Peru stuck its fingers up at me as I left. Twice. On my last night, the girl at Interbank gave me fake money and I was in too much of a rush to realise. The taxi driver and I had been getting along famously until I tried to pay him with the Peruvian equivalent of a Monopoly note. Then, just as I was about to board my bus for Bolivia, I was told I needed to exchange my ticket shaped piece of paper for a completely different ticket shaped piece of paper. Well obviously. What I didn’t know until I reached Puno was that in fact I should have been given two tickets, one for each leg of the journey. Nobody told me that part. And so it was I reached Puno on lovely Lake Titicaca at 5 o’clock in the morning with a purse full of joke money and no ticket to Bolivia. The unhelpful girl at the Tour Peru office (may she burn in hell) refused to help or call the office in Cusco. Peru 2: England 0. Take that you Chile-loving Brit.
I was rescued by a lovely man at a different company (I wish I could recall which one) who saved me a seat on his bus in case I needed it (I did), clucked in disapproval at his rivals and generally made me feel all special and warm. A few hours after arriving, I was finally on a bus leaving Puno. The road out of town hugged the lake like best friends after 4 bottles of wine. It was a slow, dusty and pot-holed ride and although I was desperate for sleep I didn’t want to miss the view. This was the real Peru, where women wore traditional dress for themselves rather than the tourists. Kids chased scampering sheep, men tinkered with fishing boats and women nattered to their mates as they went to market. Just as I was nodding off to sleep, I was delighted to spot 3 flamingos.
At the Bolivian border we all shot through customs with barely a cursory glance at our passports and an inky stamp. Except the Americans. They were in there for nearly an hour and had to take out wads of cash to pay the fees. “Everyone hates us” whispered one of them to her friend when they eventually boarded. The bus driver definitely did. Half an hour earlier he’d asked his assistant what the hold up was. “Americans” was the snarled reply. The driver raised his eyebrows, sighed and harrumphed off the bus for a cigarette.
It was around that time that the headache started. I’d not had altitude sickness when I was at 4600m in the Atacama Desert and Cusco’s 3000m hadn’t bothered me a jot. Clearly Bolivia was in a league of its own. The headache began at the border and didn’t disappear until my plane landed back in Chile a few days later.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Copacabana on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. Instead I arrived shattered, sweaty, hungry and with a cracking headache. We were dropped off in a busy square where taxis, vans and buses belched their exhaust fumes as they vied with each other for business. I jumped and staggered into my giant backpack and tried to figure out where the hell I was. I had planned on slumming it in a cheap dorm bed, it but I felt horrible and decided that only the best – at $10 a night – would do.
La Cúpula (when I eventually found it) was just what I needed. With views of the lake, this was a hostel pretending to be a boutique hotel. The simple clean rooms were surrounded by gardens where guests loafed about in hammocks reading books and snoozing. As I checked in, a woman popped out from behind the clothes line and herded her sheep past reception and down the lane.
I was feeling decidedly ropey. Rather than go shopping for food, I went to La Cúpula’s restaurant and gorged on salad, local trout, potatoes and corn, all washed down with homemade lemonade. I felt like I hadn’t eaten properly for days. Dessert was a big mug of coca tea.
In a bid to find an ATM (there isn’t one) and get a feel for the town, I went out. It’s distinctly different to Peru. Here there was rubbish strewn everywhere and weeds growing through the broken paving slabs. True, there were touristy souvenir-selling streets and hotels that served pancakes for breakfast but unlike Peru, it didn’t feel like Bolivia had sold its soul to tourism. Many of those splashing about in the lake or renting pedal boats on the beach were city-dwelling Bolivians. In the square outside the cathedral, cars covered in gladioli and ribbons were being lined up for the daily vehicle blessing ceremony and old men dressed in black huddled together in the square to smoke cigarettes. In the market, burly women in thick skirts and bowler hats swatted the flies off the meat.
After an hour or so I headed back to the hostel. I wanted to find out about trips to Isla del Sol and buses to La Paz but my head was throbbing and I was starting to feel sick. I’d been travelling on a punishing schedule, determined to make the most of my 3 weeks holiday from work in Santiago and I was nearly at the end of my trip. The altitude was killing me. I just needed a little lie down for half an hour and I’d feel right as rain. Fourteen hours later I woke up. For a brief moment, I thought it had done the trick. Then I sat up and my head thumped.
So what can I tell you? Copacabana. It’s in Bolivia. It’s quite dirty. It’s next to a really, really big lake. You can eat trout. I came. I saw. I slept.