Peru and Bolivia Lands of the Incas and Aymaras
Follow the trails, explore ancient cities and lively small towns, encountering the descendants of the remarkable Incan and Aymaran cultures in this brief sojourn to a very different world.
The adventure begins in Peru, as you fly into the Incan city of Cusco which lies placidly in a valley at an altitude of 11,000 feet. Stroll along the streets and alleys of this fast growing city taking in the intriguing blend of Incan and Spanish Colonial architecture. Dine on Peruvian specialties like potatoes a la Huancaina and palm hearts wrapped in ham and smothered in cheese while listening to musicians play haunting flute and drum music, a legacy of the Incan culture of this centuries old city.
Built on Incan ruins and isolated high in the Andes, Cusco not long ago was a sleepy town visited by hardy young travelers when I was first there some twenty years ago. It has grown now into a city well-equipped to handle the thousands of visitors it receives each year from all over the world. Spend a few days exploring the city and nearby archaeological sites while your body adjusts to the scant oxygen at this altitude.
Buy a city tour ticket for about $10 and don't miss seeing the wonderful colonial cathedral and the La Compañon on the main plaza, and, a few blocks away, the Temple of the Sun with it's colonial addition. Many restored Incan sites are close by and can be seen in brief day trips, including the Sacsayhuaman complex which should be first on your list. And, you should not miss the Thursday market in the nearby small town of Pisac.
Pisac's larger and admittedly more popular market is on Sunday, but Thursday's is more authentic offering fewer souvenirs and more of the wonderful weaving and alpaca sweaters this area is famous for. To experience more intimately the wonderful cultures there, get to Pisaq on Wednesday afternoon and stay overnight in one of the two charming small hotels on the plaza. Enjoy a good though simple meal at the restaurant also on the plaza and retire early. Waking at dawn you can wander the quiet plaza and nearby streets as villagers arrive by foot and bus to buy and sell on this exciting day of the week. The market is an ancient tradition and in the early hours of the day, you'll be thrown back in time as this ageless tradition is reenacted--people bringing their wares to market to sell or barter for what they cannot make or grow themselves. Gradually tourists will arrive until they are as common as villagers and the mood of the day changes.
Cusco is probably best known as the staging point for travel to the internationally renowned Incan site, Machu Picchu. From Cusco, walk the trail of the Incans or travel to the site by train. The overland trail is not rigorous by a walking standard, but it is by an oxygen standard so plan to have assistants carry what you'll need along the way. You'll have two overnights on the trail and arrive as dawn breaks over magical Machu Picchu empty of its hundreds of daily visitors at this early hour.
As an alternate route to Machu Picchu, we traveled by bus to Urubamba passing through verdant and spectacular scenery making the few hour trip pass very quickly. At the bus station in Urubamba, we hopped a motorcycle taxi for the short ride into town to see the lively vegetable market. We were delighted as vendors offered us fruits and vegetables of all types, sizes, shapes, and colors; most were unknown to us. Politely declining, we made our way through the hustle and bustle and taxied back to the bus station for the ride to Ollantaytambo for an overnight before heading on to Machu Picchu by train the next day.
Arriving in the small town of Ollantaytambo late in the afternoon allowed us the luxury of wandering alone through the nearby spectacular Incan ruins. As the sun descended over the mountains, in the quiet of early evening, we felt as if we had stumbled onto this remarkable place all by ourselves, though we shared the experience with some fat, wooly sheep. As darkness came, the wind began to rush through the mountain passes and we reluctantly left for our quaint hotel by the madly rushing river that flows by the town.
Next morning we rose early to catch the train to Machu Picchu. It was late arriving in Ollantaytambo which gave us time to make friends with the locals who arrive daily to meet the trains and sell their crafts. We found this train, the Pullman, both less expensive and more comfortable than the faster more punctual Autovagon tourist train which leaves very early in the morning from Cusco.
