Bolivian Travels: From La Paz to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca

My three-week Mountain Kingdoms trip (click here for the itinerary) did not begin well!  On Sunday afternoon before I first met the rest of the group at the Hotel Rey Palace in downtown La Paz I had a prix-fixe lunch at the nearby Kuchen Stube that included a fresh salad. (I am guessing that it was the cause of my troubles; I may be wrong.)

On Monday the group and guide went off to Tiwanaku (sometimes spelled Tiahuanaco) on an excursion I had prepared for with extensive reading.  I stayed behind to let my stomach issue take its course. It was the only day in Bolivia that I did not take one photo! It would be four or five days before I felt 100% again.


All maps and images enlarge and appear in a new window with a click or two. 

The day after my missed Tiwanaku visit, we left La Paz for the first stage of our Cordillera Real trek.  In order to ensure adequate acclimatization, the idea is to give the clients’ bodies some time to adapt to the thinner air of La Paz (3500 meters) and the Altiplano (4000 m) before starting the trek with its average campsite altitude in the 4500-meter range.

panorama - The Cordillera Real and the city of La Paz

panorama – The Cordillera Real and the city of La Paz

With 900,000 inhabitants, La Paz is Bolivia’s third largest city. It sits in a gorge carved into the Altiplano – the high plains – of Bolivia. To the east of La Paz is the Cordillera Real and on the plains above is the sprawling and more recently established city of El Alto with another million people.  We were on our way to the Lake Titicaca area. It began with a ride that took us up to the Altiplano. From near the top, you get photos that look a lot like the ones above and below!

looking east towards Huayna Potosi

looking east towards the Altiplano and Nevado Huayna Potosi

We were on our way to Copacabana, a small town on the shore of Lake Titicaca famous for its statue of Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. It is also the usual starting point for a boat shuttle to Isla del Sol, the island famed for its connection to the foundation myth of the Incas from the nearby Cusco region of Peru.

housing at the top of the hole that is La paz

housing at the top of the hole that is La Paz

During the next few days, we would often be looking back at the Cordillera Real and its various sections. The image below is of Illimani taken once we were on the west side of  El Alto. It is at the south-east end of the Cordillera; we would not get that far in our two-week trek, which ended on the north side of Nevado Huayna Potosi, the pyramid-shaped massif shown in a couple of the pix above.

Illimani view from Ruta Nacional 2 west of El Alto

Illimani view from Ruta Nacional 2 west of El Alto

Once past Huarina, which is about 75 kilometers from downtown La Paz, it was on the ferry which would take us across the 900-meter Estrecho de Tiquina. Before we got there, however, we stopped in Huatajata at the workshop of  Demetrio Limachi.  Born on the island of Suriqui, he became a reed boat maker at an early age. It was Thor Heyerdahl who chose him, his two brothers and neighbour Paulino Esteban for their reed boatbuilding skills when he had the Ra II constructed in Morocco in 1970. The ensuing trans-Atlantic voyage proved to be a success. Below is a boat on display at the Limachi homestead/workshop.

reed boat built by Thor Hyderdal's raft maker

reed boat built by Thor Heyerdahl’s raft maker Dimitrio Limachi  and his sons

Lunch in Huatajata – and all along the Titicaca coast – centers on fish, with trout (trucha) being the most popular. I had the vegetarian alternative – i.e. the same rice and boiled veggies along with some substitute like a TVP patty. (It was not memorable; I can’t actually recall what it was!)

On to the Tequina Strait for the short ferry ride.  There is a small community on each side – and the locals are united in their opposition to the building of a bridge over the 800-meter-wide strait. They clearly want to keep earning a living doing what they have always done, ferrying the vehicles across on the barges while more comfortable boats take the passengers. All told it took us about forty-five minutes to continue on our way on the other side. With a bridge, it would have taken a couple of minutes!

looking over the stait to San Pablo de Tiquina

looking over the strait to San Pablo de Tiquina


The strait connects the larger basin – called Lago Grande or Lago Chucuito – with the smaller Lago Pequeño or Lago Wiñaymarka (also spelled Huiñaimarca). The name Titicaca itself comes from the island we know as Isla del Sol.

