Copacabana – Lake Titicaca

The small town on a peninsula in the southeastern part of Lake Titicaca is considered Bolivia’s most important pilgrimage site.

To the Peruvian part of Lake Titicaca and Puno.

Every year on 2 February and 5 August, patron saints’ fiestas are held in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria de Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. The veneration of the pilgrims is dedicated to a statue of the Virgin, carved from dark wood and almost one metre high, which Tito Yupanqui created in 1576 after a Marian apparition. The evangelized Aymara was the grandson of Huayna Cápac, the 11th ruler of the Incas and son of Vaca Túpac Inca, a half brother of Atahualpa. Since then, numerous miracles and healings have been attributed to her and she is venerated as the patron saint of Lake Titicaca.

Copacabana lies on a wide bay, framed between two hills, the Cerro Calvario, which can be reached on a worthwhile walk along a Way of the Cross consisting of 14 stations, and the Cerro Sancollani. The centre of the town is dominated by the mighty basilica, whose construction began in the 17th century but was not completed until 1820 in a Moorish style.

Copacabana is also the starting point for boat trips to the islands of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, both of which are considered as important places of origin of the pre-Inca culture. Legend has it that the first Inca, Manco Capac, descended to earth via a rock on the Sun Island (“Titi-Karka”, or “Puma Rock”; “titi” = big cat or puma and “karka” = stone, rock). On Quechua, however, “titi” means lead or lead-coloured and “qaqa” means rock, thus “lead (lead-coloured) rock”.

The Isla del Sol is located about 20 kilometres north of Copacabana and forms a kind of offshoot of the large peninsula that lies between Lake Chucuito and Lake Winaymarka. It is almost ten kilometres long and a maximum of six kilometres wide, its longitudinal orientation runs from north-west to south-east. Its shores are characterised by bays and small peninsulas. In total there are about 3000 permanent island inhabitants, who live predominantly from tourism and only to a lesser extent from agriculture and fishing. There are several Inca ruin complexes on the island. Those who are well acclimatized can walk through the island e.g. from the north (Challapampa) on well marked paths to the south up to the boat dock at Yumani, the largest village of the island. The ruins called “Chinkana” (labyrinth) are located near Challapampa and the three sacred fountains of the Incas, to which 206 terrace steps lead, near Yumani. The island is served by both local tour boats and public passenger ferries from the Copacabana pier.

Note: Since February 2017 it has not been possible to walk through the island, as the disputes between municipalities on the island, which benefit to varying degrees from tourism, have led to a blockade that makes the northern part of the island inaccessible.

The Bolivian Copacabana can also boast a perfectly curved beach. In fact, it gives its name to the famous bay of Rio de Janeiro. Off its coast, a shipwrecked man once called the Virgin of Copacabana for help and vowed to erect a chapel in her honour at the place where he would safely get ashore in the event of his rescue.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake and at the same time the highest commercially navigable lake on earth. With an area of 8288 square kilometres, it has roughly the size of Lake Nicaragua. It is situated at 3810 m above sea level, is 194 km long, 65 km wide and has a maximum depth of 210 metres. More than 25 rivers are flowing into Lake Titicaca, but with the Desaguadero River, which carries about ten percent of the excess water, it has only one outlet. The remaining water evaporates in the bone dry air. The lake once had a much larger extension, for example the ruined city of Tiwanaku, which is now 20 km away, was originally located on the shore of the lake.

Large and small islands seem to swim in its unfathomable dark blue (the man-made ones among them actually do). Some of them are home to Inca relics or pre-Inca cultures. Despite the very low average annual water temperature of 10-12 °C, the lake is a large heat reservoir in relation to the surrounding countryside, so that potatoes, barley, maize and quinoa thrive well in the fields around the lake. The Lake Titicaca region is considered to be the area of origin of potato cultivation. The abundance of fish in the lake is an important source of food for the population but it is – like the ecosystem of the lake as a whole – threatened: On the one hand, the water level is constantly falling due to a shortened rainy season and the melting Andean glaciers from which the tributaries of the lake are fed. On the other hand, toxic wastewater from mostly illegal mines and untreated wastewater from the city of Puno are polluting the lake.

Despite a less than efficient agreement signed by Peru and Bolivia in 2006 to protect the lake, the Global Nature Fund declared Lake Titicaca a “Threatened Lake 2012”.