The Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca

It was a sad moment when we realized the only buses going to Lake Titicaca from Cusco were overnight buses. We tried our best to avoid it, but then once again found ourselves tossing and turning in our seats through the evening. 
We were woken at 5:30am with a little old woman serving Cinnamon tea out of a big red jerry can and were told our stop was in 10 minutes. When the bus pulled over, only we and the lady with her gas can got off: we were in the middle of nowhere. Just the three of us, dead tired, at quarter to six in the morning on the side of a highway.

View from the bus as I woke up.

We had decided to skip Puno, the town on the Peruvian side of the lake, because other travelers had said it wasn’t worthwhile. We agreed to have a relaxing time during our stay, and so, opted against staying in Copacabana (the town on the Bolivian side), and went straight for the Isla Del Sol, just an hour and a half boat ride from Copacabana.
  The trouble was, we now had to make it across the Peruvian/Bolivian border at 6:00am, and we had no clue where we were. Luckily, the woman who got off the bus with us agreed to help; and let me tell you, she was a lifesaver!

It took us 2 minibus rides, a taxi, a lot of trouble trying to find an open bank during a holiday, a money exchange center and walking across the border to finally get to Copacabana by 8:00am: probably one of the most productive mornings I’ve had in my life. 
When we arrived in Copacabana, the place was a zoo. It was Good Friday, and in such a Catholic country, this was a BIG deal to Bolivians.

Turns out, every year on Easter weekend, people from all over Bolivia come to Copacabana as pilgrims to camp out in tents and camper vans. The beach was jam packed with families in tents or sleeping in cars and vans. Street vendors were in excess, selling choripan, soup, massive bags of popcorn and roasting giant pigs on the corner of traffic packed streets. The streets and the cars were covered in flower petals of beautiful colours! People had weaved garlands of flowers and laid them on the hoods of their cars in some sort of Easter celebration; as a result, the whole town was covered with flowers. It was a little overwhelming at such an early hour of the day, but we powered through the crowd, bought a ticket to the Isa Del Sol and ate a quick breakfast of choripan from a lady camped out on the beachside.

Although I slept most of the boat ride over, I did catch enough to tell you the lake is breathtaking! Lake Titicaca is the largest high-altitude lake in the world. It sits at an elevation of 3808m and is an impressive 8400 sq km. The Cordillera Real mountain range sits as a beautiful backdrop to the lake, with peaks that look too low to be covered in snow (although at that altitude they were anything but low!). 
The Isla Del Sol is, according to Incan Mythology, the place where the Sun was born and where Gods came down to Earth and appeared to mortals – and I can see why: the place is magical.

Yes… this is how I sleep on boats.

We stayed in a village called Yumani, right in the center of the island. When the boat docked it was a thirty-minute hike straight up uneven, rocky stairs with ALL our bags! I felt like I was back on the Inca Trail again, but somehow I’d become a porter! Once at the top, however, the view was worth it. Every hostel and restaurant had a gorgeous view of the lake. We stayed at an East-facing hostel and could see the Isla del Luna (Island of the Moon) from our bedroom window. Not bad for less than $5 a night and a room to ourselves!

We spent the afternoon walking around the Yumani area. It was very basic, but incredibly beautiful. Apart from the hostels and restaurants, the land was pretty barren. Alpaca’s, pigs and donkey’s roamed the countryside and the locals kept busy working the land or participating in the local soccer match that we could see happening from the top of the hill in the next village over. Once we climbed to the top of the island, it was easy to see how unreal the landscape really was. The water was placid and a perfect deep blue colour. The surrounding islands were green and looked almost uninhabited, and the snow-capped mountain range in the background was stunning. We managed to pick the perfect day for sightseeing, as the sun was shining and there were very few clouds around. You could see forever!

For dinner that evening, we chose a little pizzeria (the Isla Del Sol rivals Rome for it’s per capita Pizzerias) that sat right on a cliff face on the West side of the island. We sat outside, overlooking the lake, and watching the sun go down. At this point in the trip, we were both sick and exhausted. This was the first place I had a headache from the altitude (before only my hands, feet and lips went numb and was more of a confusing sensation than an annoying one) and Adam was progressing into full-fledged cold by this time. We called it a night after dinner, and sat in bed reading, and listening to the incessant braying of donkeys all through the night (they are more persistent than roosters, and a LOT louder). 
We ended up spending only one night on the island, and although we intended to spend some more time in Copacabana, when we arrived, it was so chaotic, and so many more pilgrims had arrived since the previous morning, we decided to just hop on the next bus to La Paz…

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Rio De Janeiro

Rio is, for lack of a better word, dramatic. The city is defined by its sweeping expanses of white sand beaches, looming mountains, colourful neighborhoods and crowded favelas. It is 1/3 the size of Sao Paulo, with a measly 7 million people, yet easily has 3 times the character.
  We stayed in the Copacabana district of Rio, just a short couple blocks from one of the most famous beaches on Earth. The neighborhood is crowded with Barzinos, cheap juice bars and a boardwalk lined with street venders and thrifty places to enjoy caipirinhas!

