Bolivia and Peru
In the final instalment of a four-part series on South America, writer Claire McKeever shares a double portion of travel highlights from her adventures in Peru and Bolivia.
Like many of South America’s countries, Bolivia and Peru are special in terms of what they offer visitors. The two countries have their own story to tell, tribes of people to meet and surroundings to gawp over. There also some similarities, such as: climate, lower cost of living and indigenous communities that still exist to this very day.
For me, Bolivia and Peru were a refreshing addition to my travels and left me with incredible experiences that will be etched in my memory for a very long time.
Bolivia: A Landlocked Dream
Bolivia is no ordinary country and this was very apparent when I found myself travelling in from its border with Chile. The stretch of landscape on the Bolivian side of the border transports you into a world of desert wasteland, geysers, lagoons, hot springs, rock formations and the infamous Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. The journey across this huge and rugged expanse does necessitate a 4×4 and is best done as part of one of the many tours offered from either the Chilean or Bolivian sides.*
During my four-day adventure, I was repeatedly in awe of the diverse landscape presented every day and struggled to put my camera away. We would be gazing over a lake filled with flamingos then moments later bathing in hot springs overlooking endless rocky mountains.
Salar de Uyuni itself lies over 3,600m above sea level and spans over 12,000 square kilometres. On the day we visited, it had been raining the night before, which resulted in beautiful reflections and many eye-catching photos.
After this incredible introduction to Bolivia, I arrived in Uyuni, where I was struck by local women dressed in bold and colourful textiles. This image combined with the muddied and crumbling streets was a reminder that I was now in one of South America’s poorest countries but also a place clearly rich in heritage and culture.
*Tours operators are based in either San Pedro in Chile or Uyuni in Bolivia. Tours can be booked on arrival but I would recommend asking other travellers for recommendations before doing so.
Treasure in Potosi
From Uyuni, I bought a bus ticket to the silver mining village of Potosi, just a few hours away. Potosi became home to one of the richest mines, “Cerro Rico”, after silver was found there hundreds of years ago. I decided to take a closer look and signed up for one of the mining tours. This experience was by far the most challenging and fear inducing activity I had thrown myself into; The narrow tunnels and unpredictable nature of the mines only hitting me when I was crawling through them.
Thankfully I was in good hands with Julio, a former miner, who decked me out in mining gear and expertly led me through the different tunnels and caves. At first I hid my camera away in respect to the miners but it wasn’t long before they were insisting I take photos and capture their reality. The whole experience was very heartening and humbling.
In addition to the mines, Potosi is filled with interesting buildings such as Casa de Moneda, an UNESCO World Heritage listing, which, since the late 1500’s, was the coinage centre for silver unearthed from the mines. There are also lagoons situated south of the city where it’s possible to swim and soak up the scenery.
From Potosi, I travelled onto Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia. The city also bears the UNESCO World Heritage Site stamp of approval and this isn’t surprising thanks to its white-washed buildings and cobbled streets.
I originally intended being in Sucre for only a few days but ended up staying a whole week as I couldn’t resist the lure of the friendly people and great food. I stayed at The Beehive hostel, which not only offered the most incredible breakfasts but also ran amazing projects for women in the local community.
Sky High in La Paz
Once I managed to pull myself away from Sucre, it was onwards to La Paz, an impressive city lying 3650m above sea level and aptly named one of the “New 7 Wonders Cities” in 2014. La Paz is the seat of the capital’s government and can be overwhelming given its high altitude and busy streets but once you have your bearings right it can be a worthwhile stop over for a few days.
For thrill seekers, a bike tour will take travellers from La Paz to nearby Death Road (or Camino de las Yungas), which, if you haven’t guessed, isn’t for the fainthearted. The InterAmerican Development Bank named it as “the world’s most dangerous road”.
There is no doubt, Bolivia is a challenging country to travel through but at the same time, it can be heavily rewarding if you’re willing to be open to its elements and accept that it is a very different reality to life back home.
Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos these mission sites of the Jesuit community exist in the southeastern area of Bolivia in a department named Santa Cruz. Each of them has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offer a less trodden experience for visitors.
Copacabana – not to be confused with Rio’s most famous beach – is a town situated along Lake Titicaca, one of the largest lakes in South America. It’s a good base for trips to the lake’s islands – or floating islands as they are called – where visitors can sample indigenous life and find a moment to switch off from the outside world.
Peru: A Journey Worth a Thousand Miles
The highlight of my trip to Peru was the opportunity to behold Machu Picchu, a site that receives over 2,500 visitors a day.
On the Road to Machu Picchu
Before reaching Machu Picchu, I spent a night in the capital of Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire that prevailed before the Spanish conquest in 16th century. The city is now you guessed it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as you can imagine, holds an impressive array of historical and architectural treasures, including the cathedral that lies at the heart of Plaza de Armas. I’m also told that an aerial view of the city displays an outline of a puma, a sacred animal to the Incas and the result of their clever workmanship when building the original city.
Leaving Cusco, I began to make my way to Machu Picchu. I took the less gruelling option of riding the train, followed by an early morning hike from Aguas Calientes, a small town at the foot of the site. The value in doing this was arriving earlier than everyone else and having a quiet moment to soak up Machu Picchu in all its glory. As our guide took us around, it was hard to believe the sheer work and commitment it took for the Incas to build this city back in the 1400’s so far away from any tools or materials. It is quite a phenomenon and probably why its existence still remains a mystery today.
A Day in Lima
With only a day remaining in Peru, I made my way north to its capital: Lima. With a population of 8 million, I was pleasantly surprised to find a city that was not as chaotic as I imagined. With my 24 hours, I enjoyed getting to know the trendy and colourful neighbourhood of Miraflores, an area filled with restaurants serving the tastiest ceviche, a popular Peruvian seafood dish. Only a few streets away and towards the ocean are stunning views from the promenade’s mix of modern bars and restaurants, where I enjoyed resting my tired feet over a well-made pisco sour. A perfect way to end my Peruvian experience.