Lake Titicaca presented us with the most picturesque border crossing opportunity so far, a high altitude lake (the highest in the world in fact) shared by Peru and Bolivia. Exactly who owns the majority is in some ways a mystery, the story will differ according to which country you’re in but it doesn’t really matter because it’s absolutely massive.
It turns out however that each side of the lake offers a totally different experience, something that wasn’t made clear to me when I was asking around for which side was better to spend he most time. One tour company just shrugged and said have a look at both they’re nice. Nice?! I know English was not his first language but ‘nice’ really doesn’t do this place justice at all.
First up, the Peru side. We took a bus straight from Cusco to Puno, the nearest big town on the lake. You do have the option of taking the train here if you’re feeling fancy, and I really wish I had felt more fancy on that trip. We got assigned seats at the bottom of the double decker bus, usually reserved for the first class seats, but clearly on this bus it was not. Some buses like to advertise their air conditioning but turn it off to save money, and despite the suffocating heat and smell of unwashed bodies, nobody complains. Except for me of course. But you have to be crafty about it as you’re cut off from the drivers cabin and any form of assistance on these type of buses. You just wait until the “direct” bus stops to pick up passengers on the side of the road as it inevitably will do at least 10 times on the 6 hour journey, clamber over the cringing boyfriend and burst out the door to raise the alarm. “Clima por favor!!” This will get you a few minutes of air conditioning if you’re lucky. I’ll spare you the story of the nappy changing IN THE SEAT NEXT TO ME that preceded this breakdown.
So Puno isn’t a city to spend much time in, we got to our hostel Inka’s Rest and enquired about visiting the lake the next day. On the Peruvian side of the lake it’s all about visiting the floating reed islands. Apparently the indigenous communities also thought Puno was a horrible cities and decided to make their own mini cities on the lake out of the reeds that’s grow there. It’s certainly resourceful, a great use of space free of the pungent smells of traffic and rubbish. They also have the added bonus of being President of their own islands, this sense of confidence and pride is very apparent when you meet the people who live here.
We took a half day tour to the closest floating islands, Uros, and learned about how they make the islands and live on them. You can do a full day tour and visit another colony as well, or even a two day tour where you sleep on the islands. We opted for half a day so that we could get a bus across the border and be in Bolivia the same day, the tour was much cheaper (20 soles/£4) and it meant less time spent in Puno. I highly enjoyed the tour, the people clearly love explaining their very unique way of living and stepping onto the islands feels like what I image stepping onto a cloud might feel like (in my cartoon dreams). It’s definitely worth a visit, although I’m not sure what else could be gained from spending a full day there, half a day was plenty for us.
The Bolivian side
In the afternoon we took a bus to Copacobana on the Bolivian side, via the border. We took the Titicaca tourist bus which looked NOTHING like the pictures, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. 60 backpackers crammed onto a decrepit rusty bus in the sweltering heat headed straight for the wild side. I think this company gets some bad rep but they dropped us outside a hotel offering a dos out if we stayed there (cheeky) but it was actually a bloody good deal with a huge room and a view of the lake (Hotel Mirador), so I have no complaints.
FYI Americans, Bolivia is not your friend. They will not make your border crossing easy or cheap, so make sure you have $160 in crisp unripped notes ready. Plus photocopies of your passport and pictures if you’re feeling super organised, if not they have facilities there.
Copacabana is a nice town set on the Bolivian side of the lake. Unfortunately its main drag is rather touristy, with waitresses trying to drag you into their establishment at every opportunity. Do your research before entering, some of her food is abismal. I’m talking mainly about Kota Kahuana who managed to get coffee so right but burgers so wrong. The Condor and Eagle cafe does fantastic breakfasts, it’s part Irish owned and they make amazing homemade baked beans on homemade Irish soda bread. It was the little taste of home I had been craving. Next door to this we had a great meal at Winaya, great enchiladas of all things.
Isla del Sol
The main reason people come here is to visit Isla del Sol, a 2 hour ferry ride away from Copacobana. This is easily the highlight of lake Titicaca for so many reasons. It’s isolated without wifi which makes a nice change, it’s beautiful terrain for challenging climbing, the views over the snow capped Cordillera Real are gorgeous and this all makes it the perfect place to go back to basics and unwind for a few days.
There are several ways to enjoy Isla del Sol depending on what you’re into. Both the south and the North have archaeological sights so it’s worth seeing both if you can, you can do this by boat without trekking if you wish. There are several trails across the island that you can do, some through wonderful smelling eucalyptus forests and some through indigenous villages. You can do it all if you decide to do a full circuit in one day which takes about 7 hours, if you do this you can take all your things with you to the island. We decided to leave our big bags at the hotel on the mainland and just take supplies for 2 days as this meant we could hike from one end of the island to the other without all our stuff. We met a lovely couple Nicole and Dave and decided to head to the island with them and do the trek together.
Ferries at 8.30am take you to the north side of the island, but we were running late so took the 1.30pm ferry to south of the island. The plan was to spend the night her and trek to the north the next morning in time for the 1.30 ferry back to the mainland. This ended up being perfect because it meant we got to have dinner at Las Velas, an enchanting restaurant in the middle of a forest lit solely by candles (even in the kitchen!) The lovely couple that own the restaurant are trained gourmet chefs and the food reflects this. It’s a seriously long wait for he food (1 hour 50 minutes!) but we were kept entertained by card games and wine. If you stay in the south part of the island this restaurant is a must, and make sure you get there in time for sunset for a great view and guaranteed table. You’ll also need to take a torch as there’s no lights to lead you back home at the end of the evening. Despite being prepared we still got lost on our way back down as we were staying near the port, I’m not going to lie I was terrified. Luckily the boys led us to safety using their Bear Grylls skills.
I recommend staying as high up as possible, there are a lot of hostels being flogged near the port but the main part of the village is on the summit so it’s worth doing the long walk up at the beginning to find a place to stay, otherwise you’ll be doing it again the next morning when you start your trek, and it’s not easy!
The trek across the island is one of the best I’ve done, despite being at altitude and therefore pretty difficult at times. Luckily there’s not too much uphill to do once your on the summit you kind of walk across the peak, but we did get a bit lost yet again as it’s not exactly well signposted. We were led through some beautiful eucalyptus forests, some isolated farms, down ancient in a trails and eventually made it to the other end where some ancient inca ruins awaited us. This trek had everything and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
So does Peru or Bolivia win? In my opinion Bolivia was more picturesque, challenging and an experience to remember from start to finish, but then again it’s not every day you get to bounce up and down on a spongy man made island dressed as an indigenous couple, so I guess we can just say it’s a tie 🙂