I wrote this guide after living in Copacabana for two years and after living in Bolivia for ten years. Have a great trip!
For more information on Bolivia or to reserve a space at our cabins in Copacabana, write to me at writerwendydale at gmail dot com. Also if you have comments or corrections to this guide, please send them my way.
The beach in Copacabana.
The side of Copacabana rarely seen by tourists.
GETTING TO COPACABANA
The two closest airports are La Paz (Bolivia) and Juliaca (Peru). From either airport, your only option for continuing on to Copacabana is via land, a three- to five-hour trip.
Below you'll find specific instructions for continuing on to Copacabana, whether you're already in La Paz, arriving at the airport in El Alto or landing in Juliaca, Peru. Simply click on the link that best describes your start point.
For detailed instructions, click on the option below that best describes your start point.
I think the joke I'm telling is really funny. Obviously, the punchline is getting lost in translation.
You'll have a much better time if you speak some Spanish. Few people in Copacabana speak English - other than the tourists.
You'd have an even better time if you were fluent in Aymara, the native language spoken in Copacabana and La Paz, but I only know how to say a few phrases and I invariably pronounce them badly. You'll do fine with just Spanish. Even Bolivians whose first language is Aymara speak fluent Spanish (with the rare exception of very old people who probably didn't get past elementary school). However, people in Copacabana may switch to Aymara when talking about you to their friends. You can be sure they're not saying anything very flattering. I have yet to learn to say, "Screw you" in Aymara, but it's on my to-do list.
TOP-5 THINGS TO DO
rount1. Eat trout on the floating islands. Trout in Copacabana is like pee in your neighborhood swimming pool – basically, it’s pretty hard to avoid. No matter where you go, you’re likely to find people trying to convince you to try their trout (which is where the pee metaphor comes to an end).
Unfortunately, most trout leaves a lot to be desired, mostly because eating establishments don’t get enough business and their trout winds up sitting around for a while. I’ve never gotten sick from eating the trout in Copacabana. I’ve just had lots of lousy overly fishy-tasting meals.
This is what makes the trout on the “Islas Flotantes” so incredible. The trout isn’t taken out of the lake until you’ve placed your order. It’s then deep fried and served with a less-than-delicious salad and bland white rice along with a few French fries, but it’s still the best trout in Copacabana. (And it's easy to order - the restaurant offers no other choices! There's no menu. The waiter just comes around and asks how many plates of trout you want.)
As an added bonus, to get to the Floating Islands, it’s a fun half-hour motorboat ride (which costs just a few bucks round trip and more than makes up for the bland rice). To get there, head to the lake and you’ll hear a guy shouting “Islas Flotantes” on shore. Boats leave as soon as they fill up. They run from about lunchtime to dinner, depending on demand.
Oh wait, I forgot to mention the view! You’ll eat your bland rice while sitting in front of rocks jutting out of crystalline water. It’s so beautiful – I wanted to get married there.
2. Climb the "Calvario." Some people think of a hike up to the top of the Calvario as great exercise. For Bolivians, it’s mostly a chance to commune with God, remembering the strenuous trek made by Jesus as he carried His cross. Whatever your reasons for climbing this small mountain, the reward waits at the top.
I like nature as much as the next guy, but I don’t always make a point to seek it out. However, the view at the top of the Calvario is enough to inspire awe even in the most jaded New Yorker. (For the record, I’m not a jaded New Yorker. I’m a jaded Angeleno.) There is a 180 degree view of water, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s one of the most beautiful natural sights I’ve ever seen.
To find the Calvario, basically look at any postcard of Copacabana. It’s the famous mountain pictured in all the tourist shots. When you’re in Copacabana, it’s hard to miss.
3. Chew coca leaves while sitting on the shores of Lake Titicaca. You’re in Bolivia. Come on, live a little. In spite of their bad reputation, when it comes to giving you a huge buzz, coca leaves actually leave a lot to be desired. Still, they give you a pleasant boost, slightly stronger than Starbuck’s coffee of the day and slightly weaker than a double espresso.
They’re completely legal in Bolivia, and so illegal in the United States. To buy coca, first locate the central market. From there, go to Michel Perez Street, where you’ll see a bunch of hardware stores. On the other side of the street are several stores selling grains where you’ll also see bins of coca leaves. I usually get five bolivianos’ worth. Ask for “una bolsa de cinco bolivianos.” You might also try “lejia,” which makes the effect of the coca stronger. Lejia is soft and slightly sweet and you take tiny nibbles from time to time which you store in your cheek along with your wad of coca.
