Straying from the path in Bolivia – Our Journey to Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is a source of great pride for Bolivia and quite rightly so. It is the world’s largest high altitude lake and sits at 3,808 metres above sea level. The Bolivian Navy has been based on the Lake since they lost their coastline during the Pacific War with Peru, a very sore point to this day.

The bus journey from La Paz was short by South American standards – a mere 4 hours. We were deposited on the streets of Copacabana, the main border crossing between La Paz and Peru. Because Titicaca is a big draw the town is crawling with tourists. It is clearly a backpacker bottleneck and not surprisingly on the night we arrived we bumped into some people we knew – an English couple and 2 German girls who were on our Salt Flats tour 3 weeks earlier. As is traditional on the Gringo Trail, they told us what they had done and then suitably inspired, we then changed our plans.

They explained that they had spent a night at a tiny village by the name of Sampaya, further round the coast, sleeping in lodgings built to attract tourists to come and see the town. They described beautifully their evening eating with the villagers and dancing the night away. The town sounded well off the tourist trail and a great way to immerse ourselves in Bolivian culture.

The next day we found a taxi to take us to Sampaya and set off. The road was nothing but a dirt track and in places it was blocked by landslides. These were quickly cleared though and we soon found ourselves in picturesque Sampaya. The high street was grassy, the houses were all built of stone and not a soul was in sight. The taxi driver was very obliging and led us through narrow passageways and up the steep hillside to the lodgings. He then had a brief shouted conversation with a guy who was struggling to control his 3 donkeys. Despite the language barrier we became aware that we may have to wait around but we were confident that the donkey man was seeking the people responsible for the lodgings. So we sat down to wait, drinking in the views out across the lake and to the Island of the Moon.

The Island of the Moon - seen from Sampaya

After an hour or so we started to get bored. I wandered off, Spanish dictionary in hand, to find somebody who might be able to help. The town was fairly large and the distinct lack of people gave it an eerie atmosphere. The first chap I found had an aggressive pig and he told me that the people we needed were in Copacabana for the day – the irony of which was not lost on me. But he pointed across the valley to a house before returning his attention to his troublesome swine.

I climbed carefully down the stony cobbled footpath and crossed the main street before climbing cautiously up the other side. I had been concentrating hard upon not slipping and now that I was amongst the houses I had lost my bearings. I couldn’t find the house but I did find a woman who must have been 90 years old who was leading her flock of sheep down the narrow footpath. After realising she was hard of hearing I shouted loudly in her ear and she pointed me towards the town museum, but alas this was also locked up and deserted.

Yampaya High Street at rush hour

I returned back to the other side of the valley to Claire who was by now sunbathing atop a rock wall. As I was about to join her a man who, was also herding sheep. shouted from across the valley. I shouted back in my finest Spanish “I ONLY SPEAK A LITTLE SPANISH.” He waved his arms in the air in frustration and continued on his way.

I concluded that sunbathing was a good idea and joined Claire. But a short while later we realised that given the lack of phones, people and taxis in Sampaya there would come a point where we could become stranded in what seemed to be an almost abandoned village with nowhere to stay and limited food and water. We had been in the town for four hours by this point and had only seen 4 people and it was now nearing mid afternoon.

Faced with the worrying prospect of a night in the open at altitude we quickly came up with an alternative plan. We would hike north along the road to reach the small village of Yampupata, from where we hoped find a boat to take us to the Isla del Sol, the large Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca. If that failed we would seek somewhere to stay. A simple plan based upon a lot of guess work and a shoddy map in our Lonely Planet guidebook.

We set off and immediately had to climb a big hill. At this point we were still struggling with the thin air so it was slow going. Gradually we reached the top only to see a descent and another climb followed by another descent and a climb. It was an exhausting walk but we eventually staggered into the outskirts of Yampupata. We had already realised that not many tourists come this way and this was demonstrated when a young boy of about 7 ran out of his house and hugged my leg. He was happy to see us!

We pressed on to the port where we found 2 men and nobody else. One was in his 20’s, was dressed in sports clothing and was holding an ipod. Fortunately the both owned boats and the youngest offered us a ride in his motorboat for about £8. The other guy looked to be in his 70’s and for £5 he would row us the 3km to Isla del Sol.

This was an interesting dilemma. The motorboat would get us the island quickly and in comfort and the difference in costs was of no concern. But the young guy was dressed in flashy clothes and had an iPod…he looked more out of place than we did. So despite iPod Man’s protestations we struck a deal with the old guy and clambered clumsily into his rowing boat.

We set off and after 2 minutes our Captain stopped rowing, picked up the second pair of oars and shoved them at me. Despite his toothless grin, it was clear that he expected help and I was more than happy to oblige. Claire immediately pulled the camera out which prompted him to retrieve a Bolivian flag from his pocket and proudly tie it to the mast.

Rowing out to the Island of the Sun

After a while I tired so Claire had a go and we swapped a couple times more before we reached the island. On the way our captain spoke a lot of the sea and was clearly interested in the fact that we came from an island. The landlocked status of Bolivia was clearly the source of much sadness to him. But we had a laugh when the tourist ferry came past us, music playing, and the tourists started waving and taking photos of us in our little boat. At that moment we were only 10 meters from the tourist trail but the contrast was stark.

As we disembarked our Captain asked for his fee, but I insisted he take more. I told him to finish early and go home for a beer, which he appreciated greatly.

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