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Into Bolivia

Getting here had itself been an adventure. I had been spat at for getting a step too close to an alpaca, had spent a glorious day in the sunshine at Machu Picchu and been overwhelmed by the explosion of colour and noise of a religious festival in the former Inca capital Cusco. We spent the previous day on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, on the traditional and timeless Taquile Island and the surreal floating Uros Reed Islands. Now it was time for Bolivia.

It could have been with a little trepidation that I left the cosy confines of Peru and headed into the supposedly wild wastelands of Bolivia, but I knew differently. Read certain guide books on Bolivia and they are interspersed with worrisome warnings predicting impending doom, from being relieved of your camera in La Paz, to dicing with death in the dizzying heights of the Altiplano. It seemed there were two ways to deal with the altitude sickness; guzzle down as much mate de coca as your stomach can handle or descend immediately if things start to become a little dicey. It neglected to tell us how one achieves this travelling vast distances across the immense high altitude ridge that dominates Bolivia - presumably by escaping to the confines of the Amazon and taking your chances with the weird and wonderful creatures that lurk deep within one of the lesser explored parts of the world’s biggest rainforest. It need not have bothered because Bolivia was as charming, welcoming and enjoyable as ever, high altitude or otherwise. Most travellers soon fall in love with plucky Bolivia, just as I did on my five days here.

The border between Peru and Bolivia was a hive of activity, a neutral meeting ground and makeshift marketplace, overlooked by the amber facade of the Virgin de la Natividad church, upon whose steps today sat two local women in traditional Andean dress, including the obligatory English-style bowler hats.

Having breezed through immigration, we were on the road again, heading towards the lakeside town of Copacabana, a place that differs in just about every way imaginable to its infinitely more famous namesake in Rio de Janeiro. On the 5 miles drive, it is difficult to discern any immediate notable differences between the quinoa fields and rolling mountains that surround Lake Titicaca on either side of the border, other than the fact that the buildings are now adorned with messages of support for Evo Morales, instead of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

Peru and Bolivian border at Lake TiticacaScenes from the border between Peru and Bolivia

Aside from being the launching pad for boat trips around the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is notable for its magnificent basilica, which houses a statue of Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. There are conflicting stories about its origin, but perhaps the most accepted tells of a 16th century native Indian, newly converted to Christianity after he was rescued from a raging storm on Lake Titicaca by the Virgin Mary. Such was his gratitude, the creator spent the best part of a year learning the craft from scratch in the city of Potosi, before carrying the handcrafted four foot dark wood statue all the way to the shores of the lake. Legend has it that the Virgin de la Candelaria continued to answer the prayers of stranded fishermen and, later on, this divine intervention was to save the lives of two Brazilians, prompting the naming of Rio’s famous beach after the small Bolivian fishing village. Removal of the Virgin from the basilica would return the devastating floods to the lake, and so a replica is used for religious parades instead.

Throughout Bolivia, the statue is seen as being capable of performing miracles, an idea which became slightly less far-fetched back in the 21st century when it transpired that our visit just happened to have coincided exactly with the wedding of one of our guide Jorge’s colleagues. We tried to remain inconspicuous as the blushing bride made her way down the aisle to her soon-to-be husband.

Curious customs

Copacabana is also noted for its unusual car blessing ceremonies, with drivers from far and wide lining up in front of the church in vehicles colourfully decorated with flowers, hats, pennants and anything else they could procure from the overloaded stalls which form the local market. The principal idea is to cash in on the good vibrations emanating from the church and it falls to a local priest to sprinkle his holy water from his holy bucket, muttering blessings before they are unceremoniously doused in champagne (the cars not the priest) by their proud owners. They then set forth into a life free from engine gremlins, flat batteries and oil leaks.

