Border crossings in Bolivia as a U.S. citizen is a PITA (that’s Pain In The Ass with a capital “P”). Scams are common. I met a traveler in Chile who told me she got scammed at the border – upon entry; she was very sure she gave her immigration certificate to the border official. But on her way out, she got detained by another border patrol who told her license didn’t have the proper stamp. They started using her desperation for bribery. Hinting that she should fork up some cash. Luckily, she spoke fluent Spanish and avoided the scam.
Knowing this, I felt a little uneasy when I arrived at the Bolivian border.
There’s a long list of requirements for entering Bolivia. There’s the yellow fever vaccinations, advance hotel bookings, a ticketed flight out, and $160 in cash. I got all the requirements covered except they wouldn’t take my cash because of tiny imperfections. It had to be clean dollar bills they said. Like fresh out of the minting machine. I only had $200 on me, and a few of the bills had marks and imperfect bills.
They took $120 and rejected $40, and I must find some way to come up with perfect ones. There are no ATMs around. I thought they were trying to scam me of my $120 because I’d have to go back all the way to the next town in Peru to get another $40. Another passenger was kind enough to exchange their bills with mine, and I could get the visa.
Worth the sunrise
After that debacle, I got to my hostel in Copacabana already checked out. Not a good first impression of the country. I even thought about leaving and taking the bus back to Peru. But then the next day I witnessed an epic sunrise just over Lake Titicaca. I stayed.
The most popular destination in Copacabana is Isla del Sol. I spent a day there and explored it. There are several routes you can take to get to the island, and it can only be reached by ferry. There’s the northern port and the southern port.
I started in the southern port called the Escalera Del Inca (Inca Stairs) in Yumani village. The boat is as basic as it can get. You’re cramped in seats with other passengers, and there are no restrooms.
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I should have relieved myself before getting on the ferry. Halfway through the ride, I felt like I had to pee badly. I drank too much coffee in the morning and seeing all the water splashing on the side of the boat isn’t helping.
I was ready just to let it loose on the side of the boat for all the passengers to see. It took all of my Zen meditation efforts to avoid that debacle, and I arrived at the port without incident and rushed to the closest restroom I could find.
Crazy Inca stairs
There are hostels by the dock, but there is more uphill in the center of Yumani village. The only way to get there is through the Escalera del Inca. Lake Titicaca’s elevation hovers around 4,000 meters.
Climbing those stairs was a lung buster. The air felt thin. If felt like there’s a bunch of bricks duct-taped to my legs. Each step was laborious. There are beautiful terraced gardens on the way up. So every so often, I’d take a break and checked those out.
After much effort, I arrived at Yumani. A lady was yelling she’s got rooms available on her Refugio. I asked if she had one for one person. She said no she’s got two beds in one room and will charge me a room for two people. There was another group behind me, and one guy was looking for a room as well. I introduced myself to Martin, and we agreed to share the room.
Tip for solo travelers: Hostels here often book per bed instead of per person. If there are two beds in the room and will charge you for both. You can try to negotiate the rate, but it’s better if you find another solo traveler to share the room and pay half.
It was still early, so Martin and I hiked around the Island. Along the way, we met a stray dog. He followed us around and seemed to want to guide us. I named him Don Diego. So Diego, Martin, and I continued to the highest point of Isla Del Sol walking on narrow ancient cobblestoned streets meeting random natives with their donkeys along the way.
This place was a throwback to ancient times. Aside from a few places that have electricity, you will see no modern machines. There are no cars around.
We passed by rows of terraces and plantations growing potatoes and other crops endemic to the region. We’d walk past some random mule and then it would poop right on the street.
It bears mentioning that there is poop everywhere, alpaca poop, dog poop, vulture poop, donkey poop, and “Good god who or what pooped that?!?” poop. Oh, that earthy, herbally aroma of fresh drops of Alpaca poop. Nothing in the world like it.
We reached a ruin at the highest point of the island. The 360-degree vistas there were terrific. You can see the entire stretch of the island. Lake Titicaca looked like an endless ocean over the horizon. It’s a huge lake.
Pray for rain
A procession or parade was going on. Island natives in colorful garb and attire were funneling towards an embankment. They started a ceremony of sorts. I asked (with my limited Spanish) one kid nearby what it’s all about. They told me it’s a ceremony to bring rain to the island, which was in a drought. It was a big ceremony, and it probably spooked Don Diego because he disappeared was nowhere to be found.
Martin and I took pictures of the ceremony and then headed back down via the island’s spine, which crosses random terraces towards a wooded area full of cypress trees. There we saw a signpost, rather flamboyant, that says the best restaurant in Isla Del Sol this way. We were kind of hungry so why not?
The restaurant’s name is Las Vellas, and their specialty is vegan pizza. This was the last place I would ever expect to find vegan pizza, but there it is. The restaurant had an excellent view of the lake, so we ended our day there enjoying slices of vegan pizza and watch a fantastic sunset over the horizon of Lake Titicaca.
EXPLORE THE ISLA DEL SOL
- There are numerous tour companies that operate full and half-day trips from Copacabana. You can purchase reservations at various agencies in town, or go down to the waterfront at around 8:00 am or 1:00
- The boat ride is about an hour and a half, so take care of business before you embark.
- You can make this trip on a day, but I recommend you overnight it and enjoy watching the stars at night.
- Hostels are cheap but shop around. If you’re solo find another solo traveler and book together.
- I recommend you leave your heavy backpack and carry only some necessities. The hike up the Inca steps in Yumani is physically taxing at such high altitude.
A DAY IN BREAKDOWN:
- Ferry ticket to Isla del Sol with the return – $5
- Hostel at Yumani Village – $7 (split two ways)
- Soup and trout lunch – $5
- Pizza dinner – $4 (split two ways)
- Inca stairs – $1
- TOTAL: $26
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ISLA DEL SOL?