Like our Uyuni trip, this journey became a bit more of an undertaking than anticipated. But, in backpacker fashion, we moved forward, worked with what we had, and enjoyed nonetheless. All’s well that ends well.
After a pretty comfortable 8 hour ride back from Cochabamba, we arrived to La Paz just 45 minutes later than scheduled. It was about 6:45 in the chilly morning and we were in perfect timing, the bus for Copacabana left at 8:00. We hadn’t eaten since an uninspiring meal the night before, but we decided not to find breakfast before heading out.
The plan was so perfect (surely premonition of a problem, ha)- we’d get to Copacabana about 11:00am and find a cute cafe to eat breakfast. Then, we’d take a boat to a gorgeous island not far from its coast. We’d get dropped off at the South end and spend the day walking across its picturesque landscape before arriving to the North to stay the night. In the morning, we’d hike for a couple hours before taking the boat back to Copacabana, just in time to have dinner and head back to La Paz. There we would grab our hostel, hit the sack, and wake up early to enjoy our last day. Oooh, what a relaxing last day it would be – buying souvenirs, eating at the cute cafe we tried before the Death Road bike ride, and, finally, heading to the airport for our 4pm flight.
So, yeah, that’s not exactly what happened. At the bus terminal I learned there was a strike and no transport could get to Copacabana. Note: strikes happen all the time… so this was nothing “big deal.” The lady at the counter didn’t know when it’d end and said we could try waiting till tomorrow. Then, pointing to a map, she said, “Or, we can take you in a van to Desaguadero. From there, there are “many” busses to Copacabana. It’s really easy.” This was Teresa and I’s only chance to go, so, based upon her description, we figured to go for it. The Argentinian guy in line went for it too. With an hour to kill, we bummed around and then went to wait where we’d get picked up. A guy came and said “you two are the ones for Copacabana?” “yep,” we replied. About a block away, we stopped and hopped in the van.
Teresa and I nodded off a bit, our heads bobbing up and down like we were falling asleep in the middle of class. Along the way we got stopped by police 3x, needing to show our Bolivian visas and paperwork. One of the Peruvian guys had an expired visa and needed to get out and pay a fine. Yep, nothing else, just pay a hefty sum then continue on. Sounds… corrupt? Anyways, after about an hour and a half, we arrived to Desaguadero, a city near the border of Peru. There we found out that we needed to cross the border. Uuuugh. The lady had “mistakenly” left that out. So, we went through migration, walked across the border, and proceeded to immigration in Peru. That was not fun, the people were unpleasant, and we were starving- but everything was in Soles (Peruvian money) and we obviously only had Bolivian money. We could see 40 feet across the border to Bolivia, but, nope, no one wanted Bolivianos.
The man we who brought us to Desaguadero directed us to another minivan that would take us to Copacabana. Then, he left. The middle-aged Peruvians in the back were talking about the strike, mentioning that they didn’t think we’d actually be able to get to Copacabana. Usually the strikers shut down all access paths. We were a bit, surprised. They said likely we’d get dropped off as close as we could and then have to walk the rest of the way. They weren’t sure, so we crossed our fingers and hoped it wasn’t true.
Along the way we made a couple stops to pick up people on the side of the road…. at one point I counted 28 people in the van!!! Yes, you heard me right. To make the cramped quarters worse, one young Peruvian girl was seriously hacking up a lung. She had sick mannerisms, was wiping her nose on the van curtains, palming her entire face and wiping them on the seats, laying over her mom/family (mouth in the air)…. I closed my eyes, tried to ignore that cough, and held my breath for as long as possible. To make the insanely cramped and quite undesirable quarters even worse, no one opens windows there. No matter if it’s a stale air bus you’ve been riding in for 15 hours, if it’s a stuffy, smelly minibus, or if it’s a minivan made for 12 that’s holding 27 breathing adults and 1 child who’s carrying something nobody wants to get.
