Ahh, the beautiful sand, the sun, the mountains in the distance towering over Rio de Jañeiro…
My Copacabana destination is on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Like its Brazilian counterpart it’s also located on a shoreline – Lake Titicaca – and surrounded by mountains – the Andes. And let’s be clear, this Copacabana came first. The name means “View of the Lake” to the indigenous people of the Bolivian Andes. That doesn’t exactly fit the Brazilian location.
Bolivia is certainly not the most popular tourist destination in South America. And Copacabana is not one of the most popular places to visit in the country. Yet it’s a quaint little community that feels like it draws the best of other places into its own orbit. Multicolored houses line the edge of the lake, boats bob along the shores and the entire town is tucked in the midst of Andean peaks. This little town – so little that you can walk from place to place without requiring transportation – has its own charm and atmosphere that makes a trip there feel like it’s something special.
The Birthplace of Incan Humanity
The most popular two spots to visit are easily the twin islands of Isla Del Sol and Isla De La Luna. The names harken back to Incan mythology that indicate the sun and moon arose from this spot on Lake Titicaca. It’s also purportedly the location of the Incan Adam and Eve’s creation.
Isla Del Sol is the largest of the two islands and is covered with several dozen ruins. It’s a good place to hike, and if you don’t want to feel rushed there are lots of options in many price ranges for staying overnight.
Isla De La Luna is much smaller and is home to the Temple of the Virgins of the Sun. The island has one small village and no shops or restaurants. Be sure not to miss your boat, because there’s no electricity or telephone on the island and only one hostel.
Several public and private boat tours go to the island. In Yumani on the Isla Del Sol are many restaurants and places to stay. While self-guided tours are easy enough and certainly an option, it can be more fun to hire a guide to learn all about the culture and history.
Lake Titicaca is a destination itself. It’s the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. Many higher lakes in the Himalayas or located near volcanos either dry up at certain times of the year or are too small for watercraft.
Going to the Chapel…
The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana is Christian church is sacred Catholics. It’s also sacred to indigenous people because of its proximity to the original Temple of the Sun. The church has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1805. It has a moorish quality and the whitewashed
The Basilica is home to the statue of the Virgin of Copacabana, or Virgen de Candelaria. It’s also known as the Dark Virgin of the Lake because it was carved from dark maguey wood in the 16th century. The statue is rumored to have immense powers, some miraculous and some treacherous. The Virgin is so revered within the country, it is recognized as the Patron Saint of Bolivia.
Outside of the Basilica vendors sell miniatures of certain items: cars, houses, babies, visas, passports. We were told that those visiting the church purchase a token representing what they want in life, then offer it to the Virgin statue with a prayer as they light a candle. Because of the Virgin’s miraculous powers, your prayers will be answered within a year.
The exterior of the church is reminiscent of Moorish churches in Spain, which makes sense after learning that the Spanish renovated the church in the 16th century. The whitewashed walls shine brilliantly even on cloudy days.
The church itself is incredibly beautiful inside with glorious artwork, not that visitors can take a picture to remember; no photos are allowed. The Virgin statue is covered in gold foil and bedecked with gold jewels and offerings. Since our visit many years ago, the statue was robbed of several of her jewels.
You may not believe the powers of the Virgin. I myself was skeptical. But my husband and I purchased a small baby and left it at the feet of the virgin, lighting and candle and saying a prayer. All I can say is that exactly one year later to the date our daughter was born.
Bonus Material – in case you wondered…
So just why is that Brazilian beach named Copacabana?
One online explanation is that a group of Brazilians returning from a pilgrimage to the real Copacabana were caught in a storm and their ship capsized. Fearing they would die, they prayed and the Virgin Mary saved them. When they were delivered safely to a beach on the coast of Rio de Jañeiro, they proclaimed the beach should be named for the patron saint. That’s a very romantic view of what could have happen, but most likely didn’t. This information seems to mix its facts with another storm on Lake Titicaca in which Brazilian fishermen were saved.
The more likely story seems to be much simpler. In the 18th century a small shrine to the Virgin of Copacabana was erected near the Brazilian beach. Knowing the legend of the Virgin and her supposed miraculous powers, the local council voted to honor her by renaming the beach Copacabana. Only those who party on the beach and feel their prayers have been answered can truly tell their feelings about the name.
Interestingly these seem to be the only two locations named Copacabana in the world.
Visiting Copacabana (the real one)
We made our travel arrangements through South American Vacations – savacations.com – and it was the perfect mix of guided travel with independent sightseeing. Much of our trip took place in Peru but our South American Vacations representative suggested a day trip to Copacabana. Our Peruvian guide took us to the border so we could walk across and meet a Bolivian guide. He escorted us to all of the sites listed above and ensured we had what we needed throughout the day. There’s definitely more to see in Copacabana, but for a day trip this is about the limit of what can be done. We had a little extra time for shopping and grabbing a quick lunch.
Busses travel daily from Puno which takes about three hours. The bus trip from La Paz is around four hours. Once you arrive, navigating the city is easy though English is not widely spoken.