In spite of a late start, it was still morning when we arrived at the new train station below Machu Picchu. We walked a short distance following the crowd and boarded a bus to ride to this truly majestic site. Pathways do exist so you can climb to the top as the Incas did, but we found breathing a self-conscious activity so opted for the bus
In a half hour you will be at the top of the world in a landscape filled with mountain spires covered in rich green vegetation. Clouds float beside you as you enter this fabulous ruin. The sun is bright and the air is warm and laden with moisture. As you enter Machu Picchu, you cannot avoid a feeling of magic and awe. The trail to the smaller site of Weenu Picchu, sitting on an adjacent peak, is most certainly for the sure footed and those free of vertigo.
Leaving Machu Picchu in the late afternoon, we rode the Autovagon train back to Ollantaytambo. There we hopped off and luckily found a German tourist bus. They gave us a ride to Pisaq for an overnight before market the next morning. We were up at the crack of dawn and thrilled to be the only foreigners there. Locals went about the business of selling and buying fruits and vegetables in costumes both colorful and beautiful in their workmanship. Goats, sheep, chickens, and dogs joined the melee. My camera seemed to grow warm with the number of photos I found myself taking.
Later in the day, laden with our market treasures, we hopped a ride with a Peruvian Customs Agent who regaled us with outrageous stories of some of the drug smugglers he had caught. We spent our last evening in Cusco with Andean folk music and the next day boarded the train for Puno at the very quiet Huancha station.
Though there are tourist busses driving from Cusco to Puno, the train travels away from roads and most towns which will give you a chance to see first hand the vast and very beautiful lands that make up this part of Peru. Reasonably priced trains to Puno leave Cusco on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Just as you take your seat in the train, friendly stewards take your lunch order which will turn out to be just the ticket on this long trip. Though lunch is quite good and certainly filling, stewards pass through the car every half-hour or so with snacks which provide a diversion on this 10 hour ride. Traveling out of Cusco you'll follow a river that seems perfect for white water rafting. Later you'll ride into a grassy valley bordered by mountains and big enough to give Texas a run on the concept of big. Along the way are small mines, an occasional heard of llamas, and little else but spectacular scenery. The trip is long and you'll be tired on arrival in Puno, but if you have the time, don't miss this train ride -- you're unlikely to experience anything like it again.
Quiet Puno and your real destination, Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 are even higher than Cusco. Huge Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is also very deep; in some parts it is over 900 feet to the bottom. Visually, it is so large as to seem a sea. Halfway across the lake an imaginary line marks the border between Peru and Bolivia, and locals still argue about whose half of the lake is "Titi" and whose is "caca."
Puno is a small town, not yet much influenced by tourism. It's unrestored colonial architecture makes the town attractive, though it has a serious problem with algal growth in the bay which you will certainly see when you visit the nearby floating islands of Los Uros, for which Puno is well-known.
The Los Uros islands are man made of lake reeds meshed in such way as to float atop the lake, creating a surface on which islanders build their homes. Begun centuries ago when land was too dear to buy, Los Uros still supports a thriving community. As our small boat touched the floating shore of the small island, we stepped off with exaggerated care as we had just seen a heavy-set passenger step off and put his put through the floating reeds sinking to his calves. Walking gingerly at first, we understood what it must be like to live on a waterbed. Sadly, on the usual trip to Los Uros you visit only a couple of small islands created only for visitors. Tours to Los Uros leave regularly from the town wharf.
Back on board our boat, we continued to Taquile, a small Incan island still occupied by a cooperative society of indians. Once on land, you'll hike along the shore up to the town center, where in any of three or four small restaurants, you'll dine on the freshest and most perfectly-prepared lake trout. Taquile is an island community equally at home with its heritageand with it's visitors. The trip is long and you will spend most of it on the boat, but the other international visitors you'll meet on the boat will keep you amused. You can stay overnight in Taquille in rustic accommodations, but do bring blankets and drinking water.