We got back to the Bolivian border, jumped out of the van as quick as possible, and breathed deep. Aaaah, clean air. Now, it was hurrying through immigration and entering back into Bolivia. We went to pay the Peruvian guy, who, along the way, must have decided to take advantage of the situation. He doubled what he quoted for that nasty ride. After Patricio (the Argentinian) and I were unbelievably questioning him, we ended up giving him what we had left. It was a bit short of what he “newly” asked for, and still cheap in general, but a disrespectful, distasteful move on his part. Worse, there was a Japanese guy who understood nothing of Spanish and, in his uncomfort/nonunderstanding of the situation, was just handing this guy money. Patricio and I noticed and made the guy give him his change… it’s very frustrating to see low-actions like that.
Anyways, after getting back into Bolivia, it was true there was no available transport. The roads were blocked but a taxi (aka, man who knew there’d be travelers walking and needing rides) agreed to take us to where it started, which took 2 miles off our trek.
We ended up walking a good couple hours up hills, across farms, and over un-marked land with our backpacks in search of Copacabana. The altitude was killing us and an Ecuadorian guy shared some of his coca leaves, which helped our incredibly hard beating hearts slow down and us, therefore, breathe a bit easier. We got in around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, a good 24 hours since we ate last, STARVING. Lining the beautiful beach were some restaurant tent/huts and, right away, we stopped at one and ordered a menu del dia of delicious grilled trout, salad, fresh cut french fries, and rice. And, of course, an ice cold beer. Damn, the was one of the best meals in Bolivia for sure.
We didn’t get lucky when leaving, either.
In another post I’ll tell you about the actual lovely trip we had, but, for this one, I’ll just keep to the ever-so-eventful journey. With our super late arrival to Copacabana, the last boat to the island had already left- squashing our plan of hiking all day and sleeping on the island. So, we decided to go the next day. If the strike ended, we could spend all day on the island, getting back just in time for the 7pm bus back to La Paz. If it didn’t end, we could only do a 1/2 day, getting back around 3:00 and repeating that exact same trek backwards. Well, to our luck, we woke up to find it wasn’t over. So, 1/2 day it was. We spent the time hiking and eventually headed back to Copacabana on the 1:30 boat.
I asked the captain about the status of the strike… it had gotten worse. That meant all roads were shut and not even the 4km taxi cab help would be available. Uuuugh. I was talking with some Argentinians on the boat and they were heading our way so we decided to make the 4 hour trek to the border together. Once in town, quite a few non-Spanish speaking travelers were frantically trying to figure out how to leave. With big suitcases and other things, they weren’t in the condition to walk so, unfortunately, the only other option was to wait it out. I saw one couple that had a flight in Peru that night, so they really needed to leave. One of the Bolivian ladies was trying to explain to them the situation, how to walk to the border, and what to do from there. I went over, helped them understand, told them we’d be walking to, and that they’d be welcome to come with us. Oddly enough, they weren’t very friendly and walked on ahead of us. Just stressed, I assume.
We were waiting for another American couple who was also going to walk with us, but when they didn’t show on time we gave them 15 minutes. We were losing important daylight and it was a long path ahead. They didn’t come so we grabbed our packs and set on foot. The path split in a couple places and it was hard to know which way to go. The strikers were along the way and kindly guided us on the “shortest” paths, cutting through different people’s land, off the road, etc. After all, they weren’t mad at us, we were just stuck in the middle.
We trekked on, over the big rocks and knocked down trees that blocked the roads, and passed a couple groups of people going in the opposite direction to Copacabana. One guy was a Bolivian on crutches, it made me so sad to think he still had a good hour and a half to go. Soon, we saw a man in a parked car. He said he’d be able to take us to the border!! A bit skeptical because I knew all the roads were shut down, we clarified some things. He was kind and said he’s a locala nd that he knew land/little dirt paths that surely could get us there – he had just dropped off the man with the crutches. So, we decided to go for it and along the way he helped us better understand the situation.