On our first evening, we decided to enjoy the boardwalk nightlife. We walked a good stretch of the Copacabana surf before stopping in at a lively bar full of people playing drums and dancing on the sidewalk. We ordered a caipirinha each and a coconut (which was incredibly refreshing) and watched the locals dance through the night. 
Dancing appears to be a huge part of Brazilian culture. People have no problem stopping in the middle of their walk to drop some sweet dance moves for 5 minutes and then continue on their way. No dance floor needed; couples and or singles will dance in the sidewalk, next to their tables, out in the sand, or wherever they feel! But why not when every person in the country could kick ass in a “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” episode. I guess we’ll see how Adam and I fair in a dance off as Carnaval countdown begins!

The next morning, we had a full day of touring. With only three days to see the city, we felt the need to pack our days full. We booked a city tour through the hostel and ended up getting an amazing private tour of Rio from our guide Andre. The three of us hopped in a taxi and spent the morning hitting the sites! 
We started off at the Sambodrome, the giant Carnaval parade route where people sit in the stands and watch the samba schools go by. The stands have several levels of VIP. The lowest ticket prices are around 80-100 Reais per day, and the more affluent box seats will sell for up to 100 000 Reais ($70 000ish) per evening! We visited the Sambodrome 3 days before Carnaval started, and crews were working round the clock to set up the area.

After the Sambodrome, we went to the big futbol stadium. The Maracana futbol stadium used to be the largest stadium in the world, holding up to 200 000 fans in its bleachers. Right now, the stadium is closed for repairs as crews renovate the stadium for both the 2014 world cup, and the 2016 summer Olympics. Construction crews are keeping the shape and structure of the stadium, but changing the capacity a much more manageable 55 000: all with proper seats (unlike my earlier description of the Boca stadium in Buenos Aires). Although we were unable to actually go IN to the Maracana stadium, the layout is so open, that you are able to see into the center from the road, having mainly large gates and no walls as the outside structure.

After the stadium, we quickly stopped by the centro of Rio to see the city’s largest church. It is a huge conical shape right in the heart of the business district and seems very out of place. The building is quite unique, with massive stained glass motifs stretching towards the ceiling. The church holds a total of 20 000 people, making it by far the largest (I think in the country). We just happened to arrive during Sunday mass, which was very neat; however, even though Brazil has the largest catholic population in the world, the place was not close to being full.

From the church we drove over to the Lapa district to see the Santa Teresa steps. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day. At the top of a couple hundred steps, there is a convent where women spend their entire lives cloistered, making shoes for the poor and praying all day long. The story goes, that you could hear the women, through the window, praying for the souls of the less fortunate. So, in order to bring some cheer to the neighborhood, and to the women who spent their lives dedicated to prayer, an artist decided to tile the steps and 
make them beautiful. He collected tiles from all over the world, and in one amazing mosaic collection, he created the now famous Santa Theresa steps. The artist still works there during the week, constantly adding to the collection. We walked the steps and found tiles from every country imaginable. Our guide told us that people now send him unique tiles from their home so they can be included. The mosaic really is breathtaking, and there was even a couple that was having their wedding photos taken on the steps when we arrived!

Once we took about a thousand photos of the steps, we made our ascent up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. I have seen this statue in countless numbers of films and TV shows and have ALWAYS wanted to see it for myself. It’s such a beautiful idea to have a statue, of which you can see almost anywhere in the city, as a welcome, literally with open arms, to the immigrants and visitors of Brazil. The statue is 28m from hand to hand and 38m from top to bottom. It is one of the wonders of the world, and, once again, another bucket list checked off!  
We had to drive up most of the mountain, take a bus from there, then an elevator, and finally, climb stairs to reach the top… But the resulting view was spectacular! With a completely unmarred, 360-degree view of Rio, the mountain is PERFECT for photographing the city. The beaches, the mountains, the centro, all the things we had just explored in the city were there. However, viewpoints are viewpoints, and even after taking a shot of the beautiful Copacabana or Sugar Loaf Mountain, when you turn around and are faced with this unreal, larger than life statue, it is… Unexplainable. It is awful, in the sense of the word that it “fills one with awe”. It is moving and exciting and I couldn’t get over the fact I was standing right under it and looking up. After seeing so many world wonders in the past few years, you would expect them to be less wonderful. But I’m amazed, every time, how incredible and unique each one is. Once again, I recommend Rio’s Christ the Redeemer!

After this, our tour ended. We were forced to postpone our tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain for a couple days due to Carnaval rehearsals, and so, we were dropped off at the hostel early. This didn’t phase us in the slightest, as we grabbed some beers and checked out the beach for some afternoon rays! (Or at least Adam did, since I am still required to sit in the shade).  
After dinner we explored the beach nightlife again, this time waking in the other direction, and enjoying the music of a solo guitarist playing at one of the local restaurants. We had planned on going out on the town to a funk party, but after dressing up, found we didn’t have the energy to party until sunrise, only to be at our favela tour for 9am the next morning.