The South American traveller’s ultimate getaway

Looking for somewhere to break up that epic South America road trip and put your feet up awhile? I found it.

After crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia and reaching the tacky ‘resort’ of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we decided to head straight out into the middle of this, the world’s highest navigable body of water and spend the night there – why not? Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is a three-hour boat ride out into the lake and with basic amenities, no cars, and barely electricity, is a little getaway from modern life, and indeed, life on the road.

This is what happened…

We took the boat that’s run by a sailors’ association from Copacabana’s waterfront. A small, rickety wooden boat with narrow bench seats didn’t make very comfortable travelling for the three-hour journey, but seeing the snow-caps of distant Andean mountains were a great distraction and a reminder of just how high up in the air we were, despite being in a boat on water…

The tips of the Cordillera Real as seen from a boat on Lake Titicacaca

The tips of the Cordillera Real mountain range as seen from the boat on Lake Titicaca

Traditionally dressed local mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland

Mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland, wearing the multi-tiered skirts and bowler hats that are long-standing traditions in the Andes

As we neared Isla del Sol, some discussion and confusion broke out among us foreign passengers as to where the boat was stopping first – the south or north of the island. We didn’t really know which one we’d prefer, so when the boat stopped at the south – or was it the north? – and most tourists got off, we decided to wing it to the north – or south – no idea what to expect there.

When the boat docked in Challapampa, the main settlement in the south/north, a girl in an ill-fitting wine-coloured velveteen dress was lazily hanging around the end of the wooden jetty. As we approached she gently spoke, “Habitacion?” We looked around, and with just a few up-turned boats on the sand backed by basic buildings, we agreed to be led by the girl.

We followed her along a sand path between the ramshackle buildings and must’ve crossed a narrow peninsula as now we saw the water again – from a beautiful sandy bay. We walked onto the beach and turned into her family’s guesthouse that was sitting right in the middle of the sand.

Basic, it was, but this was our view for a mere Bs.40 (around £2):

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol guesthouse

The window with the best view ever? Certainly a strong contender

We explored the town and found that a couple of the buildings served food – one in particular suddenly filled with travellers that night, all enjoying the set menu of vegetable soup, lake-fresh trout with rice, and coca tea. At dusk we strolled along the bays and were struck by the ethereal landscape in the light of the full moon.

Full moon over the boats moored off Ch'allampa

Full moon over the boats moored off Challapampa and the distant Cordillera Real

Sunset over Lake Titicaca, from Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), Bolivia

Sunset at 12,500ft. Note the crops growing on the beach – every bit of land is used productively in these parts

The next morning, this was what I saw – as you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get up and enjoy the beach…

Beach on Isla del Sol's northern end, Lake Titicaca

The beach in all its glory

It only took a few steps to stroll out through the gate to our guesthouse and we were on the sand.

Guesthouse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The gates from our guesthouse straight onto the sand

The water looked tantalising, but surely at over 12,500ft (3800m) high in the Andes, it’s going to be freezing? No – it was the perfect temperature – refreshing for dips in-between sunbathing.

Rachel in Lake Titicaca

It’s not a bad life

The pigs were enjoying it too (it’s easy to forget that to the residents of Challapampa, this isn’t a beach, it’s common land for grazing their animals).

Pigs on the beach, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Pigs on the beach – what else?

My companion turned and said to me, “Everything we’ve done until now has led us here, so even the mistakes were worth it.”

Sailing away from Isla del Sol

Breaking on of my travel rules – looking back over my shoulder as we sail away from Challapampa and back to ‘reality’.

Homesickness

It crept in without me noticing, maybe around three months in. At first it just highlighted simple things such as why can’t I get a KitKat in the local shop?? Why does every vehicle I travel in seem to have a death wish???

But soon it was time to move on, so my thoughts got distracted with exciting new sights and scenes. Then Christmas came and I was stuck in Montevideo. That’s when the more serious wave came – thoughts of family, friends, cat, and life left behind. Christmas Eve was almost unbearable as it became a physical tugging on the heart. I watched mothers and daughters, families, and groups of friends hurrying home together with bags of presents. Then the city fell silent.

It was the first Christmas I had ever wished to be over as quickly as possible.

When the New Year came, I thought, was when it would all get better – I could move on again. As you know, that didn’t quite happen. However, I did move on eventually – to the bright lights of Buenos Aires, the thundering Iguazu Falls, a multi-week adventure across Bolivia. But no matter how many sights, smiles and sunbeams the days might bring, the feeling was firmly planted there inside. Sometimes it would come to the fore, with tears and desperate thoughts of running to the nearest airport.

“But no! Don’t give up!” – everyone, and part of me, cried.

So I carried on.

Before I knew it, I had got an apartment in Cusco and was looking for jobs. Weeks went by and the jobs didn’t come. Money dripped away and so did my sanity. Nothing to do, no one to go out with, barely enough food to eat was a cocktail for a rapid descent into depression.

From my apartment window I could see the planes taking off every day from Cusco airport and I would fantasise about being inside one.

The worst thing of all, is I felt guilty and isolated – no one else I saw walking round the streets of Cusco looked unhappy to be here, nobody else looked like they dreamt of home every night. But then a saviour came, in the form of the internet. A tentative quick typing into Google of ‘homesickness’ brought up a torrent of blogs and professional advice. I was not alone!! Hundreds of people all around the world were feeling the same way as me and were all exchanging kind words and support. So it was completely normal how I was feeling! And there were ways to help me feel better!

So it’s only fair I share them for anyone who hasn’t found those blogs, but mine instead:

  1. First of all, know it’s normal, don’t fight it, ride it through. Homesickness is comparable as a type of grief, so expect the same emotions, and know that this too will pass.
  2. Keep busy! This is an excellent cure for any kind of depression. Do something, anything. Go for a walk at least once a day. Get work, study, volunteer, seek out local cultural events, exercise, stream films, read and write, join a club.
  3. Bringing me to – join an expat club so you can chat with like-minded people and create a support network. (See your local Meetup and Craigslist webpages).
  4. Chat with friends and family back home as often as you want – be it by phone, Skype or email – even if to share the silliest, smallest story, that will help you feel as connected to them as if they were down the road.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to pack it all up and go back home. If that’s where your heart really lays, then lay it there – life’s too short to be miserable.

I’ve skimmed the surface – check out my lifeline Grit and Glamour’s Getting Over Homesickness and 10 Tips for Managing Homesickness – in particular, scroll down to see readers’ comments and her thoughtful responses.

And what did I do? Did the homesickness fade? Did I stay or did I go? Well that’s another story…

A survival guide to Buenos Aires’ La Boca

When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca