Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Fifth in a series about Bolivia

1LaPazBus-Terminal
La Paz bus terminal.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Around 7am on Friday, August 14, 2015 we checked out of our hotel and took a taxi to the La Paz Bus Terminal.  We’d booked tickets in advance through Kanoo Tours on Vicuña Travel.  The price was only about $7.45 US/person.  My Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook indicated that we could have bought tickets in person for a bit less, but I preferred the peace of mind that comes with having our ground transportation set up in advance.

The bus terminal is a grand old building (designed by famed French architect Gustave Eiffel) that was originally a train station for the line to Guaqui on Lake Titicaca.  (It should not be confused with La Paz’s nearby Central Station, which I discuss in this post about the new aerial cable car network.)  The terminal was unheated and quite cold.  There were numerous bays for different bus companies featuring destinations all over Bolivia and beyond.  As I recall, there were also some snack bars and a restaurant.  We checked in at Vicuña at gate 19A.  The lady at the desk told us to be back for boarding at 7:45am.

2Bus-Terminal-Interior-rc
Interior view
29 La Paz hillside
View of La Paz from the back of the bus terminal.  The tower for the old Central Station is visible at lower left.

We made a mistake that briefly increased our stress level a great deal.  We made the assumption that our bus would be boarding from the bay behind the Vicuña desk.  There was a bus visible through an open door, after all.  We sat in a row of seats close to the desk, but there wasn’t any call for boarding.

After waiting longer than we should have, we went back to the desk, only for the lady to casually tell us that the bus was actually boarding from a street corner outside and behind the terminal and would be departing between 8:00 and 8:05am!  It was already 7:58am!  We broke into a run, stopping only to ask directions to the street corner from a helpful police officer.  We made it in the nick of time huffing and puffing…only to wait fifteen minutes for the bus to actually show up.  It wasn’t surprising.  In Latin American culture, Rachel explains, “Time is only a suggestion.”

3Happy-bout-the-Pope
View from the bus approaching El Alto: Signs welcoming Pope Francis were common along major routes near La Paz

It was a comfortable enough coach-style bus.  The seating was comparable to economy airline seating.  There was no restroom on board but the bus stopped at a gas station en route for travelers who needed to use one.  The roster indicated that most of the travelers were from Europe with a handful from the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  It was a sunny day…a nice departure from the past two days of rain (in downtown La Paz) and snow (at higher altitudes).  The bus picked up Ruta Nacional 3, which wound up the hillside from La Paz to El Alto.  El Alto (“the high”) is a large city built on the plateau above La Paz.

4El-Alto
El Alto

Near the airport, we turned onto Ruta Nacional 1 (Av Juan Pablo II) and headed west.  Briefly, we detoured north to cross over a small river on a rickety bridge.  I’m not sure why the driver made the detour…maybe Ruta 1’s bridge was out of service.  The bus picked up Ruta Nacional 2 and headed west out onto the Altiplano.

5Mts-North-of-La-Paz-crop
Altiplano with the Cordillera Real in the background as seen from Ruta Nacional 2, about 20-30 minutes west of El Alto

According to Wikipedia, the Alitplano (“high plain”), “where the Andes are at their widest, is the most extensive area of high plateau on Earth outside of Tibet.”  Indeed, some of my reading material referred to Bolivia as “the Tibet of South America”.  Aside from a few hills, the terrain along the road was quite flat.  Even so, our altitude was about 3,960 m (12,992‘)!  The fields were covered in a beautiful dusting of snow from the past two days of precipitation.  To the northeast, we could see the spectacular peaks of the Cordillera Real, a range that is part of the Andes.

6-NW-of-La-Paz

7hilltop-east-of-Pampa
Solitary hilltop church east of Pampa

As we headed further west, the snow began to disappear.  Around 10:05am Lake Titicaca came into view for the first time.  With a maximum length of 190 km (118 mi) and covering 8,372 sq km (3,232 sq mi), Lake Titicaca is the highest lake its size in the world and the largest lake by area in South America.

8-San-Pedro-de-Tiquina
View across the Strait of Tiquina from San Pablo towards San Pedro

Around 10:45am we arrived at San Pablo de Tiquina, a town on the shores of el Estrecho de Tiquina (the Strait of Tiquina).  The strait separates the main lake from a smaller portion referred to as Lago Pequeno.  The strait is only about 800 m (about 2,624′) wide and in the developed world would probably be spanned by a bridge.  Still, an effective operation was in place that caused relatively little inconvenience.

10Ferry-for-Strait-of-Tiquina
Ferry (well, motorboat really) for crossing the Strait of Tiquina

We exited the bus and purchased ferry tickets (2 Bolivianos/person, or about $0.30 US).  Then we boarded a rickety old motorboat with two rows of bench seats.  The boats were used by locals as well as tourists.  There were no life jackets aboard, just a life preserver on the roof.

11FurryPassenger
A furry passenger aboard our ferry

The crossing from San Pablo to its sister town of San Pedro de Tiquina took less than 10 minutes.  Our bus was loaded onto a barge and transported to our side as well.  San Pedro appears to be somewhat more developed than San Pablo and has a large statue of  Manco Cápac facing the strait.

12Strait-of-Tiquina
View back across the strait from San Pedro toward San Pablo
13Statue-of-Manco-Capac
Statue of Manco Cápac, legendary founder of the Inca
14-Our-Bus
Our bus arriving in San Pedro on a barge

We were back on the road (still considered Ruta Nacional 2 on this side of the strait) by around 11:20am.  The road headed up into the hills but still offered plenty of impressive views of the lake.

15Lake-Titicaca
Lake Titicaca seen from Ruta Nacional 2
16Copacabana-Cerro-Calvario
Copacabana as seen from the bus with Cerro Calvario towering above (taller hill at center)

At around noon we got our first view of Copacabana, with Cerro Calvario towering above.  We arrived in town about 12:15pm.  A few travelers on the bus spontaneously broke into singing “Copacabana” though Barry Manilow’s song is not about the Bolivian city (nor the Rio de Janeiro beach), but rather the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.  The bus continued on to Puno, Peru after we disembarked.

Date: Friday, August 14, 2015

Distance: About 144 km (89.5 mi) by road

Cost per mile: $0.09/mile

Duration: About 4 hours including stops at gas station and Strait of Tiquina

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus

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