Almost everyone has heard of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but did you know Bolivia has its own high altitude version? You won’t find any thong-clad bikini babes, Samba or Caipirinhas here. But you will find the famous expanse of water known as Lake Titicaca, “cholitas” - women who look like they stepped out a television period drama with their bowler hats, multi-layered skirts and long shawls - and some of the best views in South America.
Most travelers combine Copacabana with a stop in neighboring Isla del Sol, a pristine island at 12,500 feet (3810m) with great hikes, sacred archaeological sites and according to Inca mythology, where the sun was born.
Copacabana sits just beyond the Peru-Bolivia border, not far from Puno. If you're traveling the Gringo Trail, this bright and alluring town along with Isla del Sol make for an enjoyable stopover between La Paz and Puno or Cusco.
Here's a 4-day sample itinerary:
Nestled between two hills on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is on the touristy side and offers a huge array of cafes, restaurants and of course souvenir shops to check out. Most are located along the main strip Avenida 6 de Agosto and along the waterfront, where you can sit in rooftop bars overlooking the lake with a two-for-one cocktail or local Pasena beer. Go for a stroll along the esplanade to the two giant Inca statues at the end, or take a duck pedal boat for a spin.
Copacabana is famous for 'trucha' or trout that comes from Lake Titicaca, and there's no cheaper (or probably better) place to try it than at the myriad of little stalls set up along the waterfront. A plate of trucha with rice, salad and fries will set you back 25BOB, less than 4USD. They all offer the same thing for the same price so just pick the tout with the friendliest smile. After lunch don't miss La Basilica, a beautiful 16th-century Spanish colonial shrine. If you're lucky you'll catch a parade streaming out of its gates with women and men dancing in traditional dress like I did. If you’re there on a Sunday, look out for the interesting spectacle of cars being blessed in front of the cathedral.
At sunset, head up Cerro Calvario (Calvary Hill), which is lined with small monuments representing the 14 Stations of the Cross. The hill rewards you with a spectacular view of the town and Lago Titicaca and takes about 30-45 minutes to climb. Walk as far as you can go to the rocky ledge and watch the sun set over the shimmering lake. It will be cold and windy but you won’t regret it - the sunsets here are out of this world.
Get your hike on today. Head back out to the basilica and then make a left about 10 minutes towards a small and colorful cemetery which makes for some interesting photography. Then cross the road to check out Intikala, a set of ruins known as 'the seat of the Incas'.
Walk back into town near the end of Avenida Murillo and follow a signposted trail uphill to Horca del Inca, a fascinating pre-Incan astronomical observatory. This hike (10BOB, 1.45USD entry) offers the most spectacular 360-degree view of Copacabana, from the lake to the terraced fields behind it. At the top you’ll find a structure which was positioned to study the sun, moon and stars which takes about 35-45 minutes to reach, but you can continue climbing even higher from here. You'll need to do a bit of rock scrambling and keep track of the way you came up (the lack of clear trail makes it confusing coming down), but the view at the peak is absolutely worth it.
After all that walking, treat yourself to a cocktail or two at one of the many cafes and restaurants in the centre.
Take a boat out to Isla del Sol and prepare to max out your memory card. This breathtaking island is home to three communities, Yumani in the south, Challa in the middle and Challapampa in the north. Most people stay at Yumani as it’s better geared towards tourism, offering plenty of accommodation and restaurants.
There are no cars here, only walking trails. Buy a map from your hotel and spend the day exploring the south and its viewpoints or beaches, or simply while away the time eating and drinking at one of the dozens of family-run restaurants you’ll find at almost every turn. One of the best is Pachapapa, which offers outdoor rocking chairs for you to sit in and soak up the amazing views, along with neighboring Inti Jalanta.
