From Cusco to La Paz
Adventure Overland Through the Lands of the Incas
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 and take 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. Listen to musicians play haunting flute and drum music, a legacy of the Incan culture of this centuries-old city. Buy a city tour ticket for $10. Don't miss seeing the wonderful colonial cathedral, La Compañon, and, a few blocks away, the Temple of the Sun with its colonial addition.
Many restored Incan sites are close by and can be seen in brief day trips. The Sacsayhuaman complex should be first on your list. Don't miss the Thursday market in the nearby small town of Pisac.
Pisac's big 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. Get to Pisac on Wednesday afternoon and stay overnight in one of the two small hotels on the plaza. Enjoy a good simple meal at the restaurant, also on the plaza, and retire early. At dawn villagers arrive by foot and bus to sell or barter for what they cannot make or grow themselves. As tourists arrive, the mood changes.
The Road to Machu Picchu
Cusco is probably best known as the staging point for travel to the 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 walking. The problem is oxygen; 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.
An alternate route to Machu Picchu is to travel by bus through spectacular scenery to Urubamba. Hop off to see the lively market of fruits and vegetables. Then get back on the bus to Ollantaytambo. Arriving late in the afternoon allows you the luxury of wandering alone through the spectacular Incan ruins.
To Lake Titicaca
The train from Cusco travels away from roads and most towns, which gives you a chance to see the vast and beautiful lands that make up this part of Peru. As you take your seat in the train, friendly stewards take your lunch order. 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.
The Los Uros islands are man-made of lake reeds that 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.
Continue to Taquile, a small Incan island. In any of three or four small restaurants, you'll dine on the freshest and most perfectly-prepared lake trout. You can stay overnight in Taquile in rustic accommodations, but bring blankets and drinking water.
Back in Puno, a few hours' bus ride will take you across the border from Peru into Bolivia. With your newly stamped passport, you'll travel to lake-side Copacabana. The Incas 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 also offer more rustic accommodations.
An 8 a.m. boat takes you to the southern end of Isla del Sol. Take a swim in the cold water, 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. If you stay overnight 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 accommodate your interests and time.
We were stunned by the lunar setting of La Paz and by the modern qualities of this sky-high capital city. It is surprisingly safe by any standards. The people are friendly and sophisticated.
At 11,800 feet, La Paz is the highest capital in the world. For assistance in breathing you may find yourself needing a cup of coca tea called mate de coca. In the late afternoon it 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.
If you have time, spend a few days in Coroico, a small historic town three hours from La Paz. On the side of a mountain at just over 5,700 feet, you will awaken to a view of clouds floating in the deep valley below.
Returning to La Paz, prepare to depart from the world's highest airport.