We were thankful to arrive in Copacabana, Bolivia after having a mix-up at immigration on the border of Peru and Bolivia. When we got off the bus at border control we thought everything was in order with our documents, but on the Peruvian side, they would not let us leave the country. You can read more about that in our post about Lessons Learned From a Border Crossing!
We enjoyed the next couple of days relaxing in Copacabana after the border crossing fiasco! Copacabana is a beautiful town on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, which is actually the highest navigable lake in the world. The word Copacabana comes from the Aymara language ‘Kota Kawana’ which means ‘view of the lake’, and was viewed very highly by the Inca, but when the Spaniards came, they turned this lake town into a pilgrimage site for Catholics. Which brings us to one of the first things you must see in Copacabana.
1 The Blessing of Cars!
The blessing of cars was one of the first things we saw after we dropped off our luggage at the youth hostel we stayed at. The blessing of cars is an everyday occurrence in Copacabana and occurs right next to the Basilica. Car and bus owners from all over the country bring their vehicles to be blessed. They decorate their cars and buses with flowers and colorful banners and really almost anything else you can think of. The vehicle is actually blessed by a priest right outside the cathedral! It is a very interesting thing to see with your own eyes! Sometimes the priest will use incense and holy smoke to bless the car. Other times champagne and even Coca Cola is used to bless the vehicle. It’s a perfect example of mixing native faiths with traditional religious beliefs of the Catholic faith that were imposed by the Spanish. Make sure to see at least one car being blessed while visiting Copacabana if you can. Even if you are not fortunate enough to see this practice with your own eyes, you might see one of the cars or buses around Copacabana or even other parts of Bolivia lavishly decorated driving around and you will now know exactly where the car had been blessed and why! I found this tradition interesting because they will bless the car to give the car good luck to keep it safe with divine protection, but while on the roads many drivers don’t use their seat belts to protect them and they drive much faster than the speed limit. It kind of defeats the purpose and it seems that the drivers could just drive more safely to protect themselves!
2 Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana
While in the Plaza 2 de Febrero watching the blessing of cars, stop and see the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana. You should easily be able to see it as it takes up an entire block! The large white building actually looks a little more Moorish than Christian in Architecture when you first look at it, but once inside there is no mistaking its identity because it is definitely Christian. This basilica is a large 16th-century shrine to the patron saint of Bolivia which is Our Lady of Copacabana and is one of the oldest churches in Bolivia. This town is a huge tourist destination mostly for locals, but you will see many foreign tourists here as it is one of the main border crossings for most individuals traveling between Bolivia and Peru. This Basilica is famous as it is the home of the Virgin of Copacabana and La Virgen de la Candelaria (also called the “Dark Virgin”) and is responsible for numerous miracles throughout its history. It is believed that the statue has healing powers and this is one of the main reasons why thousands of people make pilgrimages here throughout their lifetimes. The original statue was actually carved from a cactus in 1583. Someone has even created a replica of this church and has built a chapel for it on a beach in Brazil. Can you guess what beach in Brazil it is located at?
3 Visit the Waterfront of Copacabana
After visiting the Basilica of Copacabana, make your way down to the waterfront of Copacabana. Stroll along the beach and shore of Lake Titicaca for a nice afternoon walk. You can even rent a paddle boat to venture out into the water of la Playa de Copacabana. This is also the location where you would pick up a tour boat to make your way to Isla del Sol or Isla del Luna. You can even take a dip in the water if it’s summertime and if it’s Winter, you can even brave the cold temperatures of Lake Titicaca.
4 Hike Up Cerro Calvario
There are multiple places around town where you can hike to see wonderful views of the town of Copacabana and the shore of Lake Titicaca, but no views are better than from the top of Cerro Calvario! This is a great walk to do on your first day because it will help you understand the layout of Copacabana, along with understanding where the other nearby islands are located and also you will witness stunning views of Lake Titicaca! It can be a fairly strenuous hike especially if you have not acclimatized to the altitude yet, as Copacabana is 12,602 feet above sea level (3800m) so make sure to walk up the hill slowly. It’s about a 30 minutes hike up and is totally worth the effort especially when done at the end of the day and you can view the sunset from on top of Cerro Calvario! Along the hike up to the top you will come across fourteen Stations of the Cross, which were built on this Cerro in the 1950s to give the thousands of individuals who make pilgrimages to Copacabana another religious attraction to visit while they are here on their journey. Along your way to the top passing by the Stations of the Cross you will most likely see many Bolivians praying so please be respectful of their religious practices. You might actually end up praying for stronger legs or lungs or both! On your walk up the Calvario you will probably also see individuals who could be called witchdoctors, who may be consulting Bolivians and blessing the objects they have brought to Copacabana to be blessed.
There are many tour companies around Copacabana begging you to come on their half day or full day tour of the famous Inca Island called Isla del Sol! It is the largest island on Lake Titicaca and it is a great day trip from Copacabana. You can also visit Isla del Luna on a tour as well. You can read more about visiting Isla del Sol here!
6 Relax in the town of Copacabana
Copacabana is also a nice place to just relax for a few days and recuperate from your travels! There are many hotels and hostels to stay at and many small cafes throughout the town where you can chill out and relax! Spend your time at one of the local cafes and pass your day away enjoying food and beverages. One of the culinary specialities of Copacabana you should try is the trucha, which is a salmon trout that is caught from Lake Titicaca itself. Almost every place sells this, along with traditional food like pasta, rice, beans and chicken dishes. The town is full small stores and shops where you can buy local handicrafts, wool garments made from alpaca and lots of different types of jewelry you can purchase for gifts for friends back home.
Copacabana is a nice place to visit as it is filled with many activities that only occur here in this part of Bolivia so add this as a place you must visit along your journey through Bolivia and Peru and enjoy all the TREASURES OF TRAVELING that Copacabana offers!