Back in Puno, a few hour bus ride will take you across the border from Peru into Bolivia. Customs and immigration seem a little disorganized, but not problematic. You'll get off the bus while still in Peru, hand in your immigration papers, and walk across the border into Bolivia for another visit to immigration. Reboarding with your newly stamped passport, you'll travel to lake-side Copacabana, a town famous for its Easter celebration and the Islands of the Sun and Moon not too far offshore. The Inca believed this area to be their birthplace and many still feel its magical powers. You may stay overnight at one of the lovely small hotels in Copacabana as we did or if you're feeling adventurous, the islands offer more rustic accommodations.
Copacabana was a religious center for the Inca and even today, at Easter, Christians and Aymaras walk together from La Paz taking three or four days for this arduous almost 100 mile long trek. When the Incas reigned, worshippers came in the same way to pay homage to the Goddesses of the Sun and Moon. Arriving for Good Friday blessings on Saturday, thousands of pilgrims along with those on holiday from La Paz and around the world, pay visits to the islands or partake of the very festive feeling in this small town.
While in Copacabana take the 8 AM boat arriving two hours later at the southern end of Isla del Sol. Take a swim in the cold water if you're brave and lie about on the white sand beaches. Visit the ruins and trek to the northern end of the island, taking in all the sites it offers. Staying over night you can catch the next day's boat to Isla de la Luna, returning in the afternoon to Copacabana. Tours are flexible and are arranged to meet your interests and time frame.
Traveling by bus toward La Paz we got off to cross the lake's narrow straight by boat at Tiquina. Reboarding, on the other side, we traveled for a short while before stopping off for an overnight in the roadside village of Huatajata, a favorite lake-side getaway just two hours from La Paz. The next day, we visited the small island of Suriki where Thor Heyerdahl's reed boat was built.
Leaving Huatajata we headed for La Paz. Arriving in the city we were stunned by it's lunar setting and by the modern and very artistic qualities of this sky-high capital city. La Paz is surprisingly safe by any standards. The people are friendly and sophisticated and the very colorfully dressed indigenous indians join fully in the city's hustle and bustle. Plan on spending at least a few days in this fascinating place.
In the city itself, visit The National Art Museum situated on one side of Murillo Square. The collection is first rate and the building is a marvel. While there you can take in other nearby historic sites such as the Government Palace, the Legislative Palace, and the Cathedral. If you want to enter any of the government buildings, bring your passport as identification.
Walking not far from Murillo Square, you'll find yourself in historic Jaen Street, where there are several small museums. We toured them all in an afternoon and were truly shocked at what we found in the basement of the gold museum. In an otherwise unassuming display of archaeological clay pieces, there was a spectacular vault filled with fabulously mounted solid gold treasures. Remember, these museums close for a three hour lunch around noon.
You cannot leave La Paz without shopping in the small old city streets of Sagarnaga and Linares. Wonderful crafts abound at very reasonable prices and nearby is the healing market where herbal cures and things strange and wonderful are bountifully displayed. At #906 Linares Street you'll find the Coca Museum where you will learn traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia and the subversion of that tradition in support of the drug business in cocaine and crack. Just down the street is the lovely San Francisco Church.
La Paz is the highest capital in the world at 11,800 feet and for assistance in breathing you may find yourself needing a routine cup of coca tea called mate de coca or you may chew the leaves themselves as do many locals. Seeing leaf sellers on any corner, look for leaves that are dried, but still have some green color. Coca in this non-drug form will give you a leg up in your ability to breathe comfortably and in maintaining the energy to explore this lovely city. A cup of mate de coca in the late afternoon will revive you for an evening at one of the many Peñas, where you dine on local specialties as you listen to magical Andean folk music.
While in La Paz, visit the pre-Inca site of Tiawanacu just an hour's ride from the city. Best known for its huge carved stones weighing several tons, there is also evidence of the highly developed culture of the Tiawanacus. If you have time, don't miss a few days in Coroico, a small historic town three hours from LaPaz.
Coroico lies on the side of a mountain at just over 5700 feet. You will awaken to a view of clouds floating in the deep valley below, though perhapsthe most exciting part of Coroico is the ride to the town itself. Leaving La Paz, you'll first be on a paved road. About half way, the road reverts to dirt and hangs its one lane off the side of the mountain. Passing traffic is hair raising at a minimum, but the scenery is fabulous.
