I woke up in the morning with someone nudging my shoulder. It was the bus co-driver – we’d arrived. Where? – I wasn’t sure, as the bus had stopped somewhere next to the road where a dirt track turned off between some dilapidated-looking brick shacks.
I wasn’t the only one going to Isla del Sol, so there were a few of us standing beside the road rubbing the sleep from our eyes. A guy rocked up and said we should wait, like there was anything else we could be doing at that moment, in that place. Eventually, a van stopped and the same guy told us to get in. Turned out he was there to look after us, since the bus was supposed to be direct to Copacabana, which obviously wasn’t the case. They drove us the short way to the border to get the Peru exit-stamp. Once passports were stamped, “the guy” gave each of us 3 Bolivianos for the van to town and sent us walking into Bolivia.
The border crossing was an easy one. I got my Bolivian stamp and crammed into a van with some locals, among them a rather large lady who smelled of fish (fresh one, fortunately). Once in town, I went for a walk and ended up having coffee with two Spanish families, who’d been on the same bus. Copacabana was not the cheap and unspoilt Bolivia I’d come to picture in my mind from fellow travellers’ recounts. It’s not cheaper than Peru, perhaps even more expensive, but I was here for Isla del Sol anyway.
I got on the 13:30 boat towards the north end of the island and two hours later was waiting on the jetty to pay my 10 Bolivianos to enter the island. Great start! How I like being ripped off! Upon dropping my luggage off at the hostel, I was ready to have a look around. And it is a beautiful island indeed! Looking across Lake Titicaca to the east, one can marvel at the back drop of snowy peaks.
After being charged 28 Bolivianos for a dinner consisting of a few fries, some veggies, and an omelette, I soon realise that I didn’t bring enough money. Nowhere near enough!
The night was a cold one, but enough blankets were provided. Good on you, Hostal Cultural! An early start got me walking around the northern tip of Isla del Sol, where, at a certain point, a short, sunburned woman jumped out from between some boulders and asked for my ticket. Startled, I pulled out the walk-off-the-jetty ticket from the previous day. Apparently that wasn’t good enough, so I was charged a further 15 Bolivianos, for looking at the horizon or breathing oxygen depleted air, or something like that. However, the beauty of the scenery soon made me forget the evil woman and I thoroughly enjoyed the day, even after being charged another 5 Bolivianos for looking at the horizon, or breathing poorly oxygenated air, this time on the southern end of the island.
Knackered but very satisfied, I arrived back to Challapampa with the sun low on the horizon. After spending my future children’s inheritance (for Bolivian standards, anyway) on a dinner and a beer, I was once more ready to call it a (n early) night. Luckily, the hostel owner was able to change some Peruvian Soles, which allowed me stay another day.
I ended up having a late start, but the walk was just as good as the day before. I hiked up a section I’d spotted the previous day, where no tracks led, to what seemed to be the highest point of the island. Turns out it took me longer than expected to hike this section, but it was worth every gasping-for-air-like-a-fish-out-of-water after each climb (yes, Lake Titicaca sits at 3800m above sea level) for the views and the solitude alone.
I really enjoyed my stay and certainly more than once stood marvelled at the beauty of Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol. However, I find those extra, hidden, tourist charges a nuisance and these tend to taint the overall experience a bit. Not that I can’t afford it, not that I don’t think the people deserve to make a better living off tourism, but the attitude that it’s taken for granted that every foreigner can be charged for whatever at whichever price get’s under my skin. Specially, when children are used to charge you, which unfortunately seems common practice in this beautiful place.
The ride back to Cusco took an unexpected turn when, probably at around 2am, the bus driver woke everyone and informed us that protesters had blocked the road and we had to grab our luggage and continue on foot. Where, he wasn’t quite sure, just pointing in the general direction the bus had been driving. Apparently, there was another bus on the other side of the blockade. We were on the outskirts of the town of Ayaviri, which had been blocked from both sides by, from what I heard, were mine workers. Eventually, two vans pulled up and most of the walkers got on. As they filled up quickly, a young Argentinian couple and I were left to continue walking. We’d already been going for a while, without really knowing where, or how much farther to go, when people coming from the other end of the blockade said it was still far and we should get a taxi. The three of us squeezed into a tuk tuk and were dropped off at a bridge. On our side, a row of heavily armed riot police, backed by an armoured car, were facing-off protesters on the other side. We had to somehow get through those two lines. All this was taking place in complete darkness, as there were no street lights, just the occasional flashlight and bonfires lit by protesters to warm themselves on this bitterly cold night. As we approached the police, some rocks flew and we were ushered to take shelter behind the armoured vehicle. Fortunately, the situation did not escalate. While we were waiting for the OK to cross the bridge, three women turned up who’d been on the same bus as we. They were carrying heavy loads, so we offered to help carry their things, as we were given the thumbs up to cross the bridge. Winding our way among police and protesters was a little tense, but we encountered no hostility, just some ¡El pueblo unido, jamás sera vencido! chants. Exhausted from walking with our heavy loads and chilled to the bone by the freezing temperatures of an Andean winter night, we finally got to our bus at about 4:30am. Thus ended this somewhat surreal night.