Itinerary: Islas Balestas – Ica – Huacachina – Nazca – Cauchilla – Cahuachi – Arequipa – Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca – Colca Canyon – Lago Titicaca – La Paz – Valle de la Luna – Colchani – Salar de Uyuni – Potosí – Copa Cabana – Cuzco – Inca Trail – Machu Picchu
It is Saturday 12 May when my long-awaited trip to Peru and Bolivia begins. It’s a twelve hour flight to Lima, the capital of Peru, a long haul, which I kill with my travel guide and two movies. We land a little before schedule and I take a taxi to the hotel in Lima. It takes little effort to find a taxi, as soon as you show up in the arrivals hall, the drivers will come to you automatically. Once in the taxi, you immediately notice that you are in a South American country: the driver does not care about the speed limit, the lines on the road or other traffic rules.
Peru is the third largest country in South America (after Brazil and Argentina) and just as big as the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland combined. The country is culturally and socially very diverse. Half of the population is made up of criolos, the Spanish-speaking mixed (i.e. partly white) population who make up the upper social class and occupy all major political and business positions. The other half of the Peruvians are indígenas, the indigenous inhabitants of the countryside, who speak Quechua or Aymara. They form the social underclass. Peru is not so much one nation, but more a mix of cultures and identities: there is no such thing as the quintessential Peruvian.
In the twentieth century, Peru has been ravaged by wars, dictatorships, such as that of Alberto Fujimori, and internal conflicts, such as the long-standing guerrilla of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). As a result of these conflicts, an estimated 70,000 people were killed or disappeared without a trace during the 1980s and 1990s. Only since the beginning of this century has Peru been in politically calmer waters and has the country seen economic development.
It is half past six local time and a pleasant twenty degrees when we enter the city. I’m supposed to meet the rest of my travel group at the hotel, but when I get there, they aren’t there yet. When they arrive half an hour later, it turns out that the tour guide did not know that I would go to the hotel on my own. Communication error. With my biological clock at 4 a.m., I go to bed early.
After a short night we are already in the bus at 3:30 a.m. (!), still sleepy. After tour leader Klaus (German father, Peruvian mother) has told us what the program for today looks like, the lights in the bus go out, so that we can try to get some sleep. I doze off a few times and when I open my eyes again a while later, the sun has come up. We drive along the coast. The waves of the Pacific on the right, desert on the left. Peru has three distinct ecosystems: coastal desert, the Andes Mountains in the southeast, and the Amazon in the northeast.
In the dry strip along the coast it almost never rains. It is a barren area, with some houses and palm trees here and there. In 2007 there was a severe earthquake here, with the epicenter in Ica. Five hundred people were killed and many houses and buildings were destroyed. The consequences are still clearly visible: many houses have not been restored. In addition to desert, here and there you will also see some agriculture (cotton, asparagus), only possible thanks to permanent irrigation, but otherwise it is a very dry area.
We drive on the Panamericana, the highway that runs from Canada to the south of Chile. The dusty villages along the well-known highway look shabby, with small houses and unpaved streets. We make a stop in Chincha, a small village along the road, where they have good coffee. The weather is beautiful, sunny and warm. In the course of the morning we arrive in Paracas, a small harbor town on the coast.
Paracas is the base for boat trips to the Balestas Islands. This is a group of bare rock islands, located about twenty kilometers off the Peruvian coast, where a large number of birds, penguins and sea lions can be found. Before you get there, you first sail along a peninsula, where a large sign has been placed on a mountain. The sign was probably made by Nazcas, but it is unknown exactly how old it is. The sign, which some say resembles a flowering cactus, is a whopping 120 meters high and seventy meters wide.
With the sun high in the sky and the wind in our face, we sail to the Balestas Islands in half an hour. There we are indeed greeted by hundreds of birds and many sea lions and Humboldt penguins. Every four years the bird droppings are removed from the rocks to serve as an ingredient for fertilizer. It is said that 200,000 birds reside in this area. At 10:30 a.m. we are back in the port of Paracas, where we sit down on a terrace to have a drink before driving further south on the Panamericana.
Ica and Huacachina
When we arrive in Ica, one of those dusty towns along the Panamericana, we visit a local cemetery. Like in many Latin American countries, you will find large decorated tombs here, as well as walls with small tombs, all of which are decorated with flowers and personal decorations. It is Sunday and the cemetery is very busy. Whole families come to ‘celebrate’ their deceased relatives. The atmosphere is different from cemeteries in the Netherlands and quite impressive.
After this stopover we drive to Huacachina, an oasis in the desert, near Ica. In a valley in the middle of huge sand dunes is a small lake, surrounded by palm trees. Here we first have something to eat and then together with a few others I walk up the dunes. Your feet easily sink into the dry desert sand. It is a steep climb to the top and on the way you are sandblasted by the wind. But it is worth it. At the top you have a beautiful view of the wind-shaped sand dunes, with their graceful lines and sharply defined shadows.
Sweaty and covered with sand we return to the oasis. It is now 4 p.m. and we drive to the hotel. There we dive into the pool after our impressive first day in Peru. The pool turns out to be quite chilly, but that feels good after an active and hot day.
