North to Cuzco

Uyuni to La Paz

It takes 11 hours by bus to get from Uyuni to La Paz, five of which are on rough dirt roads. We had booked a night cama bus, but the Bolivian cama is the same as a semi-cama in the southern cone of South America and sleep did not come easily. The arrival in La Paz by bus is fascinating, crossing the 4000m flat plain of the Altiplano, the earth suddenly drops away to reveal a wide deep cleft of eroding slopes, filled from rim to rim with buildings; the tall offices of the city centre almost 400m below us. The 6000m plus peaks of the Cordillera Real formed a splendid backdrop to this scene. Like the river turned sewer, La Paz drains to the south and the lower you go the more prestigious the addresses, the reverse of the usual snobbery. The southern parts are up to 1000m lower than the altiplano, 10C warmer and much richer in oxygen. La Paz defies conventional wisdom that the air we breath is free - here the rich get to breathe the best air and the poor live on the cold, oxygen depleted Altiplano heights. Nontheless, La Paz is a vibrant city and, after a day or two of wandering its streets and parks, and checking out its markets, we left with a better impression of it than we had expected.

Central La Paz in its bowl with red-brick buildings
climbing up to the rim of the Altiplano

The presidential guard struts its stuff

Doorway of the 16th century Iglesia de
San Francisco

The curious landscape of the Valley
of the Moon in southern La Paz

El Presidente raises the Bolivian Flag
at the Obelisk

La Paz to Copacabana

La Paz to Copacabana is only three hours by bus. After climbing out of the human soup bowl of the main city and crossing the uncontrolled urban sprawl of El Alto on the plain above it, we found ourselves traversing a rural landscape of green farmlands dotted with adobe dwellings. Soon, we had the first glimpse of Lake Titicaca and followed its shoreline to the narrow Tiquina strait, where we left the bus, which was ferried over on a flat barge, while we passengers crossed by small motor boat.

Copacabana in its beautiful setting on the shore of Lake Titicaca

Another 30 odd kilometres winding through the bare hilly landscape, covered with ancient terraces and stone walls and we arrived at Copacabana, in its beautiful setting on the lakeshore between two steep pointed hills. Copacabana is the tourist capital of this area and location of Bolivia's only public beach (a very sore point since Chile took away Bolivia's coast in the Pacific War of the late 19th century). We had arrived in time for the last day of the Festividad del Senor de la Cruz and, after checking into our exceedingly nice room at Hostal La Cupola (with views across the lake and across Copacabana beach) we wandered down to watch a colourful and noisy parade of dancers and brass bands, slow-dancing their way through the town in brightly coloured traditional outfits.


Our bus making its way across the Tiquina Strait

The quirky architectural style of Hostal La Cupula

Any excuse for a parade in Copacabana

View over Bolivia's only beach

Change moving over Lake Titicaca

We allowed ourselves a day to explore the town, checking out the impressive 1642 century cathedral and the curious ritual of the blessing of the cars that occurs on a daily basis in front of it. We also climbed both of the steep hills that frame the town, the first to visit the Horca del Inca, actually a pre-incan solar observatory designed to determine winter solstice and beginning of the Aymara new year and, secondly, to climb the steep steps of Cerro Calvario to watch the sun set over Lake Titicaca, a modern ritual for all backpackers visiting Copacabana.

The blessing of the cars

One of the many moods of Lake Titicaca

Watching a Titicaca sunset

The 17th century cathedral in Copacabana

The Horca del Inca - actually a pre-Inca solar observatory

Our main purpose for coming to Copacabana however, was to do a couple of interesting day walks, one on the Isla del Sol, mythical origins of the Inca culture, and to walk back from the island to Copacabana. It was time to put on the boots and get used to walking at altitude again.

Copacabana to Cuzco

Our pleasant stay in Copacabana was over and it was time to leave Bolivia and cross over into Peru. It is a 3-hour trip From Copa to Puno, around the shores of Lake Titicaca - the rich flat wetlands on the lake shore seemed more expansive in Peru and the lake was rimmed by a continuous band of humanity, small adobe huts merging into villages of unfinished brown adobe buildings - now we knew why there were so many lights on the shore of the lake at night. We stayed the night in Puno, second most important tourist destination in Peru, and caught a tourist bus to Cuzco.