When it comes to chewing coca leaves (“called pichando”), first take the stem out of a coca leaf by splitting the leaf in two. Then stick the pieces of the leaf into your mouth. Do this over and over again until there is a big ball in one of your cheeks. You’re not really supposed to chew the coca, just leave it in your mouth with tiny pieces of lejia (which dissolve quickly) for hours at a time.
Have fun! But be sure to leave all evidence of your good time behind in Bolivia.
4. Get blessed by a shaman. As you huff and wheeze your way up the mountain known as “el Calvario,” (I’m not saying you’re out of shape. It’s that we’re at 13,000 ft. for God’s sake!) take a well-deserved rest halfway up. There you’ll see men wearing brightly colored alpaca pointy hats waving around smoking pans and chanting in Aymara. This, my friends, is your local neighborhood shaman, called a “yatiri” in Bolivia.
For a donation, he’ll chant over you and make offerings to Pachamama, the Andean Mother Earth, often by pouring alcohol into the ground and burning coca leaves. Even if you have no idea what the guy is saying, remember that this is going to make a great video for Youtube. As for paying him, he’ll usually ask for you to decide how much to contribute (“Tu cariño.”). If you give him a hundred-boliviano-bill, you’re sure to make him happy.
5. Explore the "Bolivian side" of Copacabana. Walk in the opposite direction of the beach, past the main plaza, until you start heading downhill. Soon Copacabana will start to look a lot different and you'll spot herds of sheep and llamas and another lake shore, one that isn't filled with tourists. There isn't anywhere to spend money. It's just nice being here. And if you want to be here for a while, consider staying at one of our cabins. Click here for more info.
Oh and one more thing: If you’re really brave, try cow penis soup. It’s called “caldo de cardán” and it’s supposed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. There’s only one place in town that makes it. You’ll find it on Calle Jauregui, a few steps past Plaza Sucre as you’re heading toward the lake (it will be on your left). You’ll recognize it because it has a big “Caldo de cardán” sign out front. And don’t count on being served anything else. There’s nothing but bovine genitals on the menu. Bon apetit!
Just a hint of what the view is like from the top of the Calvario. This view changes depending on your angle. The lake can be seen from 180 degrees.
The path up to the Calvario. Devout Catholics place a rock at each station of the cross, taking a moment of silence to mark the long trek that Jesus made on the day of his Crucifixion.
Soren, our Amazon parrot, liked to take the rocks placed by devout Catholics and toss them onto the ground. He was a sacrilegious bird. (He currently lives in the Amazon.)
Most showers in Bolivia are heated by electricity. Needless to say, showers can be pretty exhilarating. Oh, and bathtubs are nearly nonexistent.
Outlets in Bolivia accept flat as well as round pins.
Many outlets in Bolivia actually look like this, which means they pretty much accept any kind of plug.
INTERNET, ELECTRICITY & OTHER NECESSITIES
Internet: You won't be thrilled with your internet connection here. Lots of hotels have wi-fi, but I've found the lines get overloaded when the hotel has say, more than one guest, and I've had trouble even accessing my email account. One option is to visit one of the two internet cafes in town with a decent internet connection. There're not cafes in the traditional sense - there is no coffee or beverage service of any kind - they simply offer desks with computers and a high-speed connection, that works well enough except when the internet cafe is packed and the guy next to you is watching his cousin's cat video on Youtube.
The two cafes are owned by two brothers and you can find them by locating the signs that say simply "Internet" in rainbow-colored letters. Both of the cafés are on 6 de agosto Street. One of the cafes is half a block up from Plaza Sucre. The other one is three-quarters of a block up from the beach. (The reason this is the best public internet in Copacabana is that the brothers pay for a bootlegged connection from Peru.) I strongly suggest not even trying any other internet place in town as they are simply an exercise in wasted time and frustration.
If you're staying at one of our cabins, you'll have a high-speed line (even faster than the above-mentioned internet cafes) which is reliable, though we have to charge per usage. We don't make any profit on our internet - we simply charge you what the internet company charges us. You can check your fees online as often as you like and you pay when you check out. To give you an idea of cost, I tend to work all day on the computer checking email and sending Word docs and my daily usage rarely runs more than a dollar. The use of Netflix or Youtube sends this cost up (around a dollar an hour for watching videos).
Electricity: Electricity is 22o V in Bolivia. You rarely need to adapt your plugs, as Bolivian outlets take round pins (European) and flat ones (American) too. I've read some sites that claim that electricity runs at 110 V in La Paz, which is almost entirely inaccurate. When electricity was first installed there, this was the case, but all houses constructed in the past few decades are 220 V and even those that were originally installed with 110 V have additional outlets that were installed later with 220 V (these older houses have two different kinds of outlets, which are always marked). So think 220 V and you'll be fine.
