Copacabana was our first stop on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. We hadn’t intended to be there long, but as every single Bolivian will recite when you mention the name, “es muy lindo Copacabana no?” meaning “it‘s very beautiful Copacabana no?”, and they’re so right.
It’s a beautiful port town with loads to see and do for every kind of traveller from scenic hikes to hidden coves, from religious pilgrimages to gringo bars (and food), but for us it was hiding a very precious gem indeed; in the form of the Franciscan run “Comedor Social de Niños”.
In an old schoolhouse behind the Cathedral de San Francisco, everyday between 10 and 15 kids whose parents can’t afford the basic necessities such as food, come to eat lunch prepared by volunteers in the comedor, and we got to be those volunteers.
One day, while visiting the interior of the impressive church, we saw a sign urging for donations for the Comedor Social. It was then that we visited the church’s admin office, also located behind the church to enquir if they needed volunteers. We moved into the Comedor’s grounds the following day. A school-like building, with groin and first floor classroom, a large middle centre courtyard, where the toilets and showers were, a kitchen and a food hall.
Our days started at 10am, we would arrive to the kitchen from our “room”, which was an old crèche with 3 single metal framed beds (it was made abundantly clear by Sister Anna, without using words, that if we weren’t married, we were to leave room for the holy spirit and sleep in separate beds), to be told what was on the menu for the day. Alternating, it was either soup or “segundo” (a main dish). Funny that on the days we made and had soup we always had less children, man those kids hate soup.
Regardless of what was on the menu, the day’s work always started by peeling and dicing inhuman quantities of vegetables, in particular potatoes. We would then prepare the childrens’ lunch under the watchful but ever so friendly eye of Maria, Raquel and Eva. We would chat about our countries, our customs and a whole host of other topics, thoroughly enjoying each others company. The soon became our family, and their company, as well as the kids, was what made our time there so memorable
At about 1pm the children would begin to arrive. It was our job then to “occupy” the children by playing with them and chatting to them (a good opportunity to teach some English) while we wait on the rest of the group to arrive. Satisfied there were no further children due to arrive we would Maria would start dishing the plates.
At this point we had to make sure the kids had washed their hands and were paraded in front of “la virgin” to pray. It still cracks me up thinking of them all mouthing the words to the Hail Mary in Spanish, just like I used to in school (but not in Spanish obviously). It also gives me a giggle to think that Katie now knows the Hail Mary in Spanish, yet still mumbles it unknowingly in English.
After the kids had finished eating, and with some of them it’s a battle to get them to eat, they then had to wash their delph and then parade through the kitchen and thank each volunteer, individually! This was always an adorable part of the day as they each approached us with a “gracias hermano Luke, gracias hermana Katie, gracias hermana Maria, gracias….”
Once showing their thanks, they got to play in the courtyard until 3pm. Card games, football, basketball, chasing… It wasn’t always easy keeping up with their energy. Especially on a full stomach. By 3pm, it was home-time.
We worked onl Monday to Fridays, from 10am-3pm, the work was fun and effortless. We made wonderful friends, We met extremely bright and funny children, we learned how to make a variety of Bolivian dishes, we enjoyed our evenings by the lake and the weekends in the sun.
I will never be able to fully explain how fulfilling this volunteering position was for me, how completely I fell in love with all the kids, (even the most bratty will always have a little bit of my heart), or just how heartbroken I was to leave. If you get a chance, I highly recommend you spend a little time here because after all… Copacabana es muy lindo no?
From Puno to Copacabana:
This wasn’t a long journey nor complicated, but as it included a border jump we’ve dedicated it it’s own more detailed blog, which you can read here.
In a nutshell, collectivos depart Terminal Zonal de Puno to Yunguyo from Gate #4 every 40 minutes or so. The lakeside 2.5hr journey costs 8sol (€2).
Head to the border, stamp out of Peru and into Bolivia at no charge and then take a collectivo onward to Copacabana.
Again, there is a more detailed ‘how to’ version here.
Accommodation in Copacabana:
Before we moved onto the San Francisco grounds to volunteer, we stayed in the beautiful Casa del Sol Hostel on Calle Jose Ballivian.
The owners were really nice and the rooms were big and comfy with three single beds and a private bathroom. The price includes a nice simple breakfast, bread, jame, juice and coffee and there’s plenty of space and outdoor but covered couches to chill out on. The only downfall is that the Wi-Fi isn’t great, but if this is your first stop in Bolivia, prepare yourself for shit Wi-Fi until you leave the country… and I really do mean shit Wi-Fi.
Things To Do in Copacabana:
Drop in to the parish office behind the church before 2pm and ask for Raquel. They don’t have a way to contact before you get there but they’re always looking for help. In exchange for 5 hours of work a day, 5 days a week you’ll receive a bed, one meal (lunch) a day Monday to Friday and a masterclass / crash course in the finer points of Bolivian cuisine.
Cerro el Calavario:
A holy pilgrimage for many catholic Peruvians and Bolivians, this beautiful mountain walk is dotted with the 14 stations of the cross, they walk it as a penance to have their sins forgiven, and trust us, it’s a penance… It’s a tough climb but the view of Copacabana and the bay from the top is totally worth it, and who couldn’t do with a little credit in the soul bank, I know I could.
El boca del Sapo:
On the opposite side of the cerro is a bay where there is a rock in the shape of a giant toad (sapo). According to the legend during a time of great storms the toad emerged from Lake Titicaca and was on a rampage across Copacabana only to be stopped and turned to stone by the Virgin de Copacabana. Now on the ‘Festival of the Virgin’ held on August 5th, people go and throw wine and champagne bottles aiming for the mouth of the toad as offerings to the virgin and for good luck. Weird huh?
Visit the Basilica de San Francisco:
I know, I know, you’re probably sick of us recommending churches, but the grounds and the church are well worth a look. But what’s more amazing about this particular church is what happens outside it on a daily basis. Right out front you’ll find an area that’s reserved for blessing vehicles. Yup, you heard me. People drive their cars here all dressed up in ribbons (the cars not the people) and park them outside to have them blessed by monks who spray them with alcohol (again the cars not the people) to help them avoid any kind of accident and then they celebrate by getting drunk and driving home, eeeeeeeeeeh really?
Walk the Coastline:
We’re seaside babies so walking the coast anywhere is an absolute pleasure for us, even if it is only a lake. Copacabana has miles of crescent shaped coastline for you to discover, sure take a towel with you and get your tan on while you’re at it.
La Isla del Sol:
This is one of the most popular reasons that people visit Copacabana. The island is known as the legendary birthplace of the Adam and Eve of the Inca, Manco Capác and Mama Ocllo, and apparently an amazing place to spend a few days while travelling between Peru and Bolivia.
Unfortunately due to budget restraints and some friction between the inhabitants of north and south halves of the island, we opted to give this one a miss but anyone we spoke to about it said it was beautiful even though expensive and touristy. Due to the ongoing disputes between residents, prices and ferry times fluctuate so any information we have might not be accurate. Our advice would be to pop down to the docks yourself and having a chat with the boat captains.
As always boys and girls thanks for reading. I hope you found this article somewhat enlightening and remember, if there’s anything else you need or anything I missed, or if you just wanna shoot the breeze, sure feel free to drop me a mail.