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Travelling from Bolivia's capital to Peru's counterpart in two weeks, via Lake Titicaca, Cusco and Huacachina.

Standing on a soft-footed pyramid of sand, I gawp at the scene that surrounds me. On all sides, like an undulating mountain range, the seemingly endless landscape of sand dunes rises from the desert. In the near distance lies the tiny Peruvian town of Huacachina, a postcard-perfect bubble of exotic greenery centred on a desert lagoon. Squinting through the heat haze, I spot people paddling their way across the lake, surreally crossing one of the world’s driest deserts in a rickety old pedalo. To say it’s beautiful simply doesn’t do justice to this stop on the South American Gringo Trail, and indeed, whoever first coined the phrase ‘an oasis of calm’ was, I’d like to think, inspired in some way by this hidden enclave of southern Peru.

The foreground, meanwhile, is anything but calm. Traversing the blocks of brilliant blues and yellows, accompanied by the roars of monster truck engines and screaming passengers, are the high speed dune buggies that have helped cement Huacachina’s reputation as an adrenalin-fuelled stop-off. It’s like watching a Micro Machines videogame come to life and I’m desperate for my turn.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait long. Strapped in, with revs surging through my body, our driver puts his foot down and we’re away, straight up the sand and soon making our own contributions to the desert screamfest. It’s like riding a rollercoaster without tracks as our expert navigator screeches around like Spider-Man, hopping from dune to dune, no angle too steep as we storm to the top of each windswept crest before plunging down once again at high speeds, only stopping now and then to give us a chance to fling ourselves down the slopes on sand boards. In a year’s worth of Latin American backpacking, I’m hard-pushed to think of a few hours in which I’ve had more fun. It’s moments like this, I ponder, that make me love travel so much.

The desert speed session, however, means I’m nearing the end of my fortnight-long race between the Bolivian and Peruvian capitals, a hop on/hop off mission that had begun, the week before, in La Paz.

Sharing the honours of being Bolivia’s capital with Sucre, La Paz is a breathtaking city in more ways than one. Situated 3,650m above sea level, visitors flying straight into Our Lady of Peace, as La Paz’s full name translates, almost certainly get a taste of altitude sickness. But the shortness of breath is more than compensated for by the stunning surroundings.

Nestled in a valley floating high in the atmosphere, La Paz creeps up the surrounding peaks as if it’s a pool of civilization formed by spilled-over glacial waters. Traditional culture is alive and visible on just about every street corner, more so than in almost any other South American city. There’s certainly no way you could mistake La Paz for some faceless international metropolis. Whether you’re window shopping for dried llama fetuses in the Witches’ Market, paying a visit to a cholita wrestling match, in which the traditionally-dressed women, complete with bowler hats, take to the ring, or simply wandering the streets, there’s no chance of thinking you could be anywhere but Bolivia.



Peace out

I’m starting my trip, however, with the city’s two main adrenalin challenges – one old, one new. Up first is one of the planet’s most famous backpacking experiences – cycling down the world’s most dangerous road.

Given that label by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995, due to the horrific number of fatal accidents, this stretch of the La Paz to Coroico road is thankfully not what it once was, due to a recent highway taking much of the traffic elsewhere, but it still makes for a white knuckle ride.

Starting at a shivery altitude of 4,700m, we bump and slide down the mainly gravel road, dropping almost 3,600m in the space of a few hours, desperately avoiding the sheer barrier-less drops, hoping there’s no oncoming traffic on the blind corners, averting our eyes when passing the numerous crosses and above all, trying to remember the wise words of our guide, “Just try not to ride like a wanker.”

Fortunately, we’re wanker-free and succeed, reaching the bottom elated, exhausted and totally unprepared for the even scarier bit – driving back up the mountain to La Paz in the dark.

Next is an altogether different challenge. I’m to dress up as Spider-Man and jump out of a 17th floor window. Yes, you read that right. One of the newest and most amusing thrills on offer in Latin America is Urban Rush, which involves donning a superhero outfit before stepping, face first, out of a central La Paz building, 50m above the ground, for an abseiling/freefalling combo, all while some very bemused Bolivians look up from below. Equal measures terrifying and hilarious, I’m relieved it’s only the views that are to die for.

Time is ticking, however, and I’ve a date with Lima. The tight schedule has meant I’ve decided to abandon my usual method of spending endless hours navigating the super cheap but anarchic chicken buses and trawling through hostel booking websites. I’ve instead signed up with Green Toad, a bus pass company that’s organised all my transport needs, accommodation and sightseeing highlights for not much more cash. With time of the essence, it’s an extra expenditure I never regret.

And so, stress-free, I’m duly picked up and delivered to Copacabana, the main Bolivian town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I’ve splashed out, relatively speaking, on Las Olas, one of the continent’s most unique and stunningly situated hostels, where each room is a bizarre two-floored building, whether it be a giant egg or a fairytale tower, complete with stained glass windows, spiral staircases and unparalleled views across the bay. Once again, I’ve no regrets about spending the handful of extra bolivianos.

I pass the time wandering the sleepy streets, buying dirt-cheap hand-woven souvenirs I’ve no space for and regularly chowing down on the local specialty – trucha (lake trout). As enchanting as Copacabana is, however, I drag myself away from gazing dreamily at the sparkling waters of the world’s largest high altitude lake and jump aboard a boat to Isla del Sol.

Deemed of huge importance to the locals thanks to the legends depicting the Island of the Sun as the birthplace of Inca mythology, this little isle is dotted with tiny villages, ancient ruins and a maze-like network of walking tracks. Life there is undeniably basic (water, for example, is at a serious premium), but the natural beauty on display around every corner, normally perfectly framed by a grumpy llama, is consistently spectacular.



