Sorata – Copacabana

Route: Sorata – Copacabana

Company: Public buses

Level: Most basic

Cost: 40 Bolivianos [total] ($6 US)

8:30 – 13:00 (4.5 hours)

I paid for all of my tickets on the buses themselves. It is difficult to get to Copacabana from Sorata because you have to change buses at Huarina. There should be a direct bus from Huarina to Copacabana, but it might not stop, in which case you need to hitch-hike (which is what my friends did), or attach yourself to someone who knows what they’re doing and take a series of public minibuses (which is what I did). If you can’t speak Spanish this route is difficult and it might be better to go back to La Paz, have a fun night there, then go on one of the tourist buses from there straight to Copacabana the next day.

lake titicaca

This is why I put up with the hail.

This was my experience:

We are heading towards some town on Lake Titicaca. And by ‘we’ I mean myself and Libertad, an Aymaran woman also travelling to Copacabana. We met at the T-junction in Huarina, a small town tantalisingly close to the crossing at Tiquina.

I’d stayed on an extra day at Sorata to do a big walk with Ian and a curious little Argentine. He had half a set of teeth and jeans so heavily ripped around the crotch area that you wondered if he even needed to take off his trousers to go the loo – number 1 or number 2.

Ian and I would take the same bus – the one heading for La Paz – and then I would peel off at Huarina and take a different bus direct to Copacabana, crossing the straits at Tiquina on the way.

Well, that was the plan.

We set off early from Sorata and caught the first bus without problem. A couple of hours down the road and we were approaching what might have been Huarina. It’s difficult to distinguish one town from the others because they all look identical – the same mini-markets, key-makers, tire shops, the same listless faces peering up from door steps. The only way of knowing is by reading the names of the shops – Cerrajeria Huarina, Ferreteria Huarina.

Unfortunately my ability to read the names was hindered by the wall of hail bombarding the town. There was no good reason for this hail – it had been sunny a few moments before. I suspected some Inca god had taken a disliking to how ease our trip had been thus far and decided to bugger things up a bit.

My bag was on top of the bus, strapped under nothing but netting, so I knew that when it came to pulling it down it would be sodden through. I tried to remember if I’d put my clothes inside the black bin liner that I habitually carry when I travel to keep the clothes safe from natural disasters like rain and hail and bed bugs. I had. I also remembered that I have the unfortunate tendency to constantly reorganise my stuff, pulling the bin bag out of the rucksack and then putting it back in so many times that it ends up with holes on every side, rather negating the point of it in the first place. Bugger.

As I left the bus for the whipping hail Ian gave me a sympathetic cock of the head, as if to say ‘sorry about this, your next few hours are going to be crap’. The driver’s assistant pulled down my bag as fast as he could, it was even heavier than it usually was thanks to the weight of water it’d managed to soak in.

The big road that headed to Copacabana was just there, but I had no idea which way I should be going. I crossed the street heading for a tiny plastic structure that masqueraded as a bus shelter. There was just about space to keep my bag out of the rain; but no space for me. A woman, wrapped up in a knee-length coat, scarf and woolly hat, shouted over to me.

“A donde va? A Copa?”

“Sí! Sí! Sí” I repeated the word about ten times for some reason, perhaps with relief, then I went and joined her in the hail – she knew the way. This was Libertad, my guide for the next few hours.

Unfortunately that day the buses didn’t seem to want to stop. Perhaps they don’t stop when it’s hailing, just in case the step gets wet, or the bus decides that it doesn’t want to restart given the inclement weather.

We waved our arms like maniacs and almost got run down, edging further and further out into the road with every passing bus. It must have been over an hour of howling and flailing in glorious wet cold failure. This land is dry desert for 8 months. Then the rain comes and it glows straw green and the trees sprout.

Eventually we gave up, and Libertad pushed me towards a passing local minibus. I squeeze my way to near the back of the bus; Libertad is behind me. I slam the door shut so the water stops dripping down the rubber window frame. A boy with tracksuit trousers and a blue hoody covering a yellow-rimmed cap hops in and sits in the fold-down seat in front.