Have a big breakfast to fuel up for an unforgettable 10.5 mile (17km) roundtrip hike around the island. Isla del Sol offers two major trails - a coastal route and an inland route. Starting at Yumani, take the inland route first. This 4.3 mile (7km) trail and is a fairly relaxing hike of about 2.5 hours taking you over rocky hills offering stunning views across the massive lake and past women herding their llamas and sheep from one place to the next. You'll sometimes have to stop to let them through and if you have food on you, you might even get a good sniffing by a hungry llama.
At the very north of the island you’ll find the main attractions. Along with a gorgeous beach with a small pier, explore Roca Sagrado, a sacred rock with the faces of Andean god Wiracocha and a puma; a ceremonial table, thought to have been the site of human and animal sacrifices and rituals; and the Chinkana ruins, used by Andean priests to carry out rituals to the sun God Inti. Also look out for Pisadas del Sol, or Footprints of the Sun – giant footprint shapes etched into the land said to have been made by Wiracocha’s son, Thunupa, when he walked out of the lake.
From the ruins, the path splits off and you can take the coastal route back to Yumani. This will take you directly past villages and along the waterfront. This route is about 6.2 miles (10km) and takes about three hours. It's tougher with more hills and steep steps through villages, so make sure you have water on you, although a 'tienda' (small shop) is never too far away.
After your big hike head over to the west side of the island for dinner and to catch one of the most spectacular sunsets you've ever seen in your life. The sunsets here completely transform the sky above Titicaca into a mix of fiery oranges and shades of yellows that are so spectacular they draw gasps from camera-wielding tourists. I guess they don’t call it Isla del Sol for nothing…
Boats to Isla del Sol depart Copacabana at 8.30am and 1.30pm daily. One way to Yumani in the south is 20BOB (2.80USD) and takes around 1.5 hours. Add on another half an hour to Challapampa for 25BOB (3.60USD).
Boats return from Yumani to Copacabana at 10.30am and 4pm for 25BOB.
Boats return from Challapampa to Copacabana at 8.30am, 10.30am and 1.30pm for 25-30BOB (3.60USD-4.30USD).
You have to pay to access the island. It's 10BOB for Yumani (south) and 15BOB for both Challa (middle) and Challapampa (north). Keep your tickets on you as they will be inspected at several checkpoints along the way during your hike. Allow yourself at least seven hours to do the round trip accounting for sightseeing, however nine hours is a more comfortable pace and allows time for lunch in Challapampa.
What to bring to Isla del Sol
- Your day pack, not your rucksack or suitcase. You can leave bigger bags with your hotel in Copacabana. There are 200 steep Inca steps to climb up from the port and then another 10-20 minute walk to get to your hotel. Pack light.
- A wide brim hat and strong sunblock. The sun here is brutal.
- Warm clothes. The average temperature is 46F (8C).
- Torch or headlamp. There are no streetlights and getting home from a restaurant dinner is difficult without it.
- Your own toilet paper. This isn't provided at many of the cheaper accommodation houses.
- Cash. There are no ATM facilities on the island so make sure you have enough for your entire stay. You can exchange money at some restaurants however the exchange rate won't be the best. Note that costs are a little higher on the island i.e. a two liter bottle of water is 10-13BOB. In Copacabana it’s around 7BOB.
Where to stay
In Copacabana, the two best hotels are La Cupula and nearby Los Ojos. Both are hugely popular with amazing views and unique architecture. La Cupula’s architecture is inspired by Arabic domes, while Los Ojos is famous for its snail-like shell houses. Both need to be booked in advance. I stayed at La Cupula and had million dollar views of the lake - along with a llama and an alpaca in the front yard - for around 30USD a night.
On Isla del Sol, there aren’t many options to book online and the options that are there are expensive. The best way to find your accommodation is to simply walk around and ask for prices and an inspection. I found a decent, no-frills room with a shared bathroom and marvellous views for 50BOB (7.20USD) a night, but the average cost with your own bathroom and breakfast included is around 100BOB (14.40USD) a night and upwards. I stayed at Hosteria Las Islas, opposite HI Inca Pacha hostel.
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