At 3600m above sea level, the Salar de Uyuni is the highest Salt Flat in the world, and at over 10,000 square kilometres it is also the biggest. The Salt Flat was formed many moons ago as a large ancient lake dried up leaving behind the whitest, flattest expanse of salt you have ever seen. The only way to experience the Salt Flats is by jumping in a 4x4 with a bunch of fellow travellers and driving across it. We organised our trip to launch from Tupiza with our new friends Laura and Phil. You can read more about organising the trip in our Tupiza post.
If Bolivia were to have a wild west, Tupiza would be the location; an arid landscape of jagged, rocky mountains of dark red earth covered in giant Cacti, this is the place you imagine cowboys riding through the canyons on their horses. It is even claimed that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, of train robber fame, met their fate near Tupiza, giving the town that real old time outlaw edge.
There really aren’t many nice things to say about Potosi, a dry, dishevelled mining town 10 hours south of La Paz. The Spanish settled here over 300 years ago when they heard of a mountain made of silver. The Cerro Rico Mountain looms like an ancient worn out monster over the city. Once the richest city in the world, we expected Potosi to have an element of grandeur on the scale of Ballarat in Victoria Australia, instead we were welcomed into a rough and run down city, much like a neglected ghetto on the outskirts of La Paz.
A few hours north-east of La Paz there lies a road, a long, narrow, windy road, hugging the steep sheer mountains as it edges it´s way deep into the untamed Bolivian jungle. The road is so narrow that a passing truck, bus or car, has nothing to protect it from the dark depths of the jungle valley some 800m below. To embark on a trip along this road means the very real possibility of not making it to the end. This road is called the DEATH ROAD. Are you scared yet?
La La La Paz, what a crazy city! Our first view of La Paz was spectacular. High on the mountain the bus was squealing around the corner when the city suddenly appeared below. Nestled ever so tightly within the gorge, the cites central area sits at the bottom, while the lego-like houses of the suburbs are stacked and sprawling in chaotic order up the sides of the steep gorge walls.
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, at 3910m above sea level it is approximately 200km long by 60km wide, it’s really really big! The Lake spans the border of Peru and Bolivia, both countries claim to own 60% of the Lake, however the maps clearly show Peru has the majority share.
We finally made it to Machu Picchu! Discovered in 1911 by American Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is the mysterious ancient Inca city perched ever so dramatically above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Little is known about why the Inca’s built the city. It is estimated that construction began on it over 1000 years ago, and when the Spanish invaded the region in the 15th Century the Inca abandoned their most significant built work forever, letting the jungle over grow and consume the city hiding it for the next 500 years. The Spanish never found out about the city, luckily, as it would have been pillaged and destroyed like so many other ancient sites. It wasn’t until the 19th Century, when Hiram Bingham was looking for a different ancient city named Vilcabamba that he stumbled upon Machu Picchu with the help of a local farmer. Much of the ruins have been restored and rebuilt, with the jungle so carefully peeled away, revealing beautiful Inca stonework, temples and terraces.
It all began with a 4.30am start in Cusco. We boarded the bus, cold, tired and excited for the days ahead. We were about to embark on a once in a lifetime pilgrimage along the Inca Trail to the infamous Machu Picchu; the serene ancient ruins awaiting us at the end of the 40km trek. Having booked the trip in June, we were eager to put our hiking boots on and get trekking with our fellow adventurers.
The Camino Inca (Inca Trail) was a path created by the Inca over 500 years ago, as a path for the Inca Runners - messengers, to relay important messages between villages, and other significant sites. The path was also used by priests and other religious peoples as a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, stopping along the way at various religious sites and temples. Today many of these sites still dot the path in varying degrees of ruin. Machu Picchu is the climax at the end of the line; the ancient Inca city, and place of worship, perched atop a steep mountain, surrounded by craggy Andean peaks. Today it is not a religious pilgrimage, it is a walk though history, to learn and appreciate the lncas, their heritage, and the landscape that formed their beliefs. It is also a personal challenge, to conquer the high altitude mountains and rugged terrain.
The entirety of our trip to date has been self organised. After some investigation our trip into the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s would have to be done true gringo style, as an organised tour, due to time constraints. Our impulsive and expensive purchase of the tourist ticket in Cusco ensured that we would certainly have to make the trip into the Screed Valley, as half the value of the ticket was consumed in the Sacred Valley highlights.
The Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley) is in the Urubamba Valley, and was named so by the Inca’s due the vast fertile plains that line the valley floor, following the Urubamba River all the way from Pisac, near Cusco, to Machu Picchu. The valley is Sacred due to it’s ability to grow many different crops, in particular Maize (Corn), of which there are 200 varieties in this valley alone, and was the Inca civilisations vital source of life (food) grown from the earth – from their sacred god Pachamama.
Another over night bus later we arrived in Cusco in high spirits, high because of the altitude. Sitting at 3300m above sea level, Cusco is the launching pad into the ancient Inca Empire within the mountains and valleys that surround it.