Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

The ubiquitous handwoven cloths known as `aguayo`, carry everything from babies to groceries and coca.

With José Luis (Lucho), upon arrival

Lucho, rocking the high-waisted look

Marcela & Rosa, dressed for cemetery celebrations

The grandfather, whose house we stayed at

The grandfather`s new wife

With Ericka & Monica

Monica, Omar & Patricia

With Monica & Omar

20 yr old Omar recently returned from 14 months of military training in the Bolivian barracks.  He proudly showed photos of himself operating various weapons and firearms and recounted stories of gruelling physical training, punishment, and tests of wilderness survival (one of which involved having to eat rats).  Though he misses the discipline of the barracks, he now makes jewellery for a living and enjoys watercolour painting in his spare time.

The house

La Isla

The island is beautiful, with ancient Inca ruins, ridged pampas (cultivated terraces), weaving paths frequented by locals and donkeys, and views across the vast lake to distant Peru.  Clusters of eucalyptus trees grow tall and the paths are lined with koa, a fragrant incense brush, used in Aymará cooking.

The local church (95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic)


Many families keep llama, donkeys, pigs, sheep and guinea pigs. Cue my first encounter with alpaca and llama!  I hadn’t realised there was a difference, but alpaca are half the size and fluffier.  Llama produce less fibre despite being much larger.  Both spit when angry.  (I wanted to call my blog `the spitting llama` but it was already taken).

My first alpaca sighting


A particularly cute piglet

Guinea pigs.  Food, not pets (sorry Livia…).  They didn`t feature on the menu, this time.

Food & drink

Our first meal was chincharrón (fried pork) and chuños (freeze-dried potatoes), eaten with our hands, as we squatted around the cloth on the ground.  It may not look that appetizing, but it truly was.

Lunch! (chincharrón & chuños)

`Wallaq`e` – a traditional Aymará fish soup, flavoured with koa

In the kitchen


Fresh trucha (trout) is a specialty in this region and I had a chance to sample some in Copacabana`s market on the way home.  Lunch for 8 people came to the equivalent of $12.


The infamous coca leaves are used for mate (herbal tea) or chewed as is, often with a chunk of natural sweetener encased in a wad of folded leaves.  Upon experimenting with coca chewing, my cheek went numb after a few moments, an odd but not altogether unpleasant sensation.  Used for all manner of medicinal and health purposes, coca helps with digestion, altitude sickness and alleviating fatigue (hence miners’ constant coca use).

Coca leaves

Coca mate

Cemetery celebrations

In this community, families gather in the local cemetery on both November 1st and 2nd, to celebrate rather than mourn their lost loved ones.  Seated in groups on and around graves, they bring food, drinks and flowers.  Plates piled high with fruit are exchanged between families and each time a plate is offered, the recipient is told whom they are to pray for.

My host family was praying for their grandmother, who passed away 5 yrs ago, as well as Monica and Omar`s cousin Verónica, who tragically died only recently, aged just 18. I marvelled at the jovial atmosphere, having heard several stories to that effect and it was certainly thought-provoking to witness a much different perspective on death and dying.

Special sweet breads with faces represent those being celebrated, as well as bread shaped like walking canes, horses and ladders – all to expedite the soul’s journey to heaven.  The atmosphere was positively joyous, and the final evening involved live music and dancing until well after dark.

At one point, as the kids became particularly raucous (/creative) – sliding in the grass on empty pop bottles as skates – a man in our group intervened. Unravelling his chicote (whip) from around his waist, he began wielding it at the kids’ backsides.  It is made of cuero (cow-hide) for maximum impact.  I was told he is nominated by the community to keep the kids in check.  Frankly, I think I found it more sobering than the children, who returned to their frivolities soon enough.

The community-nominated disciplinarian


I learned many Aymará tales and legends over the course of the weekend.  Apparently spirits are commonly sighted on the island late at night and thus it is advisable, if one has to venture out alone, to whistle in order to keep the spirits at bay.  (Clearly ghosts have their own intercultural differences, because my dear Malaysian aunt swears by the fact that whistling at night attracts ghosts rather than repelling them.)

My mind reeling from countless stories, I resolved not to use the outside toilet during the night at any cost.  When I refused a coca mate before bed with this in mind and jokingly explained why, Monica and Omar exchanged stricken glances.  Alarmed, they insisted I not to go to bed thirsty and after some prompting, confided the following in hushed tones:
The story goes that going to bed thirsty leaves your head no other option but to detach itself and wander off in search of refreshment.  Upon returning to your body, if you are unlucky enough to be female, your long hair will get stuck, thus your head will be unable to reattach itself and you will die.  Well.  Not one to be superstitious (prior to this weekend) I nonetheless decided not to take any chances. I had a sip of water, went to bed only slightly terrified, and woke with my head firmly attached.

By this point, I was only mildly surprised to find that we were to sleep with a knife in the door.  My roommate Monica revealed that the two of us needed a knife, since it is particularly dangerous for two women to sleep alone.  It is thought that el diablo (the devil) can more easily access and possess women, on account of us being the `weaker` sex.  (Generally these tales were particularly unfavourable to women).

