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’.

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.

Dear Driver

Anyone who’s travelled has been there – the rusty vehicle, the splintered windscreen, the hairpin bends, the lack of seatbelts, the honking horns. It’s the aspect of travel I hate most – sitting powerless in a car or bus as the driver hurtles me to certain death (so I convince myself as my white knuckled hands clench the seat tighter). So this is what I would like to say to them:

Dear Driver,

I know you’re in a hurry to drop this lot of people off so you can shoot back and get the next load in – more people, more money. But does it never occur to you that maybe you won’t ever get to enjoy that money if you carry on driving like this? Thought not. So may I be so bold as to drop you a few tips to ensure you – and your passengers – get to see out the rest of your days…

Number 1 – seatbelts aren’t there just to hurriedly put on when you spot a police car, only to take off again once the cops are out of sight. Why not just keep it on? It’s really no trouble. And please ensure all your passengers are wearing theirs, too – if I’m sitting in the front, I don’t want to be crushed by five people from behind me when you brake too hard, as invariably you will (also see number 4).

Number 2 – hairpin bends on precipitous mountainsides are really not the choice spot for overtaking nor for looking at your mobile phone (also see number 3).

Number 3 – could you please not spend a mean average of five minutes with your eyes not on the road but checking your mobile phone at regular intervals? Just a suggestion.

Number 4 – another idea, don’t know what you’ll think, but how about not driving so insanely fast that when something does get in your way or the car in front isn’t going as fast, then you won’t have to brake so aggressively, therefore saving us all a bit of whiplash?

Number 5 – the horn. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the horn is actually not supposed to be used in conjunction with the accelerator. I.e. hooting at pedestrians in the road but not slowing down to avoid hitting them won’t really pass in the eyes of the law. Same goes for overtaking on blind spots – honking the horn does not bring salvation.

Number 6 – ok, I get it – you want to overtake everything else on the road, but if you really must insist on doing so, once you’ve overtaken, is there any chance you could then return to the correct side of the road? It’s not fun to wait until something is coming rapidly towards us in the other direction to then swerve jerkily – and terrifyingly – out of the way at the last second.

Number 7 – finally, the music. If I must spend the entire journey with my life flashing before my eyes, the last thing I need as the soundtrack is a plinky-plonky, wailing cassette tape playing on loop and at top volume for four hours.

Thanks ever so much.

Yours in eternal hope,

Rachel

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

A bus with half its windscreen missing, on the road between Tupiza and Atocha, Bolivia

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

Whizzing perilously along another South American road

See also my post on buses from hell