The next morning we leave early for Nazca. Most of the route goes through the dry desert landscape again. Gray rocks alternate with low hills. Here and there, where a river flows, small towns have formed. Almost all of them look shabby. In the larger towns, most of the buildings and houses, built of brown brick, are better, if very plain. There are ATMs, pizzerias and taxis, but many buildings and houses are half-finished and, except for the main square, pavement is often lacking. Reinforcing bars protrude above many buildings in preparation for an extra floor te be built at a later time (which means extra taxes). Once you get outside the towns, the houses often consist of little more than four brick walls and a corrugated iron roof, without electricity, sewage or running water. Outside a cubicle serves as a toilet. The residents grow crops on plots of land or have some sheep, cows or llamas. Luxury is an unknown phenomenon here: half of the population of Peru lives below the poverty line, a quarter has no electricity…
The weather is beautiful: it’s over 25 degrees and the sun is in a clear blue sky. The town of Nazca, named after a pre-Inca culture, is known for the so-called Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines, twenty kilometers north of Nazca, in the middle of the desert, consist of some 800 lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animals and plants. They have been scratched in the desert surface by Nazca tribes between 900 and 600 BCE.. The lines were created by removing the dark stones from the surface and laying them on either side, revealing the lighter soil underneath. The lines and figures were discovered in 1939 and are Unesco World Heritage since 1994.
A number of figures can be seen from a watchtower along the Panamericana. The others can be viewed by flying over them in a small plane (something I politely decline, those that do choose to take the flight almost without exception return pale and nauseous). The exact meaning of the Nazca Lines is unknown. Some associate them with the Inca calendar, I think that the Nazca’s wanted to make figures that can be seen from space for the gods or extraterrestrial life.
In Nazca, a messy and dusty town, we get sandwiches before we go to our hotel. The hotel is built like a hacienda, with round arches surrounding a courtyard with palms and cactuses. I’m going to sit by the pool with a book for a while. The food tonight is something special. Meat, potatoes and packages with undefined dishes are buried according to a traditional recipe in a pit in which red-hot stones have been laid. The pit is covered with leaves and soil and after two hours of stewing the food is dug up again and served with Chicha, a locally brewed drink of dark corn. What does dug up food taste like? Not very tasty…
Cauchilla and Cahuachi
After breakfast we drive today to Cauchilla, thirty kilometers south of Nazca. On the way we stop at a local cemetery. Not one like in Ica, but about fifty or sixty crosses in the dry ground, in the middle of the desert. This is where the dead are buried from the little oasis a short distance away. Cauchilla itself is also a kind of cemetery, but one that is more than 2,000 years old. The graves you will find here date from the Ica-Chinca period, about 1,000 years BC. The graves have fallen prey to grave robbers, so many valuables have disappeared and the human remains were scattered everywhere. Archaeologists have more or less restored the tombs by putting mummies and skulls back in the tombs, which looks quite artificial. It is a special place though, more than 2,000-year-old graves in the blazing sun in such a desolate landscape.
After Cauchilla we drive to Cahuachi, 25 kilometers west of Nazca. From the Panamericana it is almost 45 minutes on a dirt road through the desert. Hardly anyone comes here, while you will find one of the oldest Nazca sites in Peru. An impressive pyramid once stood here, close to a green lagoon. Part of the pyramid has already been excavated and rebuilt (as far as one knows roughly what it must have looked like) and excavations are still taking place.
At the end of the morning we return to our hotel in Nazca, where we are picked up half an hour later to go to the bus station. We leave this afternoon with a public bus to Arequipa, a journey of almost ten hours. Fortunately, this is done by comfortable double-decker coach, with television and Wi-Fi on board. The (hot) lunch is also included. The first part of the ride goes through the desert of southern Peru. Infinite plains and hills of rocks and sand, which rarely see rain.
Next we are back on the Panamericana, along the coast to the south, until Camaná. From there we head inland again. It is already dark when we leave the desert behind us and drive up into the mountains. The road winds up and down and is completely unlit. There is hardly any lighting in the surrounding area either. I kill the time updating my travelogue and listening to music and I (unsuccesfully) try to get some sleep. At 1:30 a.m. we arrive in Arequipa, tired after the long drive.
With one million inhabitants, Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru, located at an altitude of 2,400 meters, amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains. In the center of the city, everything is within walking distance. Many buildings are made of white-grey volcanic rock (called ‘sillar’) and Arequipa is therefore called the cuidad blanca (the white city). The main square is Plaza de Armas, which is dominated by the cathedral. The original cathedral was built in 1656 and destroyed by fire in 1844. Just after it had been rebuilt, the cathedral was razed to the ground again in 1868 by an earthquake. The square is built in a typical Spanish colonial style, with arcades, palm trees, benches, pigeons and a fountain in the middle. It is a wonderful place to enjoy the sun-drenched weather.
We also visit the local mercado, the indoor market for fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, cheese, eggs and household items. After lunch (the local specialty: rocoto relleno) I walk down the streets around the Plaza de Armas (which are full of taxis), after which I sit on a bench in the pleasant square for a while. It’s a relaxed day, which is convenient, because tomorrow we have to be well rested to go further into the Andes.
Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca
After breakfast we leave Arequipa and drive further into the mountains. The environment is rugged, there is little vegetation (mainly cacti) and in the distance are the snowy peaks of Chachani, Misti and Picchu Picchu. After about an hour and a half we are in the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, on a plateau (altiplano) at about 4,200 meters above sea level. It is a vast plain where vicuñas (an animal related to the llama and alpaca) roam.
Halfway through we stop along the road to drink coca tea. This tea made from coca leaves is said to help with altitude sickness (yes, cocaine is also made from coca leaves, but the tea has a slightly less intense effect). Chewing coca leaves also helps against altitude sickness. The leaves taste bitter and it numbs your tongue, not really recommended if you ask me.
In the rest of the ride we keep climbing. We see alpacas (a kind of small llamas), the vegetation lessens and is soon limited to grass and some shrubs. The highest point of the pass is 4,900 meters. And that you can feel. I struggle with a mild headache and dizziness and breathing is noticeably more difficult (others are even more bothered by the altitude and feel downright sick). At the highest point there is a cold wind, but the surroundings are beautiful and impressive.
Once in Chivay, today’s destination, I feel a bit better. Chivay is located at 3,600 meters and I am therefore slightly less bothered by the altitude. We have something between a late lunch and an early dinner, after which we check in at the hotel. At the end of the afternoon I walk into the town, across the central square and the local market, where many women walk in colorful traditional clothing. I get water and sandwiches and walk with a few fellow travelers across the market and past some shops. Once the sun sets, it cools off quickly at this altitude, so I’m back at the hotel in time. Up early in the morning (again).
At 6 a.m. we leave for the Colca Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world. The road to the gorge is already beautiful, straight through the mountains with deep valleys. The Colca Canyon (100 kilometers long, 1 to 3 kilometers deep) is deeper than the Grand Canyon in the United States, but covers a less extensive area. The last part we walk along the edge of the valley. It is a breathtaking environment, between the high volcanoes, including the Coropuna (6,613 meters) and the Ampato (6,310 meters). At Cabanaconde is the Cruz del Condor, a place where condors fly majestically above the valley.
After visiting the Colca Canyon we have a long drive to Puno ahead of us. We first drive back to Chivay, pick up our luggage and a packed lunch and then drive over the endless plateaus to Puno. Often far from civilization, without houses or villages and only a single lake and some alpacas. Early evening we arrive in Puno, a small, dusty town in southern Peru and located directly on Lago Titicaca.
At 9 a.m. we leave for the port of Puno for a visit to the Uros Islands. These floating islands are located in Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world (3,800 meters). The Uros people make these islands from reeds that grow in the lake. The roots form a kind of spongy stuff that floats well and the reed is placed on top. When you walk on the islands, you notice that they sway a bit, a weird feeling. The houses on the islands are also built from the reed and it is also eaten.
The Aymara-speaking Uros once withdrew to the islands to isolate themselves from the Incas. They still inhabit the islands permanently, but nowadays mainly for tourism. We are being welcomed on one of the islands and receive an explanation about how the islands are made and how people live here. It is all a bit touristy, but nice to see and the boat trip on the lake is also worth it.
I have lunch with a few travel companions at restaurant Mojsa, on the Plaza de Armas in Puno. After that, I suggest walking to the Mirador del Condor, a lookout point about 700 meters walk from Plaza de Armas. However, those 700 meters go uphill and we are here at an altitude of 3,800 meters. We are not even halfway through when I am already out of breath and my heart is racing. Unbelievable how hard a small hike at this altitude is. After six (!) stops to catch our breaths, we reach the lookout point. We are rewarded with a beautiful view over Puno and Lake Titicaca. It’s our last day in Peru for the time being, tomorrow morning we leave for Bolivia (but we’ll be back!).
We leave early for the border between Peru and Bolivia, a drive of about one and a half hours, mostly along Lake Titicaca. Once at the border, we first have to go to the Peruvian customs office to get an exit stamp. Then we cross the bridge to the Bolivian side of the border. There we have to fill in an immigration form and get an entry stamp. It all goes very quickly, although we have to wait a while, because our tour guide is having trouble getting into Bolivia. The custom officers do not want Peruvian tour guides to come to Bolivia. After a long discussion and handing over some money (the local customary way to persuade someone), our Peruvian tour guide can also cross the border. Bienvenidos a Bolivia!
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, 64 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Especially in the countryside (where no less than eighty percent live below the poverty line) people have no electricity, sewage and running water. People in the cities are richer and have the most modern conveniences, but in many ways Bolivia is a developing country. Since the election of Evo Morales as the first president of indigenous descent (in 2006), more attention has been paid to improving the living conditions of the poor and the position of the Aymara and Quechua population, who make up 60 percent of the population.