What's the rush?

Copacabana, however, marks the end of the Bolivian leg of my journey, so next I skirt around Titicaca into Peru, to the bustling port town of Puno, and the truly bizarre floating isles, the Uros Islands. Now, it should be said that for all its incredible sights and deserved travel reputation, when experienced after the low key attitudes and genuinely traditional lifestyles of Bolivia, Peru, at its most touristy, can at times feel like one giant gift shop. One example of this is the highly commercialised Uros Islands, described by Lonely Planet as being “like a reed Disneyland”.  However, a surreal tourist trap they may have become, but that doesn’t mean these totally unique man-made islands aren’t worthy of a visit.

Originally created by people fleeing aggressive tribes on the lake’s shores, these communities now live on floating houses and boats made entirely from the local tortura rushes. As we’re shown into people’s houses, given boat rides and presented with craft demos, it’s clear that life would now be very different without the camera-toting visitors, but it’s still fascinating to witness just how, in the 21st Century, such totally different ways of living still exist.

My next Green Toad hop takes me to a place many would consider the main event of any South American adventure – Cusco. Gateway to the Inca Trail, Cusco is understandably a major stop-off. But there’s far more to the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city than simply its proximity to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Indeed, you could easily spend a week here, acclimatizing to the altitude before dusting off the hiking boots. Fortunately for me, having scaled the Inca Steps before, I don’t feel too guilty about skipping the world wonder this time around, and instead use my brief visit to explore Cusco itself, as well as the nearby Sacred Valley, where I happily lose a day exploring the many indigenous markets and Inca citadels.

Thanks to its former life as a major capital for both the Incas and Spanish, Cusco is a World Heritage-listed city in its own right and is dripping in history, full of colonial splendor, age-old ruins and time-sapping museums, all set in the typically gorgeous, and lofty, Andean surroundings. With most of the visitors in town either bubbling with Machu Picchu anticipation or on a post-trek high, it’s perhaps unsurprising the city is also one of the Gringo Trail’s party capitals, meaning that all too quickly my days merge into nights, and back into days, until finally the bus is once again calling.

I’ve no time to miss Cusco, however, as it’s straight from one World Heritage site to another. Travelling through the night I leave the twisty roads of the Andean highlands behind me and venture deep into southern Peru and the Nazca Desert, renowned as the home of the mysterious giant geoglyphs known simply as the Nazca Lines.



Alien art

These huge drawings, scratched into the desert’s surface and sometimes covering an area more than 200m across, are mainly of animals such as monkeys, humming birds and fish, and number more than 70 in total. Believed to date back around 1,500 years, they’ve been seriously confusing experts since first being discovered in 1927, due in large part to being near impossible to see from the ground. Most theories regarding their origins have something to do with astronomy or messages to the gods, while aliens also pop up with amusing regularity.

Whatever the truth, to really appreciate their scale you need to get up in the sky. Luckily, there’s a remote but bustling airfield stacked with little planes desperate to take up travellers. Prices aren’t cheap, but competition is fierce, so be prepared to get involved in some determined haggling as there are serious discounts to be had. If you’ve just travelled through the night on a 16-hour funride and have a tendency to get travel sick, also be prepared to spend much of the flight throwing up. As I do.

Aggressively banking left and right in our flimsy six-seater plane is undoubtedly exciting, and ensures we get perfect views of the archaeological wonders, which genuinely make the mind boggle, wondering why, how and who went to so much trouble to complete these epic scribbles. Unfortunately, however, it also ensures I empty my stomach, meaning I eventually stagger from the plane with a bonus party bag.

My final destination in sight, it’s onwards and upwards through Peru. Next on the agenda is Huacachina – where the dunes happily confine my World Heritage chundering to distant memory status – before I head to the coast for my final stop, Paracas and the Ballestas Islands. Nicknamed by eager marketing types as Peru’s version of the Galapagos Islands, the Ballestas Islands are genuinely incredible for the amount of wildlife on display.

Home to more birds than I could ever count, we also spot penguins and sea lions, as well as dramatic caves and arches, even creepy water spiders. It’s undoubtedly impressive, especially considering the desert dunes of Huacachina are little more than an hour away.

But that leaves just one final hop courtesy of my amphibian friends. Another four hours and I reach my last stop, the Peruvian capital Lima. Suffering a bad reputation in years gone by, Lima has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late, and it’s not hard to see why. Modern, surprisingly chic and with a food scene envied by most of the continent, I feel a lifetime from La Paz, where I left just two weeks before.

What to do: The Chaskis Hop, from La Paz to Lima, with Green Toad (www.greentoadbus.com) costs from £263. Biking the world’s most dangerous road with Gravity Bolivia (www.gravitybolivia.com) costs from £65. Urban Rush (www.urbanrushbolivia.com), in La Paz, costs £13.

Where to sleep: Beds at the Adventure Brew Hostel (www.theadventurebrewhostel.com) in La Paz cost from £4. Rooms at Hostal Las Olas (www.hostallasolas) cost from £10pp. Beds at HI Inka Pacha (www.hihostels.com) on Isla Del Sol cost from £3.50. Beds at Bothy Hostel (www.bothyhostel.com) in Puno cost from £5. Beds at Milhouse (www.milhousehostel.com) in Cusco cost from £6. Beds at Desert Nights (www.desertadventure.net) in Huacachina cost from £5. Beds at Flying Dog (www.flyingdogperu.com) in Lima cost from £7.

Photos: Andrew Westbrook, Thinkstock 


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La Paz to Lima: Inca culture, adrenalin thrills and dressing up as Spider-Man
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