The bus visited several sites on its way across the yellow Altiplano, traversing a 4350m pass and descending through the increasingly green valleys leading to Cuzco. Some of these sites were archaelogical, others plain old tourist traps designed to part you from your money for all sorts of alpaca wool, silver or ceramic products.


The colonial cathedral at Puno

Another 17th century colonial church at Pukara

The Puno to Cuzco rail line at La Raya Pass

Why we prefer to travel independently -
tourists flocking around alpaca wool crafts at La Raya Pass

The archaeological sites were fascinating. Firstly, we stopped at the pre-inca ruins and museum at Pukara, marking the first evidence of civilisation on the Peruvian altiplano. Secondly, we stopped at the inca site at Raqshi, where once there was a walled settlement, with the 12m central wall of a temple to Viracocha the sun-god, its base of perfectly fitting carved stones topped with adobe brick, plus residences and circular storage buildings still remaining.

Classic Incan doorway and windows

The columns and 12m central wall of the
Incan temple of Viracocha at Raqshi

2m tall Incan wall surrounding Raqshi

Wall and qolcas (granaries) of the Incan compound
at Raqshi

Interior of the Catholic chapel at Raqshi

Catholic chapel at Raqshi built from volcanic rock by
the descendants of the Incan empire

Peruvian women in different traditional costumes

Finally, we visited a 17th colonial church in Andahuaylillas, whose frescos, paintings and ornate gold-leafed ornamentation bore witness to the artistic expression and the excesses of the conquistadores and their successors.

There is a wonderful little museum (Museo de las Rocas Sagradas) in Huaro near Andahuaylillas. It has a collection of rocks with carved symbols of the Incan cosmology and gives an understanding of Incan philosophy. It also has some other fine examples of Incan stonemasonry, including perfectly carved circular holes used for water conduits. We actually visited it on the way back from our Ausengate trek, but it fits more into this page. If travelling from Puno to Cuzco, visit it if you can!

The 17th century church at Andahuaylillas

Perfectly circular carved inca water conduit

Sacred incan symbology - two serpents meeting

Frog carving

The three levels of the incan cosmology

The Inca Gate to their imperial capital of Q'usqo

Passing the Inca gate, built to control entry from the Altiplano into the Inca capital (Q'osqo in quechua), we arriving in Cuzco late. The bus took us through the uninspiring, never-finished art reo style of the newer sprawling expanse of Cuzco, so different from Incan architecture.

It was a great relief to pass from there into the beautiful colonial atmosphere of the old city, with large plazas, cathedrals, other impressive large buildings and narrow streets lined with small balconies. We found our hotel, a door in blank wall lining a narrow colonial street, but when we entered it opened out to a beautiful garden and courtyard, where the terrace-lined rooms looked out over the lights of old Cuzco. We had arrived and it was time to start some serious trekking.

Perfectly fitted stones of the Inca Gate

View across our hostal courtyard

The white walls and red tile rooves of
old Cuzco

Casa Concha - Spanish colonial facade on
Inca foundations

The steep narrow streets of old Cuzco

Three examples of the Incan mastery of stonemasonry

Cuzco is a town that you love and you hate; you love it for its colonial buildings, quaint narrow streets, fiestas and seemingly spontaneous street parades of bands and dancers, sunshine and the wonderful incan stonemasonry, but you hate it for its tourist overkill, where every second building is a restaurant or artesan / craft shop and touts harass you continually to buy meals, souvenirs, postcards or massages. Such is the price of tourist fame.

Iglesia de la Compañia(1650) built on the foundations of the palace of Inca Huayna Capac and the small Capilla San Ignacio

Tiled rooves and balconies in the Plaza de Armas

Iglesia del Triunfo (1586) and Cuzco Cathedral (1650) built
on the site of Inca Viracocha's palace

Street parade in Cuzco

For a month we used Cuzco as our base, while we did the 9-day Choquequirao to Macchu Picchu Trek, the 6-day Ausengate Circuit and an 8-day descent into the Amazonian jungle. Each showed us a very different aspect of this fascinating part of Peru, so rich in history and so diverse in habitats. At the end of each trek we returned to Cuzco for a welcome break, so that by our fourth and last visit we were almost thinking of it as "home".

Nonetheless it wasn't home and there are many other parts of South America to explore. When you can direct a taxi through the winding narrow streets of old Cuzco to your hostal, you have probably been there too long. The nomadic call to move on was strong and we finally left Cuzco to see what else Peru had to offer.