myself before catching the bus to La Paz, I flung myself into a deckchair by the harbour and watched the world go by. I was in prime position when a parade of people in extraordinary costumes clattered down the main street to the pier with a curious crowd slowly enclosing them. Smartly dressed portly men carried their brass instruments and drums. The women wore traditional clothes but this time in more garish colours than usual and with their bowler hats perched a top their braided heads. However, it was the men who looked astounding dressed in huge feather headpieces, gold torso armor and bizarre lampshade skirts. They all assembled together by the water, as the sun beyond began to lower. The band struck up, each member playing at a different tempo and the dancers began to spin in tight circles. It seemed as though we were watching a rehearsal rather than a performance – and the lack of perfection and professional gloss was actually captivating. It was a fantastic ending to my time on Copacabana, but I was now ready to say bye and trudged up the main street to wait for my bus.
An hour after we were due to depart, which included a confusing mini-strike with passengers having to rush from one bus to another, we departed. Sat next to me was an old, short neurotic man with glass frames bigger than his face which gave him an owlish appearance. He was Bolivian and on hearing that I was from London, exclaimed that he had had a girlfriend from London many years ago. He leaned in and whispered mischievously that she had been no size 10 but very, very fat. He giggled and I gulped as I realised I would be spending the next four hours of my life next to this man and had a feeling he would not be wasting time in revealing his perversions to me. I needn’t have worried. He was far too preoccupied with telling me how awful and dangerous La Paz is. He quickly informed me of the numerous scams that people try there. I filed these stories away in the back of my mind with an incident that had happened to a friend of a friend in La Paz. She had gotten into a taxi and had given the driver a piece of paper with the address of a hostel on it, which he passed back to her. A few hours later, she woke up in the middle of nowhere with all of her belongings stolen. Turns out the driver had sprayed a type of drug on the paper which passed through her system when she touched it.
Halfway through the drive we came to a river and all the passengers had to disembark and board a boat to cross over. Huddled tightly together my new neighbour strikes up a conversation with me and I reply in stilted Spanish. He is from Chile and soon some other Chileans join in. They are all curious about my travels, especially travelling solo. One of them asks me how long I’m due to stay in La Paz. I reply three nights. Everyone guffaws but can’t stop their laughter – one wipes a tear away and says that one night is more than enough. The city is filthy and dangerous, I am told. A place to pass through rather than stay in. We enter the city at around 10pm and from what I can see in the dark, my worst fears have been confirmed. La Paz looks like a city of rubble, the aftermath of a bombing with rubbish strewn everywhere and only streetlamps as a source of light whilst the buildings and homes remain pitch black, possibly unoccupied. It was at that moment that I felt a tap on my right shoulder. Bolivian Woody Allen points to the other side of the bus and as far as the eye can see there are city lights abuzz. Below in the valley lies La Paz, where we had been was known as La Paz El Alto (‘The Top’). As we descended, the tightening feeling I’d had in my stomach subsided and relief flowed through me as I realised that I would no longer be spending the night in a place where your soul would gladly find a corner to curl up and die in.
At the bus station I said bye to the Bolivian and Chileans, who like worried parents waved me off into the big, bad city with its menacing inhabitants. As I pulled up to my hostel I felt excited to be back in a place where I could mix with fellow travellers. A week of barely speaking English and having an in-depth conversation was beginning to drive me mad, so I purposefully booked into a party hostel where you would be guaranteed to bump into a few interesting characters. But little did I know that I was approaching the low-point of my trip so far…