Copacabana has a teeny tiny electricity problem, which I haven't discovered the root cause of. All I know is that the electricity goes out once or twice a month for several hours (up to eight). They have programmed outages which they announce on the radio, but they tend to announce these things at 7 am, before I've had my morning coffee so I tend to figure out what's going on once my TV screen goes black. To be prepared, be sure your computer battery is charged at all times and once it runs out, think of hiking up to the Calvario or taking a stroll along the lake.
Water. If you think the electricity problem is bad, you don't even want to know about the water. Ironic, for a place surrounded nearly entirely by a lake. But there's a severe water shortage in the city, with city water running only half an hour to several hours each day. You probably won't notice this problem, however, as most hotels have water tanks with reserves. Though it'd be nice of you to be a little water-conscious anyway.
Hot showers: It's hard to find a shower in Copacabana that isn't heated by electricity. Your showerhead will likely have a big electric heater attached. And your shower will only have one knob. The more you turn it to the right, the higher the water pressure and the less hot your shower. The less water you let through, the warmer it will be. It's not the greatest shower situation, I admit. In the future, we're looking into solar-heated water for the showers in our cabins. Stay tuned.
FOOD IN COPACABANA
Breakfast: Along 6 de Agosto Street, you'll find cafe after cafe offering "American" breakfasts, trying to entice you with pancakes, waffles and omelets. I've invariably found these places leave much to be desired, but in a pinch, they work to take away your hunger pangs.
For a different option, go to where Bolivians have their breakfast: the Central Market. It's packed on weekends, and the earlier you get there, the better. Women sit over boiling vats of oil and toss in rings of pastry, which they fry and then top with sugar cane syrup (a more refined form of molasses). They're super-cheap. A dozen "buñuelos" will run you less than a dollar. They're tasty too if you're willing to ignore the carbs and fat.
Buy your buñuelos from the women in the middle of the room and then head toward one of the beverage stalls with your breakfast. Once you've seated yourself on one of the benches, ask the woman for coffee, café con leche or api, a traditional Bolivian drink made from corn and sweetened with sugar. Don't feel bad about eating food you bought from another vendor. Everyone does it. So that makes it okay.
Lunch: This is the most important meal in Bolivia and it always includes a soup course and an entree, and usually a dessert or a refresco (a beverage made from spices or fruits). Most restaurants offer a choice of two or three options that change daily.
Start at the main plaza and walk down 6 de agosto toward the beach and you'll see restaurants on both sides of the street, with signs advertising the day's choices. Most places charge between 15 to 40 bolivianos ($2 to $5.50) though don't take price as an indicator of quality. I find that the more expensive places try and "fancy up" their food to appeal to foreigners, but the end result is bland and boring. (For instance, iceberg lettuce is considered sophisticated here whereas a tasty Bolivian salad of carrots and beets is not.)
If you want a cheap, very Bolivian option, try Dona's Matilde's located on the central plaza, kitty corner from the police station. For a dollar-fifty, Dona Matilde will give you a homemade soup plus an entree that consist of so much food, you probably won't be able to finish. This is hearty Bolivian food and it's one of the tastiest lunch options in Copacabana.
One other option: Visit the central market ("el comedor del mercado central"). There you'll find different soup and entree options at each stall. I recommend the "chairo," a typical Bolivian soup made from freeze-dried potatoes called chuño. (The lunch section of the central market is located next-door to the breakfast section. However, they are two separate structures.)
Dinner: Dinner is similar to lunch: soup followed by an entree, with several options to choose from. Most travelers select one of the restaurants located on 6 de agosto.
On Jauregui Street, on Plaza Sucre is a colorfully painted door without a sign. Here Viviana and Maximiliano will offer you Argentine-style pizza in a funky atmsophere. There's usually a small board outside displaying pizza specials. But it's easier to spot the colorful door frame.
In Bolivia, the bus terminal is feminine, i.e., "la terminal." In Peru, the correct way to say this is "el terminal."
The best street chocolate in Bolivia is called Sublime, pronounced Su-blee-may. You can find it at most kiosks and tiendas in the country.
When in Copacabana, be sure to walk by the main cathedral to watch the row of cars awaiting a blessing by the priest (your best chance is on the weekends). Before the priest anoints the vehicles with holy water, the drivers douse them in beer, an Andean tradition known as "challando" or "la challa."