Hop on. Firstly, in La Paz, Peru Hop is known as Bolivia Hop; the name changes once you jump the border. Set up by two Irishmen and a Peruano, it is the first hop-on, hop-off tourist bus of its kind in South America. There are various routes you can take, missing certain cities or even hopping only through Peru, but we sign up for the full $199 package. This includes every possible hop from La Paz to Lima. Now this is the first ‘organised fun’ type of tour we have been on so far. Ste categorically hates anyone planning anything or ‘hand-holding’ as he calls it, but having only just missed the epic flooding caused by El Niño throughout Peru, he decides it’s a safe bet to ensure we get through to Lima (and the surf). The price is also astronomical compared to that we would pay if we just used the local bus system (around double the price), but the flexibility it offers is appreciated instantly as we twice extend our stay with Nappa in La Paz. (Once you have booked your route you have up to a year to complete your hop. You can change your buses up to twelve hours before your scheduled departure – full flexibility, the traveler’s dream).
So off we head to our first stop, Copacabana. No no, not the white sandy beach filled with cocktails and beautifully bronzed Brazilians, but Bolivia’s small Lake Titicaca-side town, filled with a few cocktails, but mostly tour agents and hostel owners hustling for your custom. Our first experience on the bus takes us immediately back to the western world. Our guide explains all the details in perfect English, hands out welcome packs and water and settles us in for a spot of Mrs Doubtfire, as we head through the luscious mountain terrain. I should point out, excluding the guide and driver, the bus is 100% caucasian – let the hand-holding commence.
Included with the Peru Hop ticket are some free tours, as well as an option to book extra trips directly through them. The itinerary for the first stage of the Hop is the arrival at Copacabana, an extra excursion of a return boat trip to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca and onwards across the border to Puno. Our calculations leave just two hours to explore the island and so we opt to hop off, book a boat separately and hop back in a few days. With two small rhinos strapped to our backs, we made all of five minutes into town before my brain short-circuited my legs, and we found ourselves preyed upon by a hostel owner. Bulky and shined in sweat, we were easy prey, and for 50BOB (£6.25) for a private room en-suite, it was hard to fight him off. Once decamped however, it seemed we had been misled by our captor. Now normally WiFi isn’t high on my and Ste’s priorities, but we had allotted two days in Copacabana. Our arrival to this small, highly touristic town had changed our minds and so we needed to login to alter our hop for the following day. When agreeing to the hostel we had asked about WiFi and the guy said it was good, however on this particular day the whole town was without electricity until 6pm and so we couldn’t check. This lead to one of my proudest moments, oh how far my Spanish had come! Now I’m sure people will disagree with me, but in my mind, you know you fully have a grasp of a language when you can use these newly found wonderful words, and hold a fully fledged argument. Power on, the WiFi was a mystery beast, and after asking several times, the owner of the hostel came up to our room and showed us movies he was clearly streaming on his phone’s 3G whilst telling us all our equipment was bad. By the 5th ‘Tranquilo amiga’ (Relax friend), my polite British nature went out the window and Ste stood back looking rather puzzled as I unleashed a torrent of angry Spanish at the poor guy. Sounds harsh, but you have to show you mean business with these guys as the majority of tourists speak zero Spanish, and if there’s one thing I have learnt about South America is the level of respect you are held within increases exponentially if you can converse in their mother tongue. Few speak English, and Bolivians on the whole don’t like tourists. Sad but true. Sure enough another WiFi option became available and was sufficient to make our necessary adjustments. Now don’t be foolish enough to read into this as a disagreement about WiFi, that would be a rather boring anecdote. This is actually a self-indulgent tale of the moment I realised (be it badly) I could finally speak some understandable Spanish.
We book ourselves a boat for an 8.30am departure to Isla del Sol (60BOB each return – significantly less that the $10 for the Peru Hop excursion, however not as straightforward we would later learn). All aboard probably one of the slowest boats ever to navigate the high lakes. I don’t exactly have guns of steel, but chuck me an oar and I probably could have added a few knots. The lake was choppy that particular morning, a result of a powerful storm we had slept to the night before. I lasted about twenty minutes in the dry below deck before scrambling onto the roof and enduring a bracing drizzly breeze, surprisingly pleasant now I was relieved of my queasiness. (I wasn’t alone – a steady stream of people quickly followed). After two and half hours bobbing along we finally made Isla del Sol. Feeling slightly disheartened and a bit windswept Ste and I paused at the bottom of the stairs to look at the map. Our plan had been to get dropped at the northern end of the island, hike across to the south and catch a return boat. However, there was a mini civil war going on between the northern and southern islanders and so tourists weren’t currently allowed in the northern part. Feeling somewhat frustrated at our lack of options we start up the many steps without any sort of plan, other than to wander aimlessly. We made all of around three steps before we heard a shout of ‘Steve’ in a strong Irish accent. We turned around to find a true ray of sunshine had arrived in the faces of three Irish scally-wags. Graham, Cathal and Big Bad Barry. We had had the pleasure of meeting these three and climbing the Volcano Villarrica with in Pucon, Chile, and by pure chance here they were at the bottom of a gigantic set of steps, on an island, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.
