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’.

Advertisements

Why you should just do it

I had put it off for years. I had made it into a bigger monster than it needed to be. I had missed out doing it in such amazing locations as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Then finally, at the age of 28, after a long, frustrated summer spent in the Greek Islands, I got back to London and marched myself into the local leisure centre and did it. I signed up to swimming lessons.

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

I don’t know why I had never learnt to swim properly – I grew up spending all summer in the sea and swimming pools. But I never really swam.

Then as I started stepping out into far-flung corners of the world, my lack of ability at staying afloat in water became more and more of a vital issue. What if this rickety boat that’s bouncing across the waves to an isolated Pacific island doesn’t make it? What about on that experience-of-a-lifetime Ha Long Bay trip where everyone else is ecstatically jumping off the wooden junk boat into the aquamarine waters while I dangle nervously from the ladder?

And as for the time just I and a boyfriend were deposited somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra to do some snorkelling, only to see our “tour” boat disappear into the horizon…

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

So that day back in London was a life-changing one. I had decided to bite the bullet and face those fears of feeling humiliated, of being too old to take lessons, of looking stupid, of wearing a swimsuit in front of the general public, and – naturally – of drowning.

Those 12 weeks I spent – at first thrashing and eventually swimming – under the watchful eye of a patient teacher in a Covent Garden pool were the best investment I ever made.

Being able to swim opens up another 70% of the world to you – how cool is that? And this time when I departed for my travels in South America, I knew I could happily and confidently jump off any boats and plunge into any pools that came my way.

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer's reservoir in a secret location in Peru

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer’s reservoir in a secret location in Peru

If you haven’t learnt to swim yet, just do it.

A change

They say a change is as good as a holiday, don’t they? Well, after four weeks in Montevideo, I dusted the cobwebs off my backpack and headed up the coast to Buenos Aires – no, not The Buenos Aires, but a beach village with the same name, a few kilometres outside of Punta del Este on Uruguay’s coast.

Punte del Este is the celebrity hang out of this part of South America at this time of year – Brazilian and Argentinean stars and travellers alike flock to this Miami-esque city by the sea to pose and parade by the beach. Not for me. But luckily, Carlos had some friends who are working in the much more undeveloped and rugged Buenos Aires, and offered for us to stay with them in their beach-side house for a couple of days.

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

After an emotional few weeks, I was still feeling low and fragile and questioning this whole travel lark, but figured a change of scenery and some beach time should do the trick. After arriving at their house, however, I endured several hours of Spanish conversations and jokes, with me able to pick up only a few words, and too embarrassed or frozen or whatever to attempt any contribution, so I only descended into a deeper state of misery.

Buenos Aires beach, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires rugged beach, Uruguay

However – it would all be worth it and I’d soon be cheered up, as swimming in the sea and sunbathing on a beach are among my favourite things to do in the world. When we finally headed to the beach, I sat down and looked at the massive waves ripping and curling into the shore; I’ve only recently learnt to swim and have never encountered waves as powerful as these before, so effectively, I realised, the sea was inaccessible to me. As I watched everyone around me frolicking and enjoying the beach, I suddenly felt a bit isolated – I was not enjoying it, and felt guilty for thinking this way.

But suddenly something changed – Carlos, who grew up playing in the surf of Lima’s Pacific beaches, got me down to the water’s edge and slowly but surely led me in, teaching me how to read the waves.

The lagoon-like waters of Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands it was not – it was way more exciting. I spent the rest of the afternoon screaming and laughing as I dived into waves and let them crash me into the shore.

And suddenly from those small steps, everything was better.

From now on, I know that big waves don’t necessarily mean danger, but a whole lot of fun.  When we got back to the house, I even managed a few words in Spanish and understood a sentence or two.

And best of all, I’m excited about travel again.

Yep, all those philosophers are right; to really get the most out of life, we have to face our fears – just like I leapt head-on into those oh-so intimidating waves.

Finding paradise

When I talk with friends back home, I get very much the feeling that they’re saying, “Oh you’re alright, you’re out there”. There’s a notion that because I’m in a tropical country a million miles from home, I haven’t got a care in the world. When, in fact, my problems came with me, and if anything they are more lucid. I am completely alone with nothing but them for company in a strange and unknown land. At home my friends have the comforts and securities of the people and places they understand and love all around them; out here it’s just me and my backpack.

Someone dear dying of cancer; the relationship with someone special that I started not long enough before I left, not knowing where it will go from here; my mum entering her 60s; my nan entering her 90s; the unsatisfying career that I need to change; the insecurities and fears that plague my mind…they’re all still here, no matter what amazing sights I might see and exotic experiences I might have.

I remember reading Alain de Botton’s take on this in his brilliant book, The Art of Travel, that I studied at university. When we imagine paradise, he said, we don’t imagine that our minds will be there too.

A couple of years ago I travelled for three weeks with friends in Costa Rica, leaving at home a boyfriend with whom I knew, deep down – though didn’t admit it – that our six-year relationship was breaking. Giving us some time apart, I thought, would help us. Looking back now, I think I knew the relationship was already over, as during the entire trip, I had an overwhelming foreboding feeling. Sitting on a Caribbean beach for the first time, my heart was heavy with memories of him and I on a tropical shore during the intoxicatingly happy early days of our relationship. At dusk, I felt panicked at the long hours of darkness ahead without him. The deeper into the luscious jungle of the country we travelled, the more I wanted to turn back, to him, to us. Now, when people ask if I liked Costa Rica, I say no. But I know it’s not the country’s fault, it’s just sometimes no amount of palm-fringed beaches, jungle canopy tours and baby sloths can help how you feel inside.

So now I will go back outside into the sun, look up and smile at the mountains surrounding me, wander down a colonial street, eat and drink whatever I want for lunch, whenever I want to take lunch, catch a bus to somewhere else if I fancy, but don’t think for one minute that I don’t have anything to worry about.

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach