Our worldschooling adventure on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia – Part 1
Read Part 2 – The birthplace of the sun, Isla del Sol
Before arriving in Bolivia, Miro and I were very excited about our upcoming trip for many reasons. For one, we were excited to finally explore the beautifully rich country located just next door to Peru, a country we resided in for three years. We had read about the attractions, sites and history as part of our immersive research into the history and traditions of Andean cultures. Visiting Lake Titicaca, the Isla de Sol and Copacabana were also high on our “must see” list.
Another reason we were excited to arrive in Bolivia was to work with the Travel Store Bolivia, a leading travel agency located within La Paz. Miro and I met with the owners, Daniella and Omar a young entrepreneurial duo who founded the Travel Store which has been serving visitors to their beloved country for several years. The couple met at the university and both discovered a deep passion for sharing their cultural heritage with others by designing custom experiences. The couple also own the Bunkie Backpackers Hostel and just took over an old hotel in the middle of the city center as a second project. The hotel is currently being remodeled and they soon will launch the new “York B&B” marketed to upscale travelers. That is where Miro and I stayed for 2 weeks. The Travel Store specializes in custom trips and listened to our desires, to learn and experience the attractions through the eyes of a local. Although the Travel Store has 3-4 guides that work with them on a regular basis, the owners Daniella and Omar decided to show us a slice of Lake Titicaca themselves.
Our 3-Day Journey
Miro and I were picked up early Tuesday morning by one of those large tourist busses that pick up passengers from a variety of hotels and hostels around the city. After about an hour, the bus was full and we arrived at the main bus terminal in La Paz. There, we changed busses and set out for Copacabana. After about two hours we arrived at San Pedro, a small pueblo on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The town is located at one of the narrowest points of the massive lake. Because of its proximity to the nearest shore, it is the location that many busses, collectivos and cars cross without circumnavigating the entire circumference of the lake. After a short 5 minute crossing, we were on the other side, waiting for our bus to arrive from the vehicle transport ferry.
We re-boarded our bus and continued our trip onward. One hour later, we arrived at the pueblo of Copacabana.
A Brief History of Copacabana
Copacabana is a town that sits between two hills located on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca with a very rich history. After the disappearance of Tiwanaku culture who were thought to have ruled from 500 to 900 BC, the Aymará rose to power in the Titicaca region. The words Kota Kahuaña, translates as ‘lake view’ in Aymará.
According to Inca lore, after a great flood, the god Viracocha arose from Lake Titicaca to create the world. He commanded the sun (Inti), moon (Mama Kilya) and stars to rise, then went to Tiahuanaco to create the first human beings, Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo. These first humans were formed from stone and brought to life by Viracocha, who commanded them to go out and populate the world.
The Inca rule came to power in the early 1400s. The Aymará people were “absorbed” into the Inca empire. Inca Emperor Tupac Yupanqui founded the settlement of “Copacabana” as a wayside resting point for pilgrims visiting the shrine known as Titi Khar’ka located on Isla del Sol.
The Aymará culture was community-oriented and had some struggles as they were assimilated into the Inca way of life. Before the arrival of Spanish priests in the mid-16th century, the Incas had divided local Aymará into two distinct groups. Those faithful to the Inca empire, known as Haransaya, and those known as Hurinsaya. The Haransaya were assigned positions of power. And those of the Aymará culture who resisted were labeled as Hurinsaya, and were relegated to manual labor. This separation of the community-like spirit which went entirely against the Aymará culture. In 1570 there were great floods and crop failures that were believed to be the result of the social aberration.
When the Spanish priests arrived to Copacabana and the Hurinsaya, who rejected the Inca ideology, adopted a new system of belief by blending the Aymará rituals and beliefs with Christianity and helped establish the Sanctuario de Copacabana in the late 16th Century.
Copacabana Cathedral, formally called Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana, has a rich history. The Cathedral was constructed from 1550-1651. The church has large round domes, commanding pillars and mudéjar (Moorish) style design. From outside, the cathedral looks completely out of place in the rustic pueblo, boasting a whitewashed facade, walled courtyards and white chapels in each corner. Inside the temple are a long row of wooden pews and a ceiling painted in deep reds, blues and yellows. In a small chapel is the miraculous Virgen de Candelaria, Bolivia’s patron saint. The ornately robed, Andean-looking Virgin was sculpted by Francisco Yupanqui, grandson of the Inca ruler, Tupac Yupanqui.
The cathedral is rich in both local and European art and Miro and I noticed some interesting symbology within the paintings throughout the church. But most breathtaking was the gold leafed fixtures, wall hangings, carved pillars and picture frames. The wealth accumulated by this church is visibly apparent.
History of Virgen de la Candelaria
According to a local legend, the sculptor Tito Yupanqui, grandson of the Inca ruler, Tupac Yupanqui and part of the Hurinsaya or those that rejected the Inca traditions, had a powerful dream. The Virgin of Copacabana appeared in a dream to Tito Yupanqui, who was not a sculptor. But he was so affected by the vision that he set out to Potosí (one of the then most important art centers in the world) to learn how to sculpt.
With his new skill, Tito hand-carved the Virgin from the wood of a maguey cactus and carried her by foot for the 400 miles from Potosí to Copacabana. She was placed in an adobe chapel in 1583. Soon afterwards, the crops of those who doubted her power were mysteriously destroyed. Then miracles began: people were spontaneously healed. People from far and wide began to make pilgrimage to see the Virgen de la Candelaria.