The spectacle is both bizarre and endearing, the latter being a sentiment that can be applied to a lot of things in Bolivia. Another such example is found in the explanation I was given as to why toy cars, houses, motorbikes and fake dollars were all so readily available for purchase here. In another smile-inducing custom, these are brought by Bolivian adolescents, especially during the Alasitas festival, in the belief that they will at some point turn into bona-fide versions of the real thing. This being Bolivia and it requiring another of those miracles in which the town specialises, this can’t happen until the miniature objects are suitably blessed and offered to Eveko, the Aymaran God of Abundance, in a religious ceremony. Things take a turn for the surreal at this point. The only proper way to do this is to pin these objects to a miniature version of the greedy god, then place a lit cigarette into his open mouth and douse him in alcohol. One flick of a lighter later and Eveko goes up in flames in a blaze of glory. I suppose it should be of no surprise that a god of abundance knows how to have a good time.

Copacabana Bolivia

Onto the sacred waters

Our visit to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca is largely taken in splendid isolation. We found a quiet spot on the Isla del Sol (Sun Island) - the birthplace of the Inca empire - for a local trout and potato lunch and then had the good fortune of enjoying the Isla de la Luna (Moon Island) all to ourselves. Our more leisurely pace and the apparent scarcity of visitors to this corner of the lake affords more time to better take in the surroundings and note the differences between the two sides. Most obvious is the landscape which surrounds the sacred water, which has turned noticeably more mountainous. The snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real are now a far more prominent presence from the small Bolivian islands and one's gaze is often drawn towards the huge impenetrable wall of granite brooding in the distance. Powerful glaciers, the result of moist air drifting west from the Amazon, hang between the mighty undulations and below a cloak of light grey cloud that seems so fixed in place that it could well be as permanent a feature as the peaks themselves.

It would be easy to fixate on this awe-inspiring vista if it were not for the abundance of colourful Andean flora that springs to life on the Sun Island, including the co-national flower of Bolivia; the kantuta (more on which soon). Across the water, it was largely the Inca ruins of the Moon Temple that diverted our eyes from the astonishing views towards Mt Illampu from Moon Island.

Moon Island, Lake TiticacaMoon Island, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Perhaps though, the most remarkable difference between the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of Lake Titicaca has nothing to do with any physical characteristics or lifestyle variances, but rather the conflicting stakes of ownership each side believes they have on it. Upon arrival in Puno, we were proudly assured that Peru owns between 65-70% of Lake Titicaca, a figure that was to dwindle first to 60% and then to just 55% by the time we had left for La Paz. In truth, when Jorge made the latter claim, he did so with so little conviction, perhaps even a hint of embarrassment, that you wonder whether he even believes it himself. Regardless, Bolivia's 30-45% had certainly made a lasting impression, offering a very different and equally enriching experience to that of its illustrious neighbour. As we sped back towards Copacabana, itself a far more interesting base than Puno, there was one final curious custom to be observed.

As I was I was handed a signai-based spirit (something akin to brandy), the national drink of Bolivia, it occurred to me that it was perhaps a little early for such a strong tipple and, more importantly, that such indulgence went against all advice given to help avoid altitude sickness. But when in Bolivia one should do as the Bolivians do right? So after an elaborate toast I emptied the glass with a slight grimace and handed it back to Jorge, thanking him for adding a few more hairs to my chest. A smile had spread wide across his face as he produced a small bowl of water and one of those kantuta flowers we had been admiring on the Sun Island. The flower, he explained, was said to have sprung forth in a fertile valley, watered by the tears of remorse of the two sons of quarrying Inca kings who, just like their fathers, fought each other to a rather bitter death. The flower therefore is a symbol of hope and unity.

And so it was that our small group was to be unified in bafflement, as Jorge proceeded to dip the kantuta into the water and shake it three times upon our heads, and also full of hope that this last custom, the car blessings and the flaming Evekos were not all part of one big ruse at the expense of gullible Europeans. I'm not sure this still constitutes doing as the Bolivians do but nevertheless, its one of the many things that make Copacabana so immensely charming and sets the scene for the coming days as we head towards La Paz.