The cultural heart of South America, these iconic Andean countries are often the first visited by Kiwis when venturing into Latin America. Access is a little easier to Peru than Bolivia, but we’d highly recommend discovering both:
- Cuzco – simply wonderful, you can easily spend a week here and still have plenty left to see and do. You’ll need to spend the first couple of days acclimatising to the 3400m altitude, but the mixture of Incan and Spanish architecture and heritage is exhilarating. And nowadays, there’s world-class restaurants and boutique hotels for comfort.
- The Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu – the Urubamba Valley and it’s ruined Incan fortresses of Pisac and Ollantaytambo is a ‘must see’ and often visited enroute to Machu Picchu. We’re recommend spending a night at Aguas Calientes and then taking the early morning bus up to Machu Picchu so you arrive well before the train from Cuzco does. It can be rather upsetting for the hardy Inca Trail trekkers (who’ve been walking for 4 days) to find people at the Lost City before they arrive just after dawn though! A steep scramble up Huayna Picchu to get the best views of the Citadel is worth the effort.
- The aforementioned Classic ‘Inca Trail’ – still one of the finest 4 day walks in the world – especially on the 2nd and 3rd day when you experience amazing views of the mountains in a real wilderness area. The 3rd day walking though the orchids of the cloud forest down into the lesser known ruin of Winay Wayna is especially beautiful, especially after slogging over a couple of high passes (including the infamous ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ on day 2!) Machu Picchu is every bit as spectacular as it looks in photos and in brochures, and best experienced with a good guide to interpret the various aspects of the City as it unfolds around you. If you’ve booked too late to secure permits for the Classic Inca Trail, don’t despair as the alternatives such as the Lares or Inca Quarry Trek are just as rewarding and less crowded.
- Lake Titicaca – the spiritual heart of the Incan Empire, this is a remarkably scenic wonder and a restful antidote to the hustle and bustle of more accessible places. Id’ recommend exploring both sides. I’d recommend a homestay on one of the Peruvian islands as part of a small group trip to experience what life is really like on the Lake, or take a catamaran across to Isla Del Sol on the Bolivian side – the hike to the top is a lung-buster, but the view is incredible and there are some lovely eco-lodges to enjoy.
- La Paz – the highest capital city in the world, a city of superlatives, and certainly one of the most unusual. The view down into the city from the crater rim at El Alto is almost worth the visit alone! The markets are fascinating, with entire streets appearing to sell identical wares, but the ‘Witches Market’ is a must-do. If you are feeling brave, perhaps try the famous downhill mountain bike down what used to be called the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’.
- Potosi – reputedly the highest city in the world, I’d recommend a visit to ‘Cerro Rico’ – the rich hill of silver that created much of the wealth of the Spanish empire, and now mined as a co-operative for tin. Whilst it’s a rather bizarre tour, it’s a truly humbling experience to travel into the mine and witness the severe conditions the miners work in. Donations at the mine entrance are gratefully accepted!
- The Salar D’Uyuni – probably my favourite place in all of South America – this almost perfectly flat white salt desert must be one of the closest experiences to being on another planet you can experience on Earth. Taking a 4WD drive across this to the island of giant cacti in the middle is a ‘must do’ and the photographic opportunities are unique. If you go in the summer ‘wet’ season, the horizon seems to disappear and you almost feel like you are flying rather than driving across the salt!