On entering they all looked at me perplexed. Maybe I am the first gringo to take this route; tourists are supposed to take the ‘luxury’ coach from La Paz straight to Copacabana.

A woman gets on, her chin wrapped up in blue cloth striped with greens and pinks and reds and browns, her head poking out over her shoulder. She wears a straw hat decorated with a plaited ribbon and flowers. On her cotton cardigan are flowers too, embroidered in the cuffs. Her skirt looks like soft velvet.

Libertad has visited Argentina as far south as Cordoba. We extolled the virtues of Salteña and Chileña empanadas; I was in the process of describing a pasty when another minibus stopped to take us to Tiquina. We seemed to be going a bit one way, then a bit further the other way, then even further the other way. I deduced that eventually we would make it somewhere, possibly Tiquina, ideally Copacabana.

Now we’re on the banks of the lake. Humps like sleeping hippos grow out of the water. It is a dark blue, reflecting the rain clouds. The lake is on both sides, we’re on the peninsula. I gave a sandwich – avocado, tomato and red onion – to Libertad after getting off the ferry (1.50 Bolivianos). An old boat driven by a leather-jacketed man who squinted through the thin windows above the seats. I doubted if he could see where we were going.

An old man had chatted with me on the bus. He was from that area, the tranquil life, so he described it. I agreed with him; although I had the distinct impression that he couldn’t understand what I was saying, or he couldn’t hear at all, because he would make an acknowledgement noise, a kind of ‘aah’, accompanied by a wise smile and slow nod, even when I hadn’t said anything.

Finally, we are on the way to Copacabana. After crossing the strait in the ferry,  we waited on the Plaza for around half-an-hour. Eventually a half-full minibus stopped and I asked ‘Copa’? The driver made a sign, unscrewing a light bulb by his right ear. I went round to his side and asked again. He asked how many and I replied ‘two’, forgetting the old chola who had chatted briefly with Libertad. As we entered Libertad shouted at the driver “un lugar para la tia” (a space for the auntie!) in increasingly angry bursts. Finally she was stuffed into the front, sitting around the gear stick.

I’m sitting next to a cat with a lacy ruff called Blanca, belonging to a young girl with pigtails and soft eyes and her old mother, or maybe grandmother. Difficult to tell here. When the cat is lifted, by her paw, a poo smell wafts through the bus. I open the window.

Isla del Sol is the father, ‘tata’ in Aymara. Isla de la Luna is the mother. In pre-Inca times the Virgins of the Sun lived on the Luna island; now there’s a small community. For the Inca too it was sacred, only the Catholic Spaniards removed its sanctity. So Libertad tells me.

Hills of green and piles of stones and clumps of heather. Down below the lake shines. Forty minutes till Copa. The mountains rise as if pinched up by Almighty hands. A hole of blue shows through the clouds.

My trousers are drying now.

Two greying men cease their chat. The fatter one maneuvers himself over rugs hiding marrows and squashes and tenderly clasps the other’s hand before getting off, pulling out his stripy bag in one smooth movement. Now the other organises his things, folding blankets, grabbing bags full of bananas. The cat watches on, draped over it’s mother’s red woollen-sleeved arm. The mother pulls up her child without tenderness. The girl returns to resting her head on the windowsill.

Black soil. Black cows. Black teeth exposed at the top of slopes that puncture through the delicate undulating grassy hills. A broken-down car is being fixed by the side of the road. A taxi. We overtake a truck carrying black soil. A smell takes me back to Aquasplash, the dirty communal waterpark in Hemel Hempstead, for a moment I am sniffing the image of sick in the pool.

The old man in front of me doesn’t realise he’s digging his gnarled elbow into my knee. It’s quite irritating but I don’t tell him. We have to stop, faced with a barrage of cholas who seem to be taking part in some kind of march. I worry for them – the hail is surely coming here too. They pass with their inextricable ensconced packages, with flags bearing the multicoloured diamonds of the indigenous communities.

And then we drop down between the hills to Copacabana, where Libertad says a swift, surprisingly cold goodbye before heading off to the Aymaran centre beyond the end of the beach. I promise to visit her there.

November 2012

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