In the end the strike in La Paz seemed to pass peacefully. Well anyway, we saw no sign of it in this delightful little haven of Copacabana. We spent a great 5 nights here just taking in the lake and the surrounding area. One day we took an all day boat excursion out to the Isla Del Sol; the place where the Incas believed the Sun was born. The trip included a breathtaking 3-hour walk along an old Inca road that crested the island and it was here that we finally picked up and joined the Gringo Trail. From La Paz to Copacabana to Puno in Peru and on to Cusco and Machu Picchu there is a well-beaten track travelled by travellers from all over the world. It is like a big conveyor belt and we would continuously meet and socialise with fellow travellers along it as they took in the marvels of Lake Titicaca and the Inca World culminating at Machu Picchu. Copacabana was a great place to join in with its wealth of cracking restaurants and eateries. Every night we joined in with various groups from home & around the world to tell tales of the road over delightful dinners and pick up useful travel advice on the road ahead from people going the other way.
Unfortunately Copacabana, for all its small lake town delights, suffered from that Bolivian blight of dodgy politics. We saw a crowd ranting outside the cathedral on Friday evening with the obligatory firecracker bangs that mark all demonstrations in these parts. On enquiring what the problem was, we found out that there has been some trouble with the Alcalde – the local Mayor. It seems he was a bit of a crook and he was tried by the local jurisdiction & sentenced to 4 years in jail. He didn’t take this lightly and was currently holed up in the town hall where he had broadcast on radio to his supporters in the surrounding communities for help. Basically the people of the community of Copacabana – the biggest in the region are now aligned against the Mayors supporters from the smaller outlying communities who it seems he has won over by spreading a bit of money around. It was explained to us that it was a similar situation to the people of Ilave up the road in Peru only they had advanced to take more direct action, blocking the bridge on the main road through to Puno and Cusco and demanding the Alcaldes resignation. Sorry, sorry… go back there… blocking the bridge? Yes. Ah! So can we go round it or will they let tourists through? Well no. To go around it looks like going back to La Paz, back into Chile and taking the coast road – a 4 or 5-day detour going back over previously travelled roads. Pennies began to drop. In Arica we had met some Austrian bikers who told us that they had to take a 400km detour to avoid a blocked bridge in Peru. They travelled overland, off road, using GPS to navigate but had support vehicles with them to carry all their baggage. This option was obviously not for us.
We were stumped. Further enquiries revealed that the blockade had been in place for around a month. Initially nothing was getting through, but the protesters had recently relented and travellers could take a bus from Copacabana to the blockade, but then had to walk across the blocked bridge and on for 7kms to pick up a Peruvian bus on to Puno. We spent a few days canvassing opinions on the condition there. Everyone we asked gave a different story…Yes it’s no problem, people can go through on bicycles every day so you can easily take a motorcycle through… Oh no the road is blocked by stones and is ‘muy peligroso’ (very dangerous)… You can cross but it means fording the river below the bridge… Someone will take your bikes over on a lorry… No way. The bridge is blocked by steel obstacles welded firmly in place. Nothing can get through… The protest is nearly over and the bridge will be unblocked any day now. These were the stories we heard and each of them probably contained some kernels of truth. The facts were that the road was blocked and we could not cross the bridge but may be able to get across by fording the river in some way. We stayed on at Copacabana eager for some good news on the bridge at Ilave.
On our final Sunday, we witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the benediction of the vehicles (La Benediciones de Movilades) outside the lovely Moorish cathedral that houses the effigy of the Virgin of Copacabana, the Patron Saint of Bolivia. Basically people turn up in their cars, vans & minibuses, all decked out in flowers and ribbons to be blessed outside the home of the virgin. This affords security and protection against all the evils of the road. We watched several of the blessings that appeared to us to be more pagan than Christian in their ritual. An old woman waved an incense burner and chinged little finger cymbals over the open bonnet of a taxi-cab blessing the exposed engine. A man followed her sprinkling holy water and flower petals as she moved on to do the wheels and brakes and the body work of the car. When the car had been cleansed of evil-spirits the family and friends all celebrated by spraying Paceña beer, champagne style over the driver & his wife! Then everyone piled into the car and drove off to the lakefront, where we later saw them all picnicking and having a grand day out in celebration of their ‘clean’ car. It was all very colourful and interesting, but what worried us was that these people will now go out in these vehicles and drive like lunatics, ignoring essential vehicle maintenance as they are now protected by the Virgin of Copacabana and no harm can surely come to them.
When the last vehicle had been ‘benedicted’, we mooched around the various stalls outside the whitewashed walls of the cathedral. Here you could buy effigies of the Virgin, medals, stickers and the like, but we also noticed a lot of stalls selling toy cars, miniature houses and toy money. Another service provided by the Virgin is that if you take one of these miniatures up to the church, you can have it blessed and surely in the coming year you will realise the real thing – a new car, a new house, or fabulous riches! A stall at the end was selling toy soldier sets with guns. Maybe these are for the politicians. Yes it was time to leave Bolivia!