On the Bolivian side of the border, the clocks is set an hour later. From the border it is still a little under two hours to La Paz (the legislative capital of Bolivia, the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre). The road leads over the altiplano with the snowy mountains of the Andes in the background. Just before La Paz we drive through El Alto, a suburb of La Paz, which has grown to such an extent in recent years that the city of one million inhabitants is now as big as La Paz itself. There is a lot of activity on the street. Unlike El Alto (literally: the height), La Paz is a valley between the mountains. If you drive towards the city from El Alto, you have an amazing view over the city, with the mountain Illimani (6,414 meters) in the background. Every square meter in the valley is built up, right up to the mountain slopes.
Due to the delay at the border, we arrive at our hotel later than planned. The hotel is located on a street that runs parallel to the central (shopping) street of La Paz: El Prado. After we have replaced the Peruvian Soles with Bolivianos (the local currency) we have dinner. We end up in Sol y Luna, the restaurant of a Dutchman who has an international menu, which also features typical Dutch dishes such as ‘hutspot’ and ‘bitterballen’. Not a place I would go to myself, but okay… Afterwards we have a cocktail in the bar area downstairs.
La Paz is the largest city in Bolivia, seat of the government and the economic center of the country. It is a (relatively) modern city, with many high-rise buildings in the center. The more upscale residential areas are also located here (remarkably, in Europe and the United States, the good neighborhoods are often located outside the center). It is a lively city, with a lot of traffic that squeezes down the narrow streets. During rush hour, La Paz is one big traffic jam. The city is located on hills, so the streets run up and down. Especially uphill requires a lot of climbing.
Just outside the city is the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). Here you find an eroded landscape with particularly photogenic rock formations. It seems as if you are in another world, but you are actually on the edge of a metropolis. You can walk and climb all the way between the rocks, on narrow and anything but flat paths (don’t expect fences or other safety measures).
After all, walking is the best way to experience the daily life of a city, so after the Valle de la Luna we explore the city. We start in the old colonial part of the center, north of El Prado. Here narrow cobbled streets run up against the mountains. Plaza Murillo, the main square of this district, is home to the cathedral and the presidential palace. The cathedral is built against a hill, so that the front is no less than twelve meters higher than the back. The bright yellow presidential palace (with both an oversized Bolivian flag and the checkered flag of the Aymara) is also an eye-catcher in the pleasantly busy square.
In the streets on the other side of El Prado are many souvenir shops. Her you will also find the Mercado de Hechicería (literally: witch market). Here the shops and stalls on the street sell medicinal herbs and remedies that bring good luck according to the Aymara tradition. The most bizarre remedy are llama fetuses, which you have to bury under the cornerstone of your house as a kind of sacrifice. It’s supposed to bring happiness to the house…
Everything else is available here: you have entire streets with only hairdressers and streets with only shops where you can buy plugs. What is striking is that you see Quechua and Aymara women in traditional clothing everywhere. The traditional clothing consists of colorful dresses and striking bowler hats standing high on the head.
At the end of the afternoon we go for a drink at Club de La Paz, one of the oldest drinking places in the city, where almost only local people come. At a panaderia (sandwich shop) I get sandwiches for tomorrow, when the long drive to Uyuni is on the agenda.
We leave La Paz early for the long drive to Uyuni. In four hours we drive over largely empty plains to Oruro, the only town in the area, where we have lunch. The first hour and a half afterwards the ride is still on an asphalt road towards the south of Bolivia, after that we bump for four hours on a dirt road over the altiplano. If you look out the window, you see nothing but vast plains with little vegetation and only a few hills in the distance, under a clear blue sky. Because the area is so flat, you don’t really feel that you are 3,600 meters above sea level.
It’s a long but beautiful ride. The barren landscape is certainly not boring all the time. One minute you’re passing grazing llamas and alpacas, the next you’re passing artfully eroded rock formations. Here we stop to stretch our legs. We climb up the rocks, from where you have a panoramic view of the area. At the foot of the rocks is the small house of an Aymara family, who care for the llamas and alpacas on the other side of the road (and sell them for meat).
The total journey to Uyuni takes twelve hours and it is already dark when we arrive in the isolated village in the south of Bolivia. It can get very cold here at night, the temperature dropping below freezing and the hotel rooms have no heating (as in many other places). Fortunately they do provide good thick blankets.
The next day we visit a train graveyard near Uyuni. In the middle of the desolate landscape are old rusty locomotives and wagons, stripped of all their useful parts. Photogenic, but also a bit bizarre. Then we drive to Colchani, a small village, where, apart from the tourists, people live from the salt production. The salt extracted in the area is dried here by hand, mixed with iodine and packaged for trade.
Very special is the fact that houses are also built of salt here. By putting salt in molds and letting it dry, a kind of ‘bricks’ of salt are created, with which you can build walls. It just better not rain too hard, because then your house will collapse. Like so many small villages I’ve seen along the way, it’s all very shabby and dusty. Small houses with walls of clay (or salt), with roofs of reed or corrugated iron, no paved streets, many houses that are unfinished or half demolished. It is all very simple.
Salar de Uyuni
Next one of the highlights of this trip is on the program: Salar de Uyuni. Until 25,000 years ago, there was a large inland sea here: Lago Minchín. Then the (salt) water in the sea started to evaporate and what remained were two small lakes and what is now called Salar de Uyuni: a salt flat of no less than 12,106 square kilometers. Every year 20,000 tons of salt is extracted on the edge of this plain (largely intended for consumption).
