Our Copacabana Pilgrimage

Our first ten minutes in La Paz, we met Nelly and Xavier who were looking for the same hostel as us (and pointed us in the wrong direction). We ran into them later at Plaza San Francisco and made plans to head north for a trek in a few days. After waiting around La Paz for a few days, Nelly and Xavier became convinced (thanks to fellow travelers) that staying in Bolivia for the week of the referendum wasn't safe, and decided that they would head to the border with Peru. With no trekking companions, we changed our plans and joined them for their trip to Lake Titicaca.

We ended up in the lakeside town of Copacabana at its busiest time of the year. The Bolivian national holiday and the annual pilgrimage to the virgin of Copacabana occur in the first week of August. Travel to Copacabana during this week is not recommended, due to high risk of theft and violence against tourists. Local authorities had posted warnings in all hotels and restaurants telling us not to go out after dark and not to carry any valuables with us at any time. By the time we found our hotel room (thanks to Nelly's Spanish negotiation skills) it was dark, and we were hungry, so we ignored safety tips and headed out for dinner. We ate lake trout (not for the last time) and ran into two Bolivian filmmakers that had been on the same bus as us from La Paz. Xavier and I were both interviewed outside the restaurant, drawing some excitement from the local crowds.

Small stands set up all along the main plazas of the small town, most of the activity was centered around the white-washed church of Copacabana, where little old ladies sold candles and plastic religious paraphernalia by day, and hard liquor by night. Home-made firework setups were put together for evening shows, during the day the local school children paraded around in ornate costumes accompanied by brass bands.
In the afternoon we followed the crowds of Peruvian pilgrims as they hiked up to the top of a local hill to pay homage to the Virgin Mary that looks out over Lake Titicaca and Copacabana. On the stairs leading up to the virgin, dozens of vendors set up their displays of miniatures. Wishful pilgrims pick out various objects that they hope for in their lives; houses, cars, trucks, livestock, money, university degrees (the poorer the pilgrim, the fewer miniatures they can afford).
Past the vendors, we got to a large plateau, where dozens of stone altars had been set up, each one of them manned by a Peruvian shaman presiding over pious families and their collection of miniatures. Since I had bought myself a pack of fake money, I thought that I should get it blessed by a shaman. Once I approached a vacant altar, there was nothing we could do to stop our enthusiastic priest. After I negotiated a small fee for the ceremony he first shuffled me over to his official "supplies seller" who had to equip me with the necessities: five rolls of streamers, two bottles of coloured water, one bag of confetti and a pack of firecrackers. Now I had been sucked in to spending way more than I wanted to for my blessing (and Yann was refusing to help me get out of it). But my spending spree wasn't over, I had not bought my two bottles of cerveza to shower over the altar. When they quoted me the price for the two bottles of beer, I realised this whole operation was going way over budget, but the shaman was adamant that the ceremony could not go on without the beer. Thankfully Nelly intervened and explained that I would only do the ceremony without the beer. Our shaman was extremely disappointed, as it seemed that for most of the wobbling shamans around us (including our own), that the bottles of beer were their main form of payment. After much debate about the validity of the ceremony, our shaman agreed to go on. (In retrospect I probably should have bought the beer, because I do believe that it is actually an integral part of the ceremony)

Nelly agreed to take part in the ceremony, and our shaman proceeded with a lengthy ritual of chanting and gesturing. He was disappointed by our lousy pile of miniatures (two packs of money) but encircled them nonetheless with the streamers and doused them with holy water. Our shaman stumbled slightly on the grand finale, when he opened up his arms to the sky, expecting the firecrackers to go off at the same time. After three or four increasingly frustrated attempts at simultaneous arm raising and firecrackers he eventually got them to go off and concluded the ceremony by covering us in confetti. Dozens of these ceremonies were going on all around us (including the ritual of shaking up the bottles of beer and covering the altar and each other with beer, then letting the shaman drink up the rest). We continued further up the hill, past the queue of hundreds that were waiting to have a glimpse of the Virgin Mary statue. All along the stairs, people waited with offerings, and shamans performed ceremonies. People ate and drank, and played music with the amazing Lake Titicaca in the background. And we were quite pleased to have seen it all.