Returning to La
Paz, prepare for a visit to what is probably the world's highest airport.
It is small and easily navigated, but it is situated even higher than
the city, so don't exert yourself.
Best time to go: Rainy season ends in mid-spring, so travel is easiest in summer and fall.
Money: Travelers checks are easily exchanged at banks or commercial money exchanges and dollars may be used almost universally in place of local currencies.
Rosario, Illampu 704, P.O. Box 442 Tel: 451341 or 451658 Fax: 591-2-451991
Email: [email protected] Web: http://www.hotelrosario.com
Taxis: Very inexpensively priced transportation is readily available. Make use of taxis to save your energy whenever possible.
Travel & Tour Agencies:
Turibus, Illampu 704, Fax: 591-2-375532
Travel Agency, Illampu 711, La Paz Tel: 460372 or 375680
Casa Candia & Sucursal 1, 874 Calle Linares. High quality crafts and interesting "antiques."
Leather: Curtiembre Illimani, S.A., on Sagarnaga opposite the Hotel Alem at 334 Sagarnaga.
Sites: Museo Nacional de Arte, Calle Comercio y Socabaya Tel: 375-016, is open Monday to Friday 9-12:30 and 3 to 7 PM and Sat and Sun 10 to 1 PM
Hotel: Hotel Rosario del Lago, sister to Hostal Rosario in La Paz, is very nice and right on the lake. Contact them via Email: [email protected] (specify Copacabana) Rooms are about $50.00
Hotel: Hostal Kory, Calle Adan Linares, Coroico, Nor Yungas, CAS. 6020, La Paz, Bolivia Tel: 591-02-410-788
Restaurants: Back-Stube Pasteleria, just by the town square for vegetarian fare or Snack Don Lucho, on the square by the transportation office for good local food and excellent coffee.
Internet: Just up the street to the right of the church is the Café Internet "La Casa." The cost is about $3/hour.
Non-smokers will be pleasantly surprised at the smoking restrictions now in force in Peru. Tourism is big business there and, while most people are friendly and helpful, guides can be astonishingly aggressive in seeking your business. Be firm and clear, if you want them to leave you alone. Tap water is said to be drinkable, but to be on the safe side opt for bottled whenever when you can.
Hotels: Gran Hostal Machu Picchu, Calle Guera 282, Cusco, Peru Tel: (084)23-11-11 This is an old charming hotel in the process of being restored. They have taken enormous care in the restoration and in the gardens, but while the outside areas are beautiful, the rooms very plain. Cost is about $15 US. They have hot water all day.
Shopping: Tiendas Museo, Josephina Olivera & Hijos, Calle Santa Clara Tel: 501-225-601 or Calle Plateros Tel: 233-484 This is a great source for antique textiles and the owner is a valuable resource for evaluating any of your textile purchases.
To Puno: Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday from Huancha station to Puno first class for about $54.00
To Machu Picchu: The Inca with an English speaking guide at $181 or the Autovagon at $141. Other trains that may be available are the Coche Pullman at about $82, or the Coche Expresso for about $20 less. An additional charge is the bus to the site at $7.00, and admission at $10.00. The tourist train service to Machu Picchu is changing regularly as are the prices. Please use those above as guidelines and don't be dismayed at increases.
Hotel: El Albergue Ollantaytambo, Wendy Weeks (American owner), Casilla 784, Cusco, Peru Tel/Fax: (51-84)204-014 The cost is about $15/person per night and meals are available by reservation.
Hotel and Restaurant: El Parado de Pisaq Restaurant and Hotel, Emilia Pareja de Perez, Plaza de Armas S/N, Pisaq, Cusco, Peru Tel: 084-203-061 or 224-409 Two private rooms with bath and hot water at about $6/person, shared large room at about $4/person.
Shopping: Minerales Pisaq, Leo, Pisaq, Cusco, Peru Tel: 084-203-171 Good source for chrysocolla and turquoise rocks.