But above all, Salar de Uyuni is one of the most special places on earth. An endless white plain, with only a few mountains in the distance and a clear blue sky that stands out sharply against the white of the salar. It’s a surreal place, like being on another planet.
With four-wheel drives we drive across the salt flats, as if you were driving in a desert of salt, at a not modest speed of ninety kilometers per hour, and yet kilometer after kilometer nothing but white plain. We’re lucky: Just two weeks ago it rained (the rainy season has just ended) and then the salar was impassable.
In the middle of all that nothingness suddenly a hill shows up, consisting of petrified coral, which once lay at the bottom of the inland sea and is now strewn with meter high cactuses. The hill is called la isla, the island. The cacti grow one centimeter per year, the largest is nine meters and therefore already 900 years old! You can climb the hill and on top, besides being breathless (after all, we are still at 3,600 meters), you have a fantastic view of the area. Salt flats as far as you can see, here and there a mirage on the horizon. The meter-high cacti contrast beautifully with the white salt flats in the background. It is an incredibly beautiful place and very impressive!
The next morning we leave Uyuni. The dirt road winds up along the mountains. We visit Pulacayo, an old mining town, built around a silver mine. After the mine closed, Pulacayo turned into a ghost town. You will find old trains and dilapidated factory halls and houses. The mine reopened two years ago and now there are 200 people living in Pulacayo, which, however, still largely breathes the atmosphere of a ghost town. Although the sun is shining, an icy wind is blowing.
Our journey today does not lead us over the altiplano, but the mountains of the Andes. A rough environment, where nobody lives and you hardly encounter any traffic. At 4 p.m. we arrive in Potosí. We familiarize ourselves with the town (in the center of Potosí everything is within walking distance) and have dinner in restaurant Potocchí, a small restaurant run by a family, where it is almost like eating at someone’s home. We are also the only guests, but it is very cozy and the food is super tasty (to give you an idea: for a meal in Bolivia you pay about sixty Bolivianos, converted six euros. In Peru everything is a bit more expensive, but by western standards still cheap).
We have a full day in Potosí. After I get groceries, I walk into town. It’s sunny, but cool. Potosí has about 150,000 inhabitants and is located at 4,070 meters above sea level. This makes it the highest elevated city in the world. Potosí was founded in 1545, after silver was found in the neighboring mountain Cerro Rico (rich mountain). The silver was used by the Spanish conquerors to fill the Spanish treasury. Because of the silver mines, Potosí quickly became the largest and richest city in the American continent. The result is a friendly city of fine colonial buildings (with typical wooden covered balconies) and an unusually large number of eighty churches.
Silver has been extracted from the mines for four centuries. The local population had to do the hard, unhealthy and dangerous work and the Spaniards also brought slaves from Africa to Potosí to work in the mines. Miners worked twelve hours a day and sometimes stayed in the mines for months on end. Most, of course, died an early death. In the nineteenth century, the silver was almost gone. Now tin, zinc and lead are extracted from the Cerro Rico. However, the working conditions have hardly changed.
The heart of Potosí is the Plaza 10 de Noviembre, a pleasant square where the locals sit on benches in the sun. One side of the square is dominated by the cathedral, the other side by El Cabildo, Potosí’s former town hall. Near the square is also the Casa Nacional de Moneda, where colonial silver coins were minted from the mid-eighteenth century. The building, with walls one meter thick, has also served as a prison and headquarters of the Bolivian army. It is a beautiful building, with a courtyard with a fountain and a large mask of Bacchus (added for unknown reasons).
The streets are pleasantly busy. Besides women who do the shopping, there are also many schoolchildren and students from the local university. I walk down the streets of the old town and around lunchtime I sit down at a table at Café La Plata on Plaza 10 de Noviembre. After lunch I exchange the table for a bench on the square in the sun. After a relaxed afternoon we go for dinner at restaurant 6040, where they have good food and serve nice Cuba Libres.
The next day is another travel day. We leave Potosí early to drive back to La Paz in one go (with only two toilet stops). On the bus I don’t do much more than listen to music and doze off (I’m tired after a short night). Around 5 p.m. we arrive at our now familiar hotel in La Paz. I walk down to the panaderia one street further to get sandwiches and water for tomorrow and then I have dinner with a few travel companions at restaurant La Luna’s, which turns out to be a good choice.
In four hours we drive from La Paz to Copacabana. This small town on the south side of Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia, was called that long before the famous beach in Rio de Janeiro got the same name. Copacabana is sandwiched between two hills, right on Lake Titicaca. The lake is the only significant body of water in Bolivia. In 1879, Bolivia lost a war with Chile and had to give up a significant part of its territory, including the part that bordered the Pacific. Since then, Bolivia no longer has a coastline.
