The hottest spot north of Havana

After our harrowing bus trip through Juliaca, we arrived in Puno where we spent a single night before hopping a bus to Copacabana. Cruz del Sur doesn’t make the trip from Puno to Copacabana, so it was one of our first trips on an alternate bus station. Although, it’s not hard to find a bus going just about anywhere from the central Puno station. There were people yelling for buses just about everywhere–one guy persistently calling “Are-are-are-arequipa!” in a brass auctioneer tone rang out across the station every minute or so.

The bus ride was about three hours long, and toward the end we found ourselves being handed _MG_7319paperwork for the border crossing. We disembarked from the bus at a small Peruvian village adjacent to the Bolivian border where we swapped Peruvian soles for Bolivianos, and some Peruvian officials stamped some forms and sent us on our way. The border was really just a large stone arch, and instead of boarding the bus we were told to walk across the border, beneath the arch, which felt at once momentous and underwhelming. Then we were shuffled to the Bolivian side for the requisite visas and paperwork. This is where things took a turn for the worst.

When it was my turn to purchase the visa, I was told I would have to pay $135. That’s American dollars. Pretty standard. Except that when I told the guy I wanted to pay in Bolivianos–we were in Bolivia, after all–he blinked and looked stumped. Then, with a little smile, he wrote 1,000 on a paper and shoved it across the counter to me. I mentally panicked. The number was far, far higher than it should have been, and I barely had that much money on my person, mostly because we were only planning on staying in Bolivia for a day or two and it has a reputation for being cheap. I don’t know what the protocol is when you discover that a government agent is trying to screw you out of money during a border crossing. Did I call him out? Walk back to Peru and try to catch a bus back to Puno? Instead, I sheepishly handed over the 1,000 Bolivianos and loaned Colin what little money I had left, since he hadn’t withdrawn enough money for our corrupt-government-agent-border-crossing-price either. The exchange set the tone for the next 24 hours in Bolivia, and I still find myself gritting my teeth and hoping the bastard that robbed us gets struck by lightning. (Which could totally happen. The daily lightning shows over Lake Titicaca are utterly fantastic.)

We arrived in Copacabana 30 minutes later in foul moods and in desperate need of cash. Colin withdrew 300 more Bolivianos which we hoped would get us through the next day. I had been desperately curious about the town, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure Barry Manilow’s song of the same name is actually about a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. Nonetheless, during our Bolivian excursion I pretended our Copacabana was really the Copacabana. The town was populated by hippies trying to lure tourists into restaurants, and white kids with dreads (never a good look, just never) trying to get us to buy bracelets they insisted we couldn’t buy anywhere else in Bolivia. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had been capable of making those same bracelets in third grade but had thankfully outgrown that particular pastime. If that sounds harsh, you have to remember that we were approaching two weeks of people yelling at us to buy things, waving menus in our faces to lure us into restaurants, and sometimes physically blocking our path to prevent us from walking by. Between that and my impotent rage over our border crossing, my patience was at an all-time low.

We were restless and angry, and decided to move on to our real destination, the reason we’d traveled _MG_7329across the border in the first place: Isla del Sol. There are several Incan creation myths which credit the island as the birthplace of the first Incan: Manco Capac who, I believe, is said to have brought the sun to the Earth. And on our hour and a half-long ferry-ride to the island, I could easily understand why people might believe the world had begun there on the lake. The terrain is harsh, the views in all direction utterly sublime. Nature feels very close at hand, and the notion that its various components–the lake, the mountains, etc. are living beings seems somehow natural there. Our ferry ride had a celebratory feel to it. We sat at the top of the boat, absorbing dangerous quantities of sun that left my nose a ruddy red for the duration of our trip. A group of French people at the front of the boat popped a bottle of champagne and passed it among themselves with a great deal of laughter. Everyone was taking pictures–though no one quite so often as Colin.

Isla del Sol was utterly charming to the eye, although our first view was of a traditional-looking reed _MG_7397 _MG_7348boat loaded with tourists with an engine that roared to life, dispelling the pretense of old-fashioned charm. We booked a hostel and began to hike to the top of the island, which is laid out as a series of terraces despite the fact that walking 10 steps in the altitude had a tendency to knock the air right out of your lungs. At the top–sweaty and triumphant and believing we were well beyond the houses and people below–we were somewhat surprised to discover a rustic building with a sign proclaiming vegetarian pizza. As we were taking in the views, a man arrived to insist that his pizza was the best, very romantic, no electricity! We were more baffled than hungry and returned to our hostel lower on the island. We had to navigate around long lines of donkeys being driven up and down the mountain to get a drink from the lake below. At one point, Colin was videotaping donkeys and a young boy appeared around a switchback and yelled at Colin for taking the video, demanding two Bolivianos. _MG_7359Reluctantly, Colin deleted the video, showing the kid that it was no longer there. Sullenly, the kid insisted that he didn’t care and he wanted two Bolivianos, at one point switching the stick he was using to drive the donkeys in my direction. I have often fantasized about slapping other people’s children in public, and this was one of those occasions. Say what you will about being a good guest in someone’s country, I don’t like to be threatened, and I don’t much care who is doing the threatening: man, woman, or child. Only the fact that we were on an island and I didn’t want to be chased around by an angry Bolivian mob prevented me from shaking that little brat. Colin gave the kid a Boliviano to make him go away and I think I loudly proclaimed him a little brat. In general, we were super careful about photographing people with their permission, but videotaping a bunch of donkeys traveling up a public path with no one in view seemed harmless enough, and I still don’t think Colin and I were in the wrong. Again, our impression of Bolivia _MG_7411was not shaping up to be positive, and the fact that the restaurant where we are dinner that night wrote up a bill much higher than what was listed on the menus we ordered from was kind of the last straw.

We took the first ferry back to Copacabana and, despite the fact that there were paddleboat swans which we really wanted to paddle around the lake, the first bus back to Puno. The Peruvian agents didn’t try to rob us at the border crossing on our way back and we found ourselves surprisingly relieved to be back in Peru where the occasional taxi driver might try to keep a spare sole or two but, for the most part, we felt we had been very decently treated. Of course, it turns out that our overpriced Bolivian visa is good for five years, and I would very much like to see Salar de Uyuni, the salts flats in Bolivia. But, honestly, with the lengthy list of countries I’d like to visit where I haven’t already been cheated out of money, I find myself doubting that I’ll ever make the trip.

And anyway, we found our island adventures off the Peruvian side of the lake to be much more positive experiences…

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