The statue is never removed from the cathedral, for popular belief says this would cause a devastating storm and flood of Lake Titicaca. A finely-dressed replica is taken out on festival processions. Believers have bestowed millions of dollars worth of gifts upon the Virgin in the form of gold and silver jewelery and objects, placed on the statue. In 1879, the government of Bolivia sold some of her jewelry to finance the War of the Pacific against Chile.
The Cathedral Annex
Once you exit the church through the back of the cathedral you immediately cross a smaller courtyard into an annex building. There is a statue of a modern indigenous family praying. Unfortunately I only took a photo of the back, but what I captured says “estos pobres hijos”, translated as “these poor children”. Upon entering the building it’s a small cold concrete room with rows and rows of concrete shelves. The smell of melting wax fills our nostrils and a smattering of burning candles lines the concrete shelves. Our hosts, instructed us to light a candle and make a wish for ourselves.
I lit my candle with a heartfelt sense of gratitude for all the indigenous hands that built this church and for the belief systems of their ancestors that came before. I stood in gratitude for the privilege of being a part of this living history in all of its forms.
Blessing of the Cars
We exited the church annex and found ourselves on the street in front of the main cathedral. There, we noticed many collectivos, trucks, cars and taxis parked in front the church all decorated with ribbons, flags, banners, flowers and small hats. We asked Daniella and Omar about what we were witnessing. We learned that the “Benedicion de Movildades” (blessing of the vehicles) occurs daily at 10am and 2:30pm.
There the owners of the decorated vehicles line up waiting to pay the 10 Bolivianos donation to have their car blessed by the priest. Ironically, a ritual offering of alcohol is poured over the vehicle, consecrating it for the journey home.
We witnessed the priest, (who reminded us of Friar Tuck) in his brown robe, confidently dip his flowered wand, into a an old paint bucket filled with what was believed to be holy water. He splashed each of the vehicles moving in a counterclockwise direction until he returned to the starting point. There he collected the donation and moved on to the next vehicle. We were told that this ceremony is especially important to pilgrims and long-distance bus companies with new fleets between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
After our visit to the Copacabana Cathedral we geared up for a hike to Cerro Calvario.
We walked to the summit of Cerro Calvario to admire the panoramic views of Lake Titicaca and what was promised to be one of the most scenic sunsets of South America. We were told the hike would take us 30 minutes, but for me, I struggled up the steep hill in the altitude and took about an hour to reach the top. Yes, Miro and our two guides Daniella and Omar made their way up to the top at least 20 minutes before I actually joined them. The altitude at the summit is around 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level and I assure you, I felt it!
The rocky trail led us passed several crosses that represent the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), dedicated to the suffering of Jesus. The hill provided uninterrupted panoramas of Lake Titicaca and Copacabana from several angles. Once on top, we could spot Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna in the distance.
On holy days, the local spiritual leaders perform centuries-old fortune telling ceremonies at the top of the summit. They burn incense and place lead in bowls of steaming water, among other rituals. Pilgrims make offerings to the various religious monuments too by placing colorful stones at the foot of the statues. Most common on Good Friday, when thousands of devotees arrive on foot from La Paz, they form a candlelit procession from the Cathedral climbing up to the hilltop summit. Once they reach the top, pilgrims request a favor or forgiveness from the Virgin. Each August, pilgrims honor the Andean goddess Pachamama (Mother Earth) by offering flowers and burning llama fetuses, and by spraying beer. Unfortunately we missed that sight by one month, however that must have been a sight to see!
After our long rest at the top, while taking in the mind-blowing views while Miro wrote some poetry and we pondered the beauty before us, we made our way back down the hill. I assure you, the way down was considerably easier for me.
This was the inspired poem he wrote from that beautiful vista:
Alone on an island peak
overlooking the surrounding infinity
waiting for starvation
to take me
My chest roars
as the storm assaults
And the pit of my stomach
shreds my core
as Charybdis awakes
from the deep
Swallowing the horizon
leaving all dead and barren
Decrepit and dreadful
discontent with the
that drained the life
from my world
Leaving me at the mercy
of the sands and scarabs.
Our hotel Estelar de Titicaca rested on the shore front of the famous Copacabana beach. Believe it or not, this is Bolivia’s only public beach. While it doesn’t even attempt to rival its namesake in Rio de Janeiro, it attracts hundreds of families during the weekends and many festivals held in Copacabana.
While on the beach, you can visit one of the many eateries on the shore-front, play beach football with the talented locals or rent from a variety of watercrafts: paddleboat ducks, canoes, sailboats, among others. Horseback rides, motorbikes, and bicycles are also available for hire.
We rested and watched the most colorful sunset from our hotel room. This was our first day touring the beautiful Copacabana located on the mysterious Lake Titicaca.
It is famed for being the world’s largest high-altitude lake, situated at an altitude of over 3,000 meters above sea level. Lake Titicaca is located between Peru and Bolivia. The lake is not only fascinating, but also enormous, spanning over 8,400 square kilometers (km). And the views.. don’t forget the views…
Planning a trip Bolivia?
Contact Daniella or Omar at the Travel Store Bolivia to have them help you design your custom trip.