There is a lively market in town this Sunday afternoon. Here too many women wear traditional clothing (called cholas). I also take a look at the shore of the lake, where there is a row of eateries and pedal boats for hire (which look like they came from an amusement park somewhere in the Netherlands in the 1970s). On the main square, Plaza 2 de Febrero, is a white cathedral. A peculiar ritual takes place in front: You can have your car blessed here. The car to be blessed is decorated with some flower arrangements and wreaths, sprinkled with petals and then a bottle of (consecrated?) water is poured over the car. The ceremony (which one has to stand in line for) is supposed to bring good luck to traffic and protect the car’s occupants.
I treat myself to an ice cream, buy groceries at the local market and sit down on a bench in Plaza 2 de Febrero to read for a while. Local men and women sit on the other benches, there are ice cream carts and now and then a few tourists walk by. It’s a relaxed afternoon. At the end of the afternoon I walk to the shore of Lake Titicaca. Past the end of the pedestrian promenade I sit on a shaky jetty until the sun goes down.
In a packed minibus we drive in fifteen minutes from Copacabana to the border of Peru and Bolivia. We are the only ones who want to cross the border at this time and so we have our Bolivian exit stamp in no time. We cross the border and fill in an immigration form on the Peruvian side. Another stamp and without anyone bothering to take a look at our luggage, we get on the bus that will take us to Cuzco.
We are less than half an hour on the road when we hear a bang. The bus driver hits the brake and stops the bus. The left front tire has blown. The driver and his assistant replace it on the spot, while the speeding traffic does not take into account the broken down bus that is half on the road (hardly anyone slows down). In fifteen minutes the spare wheel is under the bus and we can continue.
It’s another long drive today. Our destination is Cusco. As we get further north, the landscape changes. The mountains are getting greener, there are more trees and the temperature is rising. The reason: the altitude. Cuzco is at 3,300 meters, lower than where we have been for the past week. At 4 p.m., the late lunch/early dinner is a welcome break from the bus ride. Four hours later we arrive in Cuzco. It is a short walk to our hotel, where we are met by someone who will go through the details of the ‘Inca trail’, which we will be walking on Thursday. The trail and the visit to Machu Picchu is the last highlight of this trip.
Cuzco, then written as Qosq’o, which means ‘navel of the world’ in Inca Quechua, was the center of the once mighty Inca Empire. The Inca culture started around the year 1100 in the south of the Andes and their habitat was for a long time limited to Cuzco and surroundings, but successive kings (Inca in Quechua) steadily expanded their empire. At the height of the Incas’ power, their empire stretched from Quito (in present-day Ecuador) in the north to present-day Santiago (the capital of Chile) in the south.
The Incas were a highly organized and progressive civilization whose architectural style still captures the imagination. But to nuance the romantic image of the Incas that exists today: in the Inca Empire there was an absolutist regime, with a strong army and all power rested with the king. The Incas had very segregated social classes, waged many wars of conquest, and human sacrifices were not uncommon. In 1532, the Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru. In the ensuing battle of conquest, hundreds of thousands of Incas were killed, their gold and silver stolen, and buildings and homes destroyed to make way for colonial buildings and churches.
Our hotel in Cusco is located in the San Blas district, a few minutes’ walk north of the main square Plaza de Armas. On the north side of Plaza de Armas is La Catedral, whose construction began in 1559 and lasted a hundred years. The cathedral is built on the foundations of an old Inca palace, which was razed to the ground by the Spaniards. The Spaniards also demolished a nearby Inca fortress, Sacsaywaman, and used the stones from that site to build the cathedral. And then impose their Catholic faith on the Incas. Plaza de Armas was also the central square of Cuzco in Inca times. Now the cozy and beautifully landscaped square with benches and a large fountain is surrounded by Spanish colonial buildings with arcades.
In the vicinity of the square you will find various remains from the Inca period. For example, in Hatunrumiyoc street you will find an old wall, made of large stones that form a solid wall without cement. The stones have different sizes and shapes, but fit perfectly. The wall was once part of the palace of the sixth Inca. In the car-free Loreto street, there are also old Inca walls on both sides, typically sloping inwards to ensure sturdiness. The walls have been deliberately preserved (the Spaniards apparently didn’t want to destroy everything the Incas had made) and are now part of modern buildings.
Via Plaza de Armas I walk to the Museo Inca. For most of the sights in Cuzco (churches, museums, excavations) you need a boleto turístico, a combined tourist ticket, which gives access to all these sights, but for some, such as the Museo Inca, you don’t. It is the best museum if you want to get an impression of the history and way of life of the Incas. The heyday of the Incas roughly coincided with the late Middle Ages in the ‘old world’. When you see the utensils, clothing, jewelry and the like in the museum, it is striking how much resemblance there is to the traditional clothing that you still see everywhere in Peru. The clothes of the women on the street have the same colors and patterns as the clothes of that time.
The Incas have always remained aware of their identity. After the conquest of the country by the Spaniards, the Inca culture has continued to live on and has even been on the rise in recent years. The architecture of today also shows similarities, especially in the countryside, with the way in which the Incas built their houses. In recent weeks we have come across many houses in the countryside, built with stone or clay and with a thatched roof, against the inside of a surrounding wall. That’s how they built in the Inca era.
