Copacabana is a tiny town nestled among mountainous hills, harboring sacred pilgrimage attractions and pre-Columbian ruins on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Not to be confused with the steamy Brazilian beach or the hottest club north of Havana, the original Copacabana is fringed by somnolent farmland and dirt roads of reposing cows, sheep, and pigs.
It’s a short yet precarious ride to Copacabana from La Paz. The road – thankfully paved – twists around the side of a hill that abruptly slopes down into the lake in rippling green waves. Bolivia is home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road, so it’s not surprising that the sheer drop-off from the side of the road way down to the lake is barrier-less. It was lucky that I was crammed in the middle seat of a van and could barely see out the window to the death fall below.
My hostel was conveniently located on a steep incline of a street that leads up to Cerro Calvario, a commanding hill with stone structures representing the 14 Stations of the Cross at every turn of the trail that ascends to the top. Since I was already partway up the hillside, I decided that a climb to the hilltop would be a good way to start my exploration of Copacabana.
My lungs were still not used to the high altitude of Bolivia’s Altiplano, and the short hike up the hill left me frustratingly out of breath. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun maneuvering the uneven boulders set in the path like stairs, using the astounding view as an excuse to take pictures every so often and catch my breath.
Panting and sweating, I finally reached the summit and was rewarded with a far-reaching view of the prodigious lake, the opposite shore hidden beyond the horizon. Behind me was a panorama of the entire town bordered by a green stretch of farmland.
The crown of the hill flaunts a row of the Stations of the Cross extending towards the ultramarine blue lake. It wasn’t hard to understand why people – from the Aymaras to the Incas to modern pilgrims – regard the area as a spiritual place. I spent a long while staring at the lake in holy awe before heading back down to town.
Upon my return to flat ground, I went out in search of some Incan ruins about two miles outside of town. My map didn’t show the exact location of the ruins, so I set forth into the countryside hoping that my usually dependable sense of direction would lead me to the right place.
The walk was an entertaining excursion in itself, providing a sweep of captivating rural scenery and an array of amusing farm animals. Fields of all sorts of different wildflowers grew up beside the muddy road, interspersed with pastures and tracts of corn. Sheep crowded together amongst the crops, greedily munching on the greenery. Cows languorously sprawled in the tall grass. Pigs and chickens wandered about next to stone houses.
I followed some kids on their way home from school up a stone path, then randomly turned down a street that looked promising. Halfway down the street between two stone buildings was an archway announcing my arrival at an archeology museum and some Incan ruins. It was my desired destination, the manor at Kusijata!
Kusijata’s museum contains pottery, tools, baskets, and statues from various pre-Columbian civilizations, including the Chiripa, the Tiwanaku, and of course, the Incas. The most fascinating exhibit is the ancient mummy sitting in a fetal position, found in a chullpa, or a mausoleum, where important people of the area were buried.
Even more intriguing than the artifacts in the museum are the archeological finds in the manor’s backyard, where a narrow irrigation canal glides next to agricultural terraces that descend like stairs to the horizontal cultivated land below. The channel pours water into a circular stone pool that is thought to have been used by the Incas as a ritual bath.
When my amazement with the Incas and their ingenious farming and irrigation techniques had settled down, I began my return back to town. I wasn’t in danger of getting lost, because I could see the crowded buildings of the town peeking up in the distance over the acres of flat farmland. However, I didn’t anticipate the obstacles I would encounter as I traversed past the modest stone houses and patchwork crops.
First, I stumbled upon a lethargic cow who had made the road her resting place. Luckily, she didn’t mind my intrusion and let me walk peacefully by after she graciously posed for a picture.
Another cow confrontation was as uneventful as the last, the lazy cows staring at me uninterestedly as I inched my way past them.
It was a family of sheep that next blocked my way. They were less welcoming of my appearance, but I had an advantage in size. Plus, it’s really hard to be fearful of such fluffy animals with friendly faces. I wound my way past the curious baby, the dreadlocked grandmother, and the black sheep of the family (literally) and persevered onward.
I was feeling cheerful due to my newfound animal friendships when a stream of water crossing the road like a slow-moving river stopped me short in my tracks.
It was about a mile and a half to get to the other road that I knew to be dry. I didn’t want to waste my afternoon retracing my steps, so I thought I’d chance it and try to find a stable spot of land in the marshy pasture. That was a mistake. My foot immediately sunk into the soggy grass and I was soaked up to the ankle.
Since my shoe and leg were already covered with water, mud, and who knows what else, I decided to just go for it. I splashed over the submerged depression in the road and made it to the other side, dripping wet halfway up to my knee. Not wanting to think about what sorts of things end up in flooded farm water, I bolted back to my hostel and spent a half hour scrubbing my shoes and skin with soap.
Rejuvenated and hopefully clean, I strolled along Copacabana’s coastline, admiring the small white wooden boats anchored in the sparkling navy blue. Then I darted inland to the base of another hill that promised some more ruins on its peak. As the sun lowered towards the lake, I scrambled up the stair boulders to the smooth rock surface of the hill’s brow.
Facing the sunset was a trilithic stone contraption that looks like an oddly shaped doorway into the sky above the lake. Named Horca del Inca (“Inca Gallows”) by the Spanish because of its resemblance to gallows and their assumption that it was built by the Incas, the site was actually constructed by the Chiripa people in the 14th century B.C., way before the days of the Incans. Also called Pachataka, it is an astronomical observatory that was used to monitor the solstices and equinoxes and watch celestial bodies.
When the sun was in danger of being swallowed by the lake, I joined a Spanish couple that I met at Pachataka and we headed to the last ruinous attraction of Copacabana before the sunlight would be completely extinguished.
These ruins, called Intikala, actually were created by the Incas. Boulders sculpted into the form of seats, they are thought to have been used as an Incan court, with a bench-like seat forming a semi-circle around an enormous rock with the aura of a throne. Picturing the tribunal required some imagination because the area is basically just a meadow of big rocks, but it was still cool to be in the presence of a place frequented by the Incas.
On the way home for the night, we stopped in the Catedral, a 19th century building of Moorish architecture that houses a statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria, a figure that is believed to have brought about many miracles since it was sculpted by an Incan in 1576. Due to these miraculous happenings, its presence at the Catedral makes the spot a popular pilgrimage stop. We didn’t actually see the statue, but we did spend a few minutes absorbing the tranquility of the inside of the Catedral and moseying around its huge front courtyard.
It was a quick trip to Copacabana. Tomorrow morning I will take a ferry for a jaunt to Isla del Sol, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.