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’.

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A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks

A grand adventure part 7 – Crossing borders again

We had gone round all the ticket booths at La Paz’s bus station to establish prices and routes to Cusco. Bs.170 (£16/US$25) was the average price for the 12-hour journey. We decided we could do it cheaper.

So on the morning of our departure we rose early to beat the marathon that was starting at 8am and would mean closures (and the resulting mayhem) of the city’s streets. After a fond farewell to our hostel, we backpacked to the corner where we caught one of La Paz’s funky Guatemalan public buses to the Cemetario – a district where not only do you go to get buried, but also to catch onward buses. Here, we could pick up a colectivo to Desaguadero – the border town with Peru.

Public city bus in La Paz

Public city bus in La Paz

I was feeling heavily nauseous with altitude, exertion and travel, so was not looking forward to the two-hour ride on a pull-down seat in the back of this minivan. After half an hour the driver stopped to try and pick up more passengers to fill the van. When people looked in and saw the only seats left were in the very tiny, very back row, they were reluctant to board, so the driver started shouting at Carlos, accusing him and his guitar of putting people off, “We can’t leave because of you!” Carlos demonstrated that he and his guitar weren’t taking up any more than one seat, but still the driver argued. Finally the couple sitting in the front got fed up and transferred to the back to get things moving.

We arrived at Desaguadero and I could see right away how it had acquired its name – translated into English: ‘drain’ – the effluent from Lake Titicaca all comes this way, and inbetween the usual unfinished houses and muddy roads of these parts, were big swamps floating with rubbish. We couldn’t move quick enough to the border post.

We crossed the Desaguadero river and entered Peru. Now I had a small worry – I had overstayed my Peruvian visa last time, and this time I wanted to request the longer, six-month one – how was that going to go down?

Some charming words from Carlos and a friendly immigration officer saw I got a six-month visa for Peru. Now first things first, some breakfast before progressing on to the next bus. We changed our bolivianos to soles with one of the senoras who sit along the road in a row under parasols and with six blankets wrapped around them, then moved on into the town. The market was right beside where the buses depart so we were able to check prices and schedules before grabbing avocado sandwiches for S./1 (25p/38c) each from a market senora. The colectivos to Puno run constantly, so as soon as one fills up, the next one pulls in to call “Puno! PunoPunoPunoPunoooo!” Always keen to get the front seat, I leapt up to the car, but a schoolgirl beat me to the best seat by the window. So I was stuck in the middle seat next to the gearstick, where there was nowhere for my legs. If I sat up straight, my head came above top of the windscreen so I couldn’t see out.

Two hours later, I had manoeuvred my aching legs into every position imaginable and all the time craning my head to try and see out, and was getting pretty desperate to get out of the car. The road follows the shores of Lake Titicaca the whole way, so I tried to distract myself with what I could see of the serene, glass-like waters of the lake. Then, like a mirage, Puno appeared on the horizon.

See how my epic voyage ends in part 8 coming soon!