Copacabana was an important religious site way before the Spanish realized that the world was round. Lake Titicaca is believed to be the birthplace of the Incas, and for many years, this city was one of the holiest of the Inca empire. These days, pilgrims come from far and wide to visit the Cathedral of Copacabana to pay homage to the Virgin of Copacabana (also known as the Queen of Bolivia and the Virgin of Candelaria), who has supposedly bestowed many miracles upon her true believers. She is the most venerated Virgin in all of Bolivia. In addition to visiting the most important Catholic icon in Bolivia, you can also explore some important Inca ruins.
The Cathedral of Copacabana -- In 1580, the Virgin of Copacabana appeared in a dream to Tito Yupanqui. He was so taken by this vision that he set out to Potosí (then one of the most important art centers in the world) to learn to sculpt. With his new skill, he hand-carved the Virgin from the wood of a maguey cactus. He then carried her, by foot, from Potosí to Copacabana (a journey of more than 640km/400 miles), where she was placed in an adobe chapel in 1583. Immediately afterwards, the crops of those who doubted her power were mysteriously destroyed. The Spanish, smitten with the Virgin, completed this Moorish-style cathedral for her in 1617. The Virgin stands in a majestic mechanical altar. On weekends, the priests rotate the Virgin so that she faces the main chapel; on weekdays, when there are fewer pilgrims here, they spin her around so that she looks over a smaller chapel on the other side. The silver ship at the bottom of the altar represents the moon, while the gold statue above the Virgin's head is believed to symbolize the power of the sun. Believers have bestowed millions of dollars worth of gifts upon the Virgin. In 1879, the government of Bolivia sold some of her jewelry to finance the War of the Pacific against Chile. The cathedral is open daily from 11am to noon and from 2 to 6pm; admission is free.
The Calvario -- In the 1950s the Stations of the Cross were built on a hill overlooking the lake. The strenuous uphill walk takes more than 30 minutes, but the views of the lake are worth the effort. At the very bottom of the stairs, there is a man who can divine your future by dropping lead into a boiling pot of water. About halfway up, you will find native priests burning candles and working with coca leaves. If you're so inclined, this is a good place to stop and learn about the ancient rituals of fortunetelling. For the trip down, there are two options: You can return the way you came up, or you can take a rocky path that will lead you to the shores of the lake. Note that the winding path can get steep and narrow -- it's best to descend it only if you're wearing a good pair of hiking shoes.
Inca Ruins -- Within Copacabana, there are three interesting archaeological sites. They are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to noon and from 2 to 5pm; admission to all three costs Bs10. The Asiento del Inca (Seat of the Inca) is my favorite of the three sites. No one knows the actual purpose of the stone carvings here, but some archaeologists speculate that this may have been a meeting point for Inca priests. The carvings are called Asiento del Inca because the huge indentations in the rocks resemble thrones. The rock carvings span different levels and what appear to be different rooms, and the "seats" don't all face the same direction. It's fun to sit on one of the thronelike rocks and dream about what may have happened here. To get here, walk from Plaza 2 de Febrero along Calle Murillo for 4 blocks until you reach the road to La Paz, where you should take a left. Walk 3 blocks uphill to the cemetery. The Asiento del Inca is about 90m (300 ft.) from the cemetery.
A bit farther outside of town is the Horca del Inca, a three-rock structure that resembles a gallows (hence the name). In actuality, it's believed that the Incas used these rocks as a tool to observe the sun and stars. If you happen to be here during one of the equinoxes, you can actually observe the sun as it reflects off the boulders. Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed much of the site because they thought gold might be hidden inside some of the rocks. Of course, they found nothing. To get here, walk straight on Calle Murillo from the plaza until the road ends; here, you will see a rocky hill. About halfway up the hill, you'll find the Horca del Inca. The walk up to the actual site is steep and the terrain is rough. You should only head up here if you have good walking shoes and lots of energy. Young boys hanging around the area will offer to show you the way to the site for about Bs8. I recommend taking them up on their offer, because the climb is tricky.
At the Baño del Inca, about 30 minutes outside town, you'll find a small museum dedicated to some archaeological finds in the area. Behind the museum, there's a pretty little spring, which is said to have mystical powers. Baño del Inca is a nice peaceful spot outside of the city -- great for a romantic picnic. To get here, start at Plaza 2 de Febrero and walk straight down Ballivián to Plaza de Toros. From Plaza de Toros, walk straight for about 20 minutes, until you see a green house. Take a right here and walk uphill for about 10 minutes. The Baño del Inca is on the right-hand side across from a church. There is no sign, but it's right behind a small farm.