One explanation of the name’s roots bases it on the Aymara phrase Titi Khar’ka (Rock of the Puma). A couple of days later we would see on the north end of the Isla del Sol the Sacred Rock, in whose shape some claim to see a crouching puma.

map of Estrecho de Tiquina area

map of Estrecho de Tiquina area

looking across the Estrecho de Tiquina to San Pedro from San Pablo de Tiquina

looking across the Estrecho de Tiquina to San Pedro from San Pablo de Tiquina

Bolivian Navy Outpost at San Pedro de Tiquina

Bolivian Navy Outpost in San Pedro de Tiquina!

While Bolivia lost access to the sea with its defeat in the War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879 it still maintains a navy which does service on Lake Titicaca and on rivers flowing into the Amazon. It also keeps alive the hope of regaining the access to the Pacific which they lost 140 years ago!  Sitting in front of the white and blue outpost is one of the 1,800 members of the naval force.

looking at Illimani - 120 kilomters away!

looking at Illimani – 120 kilometers away!

trucha is the big seller along the Lago Titicaca coast

trucha (trout) is the big seller along the Lago Titicaca coast

Less than forty kilometers from San Pablo de Tiquina we came to the great view of Copacabana as seen in the photo below. Framed by a set of hills on the north and south side it is somewhat elevated from the shore of the lake at about 3840 meters. The town of about 6,000 has one major attraction – the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana which holds the famous Virgen de Copacabana statue, seen as a powerful talisman by Roman Catholic believers who make pilgrimages to the site.

approaching Copacabana in early afternoon

approaching Copacabana in the early afternoon – shooting into the sun!

And not just Roman Catholics.  It is thought that the site was a major pilgrimage centre even before the arrival of Christianity in the 1500’s. One explanation of the origin of the town’s name traces it back to Kota Katana, an Andean fertility goddess.  This might explain its continuing power to attract Aymara and Quechua pilgrims since it offers a synthesis of the Christian story with a much more local one.

Lake Titicaca and the two hills of Copacabana

Lake Titicaca and the two hills of Copacabana

On the north side of town are a couple of hills, again with pre-Christian meaning to the locals. And again, on top of local myths, the conquerors built their story. So the higher hill became a Cerro Calvario, the Calvary hill which Jesus walked up with his crucifix.  Along the way are pillars representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross, key moments in the Passion of the Christ.

La Catedral de Copacabana

La Basilica de Copacabana – approaching the entrance

Arriving a bit early to check into our hotel, we spent some time checking out the Basilica. Outside were the usual vendors of religious icons and aids for religious observance – rosaries, statues, books and pamphlets.  I was intrigued by the items in the photo below. It seems that it is the custom to fulfill one’s hopes and dreams of material things by purchasing replicas of what it is that we seek.  Once blessed by the priest these items are kept at home as the supplicant waits patiently for his or her good fortune to materialize!

replica items to be blessed by the priest at Copacabana

replica items to be blessed by the priest at Copacabana

replica money and real estate - two popular items to be blessed

replica money and real estate – two popular items to be blessed

Another example of the magical thinking that is alive and well were the vehicle owners waiting for the priest’s blessing.  the photo below shows one family getting their car – a taxi – ready for the priest. When we exited the basilica a while later their job was done and they were waiting for the priest to arrive.

taxi owners preparing their vehicle for a Copacabana blessing

taxi owners preparing their vehicle for a Copacabana blessing

Virgen de Copacabana replicas for pilgrims

Virgen de Copacabana replicas for pilgrims

looking back at the entrance and the Three Crosses shrine

looking back at the entrance and the Three Crosses shrine

inside the church grounds at Copacabana

the three crosses of Calvary – inside the basilica grounds

a statue of Our Lady of Copacabana above the basilica entrance

looking up above the basilica entrance at a copper statue of Our Lady of Copacabana

Our Lady of Copacabana is the patron saint of Bolivia. Inside the basilica is a wooden statue dating back to the late 1500’s. Since its presence is credited with all sorts of miracles, it attracted pilgrims from throughout Bolivia and neighbouring Peru who come to pay their respect and perhaps leave a petition or two for Our Lady of Copacabana’s consideration.

