Bolivia South America


Sunset on the Isla del Sol

“No hay electricidad”, said the guy from the guesthouse as we made our way to our room. This we knew, as we’d just finished eating our delicious Lake Titicaca trucha criola by candlelight. We didn’t mind so much, as it sort of added to the charm of being one of just a handful of tourists spending the night on the quiet Isla del Sol, but I imagine it’s rather annoying if you live there (and it’s one thing eating Lake Titicaca trout by candlelight, but I’m not sure about having to cook Lake Titicaca trout by candlelight…)

If there was no electricidad, he went on to explain, there was also going to be no water. He pointed to the tank on the roof, the contents of which might otherwise have been pumped to our sink and toilet, and then to his wife, who was filling a large bucket that she was about to lug upstairs and deposit in our bathroom, demonstrating with a smaller bucket how we could use the contents as a makeshift toilet flush before bidding us goodnight…

We’d come to the Island of the Sun after spending a couple of nights in the quiet border town of Copacabana, which is not at all like its Brazilian namesake. It’s a pleasant enough, laid-back little town, if a little touristy, where we relaxed and ate yet more trucha, went out on the lake in a pedalo (I did say it was touristy) and watched the world go by–including the “locals” who hang around the streets selling their craft work (they all look a bit like travellers who came into town but never left–I imagine you can probably tell how long they’ve been there by looking at the length of their dreadlocks, a bit like counting the rings on a tree). We also had a first in Copacabana–our hotel room had a telly. But it turned out to only get one channel, Bolivian state TV, and that seemed to show round the clock Che Guevara documentaries, so we weren’t exactly rushing home to watch it…

15th June 2008: Copacabana, Bolivia

To get to Copacabana, we’d taken an overnight bus from Cusco, and we were a bit anxious about this as we’d heard and read some horror stories about Bolivian buses in general, and the Litoral service we were catching in particular, but in the event it was fine, if a bit cold. In fact we were more annoyed by the other passengers than anything to do with the bus service, including the two guys on the seats opposite us who had decided to illuminate the otherwise entirely dark bus by looking at their entire selection of travelling photos on their iPod. Until Sal told them off.

On the flip side of being-kept-awake-by-bright-lights scenarios, when I woke up in the morning I peered through the curtains to see the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen. We were travelling through a vast flat expanse, with the huge Lake Titicaca in the distance, and the sun slowly rising beyond that, the light reflecting back up off the lake and turning the whole sky a brilliant bright red. I could sort of see why this was the birthplace of the Incas’ sun worshipping mythology.

A little while later, the bus pulled to a stop at a fork in the road, and the 7 of us who were going to Copacabana, just over the border, rather than continuing on the fast road to the border crossing at Desaguadero, and then La Paz, were turfed off with our luggage and a lady from the bus company, and put onto a minibus for the 30 minute journey to the closer border crossing at Yunguyo. It turns out that our “directo” bus wasn’t quite so “directo” after all.

On the way, the lady from the bus company handed out Bolivian tourist cards for us to fill in, and we all started shakily scribbling in our details–the first of many times on this trip that I would make a barely readable scrawl on one of these things as our bus bumped along to a border. It’s just as well that no one ever really looks at them.

At the time I didn’t know that, though, and so I wondered if I mattered what I put for the question I didn’t understand: Días de permanencia? (helpfully translated into English as “days of permanency”). I asked the other gringos at the back of the bus if they knew what it meant. They weren’t sure, but they suggested it might depend on my visa.

“You do have your Bolivian visa, don’t you?” asked one of them, flicking through his passport to show me the sticker.

Oh. Really? My Bolivian visa? Oops. I was sure I’d checked this before we left, but surely they couldn’t have changed the rules? Could they?

Luckily it turned out that although they had changed the rules recently, the new requirements only apply to Americans. In the event, it was all fine. We were turfed off the minibus at the border and walked with our stuff to the Peruvian police check, where a disinterested Peruvian army chap stamped us out, and then across the street to the Bolivian side, where an equally nonplussed Bolivian army chap had stamped us in without even looking at the tourist card. And that was the start of country number 2–we piled back into a different minibus, which was then crammed to bursting with locals who were also making the 8km journey down into Copacabana, and we were on our way into town.