Now we had a slightly larger team for our aimless wandering, the island’s delights were more obvious. Graham and Ste wasted no time trying to out-selfie one another with the island’s many four legged inhabitants. Alpacas, horses, donkeys and even a sleeping pig felt their 15 seconds on insta-fame as these two chased mostly each other from animal to animal.
The rest of us took in the beautiful panoramic views, once we had scaled the breath-taking steps. Now I don’t mean spectacular. I mean this in the most literal sense of struggling to breath. The lake and the island sit at around 3,800m above sea level. There be not so much oxygen about those parts (I read that last sentence out loud in a Devonshire accent so please re-read in one).
Isla del Sol lives up to its name. We are bathed in endless sunshine, and the views across the bays a synonymous with small Cornish inlets. It feels like coming home to a beautiful summer’s day, bar the occasional alpaca – though what with the current farmlife fashion trends the UK enjoys, one could argue alpacas included.
We explore a ruin, which looks like a tiny abandoned castle bearing the face of pac-man. This stone masonry caricature inspires a brief moment of madness from Graham and Ste and they record Bolivia’s first edition of Grand Designs (link here for your viewing pleasure https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx-QPnf0Z0s).
We bump into some tourists who have unsuccessfully attempted to pass to the north of the island; their attempt thwarted by the wagging finger of a Bolivian guard. This inspires the inner explorer within the boys; we head off the main path, cutting across pasture (cue more selfies) and farmland in an attempt to head as north as possible. Our mini venture is wonderful, the views are spectacular and we head deep down into a valley with the promise of a sandy beach ahead.
Sadly reality sets in; we had been heading almost entirely downhill, none of us had eaten and we had just under two hours until our return boats. Mission deemed successful enough and abandoned, we scale back up the hill and stop at a little restaurant with more spectacular views for beer and pizza.
South American standards are once again applied and after waiting almost an hour, I manage to negotiate take-away pizza as we all sprint down the hill after our boats. As we skid down the steps a flash of vibrant hair sails past me. It’s only Nappa! He’s leading a Korean tour group and I snatch a smile and a hug before continuing my helter-skelter down the steps, trying not to drop my long-awaited pizza. The boat company the Irish lads went with is about to depart and they launch themselves on board without a second to spare. Our boat however, was nowhere in sight. Typical.
We knew we are up against it, we had just two and a half hours until the Peru-Hop’s departure from Copacabana and our boat was showing no signs of life. We spot the Peru Hop boat and run over flashing the cash in an attempt to buy a quicker passage. The captain was having none of it; he wanted the full original tour price to board. Even in our desperation were not going to be conned. Defeated we sat on the jetty and scoffed our pizza. Probably one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten, let alone in South America. Every cloud! We get chatting to some fellow ‘Hopsters’ (yes that is the official name of Peru-Hop voyagers – I even have the t-shirt) and they team up with us taking our names to tell the guide we are on our way if our slow-boat is delayed. By some miracle the crew arrive and our boat sets off before Peru-Hop; we might just make it! Up on deck (well the roof), I relax seeing the island and the boat containing our fellow Hopsters shrink into the distance. This is short-lived. Around halfway through our crossing, their shiny new boat, that uses all its engines, motors past us. Bollocks. When we finally creep into our dock, Ste and I launch ourselves from the top of the boat to the jetty, before we were even moored. We sprint up to the bus where our lovely comrades have informed the guide of our imminent arrival. Next problem. Bags. We had left all our bags at the tour agency that morning. Back to sprinting uphill. As I run I remember; we are about to leave Bolivia and I haven’t bought a fridge magnet. OK another moment of sounding slightly neurotic, no-one will die without a fridge-magnet. However, my mother has a long standing tradition of having all her kids bring back fridge-magnets from each country they have visited. She’s getting quite the collection and I was not going to let a snail-paced Bolivian boat break that tradition now. Sweat pouring (the miserable grey morning was now glorious 20+ degree heat) I yell at Ste go grab the bags as I dive into a shop, snatch the first magnet I find and throw a random selection of Bolivian coins at the perplexed store owner. (Fun Fact: Bolivian coins look like pirate money). Back to the uphill sprint, Ste rounds the corner looking like some Michelin Buckaroo, giant bags hanging in all directions. We re-assemble and charge back down the hill at the large Peru-Hop bus that is quite definitely leaving. Ste channels his inner Bolt and flies down the hill, throwing himself at the closed door of the driver. The bus stops and the guide jumps out looking puzzled before quickly remembering less than five minutes ago, he had reassured us we had about ten minutes to get our bags.
Finally we are on board and after a thumbs up from our allies, we sit down to another round of Mrs Doubtfire. The border is only 10 minutes away, where we are offloaded, passed through security and then as a huge pack, we walk across the border from Bolivia to Peru. Somehow I managed to lose Ste in immigration and so this strangely powerful moment is enjoyed alone. Flanked by a few street dogs, I march the two hundred meters into a new country. This is probably quite insignificant to most continentals, but as an islander there was something quite humbling about just me, and my giant pack, walking from one country into another. Peu, we’ve been waiting for you.