Warding off the devil

Heading home

Rosa and Marcela brought back enormous sacks of potatoes from the island and thus we loaded up 3 donkeys to assist us on the long walk to the boat.

And so I returned to La Paz, with some new friends and deep gratitude for an extraordinary and memorable 3 days.  I recognise how incredibly privileged I was to not only witness but also participate in such important family and community rituals.

It leaves me wondering how we welcome (or not) complete strangers into our lives and homes in the North.

Rushing to catch the `lancha`, potato-laden donkeys in tow

Leaving the island at sunrise

Congratulations for making it to the end of this post!  You should probably win a prize.  How about a toucan beak or a dried llama foetus from La Paz`s Witches` Market?  (Assuming I can get them past customs.)  Place your orders now.

Up next…

This weekend I`m heading to the coffee production zone for 6 days.  Exciting times!  Stay tuned for a full report.  Death Road here I come…

31 thoughts on “Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

  1. Wow, what an experience Joni! These are the moments to treasure. I am sure your warm personality would have contributed to this unique experience, not to mention the generosity from the Aymara family.

      • Agreed with “mom”, Joni 🙂 your personality brings you friends easily and I’ve no doubt they enjoyed your company as much as you did theirs. So interesting and enjoyable reading your writing… – keep it up. Happy to share this journey with you. Take care over there, and hope the tummy ache is more than 10 days apart by now :). Again safe travels, and be careful there, while enjoying yourself and living up the experience!!

      • Thank you Leansim! Very kind of you. Thanks for following! Hope all is well in Malaysia. x
        P.S. Today is Day 9, i`m crossing my fingers. 🙂

  2. Incredible! What an experience and, as you said, a privilege to be welcomed by this family and community. Glad you kept your head on!

  3. Jo jo!! Amazing!! Till when are you there again? Can we come and visit? Everyone seems so nice. And yes, une carte de où tu es exactement pour qu’on se situe.

    “No es turista! Es familia!” tellement contente pour toi 🙂

    • Anna! Tellement contente de te lire! Là j`ai eu vraiment la chance de connaître une famille aussi chaleureuse que la tienne. 🙂 Je reste jusqu’au mois de mai. And YES you can visit, bien sûr!

  4. My Dear Joni!! I’m so moved by your trip!! It brings me back to my trip to Isla del Sol 17 years ago!! (wow, that just made me feel old!). You seem so happy, radiant and in your element!!

    Te quiero mucho mi querida amiga. Recuerda que mi amigo Daniel va a La Paz a fines de Noviembre por si necesitas algo de Montreal.

    Muchos besos y abrazos,,

    Lynne y Julianna

    • Thanks dear Lynne! ¡Que bueno que también fuiste a la Isla del Sol! (Email me your stories!). Ya voy a avisarte si necesito algo…(te mandaré une lista de chocolates, ja ja). Besos, abrazos y cariño a tí y a la pequeñita Julianna, x

  5. Fascinating Joni and some great photos. That guy possesses some CV – weaponry, punishment, rat eating, jewellery making and watercolour. I look forward to the next piece and you wearing a bowler.

  6. Hi Joni,
    Hope you don’t mind but Gill has just introduced us to your blog. What a fantastic experience you seem to be having. We’ll be following you all the way. XX

  7. Incroyable! Seule toi peut créer des contacts assez chaleureux pour vivre de telles expériences.
    Et tes talents de conteuse et de photographe te permettent de les partager de telle façon que, oui, on ne peut pas s’empêcher de les lire jusqu’au bout.
    Continue d’être heureuse et de nous faire partager ton bonheur.

  8. Joni, I love your blog and the photos – it’s practically like being with you there! What an amazing experience you are having, and as your mum says, I’m sure it’s because you are such a great person to be with that your new local friends are taking you under their wing.
    I’m just in the process of emailing the Social Justice Group about making a donation (from last year’s Boutique profits) to Crossroads, so I will direct people to your blog to inspire them. Also, Crossroads are hosting an event here next week which I will try to get to (although it clashes with the Boutique!)
    lots of love,
    Jonathan x

    • Thanks so much Jonathan, you are extremely kind. So glad you are enjoying following along. Great idea re: the SJAG, I hope your proposal is successful! Heard about the Mtl Crossroads event. I`ll be thinking of you all during the Boutique next week, hope it goes very well! x

  9. Cracking work JK – just read the blog/novel – you weren’t even joking about getting the kettle on!
    Enjoying your photos, snippets of local tales, facts on the area (everyone loves a good fact/stat)
    I feel like I am now waiting for conversation on South America to come up so I can enlighten people with my new found knowledge of the area.
    I would also like to take inspiration from the sublime fashion rocked by José Luis (Lucho) and I am finding myself keenly anticpating his next style update…
    Looking forward to more of the same

    • Thanks Chris! Glad you`re following and enjoying my tales. Lucho is indeed a superstar and a sweetheart (as well as a trendsetter). I`m also hoping he will feature in future posts. x
      P.S. Copyright rules/fees apply if you`re passing off my stories as your own. 🙂

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