To get to Playa Blanca beach you need to head out of the backside of Copacabana. From the cathedral on top of the hill, head north past the park down Hugo Ballivian. Eventually you’ll come to a roundabout, which you continue over onto ‘Camino a Sampaya’. There are, of course, no road signs, but it’s pretty obvious you’re on the right road because you pass a big warehouse on your left and the lake will soon appear on that side too.
You keep close to the lake for about 1.5 hours, walking through sheep-strewn fields. When the road cuts inland you need to take the path that stays close to the coast; you’ll know you’re doing it right if you come across some floating restaurants. Finally you come across a church in front of a forested hillock, here you skirt around to the left and soon you find the beach, ‘playa blanca’.
N.B. On the map below, the blue ‘where-to-go’ line only takes you to the spot where you need to leave the road. The beach is the obvious white thing a slightly northwest of where the blue line stops.
We can see the backend of Copacabana, the rest is obscured by a headland laced with trees. Through the gently flapping waves lie smooth stones, giant pebbles that stretch and shrink as the wave passes over.
We came here because it was the national census and so no boats were heading to Isla del Sol. We’d been warned that if we were caught outside on the day of the census we would be given a fine. Deciding that such a fine would be absurd, since the Bolivian government presumably doesn’t care about how many people are in the gringo’s family, or what the state of their – temporary – accommodation is, we headed out anyway – out the of the backside of Copacabana, along roads flanked by pigs lounging in their own poo and sheep staring listlessly into the beyond, to a long dirt road that followed the coast.
The sun was relentless so I tied my hankey around my head to protect my nose and forehead. At this altitude – almost 4000m – even the tamest walk feels like a marathon, and so by the time we reached the final headland we were already knackered and ready to lie down and do what adults are supposed to do on beaches – nothing.
Up until playa blanca the coast is somewhat uninviting, a mass of reeds and mud and rocks. Then suddenly this short slither of paradise. It really is a shock – one moment you are walking along a cliff path with just, well, cliff, and the next you are on the secluded white sands of the playa.
There are two other couples on the beach. One enterprising male tries to erect a tent using some twigs and a t-shirt. The end product is a bit pathetic, a drooping rag that offers approximately no shade. A dragonfly passes, transparent apparition through the blue. Some marsh grass grows out of the water to the right side and slowly sways like people trying to lift their legs out of the stodgy ground and reach the coast, tilting forth then settling back.
In the distance is Peru, the nearest coast opposite us, then further round to the right the land dissolves into floating blue bumps, then tiny levitating blotches of ink separated from the lake by a clear band of sky; finally nothing, the horizon and its clouds. This is the largest lake in South America, and the highest navigable lake in the world – in other words, the highest lake with big boats.
Nitsanne crouches up in a ball and lets the waves tangle with her toes. Anna lies back and covers her face with her jumper. I lie back too. My trousers are rolled up to just below my knees. It seems somehow sacrilegious to not be wearing shorts on the beach.
The next day I wake up wondering why my legs are being steadily sawn off with sandpaper, then I realise that it is just the duvet rubbing against my burnt red raw lower legs, the only bit of skin exposed to the sun for the whole 40 minutes we ended up spending on the beach.
The German man from our hostel was heading down to the beach as we were leaving. He wore a sinister black hat almost identical to the one worn by Arnold Toht, the Nazi Gestapo agent in the first Indiana Jones film. The combination was unfortunate. Underneath the hat the German was unreservedly friendly, with a thin scattering of blonde hair surrounding a bald patch bleached red by the sun. At no point did his face melt.
He waved to us enthusiatically before stripping down to his pants and running into the water. I had earlier placed a toe into the lake and decided that you’d either have to be stupid or German to get into water so cold, so I wasn’t that surprised by our friend’s brazen entrance, given his German-ness. As we left he was still breast-stroking his way out into the shimmering blue, a white illusion floating above and yet still a part of the lake-bed.