Things to do in La Paz

Like many big cities, the most interesting thing to do in La Paz was simply roaming around and watching people's daily activities. We spent a lot of time walking up and down the steep streets of La Paz dodging the souvenir sellers and attempting to navigate through the downtown traffic (directed not by streetlights, but rather by policemen). Our opinion of La Paz as a hectic, run-down, crowded city was probably skewed as we never ventured into the richer suburbs of La Paz, where apparently we could have found fancy restaurants and boutiques. The first stop on the tourist circuit is the "Witches Market". Maybe at some point this might have been more of an actual market and less of a bizarre tourist trap, but it now seems to owe its existence to a lucrative trade in tourist kitsch. A few stalls remain that seem to cater to a more local market, selling mainly ingredients for traditional medicine. The big tourist draw are the dried llama fetuses displayed on their store fronts. The storekeepers also put together small altars of candies, coca leaves and various other items which can be purchased ready-for-offering. The air surrounding the market is filled with the smell of burning incense, most storekeepers have an urn burning the branches of a local (strong smelling) plant. But even the burning incense can't ward off the overabundance of cheaply-made "Bolivian" souvenirs: "alpaca", "silver" and other "hand-made goods" (not that I didn't drag Yann around for half a day looking for something "original"). The tourist district is centred around the Plaza San Francisco, where we sat and watched street puppeteers, shoe-shine boys, orange juice vendors, and protesters all vying for attention. Most things that we visited were within a few minutes walking distance from the plaza. We spent a morning wandering around the Presidential Palace Plaza, where we bumped into a street procession complete with brass band and costumes, that blocked up traffic for a while (we still haven't figured out what it was all about). Downtown La Paz seemed to be constantly busy, with the streets packed with people well into the night. At sunset, street vendors set up their small shops and locals browsed through the various boxes of Chinese made goods. But the number one evening activity seemed to be eating at one of the dozens of "hamburgesa and papas fritas" stands, that opened up after dinner. For 50 cents, you could get yourself a hamburger, buried under a pile of onions, french fries and lots of oil, topped with a squirt of warm mayonnaise and hot sauce. At first we thought it couldn't get any better, but within a few days, I could barely stand the sight of the hamburger stalls, even when they were closed up (later we met a girl who refused to eat any more potatoes, and even picked out pieces of potato from her soup). We never quite got the hang of eating well in La Paz, often by 6pm restaurants were already closing their doors for the evening so we often ended up roaming around looking for something other than a hamburgesa to eat. We were saved for breakfasts and lunches when we found a little restaurant that sold only saltenas, empanadas and coffees! Saltenas are apparently a Bolivian breakfast specialty, they are like an empanada except much juicier. The local saltena eating technique is to bite of the end and then drink out all the juice. Neither Yann nor I could bring ourselves to drink the meaty fillings, we just let them pour all over ourselves. The highlight of our time in La Paz came on Sunday, when we took a taxi up to the neighbouring city of El Alto to visit the weekly market. Sprawling over 24 city blocks, it took us 2 hours to cover just a small fraction of it. Each sector of the market is divided by the items sold there, we managed to see the miscellaneous car parts sector and then wandered through aisles of clothing, electronics, donkeys... before stopping for a break at a soda stall. For the first time since being in Bolivia, it seemed that there wasn't another tourist in sight and nobody could have cared less that we were there.

Destination Bolivia

Having returned from 14 months on the road in last December, and securing our first full-time jobs, after about 4 months of work, we were dreaming about being away. To fill our precious month of vacation, I first attempted to surprise Yann with a trip to Russia, although he was grateful, he was also more realistic than I was, and quickly pointed out how much such a trip would actually cost. We ruled out expensive Russia and started searching for cheap flights. We quickly settled on South America, where return flights started at about 800$.

Although the flights to Bolivia were more expensive, but it seemed to us at the time to be particularly interesting culturally and politically. We departed from Montreal at the end of August, two days after we finished teaching our two summer courses.

We landed at the La Paz airport in the early morning along with one of our backpacks (Yann’s). The “lost baggage counter” consisted of one guy standing in the middle of the arrival lounge with a clipboard surrounded by an increasing number of people. With one flight arriving from Miami per day, I would only get my bag the next day, which didn’t put much of a dent in our travel plans.

Within a few minutes of filling out the baggage form, we were outside, hopping into a shared taxi that would drop us off at the door of our hostel in central La Paz for $0.50.
The descent from the airport (in El Alto) into La Paz provided us a few glimpses of the bustling morning life of residents of La Paz’s less-privileged neighbouring city. They queued up at steaming breakfast stalls or jumped onto one of the dozens of shared taxis heading into La Paz. The women clad in multiple layers of ankle-leg skirts, their hair in two long dark braids and a small hat perching miraculously atop of their heads. As we drove into La Paz, we admired the thousands of brownish, crumbling, square homes, lining the canyon walls and the white-capped peaks of the Andes towering over the city in almost every direction. It's hard to imagine how Bolivia's largest urban centre ended up here.

We settled into our hostel and slept for a few hours, in order to attempt to ward off altitude sickness. Any beneficial affects this might have had were countered by our evening’s first meal, “rack of sheep”.