Bienvenido Santo Padre poster welcoming Pope Francisco to Copacabana

Bienvenido Santo Padre poster welcoming Pope Francisco

In July of 2015, Pope Francis visited Copacabana as part of a whirlwind three-day tour of Bolivia.  while at the basilica he offered the following words of acknowledgement –

Mother of the Saviour and our Mother, You, Queen of Bolivia, who from the height of your Shrine in Copacabana attend to the prayers and needs of your children, especially the most poor and abandoned, and protect them..


the Copacabana car owners waiting for it to be blessed

the Copacabana car all decorated and ready to be blessed

While there are dozens of humble lodgings for the local pilgrims, there is also more upscale tourist-class accommodation.  I’ll admit that ours – the Hotel Rosario – must be close to the top of the list.  We would spend a night here before we headed off to Isla del Sol the next morning.

the sitting area of our Rosario hotel room in Copacabana

the sitting area of our Rosario hotel room in Copacabana

In the meanwhile, in the late afternoon we walked to the top of Cerro Calvario. On our way we passed the fourteen Station of the Cross pillars; they all looked like the one I took a photo of.  It was, in a word, shocking to see such graffiti and rubbish littering the path on the way up and certainly contradicted the notion that this place has any special spiritual meaning to the locals – or to visitors.  How else can one explain that it is allowed to look like this?

Somehow some visitors are able to see past the garbage to experience another reality. How is this for a contrast?

This truly spiritual place is more than just a hill on the edge of one of the most spectacular lakes in the world, but a window into your soul.

I found the words in a fellow blower’s post!  I did wonder what he had been smoking.  Read more of it here for a more positive view than mine.

a typical Station of the Cross at Copacabana's Calvario

a typical Station of the Cross at Copacabana’s Calvario

On the positive side, once you look away from the graffiti and garbage, the view from the top is truly memorable.  Looking down towards the townsite you see the sweep of Copacabana beach and inland you see the Basilica gleaming in the setting sun’s rays.

the view from the top of Cerro Calvario

the view from the top of Cerro Calvary – note the graffiti on the bottom!

Copacabana from Cerro Calvario

Copacabana from Cerro Calvario

And looking west, we waited for that magical moment when the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving a golden glow for us to enjoy. Our guide had recommended we bring our headlamps; we needed them as we made our way back down to the town after dusk.  On our way back to the Hotel Rosario we went down a busy Avenida 6 de Agosto lined with restaurants and less expensive hostals and tourist trinket shops.

downtown Copacabana

Given the nice vibe of the town, it would have been nice to spend another day here – maybe walking to the top of the hill you see in the photo above, spending more time in the basilica and the plaza and just walking along the beach. However, our itinerary was set and the next morning we headed off for Isla del Sol.

Lake Titicaca sunset

Next Post: Bolivian Travels – From Copacabana To Isla del Sol

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5 Responses to Bolivian Travels: From La Paz to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca

  1. Interesting perspective regarding the Cerro Calvario. I didn’t notice the vandalism and such all that much, probably because I’d been travelling in South America for two months already and gotten used to things being like that pretty much everywhere… I guess I just accepted it and looked passed it by that time.

    • true_north says:

      I should have be more the journalist and taken more pix of the shabbiness of it all…the graffiti, the broken beer and liquor bottles, the litter. It made me question how deeply Roman Catholic the Bolivians really are – perhaps as elsewhere the young have not been instilled with the faith of their elders, choosing to give their lives meaning in other ways.

      Perhaps an entrance to the site with a nominal fee that is used to maintain the site’s appearance…The amazing thing is that Pope Francis was just in Copacabana in July and you’d think the Cerro Calvario would have been cleaned up for his visit. I guess not.

      • Oh, I don’t know that it has all that much to do with faith… Probably social norms, education, economic conditions, financial constraints, and tourism, both domestic and international, are all contributing factors…

        As far as clean-up goes, there might not even be a perceived need… From a few conversations I had when I was out there, it seemed to me that some youths feel that older generations don’t see the link between littering and pollution. That’s probably a limited view, because waste disposal is a problem in many South American countries…

        A complex issue, I think!

  2. Shirley Rose Cockburn says:

    I am trying to contact the person who photographed and posted the Temagami photos on your site. I am painting a series of images from that area and these photos are exceptionally good for my task at hand. I need permission to use these photos as reference. I would give credit in the certificate of authenticity which goes with the painting. Thank you for your time. Regards shirley rose cockburn Cockburnstudio northland traders trading post

    • true_north says:

      Shirley, how did you end up in the Bolivia post!

      Re: the Temagami pix. My brother and I took them. I had already responded to your request to use them with a very firm – go for it! Use what you want!

      My bro and I count ourselves fortunate to be in Temagami paddling into these photos. The thought that they create further inspiration and wonder is a bonus. As I wrote in the original response, the one thing I would love to see is a digital image of your finished work. That would be a buzz – and will inspire me to plan yet another canoe trip!

      Keep on painting!

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