In the Fall of 2016, we made our maiden trip to South America: Peru & Bolivia. This was one of the most complicated trips we had ever planned. 
In the last 48 hours of the trip, we had to take 5 flights. Similarly, the route to Machu Picchu involved flights, trains, taxis and bus rides. We had to reserve 5 different hotels and overall we stayed at 7 different places over a span of 10 days. Thanks to all our friends who helped us plan this trip, you know who you are!

This is what the summary of our itinerary looked like:

Peru-Bolivia Trip Itinerary Summary

We took a late evening flight for Lima, flying through San Salvador. We had plenty of time in San Salvador for a half-day trip but decided to relax at the airport and save our energy for the trip ahead. We reached Lima in the evening and reserved a cab from the airport to our hotel. Local cabs would have been cheaper but we wanted to avoid any risk for our first day. We grabbed quick dinner from Parque Kennedy before calling it a day.

Things to see/do in Lima:
 
1. Miraflores: One of the most visited neighborhoods in Lima and home to the iconic Parque del Amor (Park of Love) overlooking the Pacific ocean. Also, the best neighborhood to get acquainted with the local food. We had ceviche at Cebichería La Mar, Av. La Mar 770.

Parque del Amor (Park of Love) — Winding down our 1st day in South America.

2. Huaca Pucllana / Pucllana Temple — Ancient Ruins.
3. Parque Kennedy — Parque Central de Miraflores. This is a good place to explore food too. We had sandwiches at La Lucha Sandwich Place.
4. The Plaza de Armas / Plaza Mayor: This place constitutes the Government Palace, Cathedral of Lima, Peruvian House of Literature, Historic Center, Larco Museum and Church of San Francisco (Basílica y Convento de San Francisco de Lima).

Church of San Francisco (Basílica y Convento de San Francisco de Lima).

On our first morning at Lima, the government palace was closed due to President Obama attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit in President’s Palace. We went back there on Day# 9.

Official residence of the President of Peru.

Our flight from Lima to Cusco was early in the morning and our initial plan was to spend couple of hours in Cusco before we head to Ollantaytambo for our train to Machu Picchu. However, Air Force One was also on the runway and was (expectedly) prioritized over our and many other flights. This left us with just enough time to reach Cusco and rush to get a taxi for Ollantaytambo. This was a one-off reason for delay but such delays are not uncommon. Surrounded by mountains, a weather that changes rapidly, and at 10,860 ft, landing at Cusco airport is a challenge.

On our way to Ollantaytambo to catch train for Machu Picchu.

We took Inca Rail for our train journey to Aguas Calientes; the base village for Machu Picchu. After quite a few Pisco Sours, good food and a good night’s sleep, we were ready for Machu Picchu the next morning. Make sure to buy bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu the night before to skip lines on day of hike.

We initially planned to hang around at Aguas Calientes the next day for a while before boarding our train for Cusco. However, since our time at Cusco was cut short the day before, we caught an earlier train and headed back.

Cusco’s cobbled streets

We definitely could have spent at least another couple of days at Cusco, exploring the historic city and its neighboring Inca landmarks and the Rainbow Mountains. The little cafes & restaurants at Cusco were amazing, we had delicious vegetarian burgers and and Coca tea. In our short time, we checked out Cusco Cathedral (Iglesia de Santo Domingo), San Pedro Market and Plaza de Armas.

Dawn in Cusco
Travel tips:
 — We carried cash but many places take credit cards & made life easier.
 — Taxis are very cheap and abundant. Taking them around is quite fine but do make sure they have the registered taxi sticker in the front window. It is also a good idea to confirm where you want to go and an approximate price before you get in.

Our next stop was La Paz, Bolivia. We flew out of Cusco early in the morning. La Paz sits in a valley surrounded by snow-capped Cordillera ranges of the Andes at 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s airport, El Alto International Airport (LPB) is the highest airport in the world.

We visited Plaza Murrillo, the city center and the Bolivian Government Palace; the Bolivian President’s official residence. Plaza Murrillo has been the gathering place for political events and for the local festivities for centuries.

Signs of past political events as visible on buildings in Plaza Murillo

An unique neighborhood in La Paz is Calle Jaen; a cobbled stone colonial street with restored old houses and museums.

