Straddling Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and famed for being ‘the birthplace of the Incas’. Fresh off the back of a month in Peru, we crossed the border and spent two memorable days exploring Lake Titicaca Bolivia style in Copacabana.
Before we visited Copacabana we expected it to be a quick stop-off on our passage through the ‘gringo trail’ of South America. It turned out to be so much more, giving us some of our favourite travel memories.
For a town with a population of just 6,000, it has so much going on. Spectacular scenery? Check. Big hills to see it from? Check. Great day trips? Check. Boat rides and water activities? Check. Fascinating history? Lively local markets? Fresh fish from the lake? Check, check, check. As a travel couple who like a little bit of everything, we couldn’t ask for more.
Let’s begin with the logistics – a quick peek at where we stayed and how we got around.
Where to stay in Copacabana: room with a view
It’s a hostel by name, but far more like a hotel in nature. Apart from the price, that is; we paid just 46 US dollars for two nights. That got us a top-floor double en-suite room and – best of all – a private balcony with a picture-perfect view across the lake.
The breakfast (included in the price) was one of the best we had anywhere on our travels. Served in a communal kitchen area where we could meet and chat with other travellers, we gorged on a morning banquet of ham, cheese, pancakes, eggs, avocado, fruit and coffee.
The family running the place were absolutely lovely. They gave us a map of town and recommended some places to eat. On their advice, on our evening of arrival we had dinner at La Orilla, a maritime-themed restaurant serving international cuisine. It didn’t disappoint and we were off to a good start.
Hostal Piedra Andina was a ten-minute walk or so from the main part of town, a bit of a schlep uphill with our rucksacks but totally worth it for the quality of the accommodation.
How to get to Copacabana
For many visitors, Copacabana is the first stop in Bolivia after crossing the border from Peru. This was our route too, and we used the hop-on, hop-off bus service Bolivia Hop (sister company of Peru Hop). We booked our journey a few days before our visit while we were in Cusco.
The flexibility worked perfectly for us. We used the service from Puno through to La Paz, which cost 49 US dollars each. This was a bit more than it would have cost to take separate bus services for each leg of the journey, be we felt it was worth it to be able to move on as we pleased.
Another bonus of taking Bolivia Hop was a hassle-free border crossing. Their team assisted us at customs with the process, and we avoided being ensnared by any of the border scams targeted at backpackers.
You can take Bolivia Hop or other bus services whether you’re travelling in from Peru or coming the other way from La Paz. Check out Wikitravel for more information.
Getting around Copacabana is easy once you’re there – it’s a small place and pretty much everything is walking distance. If you arrive with heavy bags then you can take a taxi or a pedicab.
Day one: Lake Titicaca Bolivia style
Day trip to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna
There are more than 40 islands spread across Lake Titicaca, the largest of which is Isla del Sol, some 15 kilometres from the shores of Copacabana. No visit to the Bolivia side would be complete without a trip out to the island.
Home to indigenous communities and featuring an array of over 180 Inca ruin sites, Isla del Sol is the perfect place to absorb the region’s culture and history while enjoying spectacular panoramas. It translates to ‘island of the sun’, and for good reason – be sure to bring sunscreen with you.
Upon arriving in Copacabana you are likely to be bombarded by vendors selling day trips to Isla del Sol. It’s also possible to book in advance with Bolivia Hop, and our hostel sold them too. As usual, we found the best strategy was to hold fire and shop around.
After taking our time to assess the options, we found tickets for 45 bolivianos each at a laundry shop in town. This included ferry transfers and entry fees to both Isla del Sol and the nearby Isla de la Luna, another island of rolling hills and ancient ruin sites.
The ferry journey took about an hour and a half each way, with a short transfer between the two islands in the middle. First we went to Isla de la Luna, where a one-hour stop allowed enough time to explore the ruins and hike to the top of the hill for a great view.
Isla del Sol is steeped in Incan history. Legend has it that the first of the Inca kings, Manco Cápac, emerged from a rock on the island.
When we visited, a conflict between the north and south sides of the island meant that the north side was not accessible. At the time of writing this is still reported to be the case.
Our ferry dropped us on the south side by the Palace of the Inca. After exploring the impressive ruin site, we hiked along the island’s spine to the port of Yumani. In a secluded beach area we grabbed some salchipapas and watched buskers perform before the ferry took us back to Copacabana.
