December 4, 2013
The Hostal Las Olas in Copacabana consists of seven cabins that seem to have been designed with the help of an imaginative eight-year-old (but were actually designed by the German owner). We’re staying in La Tortuga (the turtle), shaped like the top half of an elongated egg. On the first floor is a huge circular bed; the shower stall is a spiral; up the winding stairs is another bedroom with an eye-shaped bed and a door that opens onto a stone bridge leading to the cabin (El Sol) the kids are in. The complex is set into the side of a steep hill overlooking Lake Titicaca, and each cabin has wide views of it; an eighth cabin shaped like a snail is almost completed. Of all the hotels Karen has stayed in, this is her favorite.
The town’s highlight is its enormous basilica, which houses the Virgen de Copacabana. Sculpted by an Inca, Francisco Tito Yupanqui (perhaps the nephew of the emperor Atahualpa), in 1538, the Virgen has probably been responsible for more miracles than any other sacred object in the Americas. And why did Yupanqui choose Cobacabana as its home? Probably because it’s the jumping-off point for the two most important Inca sites: the Isla del Sol and Cuzco. And so it remains. As a result, the town consists of almost nothing but hotels, hostels, and souvenir shops.
After kayaking on the lake, Thalia and I walk along it out of town. We pass raised lakeside plots that still use the Inca irrigation system to grow crops, a cow skull, a floating island made of reeds with a restaurant on it that serves fresh trout, many cows and sheep, and one llama.
The conventional way to visit the Isla del Sol is to get a boat from Copacabana at 8:30 a.m. and arrive at Challapampa, the northern port of the island, at 10:30. One then takes a long and steep guided hike through a magnificent landscape up to the sanctuary, which is centered around a very sacred puma-shaped rock called Titikala (from which the lake gets its name), and then down to a labyrinthine temple. One returns to Challapampa at 1:30, from which one takes the boat to Yumani, the southern port, which features restaurants and an Inca stairway. If you’re lucky (we weren’t), the boat from Yumani back to Copacabana will stop at Pilko Kaina, a better-preserved Inca temple. This is how we visited the Isla, and it was a drag. We were stuck with masses of ill-behaved tourists, rushed around to the sites, and on top of it all I was sick and the two public bathrooms on the island were, yes, shitty. There must be a better way to visit—perhaps staying on the island overnight, perhaps hiring a private tour, perhaps leaving from Yampupata, a town far closer to the island. We also didn’t get a chance to see the Isla de la Luna, which is supposed to house a better-preserved Inca temple. My enjoyment of the places I visit seems to be inversely proportional to the number of tourists there. I don’t really want to go to Macchu Picchu or Venice, despite their splendors.
December 6, 2013
Yesterday we take a minibus from Copacabana to La Paz, getting off at Tiquino to take a ferry across the lake; we then take a taxi to a bistro for lunch, then another taxi to a neighborhood, Villa Fatima, from where the Coroico buses leave, then a third taxi since the second dropped us off at the wrong place, then a minibus to Coroico, then another taxi to an ecolodge, Sol y Luna: seven transports; nine hours of travel. The road from La Paz to Coroico drops over seven thousand feet in three or four hours, all through mountain views, stark at first, then lush—one of the most spectacular roads I’ve traveled; now we are living in a cloud forest, a densely tangled jungle of flowers, bugs, and birds. I’d thought there would be mosquitoes here too, but at least in this part of the forest there are none; if you sit outside at night with the light on, the most exotic insects crowd around as if showing off. Sol y Luna, like Las Olas, consists primarily of cabins, and ours, Alaya, is one of the highest and most remote, a seven-minute hike straight up a mountain from the restaurant (the kids have a more centrally located cabin called Bamboos). The view is of a great valley and green mountains; clouds almost continually obscure their peaks, even when the sun is shining. The birds include a brown, tailless ground bird called the timanou; the chachalaca, big brown grouse-like birds who fight loudly and often; the oropendola, a large black bird with a bright yellow tail and beak who builds two-foot-high tear-shaped nests that hang from tree branches in groups of over a dozen and has four or five different, brilliant calls; an owl whom we can hear at night; and bright blue hummingbirds. Our cabin is the opposite of airtight—there are no screens on the windows and the walls are of bamboo so that anything can come right in. The toilet, shower, and sink are all outside. It all sounds quite primitive, yet it’s comfortable and somehow life-affirming.
This morning we visit Senda Verde, a refuge for illegally smuggled animals, mostly Amazonian and all Bolivian. As soon as we sit down outside to listen to our guide tell the place’s history, a spider monkey comes up, sits in Jacky’s lap, puts her arms around his neck, and rests her head on his shoulder. He, of course, is in heaven. The place is crawling with macaws, tortoises, and, mostly, monkeys: capuchin, spider, and howler. Senda Verde cares for all these poor smuggled (and often abused or maimed) animals, often with complicated adaptation techniques, their whole lives, since they can never be reintroduced to the wild.
After lunch we decide to visit Munaipata, a small coffee producer that most people agree makes the best coffee in Bolivia. The hotel receptionist tells us it’s a forty-five-minute walk, mostly flat; it turns out to be an hour-and-a-quarter walk, mostly uphill, with breathtaking views the whole way. Everything is done by hand here: the fruits (dime-size round red berries with a sweet juice) are picked and only the truly ripe ones are kept; they’re shelled to produce small white pits; those are fermented for a short time, then dried for a long one; they are then shelled again and roasted. At each step, the inferior “beans” are taken out of the batch and thrown away. All four of us try the espresso, and it’s extraordinary; despite my upset stomach, it doesn’t bother me at all. The manager, a Bolivian, shows us around, displaying pride in everything that’s done; the Swiss owner, Rene, makes an appearance at the end of the tour, then takes to us and drives us back to our hotel, telling us his life story along the way.
We debate staying here an extra few days—we haven’t even used the pools yet, and they’re all spring fed (as is the potable tap water)—but it turns out too complicated. Well, we have one more day here . . . and we’ll probably come back. Imagine a tropical mountain paradise: this is it.