In his car, we eventually passed people that were also making the journey. They all looked at us in desbelief, “whaaaaaat????” We saw the couple that wasn’t friendly and didn’t want to walk with us… and, then, we saw the couple that we waited for but didn’t show – they left without us!! Hmm, as much as I felt bad for everyone else, I couldn’t help but internally giggle at those 2 couples. I guess it teaches them to stick with the friendly people that speak Spanish :)
Sure enough, the life-saver of a man weaved all over and got us almost to the border, cutting 3 hours of hard walking. We thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. We were in dire need to get back to La Paz because our flight was in less than 24 hours! We went through migration, entered Peru, and then found a ride to Desaguadero where we would cross back into Bolivia.
About 1/2 hour into our ride, pitch black outside, the van stopped. A semi had tried to flip a U-ey in the middle of this tiny country road, gotten itself stuck. No ability to cross. You’re kidding me…. are all the forces against us?! It had been stuck for over 30 minutes, with no real outlook of getting out. About 20 minutes of people pushing it later, it moved about 6 inches… just enough for a brave car to try and pass around it. It made it!! A couple other cars/vans went successfully. Our van had all the backpacks on top so it was a bit taller and we didn’t know if it could go, but, we all got out and our driver went for it.
Yaaaaaaay, we were back on our way to La Paz. We got to Desaguadero, went through migration to leave Peru, and, while talking to the lady at the desk, she told me to (basically) book a** because the Bolivian office was an hour earlier (time zone) and would be shutting down in… 5 minutes. We grabbed our passports and, literally, ran as fast as we could across the border. Panting, we stumbled in with 10 seconds to spare. They slammed the doors behind us. These Bolivians, like our waitress in Uyuni, were the kind travellers talk about… extremely unfriendly. I quickly grabbed the forms we needed and they shut the window as soon as I did, not wanting to give papers to even those already in the building. We needed to fill out the forms but they wouldn’t give us pens. They were yelling to finish the papers and I borrowed a pen from someone who was done, filled out my form, handed the pen to Teresa, and went into the other room to get in the line.
Other travellers arrived seconds after “closing” time and were at the door, begging to get in. Nope. I tried to explain that a couple of them had been with us but were delayed because of silly beaurocracy in Peru. They, angrily, let them in but no one else. Basically, that means no one who walked from Copacabana that day made it into Bolivia, and, many of those who “made it” didn’t even get to pass. Everyone must have had to change money in that sketchy area and find a random place to stay until the morning.
Luckily, although treated quite like crap, we made it back into Bolivia. We waited about 45 minutes in that questionable area for enough people to fill a car for La Paz. Once 6 had gathered, someone agreed to take us and we crammed on laps for the couple hour ride back. This definitely gave me a new perspective on how people feel when coming into America and what general immigration feels like. We walked down the road and found a taxi that took us the hour and a half back to La Paz. We arrived around midnight, just grateful for our very unlucky luck of simply arriving.
Why were they striking?
To get to Copacabana, you need to take a bus, then a boat, then a bus. Most of villagers in the region want a bridge – the boat passage makes trips for groceries, to La Paz, general errands very time-consuming. People from one village are in control of the boat launches. They obviously make money from tourists, and other villagers, needing to cross the lake. Tourists pay 4 Bolivianos ($.75), Bolivians 1 Boliviano. Side note: they also increased the tariff to 2 Bolivians for villagers, making that passage also unaffordable on their salaries. The bridge would increase tourism because it would facilitate getting to the area and it would also create jobs while the 2 necessary bridges were built. The bridge was up for voting by the Tourism board, but rejected because of the boat-launchers arguments. Therefore, the strikers (who wanted the bridge strategically shut down all access to Copacabana right before Easter Week. This is a very important week because many Peruvians and Bolivians make pilgrimages to Copacabana during this week. Obviously this hurt their tourism income as well, but it was meant to force the boat launchers into conversation.
Thankfully, our time there was much more enjoyable. See pics and read the blog.