Some people choose to spend more time on the island exploring the hiking trails or just relaxing. If this is your jam, Yumani has a handful of hostels and hotels to choose from. We felt that the day trip gave us ample time to enjoy the island.
Fresh fish and beers on the lakefront
Back in town with time to kill before dinner and the sun still beating down, we sipped some chilled beers in one of the rooftop bars near the port. Two beers each and a plate of sharing nachos for 55 bolivianos – you can’t go wrong!
As the evening drew in, a row of marquee eateries sprang to life further along the shore. This was our cue to sample some of the famous fresh fish from the lake. While you can find it cheaper in the market halls of the backstreets, the lakefront establishments are still very reasonable and come with an unbeatable scenic waterside setting.
It’s worth walking up and down the front before choosing your spot to eat – the owners compete for your custom, and you can barter for a price. Our bill was 70 bolivianos for fried fish, chips and a beer each.
One of the world’s greatest sunsets?
The beauty of Copacabana is that it faces due west over Lake Titicaca, making it a perfect spot for watching the sun set over the water.
If you’re eating on the lakefront, check the sunset time and coordinate your meal accordingly. Few of our travel nights have been as romantic as our Lake Titicaca sunset dinner.
Day two: exploring Copacabana
A short and sharp climb up Cerro Calvario
We dedicated the second of our two days in Copacabana to exploring the town. With the highlight sights close together it was easy to see everything within a few hours at a leisurely pace.
To the north, you can’t miss Cerro Calvario, a hill that rises straight up from the water and towers over the town. The hike to the top is not a long one – half an hour or so – but it’s pretty steep. With the altitude factor adding to the toil, it’s best to take it slowly with plenty of breather stops. You can break it up by perusing the various local craft stalls that line the path up the hill.
As we reached the top, locals were lighting candles at the 14 Stations of the Cross monuments. We also saw quite a few people cracking beers open in the sunshine at the early hour of 10am! This time of day was brilliant for a fully-sunlit view of the town, lake and surrounding mountains. Alternatively, by all accounts it’s worth going up for sunset as well.
Sights and activities around the town
Looking down over the town from the hill, the immaculate white structure of a cathedral stood out among the town’s gridded streets. After heading back down, we made for the building, which we discovered was the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana. We were lucky to catch a sunny day for our visit, and the cathedral’s white walls looked stunning against the brilliant blue sky.
A shrine inside the building contains the image of the Virgen de Copacabana. The statue has sacred status; when robbers plundered the site in 2013, it caused local outrage.
We made our way across to Avenida 6 de Agosto on the far side of Plaza 2 de Febrero, where the street markets were livening up. It gets pretty cramped, as locals flock here from miles around to shop for supplies, and vendors vie for tourists’ custom.
After looking around the art and craft stalls and sampling some dried fruits, we headed back down towards the lakefront. The strip of Avenida 6 de Agosto that leads down to the unmistakable White Anchor monument is the busiest spot for places to eat. Enjoying ourselves we decided to have a treat, and splashed out 100 bolivianos on a Mexican lunch.
In the afternoon sunshine the bay filled up with swan pedalos, kayaks and spherical contraptions that resembled human hamster balls. The latter seemed a bit intensive on a full stomach, so we headed to a jetty where a local family was renting out swan pedalos.
Like any activity in the town – or anywhere in Bolivia for that matter – there was no set price for hire. After some friendly bartering with the family, we agreed on 25 bolivianos for an hour. With hindsight, half an hour would’ve been plenty enough time, but we stayed out for the duration to get our money’s worth and enjoy a last look at our favourite little lakeside town.
Unforgettable night skies
That evening we hopped on our onward bus to La Paz and said goodbye to Copacabana. We were in for one last unexpected treat as we left.
A short way into the 3-and-a-half-hour journey, we paused to take a ferry across the Strait of Tiquina. It was only about 7pm, but the day’s light was completely gone and had been replaced by the most incredible clear night sky we had ever seen.
Later on our travels we would see the Milky Way again from the valleys of Chile and the mountains of New Zealand. But this was our first-ever glimpse of it. What an amazing way to finish two perfect days of Lake Titicaca Bolivia style.
Have you stayed in Copacabana or explored the Bolivia side of Lake Titicaca? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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