Plaza de Armas is not the only square in Cuzco: while walking about I discover that the city has many squares. Via Calle de Medio you come from Plaza de Armas to Plaza Regocijo (also with fountain and the terrace of restaurant Los Portales, where you can have a great lunch, and a little further is Plaza San Francisco, named after the church of the same name. All those squares, where locals spend time, give the city a cozy atmosphere. Besides Cuzqueños (residents of Cuzco) there are also (very) many tourists in the city. After all, Cuzco is not only the center of the old Inca Empire, but also the base for visiting Machu Picchu, where everyone who visits Peru wants to go.
The ancient streets of the San Blas district have hardly changed over the centuries (cars barely fit). The cobbled streets lead uphill (a nice climb every time) to the Plaza San Blas, at the white church of the same name. Everywhere in this lively city you are constantly approached as a tourist, by shoe shiners, masseuses, jewelry and finger puppet sellers and so on. Nevertheless, Cuzco is a very pleasant city to stay in, a modern city, but with an unmistakable historical atmosphere.
Valle Sagrado, Salinas, Ollantaytambo and Pisac
The next day is a strenuous, but also impressive one. We visit the Valle Sagrado (sacred valley), where the river Urubamba flows between the mountains of the Andes. The Valle Sagrado is a beautiful area, where you will find several Inca sites. First we visit Moray (where we are the only visitors for some inexplicable reason). Circular terraces have been found in Moray that run down like an amphitheater. The terraces were probably used to grow crops at different altitudes (and thus different climatic zones). Very remarkable how the Incas did this. You can descend all the way into the circle, which is quite a scramble, via stepping stones that the Incas placed in the terrace walls. The way back up is even harder due to the altitude we are at.
After Moray we visit the salinas. These are salt pans that are built against the mountains. From a spring on top of the mountain, where very salty water flows, streams are led to the salt pans. Once the water evaporates, the salt is recovered. The whitewashed salt pans form a strange contrast with the green mountain slopes. From the salinas we walk down the valley. As said a beautiful environment. Our third stop is Ollantaytambo, an ancient town that has been inhabited by Incas since the 13th century. The town with its old Inca-style houses has been well preserved. In the narrow cobbled streets you will find several centuries-old walls, built of large, perfectly matching stones. It’s like going back in time.
On the other side of the Urubamba River in Ollantaytambo, up against the mountain, are the ruins of an ancient Inca fortress. It must once have been an immense complex, of which only the foundations, parts of walls and the stairs have survived. The fortress was so strong and strategically located against the mountain that the Spaniards had the greatest difficulty in besieging it. You can climb all the way up via the old stairs. Due to the altitude, it’s a tough climb that requires a slow pace, but it’s worth it. It’s a very impressive location, especially when you consider that with the resources they had available, the Incas had to drag up the huge boulders with which the fortress was built (after they were hand-sized and perfectly fitted).
After lunch we drive to Pisac. Here too lies an old Inca fortress, on top of a mountain, with deep valleys on both sides. Pisac was a ceremonial center of the Incas and part of it is still standing. It is surrounded by terraces where crops were grown. Several ancient Inca trails lead to and from the citadel. Some are quite steep and most are quite narrow. The (strenuous) walk on these paths is beautiful, with panoramic views over the valley. Here too, the architectural style of the Incas is clearly visible, with inward sloping walls and trapezoidal windows and doors. The Incas had no writing system and did not use money. Instead, they bartered goods with each other. This custom still exists: in the small villages in the Valle Sagrado, families still go to the market to exchange products (potatoes, vegetables, etc.).
First let’s get something straight: There is no such thing as ‘the Inca trail’. The Incas used an estimated four hundred routes between the various villages, towns and fortresses on their extensive territory. We also walked on similar Inca trails in the Valle Sagrado. What is nowadays referred to as ‘the Inca Trail’ is just one of those routes, but admittedly one of the most important. After all, it is the route to the important Inca city of Machu Picchu. The trail is strictly regulated, only 200 people are allowed access to the trail every day (you need to book months in advance if you want to walk the trail).
From Cuzco we first drive by bus to Ollantaytambo. From there we take the train to ‘kilometer 104’. The Perurail train is beautiful (high and spacious, with panoramic roof) and coffee and snacks are included. ‘Kilometer 104’ is not a station: We (that is: nine walkers and two guides) are simply dropped along the track. From here we will (well protected against both mosquitoes and the sun) walk the fourteen kilometer long trail.
The first two and a half hours of the trail are uphill. The first part is doable, it is noticeable that we are lower than in Cuzco (at about 2,200 meters). A large part of the time we walk in the sun, but luckily there are also parts with shade, because it is very hot. The path runs uphill along the mountains and on the way you have a beautiful view over the valley and the mountains on the other side. It’s a spectacular setting. We stop regularly to catch our breath and drink water. We also received a packed lunch, in which, in addition to bread and fruit, there is also energy bars, salty biscuits, chocolate and water (so well taken care of).
As we get higher, you notice that the air becomes thinner and the walking gets more difficult. After two and a half hours we arrive at Wiñay Wayna. We are greeted by two curious llamas who keep an eye on things here. Wiñay Wayna is a former Inca fortress (allegedly named after a flower), beautifully built against a mountainside, with breathtaking views across the valley. What a place to have lunch! After Wiñay Wayna we continue walking. Our goal: Intipunku (sun gate). The path now goes up and down. Going down isn’t necessarily easier: The uneven path with large stones puts a strain on your knees.
