ISLA DEL SOL, Nov 20 — After spending a few weeks — or maybe even a few months — on bumpy overnight buses, feeling paranoia on congested city streets, hostel-hopping and lowering hygiene standards, finding yourself in Lake Titicaca is like having new breath pumped into your soul.
Whichever way you may arrive from, be it Peru or Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is almost an essential stop if you’re to survive the ongoing journey in your South American adventure.
On the Peruvian side of the lake, the entry point is Puno, a hello-goodbye town, there just to get you on your way to a day trip or a different experience in Amantani Island where there are no hostels. Instead homestays are arranged with a family where you may learn some basic Aymara and gain an insight to life from another perspective.
If you’re approaching the lake from Bolivia, the final bus stop is located in Copacabana. And just to be clear, this isn’t the one Barry Manilow was singing about. It is not the prettiest waterside town but it is certainly interesting and, like the rest of Bolivia, continuously developing to deal with the steady increase of adventurous travellers from all over the world.
The short street leading towards the harbour is flanked by shops selling boat and bus tickets, accommodation on the lake islands, tours, beaded accessories, snacks and rather unofficial-looking but functional money exchange booths set up with a table and rates written on manila cards.
And no waterside town would be the same without watering holes decked out in wood and cushions, blaring Bob Marley and housing the odd foreigner who decided not to return home for a while; no doubt a lively place during the warm summer months and peak tourist periods.
If you’re lucky you may meet a lovely bohemian lady selling homemade sandwiches as her curly-haired daughter plays on the side and be entertained briefly by the sun-seasoned Chilean musician who looks uncannily like Captain Jack Sparrow before he has to comically but deftly jump off back to shore as the boat begins to separate from the wharf.
Already, Lake Titicaca is getting off to an interesting start with a fresh vibe that is a far cry from the simmering madness of the city.
While day trips to one of the islands on the lake are also available here on the Bolivian side, a stay on Isla del Sol is a worthy trip and a great way to get some respite. Even during spring, being in the high altitude makes the wind very chilly and you’re advised to wrap up warm.
Hostels on the island range from 25 to 40 Bolivianos (RM11-RM17) per night, and little home-run restaurants and small shacks selling snacks are also available. Bringing your own snacks is recommended as you may find it more expensive on the island and rather few and far in between.
In the quiet season, you’re never really sure if restaurants are open, at times all there is to greet you is a donkey grazing in the backyard, but the usual offerings such as fish (Trucha, Pejerrey), pizza, milanesa and warming quinoa soup are readily available at normal meal times.
The lake water is distinctly fresh and clean, with a deep blue colour and being undisturbed by the forces of currents, a reminder that you’re not at sea though it seems so from Isla Del Sol.
Here, you feel as though you have finally escaped modern civilization and all you have is peace and quiet. After a night’s rest, a five-hour trek from the northern tip of the island is sure to re-energize you. The trek is a great way of appreciating the incredible beauty of Lake Titicaca, and you will find yourself unable to resist stopping every now and then to say “Wow!” or maybe just to catch your breath.
Over a hundred sites of ancient ruins are scattered across the island, including the sacrificial table that is now a poignant resting point where visitors can obtain a blessing from an Incan descendant named Faustino for 10 Bolivianos. Even a cynic will find something rather supernatural about a generic blessing being uttered into the complete silence that hangs over this spot.
After some huffing and puffing, you’re back on the southern side of the island, appreciatively guzzling down the pristine and delicious fresh mountain water and thinking you may never want to leave the rare serenity of Lake Titicaca.
But you know you have to be on your way to another destination to pick up new experiences, hopefully rejuvenated by the mystical healing powers of Lake Titicaca and drops of Faustino’s blessing still clinging to you from the day before.