Copacabana, as the Bolivian tourist board assures us, was apparently the inspiration behind the golden beaches that take the same name in Rio de Janeiro. While the small fishing town may not be ‘the hottest spot north of Havana’ it is an amazingly beautiful place, steeped in culture, tradition and history. Only a few hours from La Paz, it also provides a welcome getaway from the busyness and the stress of city life.
For one week every year Catholic pilgrims coming to pay homage to Bolivia’s patron saint the ‘Virgen de La Candalaria’ besiege this normally tranquil town. Inevitably the festival descends into a mass of eating, drinking and dancing, but the religious significance of the celebrations are huge. Homage is paid to miracles that the ‘Dark Lady of the Lake’ performed during her lifetime, in the hope that similar good fortune will befall those who worship her now. Bolivians also believe that by visiting her at this time (the week around the 5th August) their wishes and dreams will come true, and all the material possessions that they so desire will become theirs.
In order for the Virgin to grant somebody what they are wishing for it needs to be presented to her in miniature. A market as enterprising as the mass of flower vendors outside the cemeteries in La Paz has grown up, with sellers offering miniature cows, houses, bicycles, cars and even university diplomas by the roadside. Some worshippers, however, also take additional precautions. Blind men and beggars can be hired to help you present your miniature offering, as it is believed that they have certain powers that can be unlocked when they chant over incense. Presumably it works, as pilgrims come flooding back year after year.
The town has long been a hotbed for religious activity with pilgrimages and rituals dating back to Inca societies. Lake Titicaca – and in particular the Isla del Sol and the Isla de la Luna – were considered to be the birthplace of the Inca civilisations, and as such the area was of incredible importance during this period. Nowadays there are a number of museums and attractions in the town dedicated to the Incas, and they are well worth a visit for increasing one’s understanding of this fascinating time.
One of the most important religious sites in all of Bolivia is the town’s Cathedral. Legend has it that in 1580 the Virgin – the same who responds to the special powers of chanting beggars and blind men – appeared to a man called Tito Yupanqui in a dream. He became obsessed with this figure, and the only logical course of action that he could follow was to walk the 400 mile journey to Potosí (at the time the flourishing silver and tin mines had made it one of the prosperous regions in South America) to learn to sculpt. There was method to his madness however; with his new found skills he was able to carve a beautiful model of the Virgin, which was, on his return in 1583, acclaimed to the extent that it was housed in the Cathedral. Mysteriously all of those who doubted her powers that year had their crops wiped out and had a very poor harvest. Now she faces the main chapel at weekends, though during the week when there are fewer pilgrims the priests rotate her and she gazes over a smaller chapel on the other side. The silver ship at the bottom of the altar symbolises the moon, while the gold statue above her head symbolises the sun. The many millions of visitors that she has received have been enormously generous with the gifts that they have bestowed on her; in 1879 the government even sold some of her ‘possessions’ to fund the ill fated War of the Pacific with Chile. Clearly the Virgen is a pacifist, as it was with these funds that Bolivia lost their last remaining coastline. (The Cathedral is open to visitors from 11am to noon, and from 2pm to 6 pm; admission is free.)
In the 1950s the Bolivian government deemed that due to the ever increasing number of pilgrims, it was necessary to offer the visitors to Copacabana another spiritual shrine. The Stations of the Cross were built leading to the top of ‘Calvary Hill’, overlooking Lake Titicaca. The walk to the top is strenuous, but there is plenty of light relief along the way. Not far from the bottom is a wise man who can – apparently – tell your fortune by dropping pieces of boiling lead into cold water and reading the formation (just hope his response is not “Going to fall off top of hill today”). If your thirst for your future is not yet satisfied native priests burning candles and ‘working’ with coca leaves greet you half way up.
For all the culture and history in Copacabana, a trip would be worthwhile if only to indulge in the incredible food that is offered up from the depths of Lake Titicaca. Fresh trout is served in almost every restaurant in the town, and is prepared in almost any manner, from garlic dressing and grilled cheese, to a spicy chilli pepper dish. It is guaranteed to be fresh, as when the restaurant runs out of the day’s catch they simply stop serving the “trucha”, rather than dipping into less tasty, earlier catches. Also from the lake is a frog’s legs dish. Contrary to popular belief this meal is not solely the preserve of the French, dinner is prepared from giant frogs, caught from the lake that very day. The prices for these dishes are very reasonable too; you can expect to pay no more than 35Bs for an excellent fresh Lake Titicaca meal.
Due to its fascinating history Copacabana is becoming increasingly full of tourists desperate to learn more about its history and take the short ferry ride over to the Isla de la Sol. A few years ago the quaint town was known to travellers as merely a quiet fishing village that was a convenient stop off point on the journey from Bolivia to Peru, or vice versa. Much has changed and additional tourism has allowed significant development of the local economy. For years the residents of the shore side settlement relied almost exclusively on a few passing travellers, the Catholic pilgrims and the fishing industry that gives the town its delicious fresh food. Now however, there is a glut of restaurants, hostels and bars catering for the increased numbers of visitors, most of whom are Western. At first glance it may seem as though tourism has had a negative effect on the town’s rich cultural history, but you only need to stay a short while to realise that all the ancient practices are still in effect, and instead of running Copacabana – as has happened to many similar places – the tourists are still simply visitors, who provide a means of survival for local residents and businessmen.
The weather in Copacabana- like in La Paz- can verge on the bizarre. Clouds do not necessarily mean rain; indeed it seems as if the appearance of grey skies makes a spectacular change to glorious sunshine even more likely. Like Bolivia’s main city again, roasting hot days are frequently followed by outrageously cold nights, as the winds come in off the Lake and the higher altitude takes its toll. If you want to be prepared when visiting Copacabana you need to take all the clothing you have.