I had the worst flight schedule imaginable to Bolivia. I had been working in San Francisco and the Bay Area for a week and the plan was to spend some time in Bolivia before crossing the border to Peru and see Machu Picchu and fly back to California again. Interestingly, it’s incredibly hard to find a cheap and fast way to get to Bolivia from San Francisco. In fact the tickets I settled on was from LA to La Paz, Bolivia and then back from Cuzco, Peru back to LA. So I had gotten a different flight from San Francisco to LA. A month before the flight, LATAM which is the flight company I booked with, apparently canceled one of the flights on the LA to La Paz journey so they gave me another one where I would fly into Lima, then on to Santiago and then La Paz. The problem was that the connection in Lima was 1 hour which sounds like a recipe for missing the connection so I asked if they could provide me a schedule where the connection times were better. And this is what they came up with: LA->Miami->Santiago->La Paz.
So early morning, after a weekend in Las Vegas, I took off for the airport in San Francisco to start my 24 hours of flights. Luckily I managed to catch all flights although my luggage didn’t. By now I was a lost luggage veteran so after filling out the forms, I left for the hostel to let them know that I had some luggage incoming.
I was a bit optimistic on seeing as much as possible while in South America so I had a bus to Salar de Uyuni to see the salt flats. I had almost a full day to explore La Paz which is a lot if you just arrived from sea level and is too tired to walk up and down all day. I settled for walking in the center and then seeing my tour guide from Ojos del Salado.
Uyuni salt flats
Night came and I got comfortable in the sleeper bus to Uyuni. The sleeper bus was really good, seats reclined, blankets were available and they even showed a movie. I slept the entire day and woke up next morning in Uyuni were I went to the tour company office to start my one day trip to the salt flats. I chose a one day trip since a friend of mine did one as well and said that one day was enough. Later on, lots of other people who say that the three day trip was definitely worth it so I’ll have to come back! The salt flats were really impressive. The visibility is virtually unlimited and I was lucky to be there during the winter so there was just the perfect amount of water covering the salt flats to get an almost perfect mirror effect. The driver had a lot of fun creating videos and pictures with my group as his test subjects. We drove off to another spot where it was drier to do the classic and slightly cheesy perspective pictures. After a long day and seeing the sunset, I got on the night bus back to La Paz.
I had a spare day in La Paz which I spent catching up on sleep and got on the ski lift up to a high point to get a nice view of La Paz. La Paz is a really fascinating place in that it’s located in a huge gorge where the lowest point is at 3600 meters and the highest points are around 4000 meters. But unlikely all other places, the most desirable places to live is not at the highest points, but rather in the bottom of the gorge. Forgoing great views, the weather is much more stable down there which led to the rich and powerful to live there. My day in La Paz was also Easter which meant the evening was a time for celebration for Bolivians. All of the churches were holding masses and markets popped up everywhere selling Easter chocolate, bread, and straws which I think was for religious purposes.
The next morning I got up and walked through a desolate La Paz. All the Bolivians were on holiday and the Friday was a really popular time for people to get out of La Paz and spend the day elsewhere. I was no exception of course as I was going to bike down the Death Road. The Death Road is famous for claiming lives as it snakes around mountains with a precipitous drop almost at the entire stretch of the Death Road. Nowadays not many people use it as a bigger and safer highway has been built but it’s still used occasionally and by tourists biking down it. We drove an hour to around 4800 meters and started our bike in the snow. The first stretch is not specifically the Death Road and was on paved roads but it was good to get some time with the bike. At the death road, it was only dirt roads and luckily the bikes were really good because the suspension and brakes were used a lot! The Death road is really a fun experience and mostly safe experience. My 10-person group had four minor accidents but I came down without injuries. At the bottom, I opted to go zip lining as well which is always fun. They had an option to do a superman zip line where you’re strapped to someone else and then fly through the air like Superman. Having never done that before, I had to try and it’s such a fun thing to do although you do miss the control a bit.