Isla del Sol, Isla de la Luna & Isla de los Uros
Welcome to the birthplace of the Incas. The Isla del Sol, measuring only 9km (5 1/2 miles) long by 6km (3 3/4 miles) wide, is one of the most spectacular places in all of Bolivia. On the north end are Challapampa and some fascinating Inca ruins. Yumani, on the south end, is the largest town on the island and also the site of the Inca steps.
Most tour operators run a day trip from Copacabana to the Sun Island, with a quick stop at the Isla de la Luna (Moon Island). You'll leave Copacabana at 8:15am and arrive at Challapampa around 10:30am. Here you pay a Bs15 entry fee, and a Spanish-speaking guide will show you around Chinkana. If you're feeling ambitious, you can walk from here all the way to the Fuente del Inca on the southern end of the island. I highly recommend this long and hilly hike. Along the way, you'll come across wild llamas, herds of sheep, and some of the most breathtaking vistas in the world. But keep in mind that the hike is difficult and more than 4 hours long, so you won't have time to sit and eat a proper lunch. If you have a hard time walking, you might not make it to the other side in time for the last boat to Copacabana at 4pm.
If you don't want to walk, the boat will then drop you off for a quick stop at the Isla de la Luna. During the time of the Incas, this island was used to house "chosen" women. The island was similar to a convent. The women here wove garments by hand with alpaca wool and performed special ceremonies dedicated to the sun. Unfortunately, most of the structures here have been destroyed. From the 1930s to the 1960s, this island became a political prison. In the 1960s, when some archaeologists got wind of what had become of the island, the prisoners were ordered to rebuild the main palace, which has 35 rooms around a courtyard. This is historically significant because the Aymara culture -- not the Incas -- used constructions with courtyards, thus proving that Moon Island was used by pre-Inca cultures. However, most of the remaining doors are trapezoidal shaped, which is very typical of the Incas. As you first walk onto the island, keep an eye out for the polished stones. These stones are similar to what you'd find in Machu Picchu, and they allow you to understand how the Incas used hinges to hold rocks together.
Note: When your boat driver forces you to choose between visiting Moon Island and walking across Sun Island, I recommend opting for the walk on Sun Island. You won't miss much if you don't stop off at Moon Island, and the setting of the sun on Sun Island is much more spectacular.
Challapampa -- A visit to Challapampa will be the highlight of your visit to the Sun Island. Here, you will find the ruins of Chinkana (the labyrinth). It's a huge stone complex full of mazes, believed to be a seminary for Inca priests. The construction is actually a bit sloppy, which is very uncharacteristic of the Incas; some archaeologists theorize that the Incas must have been in a rush when they built it. A natural spring here runs under the island and appears again in a sacred stone fountain in Yumani . On the path back to the town of Challapampa, about 100m (328 ft.) from Chinkana, you will pass by the sacred rock, carved in the shape of a puma. As you continue along this path toward Challapampa, look down: You will soon see two very large footprints, said to have been created when the Sun dropped down to Earth to give birth to Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the Adam and Eve of the Incas.
Yumani/Inca Steps -- If you arrive by boat to Yumani, you will have to walk up 206 steps to reach the main part of the town here. These steps are original Inca constructions, and they lead up to a sacred stone fountain with three separate springs, which are said to be a fountain of youth.
Pilkokayna -- There is a half-mile path from the top of the Inca Steps down to Pilkokayna (which literally means "where birds sleep"). This 14-room structure may have been used as a fortress to guard the Virgins of the Sun, who were living nearby on Moon Island. From here, you have a very clear view of Moon Island. The structure does have trapezoidal doors, which means that it was used by the Incas. However, some archaeologists speculate that the buildings here date back to the Classic Age of the Tiwanaku period (A.D. 100-900). One of the most impressive features is the remains of the original stone roof.
Islas de Los Uros -- Though they're much smaller than their counterparts in Peru, it is hard not to be enchanted by a visit to these floating islands made of totora reeds, about 20 minutes by boat from Huatajata. The initial purpose of the islands was for defense. The islanders actually live on dry land, but when danger was nearby they would retreat to their tortora islands and hide amidst the reeds or float down the Desaguadero River. Today the few dozen islanders survive on fishing, hunting birds, selling handicrafts, and the little money they receive from tour groups. Trips to the islands are best arranged as an excursion ($25 per person) while staying at the Inca Utama Hotel & Spa, though you may also arrange trips in Huatajata.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.