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Into Bolivia: Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol

Those last few days in Cusco passed quickly in the blur of trekking recovery, spent walking in the pleasant sunshine of its streets and squares, playing cards in its restaurants and deciphering a wide selection of Spanish-dubbed films for my mum from the wide screen in our hotel room.

This was also the week I decided to make big on my plan to extend my trip, booking another plane ticket two months after my intended return date, allowing me to fit Patagonia, Buenos Aires and, crucially, Rio and carnival into my itinerary.

The finality of this move did nothing to diminish the wave of homesickness that broke over me as my family and I prepared to part ways – the two of them to London and me into Bolivia.

I seem to always have to endure a fierce internal battle whenever I’m traveling for an extended period. This war rages between my freer spirit, independent and spontaneous with a thirst for discovery, solitude and the great desire to climb to the top of every rock I encounter, and my more domesticated self which craves Habitat kitchenware, dog ownership, a small flat and the ever-presence of friends and family. Whilst on most days the first of these has a definite upper hand and manages to silence the other, especially when atop said rocks, on other days I’m distractedly conflicted. The prompts can be small – a Facebook video of my cousin playing her violin, a passing adorable puppy, particularly insensitive fellow dormroom tenants – but my family visit upset the scale for several days, so fresh were they from the life I miss and occasionally long for.

This unbalanced state of mind was never so pronounced as when I walked with my family to my friend’s hostel where we’d be shortly leaving to catch a night bus across the Bolivian border. One part of me was distraught for the goodbye, the other excited by the change of scenery, the new country to conquer and the new lightness on my back after considerably downsizing, depositing many of my more redundant items into the suitcases of my mum and brother.

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I’d also disposed of my often frustrating, sometimes comical ‘rough-terrain’ wheeled bag for a proper backpack, the new look appropriate for this new stage of travelling. My stints of volunteering, frequent flights, Colombian language school and a desire to spend as long as possible in San Francisco had meant my trip so far had been highly organised, my stay in each place usually lasting at least a week. But with no more commitments, the next three and a half months stretched out before me, malleable and inviting.

On that first journey though, there was a collective sort of negativity surrounding our new destination. As a traveler you’re always treated to many impressions of a place before you reach it. This can be extremely useful, but also confusing, placing expectations where a blank slate is often more productive. Stories of Bolivia – the danger, the violent muggings, the nauseating high-altitude towns, the turbulent climate – had all proceeded us across the border, and the sum of these caused that in-transit sleep to be prickled by anxiety and sudden bursts of wide-eyed paranoia for my valuables.

Not long after finally finding peaceful oblivion behind my eye mask, my friend Shing and I – as well as new Australian travel companion we met in the bus station, Blake – were forced prematurely from sleep by the cry of ‘Cocacabana’ – our first stop. To the annoyance of our fellow passengers, who were bound elsewhere, we took a few long minutes to throw our possessions together, which I had managed to spread far around myself and my seat, and leave the bus.

Typical of most transport in Latin America, the organisation of which I will never fully understand, this wasn’t the end of our journey. A small collectivo waited outside to take us to the border.

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Living up to the more pessimistic of reports, our first experience of Bolivia as we walk across the frontera with our backpacks is the dismal welcome of blustering, persistent rain and impenetrable cloud. After negotiating border control the impression doesn’t improve, our taxi driver increasing his price halfway through the journey, to our general outrage, dulled only by exhaustion.

But by the time we’ve unloaded in the first hostel we find and are sat in front of a small cafe for breakfast, the sun has come out to warm the town of Cocacabana. We’re here for its proximity to Lake Titicaca, which sits before us, glittering and vast as the sea. It’s a popular stopping point for people moving between Peru and Bolivia, a beautiful place to break the journey.

The town itself is rather pretty, but more than anything it’s a gateway to the true jewel of this side of the enormous lake – the islands.

Rather than giving into the tiredness that always pervades on the days following unsettling night buses, we spend the afternoon traversing the shore of the lake, walking to a distant headland and stopping halfway to stare out into the water and succumb briefly to irresistible waves of lethargy on the stones.

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It’s a largely silent and enthralling walk. My brief years at university living just ten minutes from Brighton beach have left me a permanent addict to ocean – to looking out over an expanse of water which stretches to the furthest horizon, to the stillness this creates, as if my mind were always yearning to find such a space – space for it to stretch itself and lay out alphabetically all the thoughts usually crammed and scrambled together. It had been a few months since California had allowed me this luxury, and so I was initially mesmerised by our new surrounds.

With the little light left to us we hiked the short way to the viewpoint close to the town, the breathless, high-altitude climb worth every step for our new and astonishing vantage over the lake. We spend more minutes in silent wonder and meditation as the sun descends behind the water, sending us home to cold showers and sleep.

We wait for our boat to Isla del Sol early the next morning, the biggest island on the lake on the Bolivian side, crisp sunshine and the still horizon of water welcoming, soporific and peaceful. We plan to walk from north to south and spend one night there before returning. The walk is beautiful and the fresh spring weather endures, making our progress slower for the necessity of taking photographs.

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We meet a few people along the way, a couple from Germany and a French guy who recently broke his arm mountain biking, and end up walking together. At one point I lose my bearings completely and nearly lead the party the wrong way, but after a few hours we finally make it to the small village in the south for a late lunch high on the ridge of the descending hill, the lake laid out before us.

After this, we make our way down the hill to the port to find accommodation and boat tickets for the next day. The others, with hostels to return to on the north end of the island, rush to catch a boat back – but they’ve left it too late. With no public boats left to sail that evening, they’re quoted a high price for a private boat and therefore decide to walk back. We watch them leave worriedly as the sun drops behind the hill, hoping they have head torches.

With no working wifi on the island, a few friends – Caroline and Kelly, who I met on the Salkantay trek – have arranged to meet me the old fashioned way on Isla del Sol. Days before I was instructed to meet them at the church at 5pm, and I arrive about five minutes before, breathless for the steep climb from the port. I find them both sitting in what’s left of the sun and they come back with us to our hostel for food, wine and card games.

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As I sit on the terrace of our hostel in the morning, looking out over the water and reading, I can’t think of a pleasanter way to enter a new country and break-up an otherwise exhausting journey.

Today we travel to La Paz – the biggest and highest city in Bolivia – where I’m planning to spend just a few short days before moving on into the more interesting wilds of the country. Little did I know though, I’d be there significantly longer.

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