We are now walking on the shadow side of the mountains. The view continues to enjoy, but slowly but surely you start to wonder how far it is. From Wiñay Wayna it is about an hour and a half walk to Intipunku. When you are almost there, you have to climb a steep staircase. Those stairs are a killer and when you get to the top, contrary to what you expect (partly due to a misleading sign), you are not yet at Intipunku. You still have to go around the next mountain. Finally at 4 p.m. we arrive at Intipunku. Together with a travel companion I am the first to reach the sun gate, the other seven walkers will follow within fifteen minutes.
When you arrive at Intipunku, you will see Machu Picchu for the first time. From above, with the mountains in the background. The view of the ancient Inca city is the well-deserved reward after hours of climbing, sweating and also a bit of suffering. It’s a great experience and you really feel like ‘Yes, we made it!’. Because the sun is setting right in front of us, Machu Picchu is difficult to photograph from Intipunku, but that’s not a problem, because we are not yet at the end of the trail…
From Intipunku we walk another hour, mostly downhill, to the so-called Hut of the Caretaker or the Funerary Rock. From here you have an amazing view of Machu Picchu. At Intipunku you see the old Inca city for the first time, but here you actually have the best view. Because it’s 5 p.m., pretty much everyone has already left Machu Picchu; the Inca city is therefore deserted. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight and an impressive experience to be standing here!
In the village of Aguas Calientes every morning at 5:30 a.m. a crowd of tourists gathers, to be transported by bus to Machu Picchu. Everyone hopes to admire the ancient Inca city at sunrise. We are also in line for the bus early and half an hour later we are again in line at the entrance of Machu Picchu. Once inside (nice detail: you can get a stamp from Machu Picchu in your passport if you wish) everyone disperses and it is actually not that bad (the number of visitors to Machu Picchu is also limited, to two thousand per day). It is still foggy and cloudy (after all, we are in the mountains), which gives Machu Picchu a mysterious sight. When the sun slowly rises over the mountains, the temperature goes up and you see the fog and clouds dissolve quickly. Suddenly the old Inca city emerges from the fog and clouds, which makes for beautiful pictures.
The Spaniards have never been to Machu Picchu. The Inca city was abandoned and overgrown by the jungle until the American historian Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911 (while actually looking for another lost city: Vilcabamba). The derelict city, once a political, religious and business center within the empire of the Incas, was stripped of its vegetation, the most valuable items disappeared to the United States and the ruins developed into the landmark of Peru.
We get a tour by our guide, who in an hour and a half explains what is what and tells about the architectural style of the Incas and the techniques they used. About the walls that slope to withstand earthquakes and the trapezoidal windows and doors that (similar to when you put your legs apart) are sturdier than straight openings. And about the projections on the stones, to which the wooden posts for the thatched roof were attached. Tailoring the stones for the walls took three to four weeks per stone (building an Inca city took many years). You can also see the irrigation channels everywhere, with which streams from the top of the mountain were ingeniously led everywhere.
After the tour we can still see Machu Picchu on our own. After looking around some more, we walked to a slightly further Inca Bridge (a nice walk, but the bridge itself is really no more than two planks on a wall) and when we have enjoyed the impressive Machu Picchu from just about every corner, we return to Aguas Calientes. As expected, the visit to the ancient Inca city is definitely the highlight of Peru.
Back in Cuzco
Aguas Calientes is full of tourist restaurants, where the food is mediocre, but French-owned IndiFeliz stands out, with super good food (recommended!). In two hours we drive back to Ollantaytambo by train, after which we drive another hour and a half by minibus to Cuzco. At 10:30 p.m. we are back in our familiar hotel in Cuzco.
This last full day in Cuzco I sleep in and take it easy. The weather is beautiful (sunny and about 25 degrees). It’s unbelievable, but we really had beautiful weather every day for the entire trip. I leisurely stroll through the city, walk in and out of some shops, still reminiscing about the Inca trail and the visit to Machu Picchu, and I sit on a bench in the sun for a while in the Plaza de Armas and read. The difference between life in the countryside and in the city is very big in Peru. Cuzco is a modern city, with internet cafes, good restaurants and a lively nightlife. Unlike many other places, in Cuzco you don’t see women in traditional clothes in the streets. When the sun sets behind the mountains at the end of the afternoon, it quickly gets cooler. I walk back to the hotel. Since it’s the last night of the trip, a farewell dinner is planned.
The last day of this trip I sleep in again, take a shower and pack my luggage. At 1 p.m. we go to the airport near Cuzco for our flight to Lima. At Lima airport I say goodbye to my travel companions and report to the gate for the return flight to the Netherlands. With a delay of about an hour we take off just after 9 p.m. and after a comfortable flight (I even sleep a little, which doesn’t happen often) on Monday afternoon I arrive at Amsterdam airport. This concludes a amazingly beautiful and impressive journey of three weeks in Peru and Bolivia.