The site of Copacabana has held religious significance for Andean peoples since before the Spanish Conquest, as the nearest launching point for boat excursions to the famed Inca shrines of the Islands of the Sun and Moon. A visit to the islands was in fact our primary reason for visiting the town. After a punishing five-hour journey over rocky mountain roads in a friend's Land Cruiser, however, we found that we had arrived too late in the day for the boat trips. Following the advice of a fellow traveler, we decided to occupy ourselves with a visit to Cerro Calvario (Mount Calvary) instead. Here a replica of Jesus Christ's route to the cross on Calvary Hill has been created overlooking the pagan monuments below. As we climbed the steep slope no easy task at 14,500 feet above sea level we passed thirteen small altars marking the Stations of the Cross. Each one contained a niche with a painted icon, along with numerous small offerings and prayers held down with dusty brown stones against strong winds coming off the frigid lake.
As we neared the top of the hill, things began to get distinctly weird. In a scene resembling a medieval religious fair, a dozen bowler-hatted Bolivian cholas manned tables piled high with religious tokens. The most popular are tiny replicas of material goods that the purchaser wishes to acquire. These can be deposited at one of the shrines on the hill or pinned to a small clay figure of a local demigod named Ekeko, and preferably blessed by the nearest Catholic priest! Tiny microbuses, pick-up trucks, American dollars, tools, bicycles, and sewing machines can be had, as well as elaborate miniature snack shops and tortilla stands. On the slopes of the summit the remains of dozens of small fires ringed with stones can be seen where pilgrims have lit flames in offeringor presumably on occasion to cook lunch.
After drinking in this heady mix of ancient tradition, blinding sunlight and intoxicatingly thin, cold air for a while we headed back downhill to the lake. Near the bottom of the hill we encountered a scene which instantly reminded me of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A lay priest (medicine man, shaman, whatever you wish) was blessing several couples lined up eagerly awaiting his services.
The ceremony consisted of the following solemn procedure: customers were required to buy one of the large bottles of local beer piled at the priest's feet. The priest opened the bottle, took a healthy swig himself, then placing his thumb over the opening and murmuring incantations, shook it vigorously. Finally he sprayed the super-carbonated beer all over the customer to complete the ritual. We were pretty warm after all that climbing and my husband offered to buy one of the bottles unblessed, but we were unable to make our request understood by the wobbly priest. Just as he was enthusiastically preparing to spray beer all over us, we hurriedly backed away in search of some secular lemonade.
Returning to the town, even stranger sights awaited us. A line of dilapidated microbuses, trucks, and gaudily repainted American school buses snaked around the town square, ending at the ancient colonial church in the center. Again, dozens of vendors were at the scene, selling miniatures as well as garlands of crepe paper flowers and streamers with various congratulatory sayings printed on them. Drivers and passengers were busily sticking flowers and banners all over the buses, often completely obscuring the front windshield.
We discovered that the vehicles were awaiting a blessing by the resident Polish Dominican friar. In an interesting alternative to auto insurance, he sprayed holy water over the gaily-decorated buses with an ordinary garden hose to ensure a crash-free future. These ceremonies were accompanied by copious consumption of beer and the local chicha (moonshine) which made that blessing all the more essential for the long drive back to La Paz.
The festival atmosphere surrounding the crumbling seventeenth century church gave way to an otherworldly serenity inside. Small chapels lining the main hall held smoke-blackened primitive paintings of saints and the Madonna with heaps of offerings and votive candles at their feet. At the head of the nave, the blackened wooden statue of the Virgen de Candelaria, carved over 400 years ago by an Inca craftsman, received devotional prayers from shawl-wrapped Indian women. Downstairs, in the quiet stone crypt, mounds of candle wax marked the offerings of generations of highland Indians. I lit a taper for my recently deceased grandfather, a gesture that seemed at once ridiculous and utterly appropriate.
That evening our party gathered at the shore of the lake for a traditional Bolivian dinner of delicious fresh lake trout, potatoes and rice accompanied by the excellent national brew, Cerveza Pacena. Wrapped up against the chilly wind coming off the lake we watched an enormous sun setting over a timeless scene of traditional totora reed boats tying up for the night. Later we explored the winding cobblestone streets of the town which were lit only by the occasional bare light bulb, or more commonly by candles. Vendors sold miniature reed boats, Ekeko figurines, and any other item one can think of from small reed enclosures. A quiet serenity enveloped the town at the top of the world, disturbed only by the rhythmic lapping of the cold lake against a rocky shoreline.
We spent the night in a primitive hotel. The more experienced travelers among us had brought sleeping bags to lay on top of the questionable bedding, and I wore rubber flip-flops in the invigorating shower in the hope of guarding against possible electrocution by a scary-looking water heater overhead. Afterwards we gathered for a breakfast of strong coffee and visited the islands of the Sun and Moon. That too, was an adventure, but of a more conventional tourist variety if one can say that about anything that takes place in Bolivia.
All the way home that afternoon the road was crowded with gaily decorated buses and trucks weaving from side to side on the single-lane road that crosses the windswept Altiplano. Some of those drivers were clearly still enjoying the effects of their blessing, and we were wary of colliding with a vehicle that was divinely protected! Road hazards aside, I wouldnt have missed that trip for anything. Surely that visit to Copacabana is the closest that I will ever come to taking a trip back in time.