Located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, the town of Copacabana is an easy place to settle for a couple of days to relax, hike or get out onto that shimmering water.
Set between two large hills – Cerro Calvario and and Niño Calvario – the compact town centre is a hive of hostals, tour operators, restaurants and souvenir stores; especially along the main drag of Agenda 6 de Agosto, where most of the action is.
Anyone that’s keen to add a miniature totora reed boat, hyper-colour beanie, alpaca wool poncho or patterned textile to their already-bulging backpack can do so at a multitude of stores.
Or if food is more your thing, there’s always a vendor selling parcels of panela (unrefined sugar) or pasankalla – the most enormous popcorn you’ve ever lay your eyes on. It’s generally sweetened, and when you find the really good stuff, it’s seriously addictive.
The most imposing structure in Copacabana would have to be the enormous basílica in the centre of town. This 16th-century Mestizo-Baroque marvel houses the image of Virgin Mary of Copacabana, Bolivia’s patron, and if you time it with the Festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria (2-5 February), you’ll witness one of the country’s largest pilgrimages.
There’s a museum attached to the basílica, and across the road you can bath in candlelight in the Capilla de Velas – or Chapel of Candles.
Every day in front of the cathedral you can witness a rather unusual practice that’s very much the norm in Bolivia. Many flower kiosks line the front gate and it’s here that car owners pull up their vehicle and have it blessed by a priest.
Flowers, petals, rice, garlands, trinkets and even a bath of sparkling wine – all to keep the car and its passengers safe. A bit of a contradiction, to be honest, as it seems the average driver believes it’s an option to wear a seat belt, use lights and not speed like a twit on windy, mountainous roads.
There’s a broad selection of accommodation in Copacabana, so any budget is well looked after, especially the backpacker crowd. We were shacked up at La Cúpola, a fab little property at the foothill of Cerro Calvario.
It may be a little walk up a relatively steep street to get there, but the serenity is unbeatable.
Lofty views over the jumble of brick buildings that make up Copacabana, the beach and across to nearby Niño Calvario. Breakfast is really decent, the rooms are comfy and the resident moggie loves to befriend you. They even have a couple of alpacas to help keep the lawns perfectly trim, as well as amuse us gringos.
La Cúpola, Michel Pérez 1-3
The main attraction in this town is none other than the shimmering water at its doorstep – Lake Titicaca. You could easily be fooled into thinking it was the ocean, as it stretches as far as the eyes can see.
A variety of water activities like pedalo swans, jet skis and banana boating can provide a relaxing or adrenaline-filled outing, or you can simply kick the trash aside and take a seat on concrete steps or on the gravel beach and admire the view.
Anyone that’s spent time in Bolivia would already be used to seeing garbage on roadsides, in gutters and, well, everywhere, so seeing it on the shores of Lake Titicaca comes as no surprise. It’s normal, folks, as is seeing the locals simply toss their trash on the ground or out of moving vehicles.
Despite spending three days in town, we never quite made it to Isla del Sol, which is one of the main reasons people come here. It rained for most of our time in Copacabana, which isn’t fun to be outdoors in; especially on an island in Lake Titicaca.
We were hoping to take a half-day trip to the island before leaving town in the afternoon, but we discovered the return time was way after our bus departure time. Our loss.
Facing the beach is a strip of kiosks where you can get your fill on a species of fish introduced from the US back in the 1930s. Sadly this fish, the perpetually-hungry trout, is causing havoc on the native species, which are now endangered; a couple even reported to be extinct.
Despite the doom and gloom, trout can be seen on any menu in Copacabana, but one of the best places to enjoy it is in whatever waterfront kiosk you pick.
The trout is served in a variety of methods, from a simple grilling, to being topped with garlic (trucha al ajo), creamy sauce, egg-dipped (a la Francesca) or spiced up enough to make you sweat a little. There’s a bit of rice, salad and papas fritas beneath all of that flakey goodness, and the prices don’t hurt, either.
We chose Kiosko #7 Teresita for our 25Bs meal, but something tells me they’re all very much the same.
Not too far from the trout kiosks is this pop-up eatery with three dishes on offer – milanesa (crumbed beef), sopa de mani (veg soup thickened with peanut) and fried trout.
No fancy food or fancy plating, just simple home-style local grub for a very wallet-friendly 5Bs.
Also along the waterfront, around the bottom of Agenda 6 de Agosto on Agenda Costanera, is a handful of resto-bars that are good spots to indulge in happy hour, take advantage of free wifi and catch a storm or a magical sunset over the lake.
Street food isn’t overly abundant in this lake town, but there is a smattering of options. There’s a vegan cart by the bus terminus, the occasional fried chicken pop-up in the middle of the road (see below), elderly ladies grilling skewers of heart with boiled potatoes or those ubiquitous rows of drinking glasses filled with mocochinchi (dried peaches, water, sugar & spices).
One block from the main plaza is Mercado Modelo, a covered eating hall filled with vendors serving up simple local fare. Fried fish with boiled potatoes, soups, stewed meat and chicken – all for a couple of bolivianos a serve. This would have to be one of the cheapest places in town to grab lunch.
Metres from the bus terminus is a bakery that’s small in size and big on fab edibles. The guy behind Pit Stop makes his own pastries, pizza, excellent savoury and sweet empanadas (including mango!) and flat pies.
There was something different each day we dropped in, and we can vouch for the limón tart and passionfruit cake, even the espresso. The best coffee we had in Copacabana, actually.
Pit Stop Bakery, Agenda 16 de Julio
Aside from trout, pizza and pasta are very much the food staples of Copacabana. If neither of those appeal, there’s always Thai or Indian. Here at Thai Palace you can sink into lounges surrounded by fabric prints, strings of Indian elephants and colourful lanterns and easily take a break from local Bolivian fare.
Quinoa sushi and the Copacabana roll (quinoa, trout, spinach & cream cheese) are clear house faves, but you can also tuck into Thai and Indian curries, plus Japanese dishes like gyoza and teriyaki trout.
There’s a daily menu for 40Bs which includes soup (tom aha kai), llama curry (see above) and ice cream.
Thai Palace, Avenida 6 de Agosto
To get the view of Copacabana you see in all the postcards, you need to put some effort in and get climbing up Cerro Calvario. Stone steps lead the way past a series of monuments that represent the 14 stations of the Cross, as well as various craft and drinks stalls.
The top of the hill provides the most incredible view of the region, including that spectacular lake. Peer over the edge, however, and you’re greeted with a virtual garbage tip. Sadly, locals find it easier to toss garbage off the hill instead of putting it in provided bins. Once again, this is the norm in Bolivia, so try to turn a blind eye to it, like they do.
Rather than grab a local bus, we opted for the Bolivia Hop, which is a private company that operates in a “hop on hop off” format – even helping helping out with border crossings.
The service runs between La Paz and Copacabana in Bolivia, and Puno, Cusco, Arequipa and Lima in Peru. You simply work out your route, choose your cities and that determines the price.
We did the La Paz – Copacabana – Puno – Cusco route and it cost US$49 per person. The bus is secure, the guide speaks English and they even help with the border crossing.