One the best views of La Paz is from Mirador Killi Killi. From our notes: The Mirador was an important base for Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara activist Tupak Katari. It was here that he laid siege to the city of La Paz in 1781 for six months. However, we skipped Mirador Killi Killi and took the cable car to El Alto from the city center and the views were spectacular from here as well. For just 3 bolivianos (about $0.44) one way, this was easily one of the most value for the money experience!

A 300mm zoom from El Alto Cable Car Stop with views of the Andes

On our way back, we checked the Witches Market. Every street in the Witches Market was filled with scents, alpaca sweaters, leg warmers, hats and llama fetuses, figurines, dried starfish.

We already knew we would be short on time at La Paz or we would have definitely made our way to the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna); a unique site just a short taxi ride out of La Paz. The bizarre landscape, which has formed as a result of wind and water, resembles that of the moon’s surface.

Mural in a restaurant in La Paz.

We took another early morning flight the next day to Uyuni. Yes, this trip was an expedition; not a vacation! We took a 3 days tour of Salar De Uyuni with Red Planets Expedition.

Travel tips:
 — At the airports: Put all your belongings into the carry on bag and keep your pockets empty when going through security check in the airport. Lowers the chance of losing things and makes the process faster.
Landed at Uyuni, Bolivia, at 3,700 m (12,139 ft) above sea level, Uyuni is in the southwest of Bolivia, close to the Chilean border, primarily serves as a gateway for tourists visiting the world’s largest salt flats, the nearby Uyuni salt flat.
First stop at the salt flats of Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi).

We stopped at Inca Wasy island (fish island) to see giant cactuses and the coral rock formations before we headed to spend our first night in the middle of the desert, in the village of Atulcha. It was an incredible experience to say the least; the hotel was built entirely of salt. Walls and beds were made by cutting large slabs of salt.

The next morning we drove to the desert of Chiguana at 5840m high to see the semi active volcano Ollague, Andean lagoons where flamingos hang around in hundreds, Big desert of Siloli at 4550m altitude and Red Lagoon to see pink flamingos.

Desert of Chiguana, with a view of the semi active volcano Ollague (5840m high).
Andean lagoons: home of Pink Flamingos.

Our final stop before calling it a day was at Sol de Mañana volcano; at 5000m high. Our accommodations for the night were very basic; essentially a big dorm like structure with no private bathrooms or running water. Our tour guide was kind enough to make sure we had a private room.

Our tour guide from Red Planet Expedition, Jaimie.

The next and last day of tour with Red Planet Expedition took us to Salvador Dali Desert before heading back to Uyuni for a 7 hour drive back. We reached Uyuni around 6pm and after relaxing for sometime, we headed to the airport; a short 10min drive; for our flight to La Paz. Thus, began the last 48 hours of our journey back home. We stayed at La Paz for the night and took a morning flight to Lima, through Cusco.

Lima airport had good facilities to store luggage for $10 per bag. Our flight from Lima to SF was at 3am. We decided to explore the Lima city again and went back to Plaza de Armas / Plaza Mayor and checkout the places that were closed on our first day. We were extremely tired by the evening but had few more hours before our departing flight. We decided to drop by a movie multiplex to catch a show of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! Luckily the showing was in English (with captions in Spanish).

Lessons from the trip:

— Make sure to buy Machu-Picchu entrance tickets in advance.

— We bought Huayna Picchu + Machu-Picchu entrance tickets but ended up not climbing up Huayna Picchu. You need weeks of practice to climb Huayna Picchu. If you don’t have the practice or the fitness or the inclination to hike up a steep mountain during a vacation, you can skip buying tickets for Huayna Picchu. There is plenty to do otherwise.

— Would Definitely recommend to stay at Aguas Calientes for the night so that you can wake up fresh in the morning for the hike. We also stayed here for the 2nd night but there was nothing to do. If you can, take a late train and bus/taxi back to Cusco.

— Don’t try to go from Cusco to Machu Picchu and come back within a day. Some of our friends did this and regretted as objective of the trip is to visit and spend time at Machu Picchu and that takes a whole day.

— Three days for the Uyuni salt flats trip may sound much and it definitely felt tiring on the last day. However, the place is 5 flights away in a remote part of the world. Make it worthwhile!

March of Llamas