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It’s easy to see why Copacabana, located on Lake Titicaca, is one of the top tourist destinations in Bolivia, if not all of South America. It’s seen by many as a base town for exploring the mighty Lake Titicaca, which is the world’s highest navigable lake, and it straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. Copacabana oozes Pre-Inca culture and mysterious traditions, and you can find Inca ruins, quaint Bolivian towns, hikes, and artisanal markets. Here’s how to get off the beaten track in Copacabana, Bolivia.
Hike to Yampuputa and Escape the Tourists
Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna are the two main islands on Lake Titicaca, and therefore two of the top attractions in Copacabana. The two islands are very touristy, so if you want to enjoy the tranquility of the lake without being stuck behind big groups of tourists, go to the small fishing village of Yampuputa, where you can go on a much more off-the-beaten-track walk. Lake Titicaca is best known for its calm, glistening waters — which can be seen in all its glory from Yampuputa. It’s a challenging day hike and the scenery is glorious, you’ll pass farms, rolling hills and friendly llamas: just don’t get too close for a photo!
Visit the Pre Inca Ruins at Horca del Inca
Bolivia is packed with pre-Inca ruins, and when in Copacabana it’s well worth visiting Horca del Inca, which was once one of the area’s most sacred sites. Pre-Inca civilizations were responsible for crafting the impressive megalithic rock formations at the site, and they were made this way to respond to the sun’s rays and form different shadows in order to offer insight into astronomy. To this day, locals still visit the site in order to make offerings to the Goddess Pachamama, who in Inca mythology is known as a mother-earth fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. She’s thought to be responsible for earthquakes and other natural events.
Walk Along the Shore of Lake Titicaca
When in Copacabana, a great daytime activity is to stroll along the beach and shore of Lake Titicaca. It’s a peaceful setting and if you want to head out on the water you can find paddle boats and canoes for rent along the shoreline. If you’re desperate for a dip, you can also swim, however, it’s very, very cold. In Andean belief, Lake Titicaca is known as the birthplace of the Sun. The legend continues that as the lake is the birthplace of the sun, it’s also the birthplace of the Inca Empire, meaning that the lake is of the uppermost importance in Bolivian culture. For locals, it’s also a symbolic body of water as Bolivia lost part of its territory in a war with Chile 19th century and therefore lost the former Bolivian coastline. Lake Titicaca is thought of as a substitute for the sea that was lost.
Cerro Calvario is known as the best viewpoint in Copacabana. To get to the lookout point, you’ll have to go up a small dirt road, which will eventually leave you at Cerro Calvario. Many visitors walk Cerro Calvario on their first day in town as it’s a great way of orientating yourself and understanding the layout of Copacabana. It can be a difficult hike, however — Copacabana is over 12,000 feet above sea level, so you may need a day to acclimatize to the altitude before tackling the route. During the walk to the top of Cerro Calvario, you’ll pass Station Crosses, which were built on the mountain in the 1950s for the purpose of religious pilgrimage. You’ll see locals praying at the site of the crosses, so remember to be respectful with your camera. Once at the top of the mountain, there are places to sit and locals selling food and drink. It’s known for its amazing sunsets — don’t leave town later than 4 pm or you’ll risk missing sundown.
Witness the Car Blessing Ritual
Copacabana is filled with colorfully decorated cars and vans due to the traditional ‘blessing of cars’ which is an everyday occurrence in the city. Car and bus owners from all over the country decorate their vehicles with flowers and colorful fabrics and take their vehicle to be blessed outside banners the Basilica Cathedral. You’ll see the priest blessing vehicles with everything from beer to champagne and the in-between, and it’s a fascinating sight. Whether you’re snapping photos of the colorfully-kitted-out cars, or going to watch the ceremony in front of the Basilica, it’s a great activity to see and take part in. The sad irony is that many drivers do not use their seatbelts in Bolivia, making it one of the South American countries with the poorest road safety.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana
Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Copacabana is a large Christian church that was built in the 16th century as a shrine to the patron saint of Bolivia. It’s one of the oldest churches in Bolivia and the church draws locals and tourists alike. (teamtapper.com) While it’s a Christian church, the Basilica is famous for its distinct Moorish-appearance. It’s said to be the home of the Virgin of Copacabana and La Virgen de la Candelaria, and many locals believe that the statue on site has healing powers.
Trout, or trucha, is one of the area’s specialties as it’s farmed in local lakes. When in Copacabana, be sure to buy a plate of trucha. It’s likely to be the best food that you’ll find in town.
Shop at Artisanal Markets
Bolivia is a country filled with creative, artisanal goods, from jumpers to traditional capes and hats. In Copacabana, there are tons of small shops and stalls selling beautiful, hand-crafted goods, which make great souvenirs.
Festival of the Virgin Candelaria
If you want to truly immerse yourself in Bolivian traditions, time your visit to Copacabana for February, which is when the festival of the Virgin of Candelaria takes place. You’ll see traditional Aymara dancers, street parties, and religious celebrations taking place all over town. You’ll also see plenty of pilgrims who walk from all over Bolivia and from Peru too, before heading to Cerro Calvario.