Copacabana and overland crossing to Peru
Back at La Paz with an early bus to Peru. The bus ride to Peru would take an entire day. I started in La Paz early morning, and by midday, we had reached Copacabana (The original one, the Brazilian one is named after this). They gave us 5⁄6 hours in Copacabana and I opted to go to Isla del Sol for a small hike. Lots of people were going to Isla del Sol to stay there and explore more of the island and if given time, that’s something that I really would have liked to do as it was such an amazing chilled place. But I had to go to Peru to start my Machu Picchu hike so back to Copacabana and take the bus to Cuzco. I passed the border without issues but it was a bit cumbersome with having to change buses and dragging your luggage across the border.
After driving through the night the bus arrived in Cuzco. I slept a bit on the hostel couch before getting out to explore Cuzco. Cuzco is so charming. The city center is excellent and shows Incan culture as well as the Spanish colonial style. Compared to La Paz, it’s so much prettier and less busy. I walked around in the morning and out of nowhere caught a bit military parade. This seemed to be part of the Easter celebration and was really fun to watch. After that, I went to Sacsayhuaman which is a big Inca complex. Cuzco used to be the capital of the Incans and Sacsayhuaman was a fortress and head of the city. Cuzco was built in the shape of a puma which is one of the Incan sacred animals and the head of this puma was Sacsayhuaman, so it is literally the head of the city! Otherwise, I spent the day preparing for my 4 day Salcantay trek and Machu Picchu visit. I even had a pre-trek meal consisting of alpaca steak!
Salkantay trek and Machu Picchu
The morning of the trek, we were picked up by a van and driven to the trailhead where we would hike up to the Humantay lake first. After this, we would trek to our campsite at 4400 meters. Our group consisted of 5 people, two CrossFit New Yorkers (and yes, there was a lot of CrossFit talk) and a British couple who also happened to live in New York. One of the Brits had to drop out of the trek but would meet us later for Machu Picchu.
The first day of the trek was nice and steady. Going up constantly was not an issue for any of us but the increased altitude – despite being acclimatized in Cuzco – would cause some issues. Luckily I had been up around 4000 meters in La Paz already so I had no issues at all of two in the group was having quite a bad headache at the campsite.
The food on the trek was soo good. Soup and three different dishes every single night and we were so pampered! At night they brought us hot water bottles to bring with us in the tent and the attention and care were top notch.
On the second day, we had to cross the mountains through a pass called the Inca pass which was at 5100 meters. Quite a climb and the way up was primarily clouded but it cleared enough so that we could get some amazing views. Now we only had to hike downhill. Stopping at a village for lunch we even got an introduction into how to farm, Incan style! We caught some torrential rain on the way down and I got pretty drenched which was not good as our final campsite was in a forest and quite humid! What’s really interested about the treks to Machu Picchu is the Incan ruins that you pass by. The guide was very knowledgeable and told us about Incan life, their organization and the history of the Incans. If you are going, do spend some time in the areas around Cuzco to discover more about Incans!
Our third day provided nice weather for us and a gentle pace down to the train station where we would go on a train to Aguas Calientes, the village before Machu Picchu which is where the Machu Picchu tours start from. The original Inca trail would actually lead straight to Machu Picchu but nowadays, if you want to go to Machu Picchu, you’d need to more or less go through Aguas Calientes. We would arrive in Aguas Calientes at night and get a bit of sleep before getting into Machu Picchu the next day.
Machu Picchu. I didn’t really know what to expect. Part of me probably expected to be disappointed in a sense that it’s exactly like all the pictures that you’ve seen already. But I was wrong. It was absolutely amazing. It’s very big and although everybody’s seen what it looks like, it’s so much fun and exciting to walk around it. I felt like an explorer which is always a feeling I try and chase when traveling and that’s probably the highest accolade I can bestow on it. The guide gave us a 2-3 hour tour of Machu Picchu, telling us the story of the place and more about Inca society and the discovery of Machu Picchu. After the tour, we had all booked a hike to either Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain. I and the crossfitters went up to Machu Picchu mountain (in half the time normally allocated) and enjoyed the views. The thing about Machu Picchu is that the weather is typically very cloudy which can obscure Machu Picchu and it was foggy in the morning but it dissipated during the day and we could take in the entire site which was an amazing experience! After exploring a bit more we went back to Aguas Calientes and then went on a train and then bus back to Cuzco where we celebrated with drinks.