South America's wild west...Chile, Bolivia & Peru
Malcolm and Sarah Noble took a tailor-made trip with Cox & Kings along the west side of South America, journeying north from Chile through Bolivia to Peru. They crossed all manner of landscapes, travelling by plane, train, hydrofoil and on foot.
Our arrival in Santiago de Chile, the nation’s capital, coincided with the arrival of Spring. Only no one had mentioned to us that our clocks had to move forward an hour. Though somewhat confused we followed the shrill sound of the alarm on my watch and prepared for our introduction to Latin America.
José, our guide, took us around the main sights in the city centre: La Moneda Presidential Palace; Plaza de Armas, including the cathedral; Fort Hidalgo on Santa Lucía Hill, where the city was founded; finishing on San Cristóbal Hill with its fine view of the city against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes.
We continued by road through the wine growing area to the country’s main port, Valparaíso. The city rests precariously on steep hills, served by seven funicular railways. A feature of the city is the widespread street art, which pops up both on houses and commercial properties. We visited the poet Pablo Naruda’s house and the National Maritime Museum. Both there and in the city are statues to Chile’s naval hero, the Scotsman Admiral Thomas Cochrane, who led the country through their war of independence in the 1820s.
We travelled by road back to the outskirts of Santiago to catch an internal flight north to Calama, then on by road to our hotel, Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, located in the Atacama desert itself, the driest nonpolar desert on Earth. This one-storey hotel is built in an adobe style to replicate local village architecture and is designed to blend into the surrounding wilderness.
On arrival at the hotel we were presented with a list of excursions, mostly treks or visits to points of interest. We spent two days trekking in the desert. The most arduous but rewarding trek took us through the Kari gorge. Sarah handled this with aplomb, me with difficulty. On the third day we were taken by minibus to the Tatio geysers, arriving there just before sunrise. Here we were at an altitude of just over 5,000 metres.
The next day we travelled by road, climbing until we reached the Bolivian border. Here we met our first-class guide, Eric. The journey took us through the spectacular landscapes of the High Andes with lakes, volcanoes, rock formations and ever higher peaks. The one thing missing was paved roads. Until we got to La Paz, there were no paved roads. The villages had neither roads nor pavements and precious little else in the way of public services. We saw lots of llamas, the smaller vicuna and alpacas.
We were headed for the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake on earth. We arrived at a late hour after dark. However, we rose in time to view a spectacular sunrise. We were driven across the salt lake and enjoyed a long walk through the wilderness valley. We stayed over two nights in airstream campers in the middle of the salt lake.
Our next journey, by internal flight from Uyuni, was to the administrative capital of Bolivia, La Paz. The witches’ market in the city centre was a colourful area, with shops and stalls run mainly by women wearing traditional costumes. These were colourful, with wide skirts and, of course, the bowler hats. We used the new Austrian installed cable car system to reach the city centre. This afforded us a wonderful bird’s eye view of La Paz.
In La Paz the presidential and parliamentary election campaign was underway, with Evo Morales the incumbent seeking a fourth term. After the voting had taken place, protests became widespread across the country. In short order, the Organisation of American States declared the results to be fraudulent, the police and army withdrew their support for the president and Morales resigned his office. Bolivia is a country with immense potential for tourism, with breath-taking landscapes and friendly people. There is now real hope of honest and stable government.
Lake Titicaca lies to the north west of Bolivia, but the larger part is in Peru. We were driven from La Paz to the lakeside, where we visited a museum depicting the history of Andean cultures, from pre-Inca times up to the foundation of Inca civilisation and the coming of the Spanish conquistadores. Afterwards, we took a hydrofoil across the lake to both the Sun and Moon islands. Next, we had a drive along the lakeside to the Peruvian frontier and on to Puno for the night.
A link with Britain is the Lake Titicaca steamship. The Goya weighs in at 546 tons and is 52 metres long. It was assembled at the William Denny yard in Dumbarton. It was then dismantled with each section numbered and then shipped to the Pacific coast of Peru. From there, the parts were taken by train to Puno, re-assembled and launched into Lake Titicaca. It is still there, used now as a restaurant.
Our Peru rail trip from Puno to Cusco lasted over 10 hours, rising through the Andes to 3,330 metres. We were then driven to our excellent hotel, the Inkaterra Hacienda at Urubamba in the Sacred Valley.
Exploring the valley, we were able to get a better appreciation of the capabilities of Inca engineers. Impressive sights included the salt flats at Maras, the concentric circles of agricultural terraces at Moray and the temples and Inca dwellings at Ollantaytambo.
The next day Sarah and I undertook different activities. We boarded a train to Machu Picchu, although I jumped off at Kilometre Point 104 to start the trek to the site along the Inca Trail while Sarah continued on to Machu Picchu station. Sarah made several visits arranged by our hotel and I started on the Inca Trail.
This narrow path is cut into the mountains. It involves almost constant climbing with sets of steps, dating from Inca times, at intervals. There is a sheer drop down the mountainside and a steep step of stairs to negotiate before reaching the Sun Gate and being overwhelmed by the first view of Machu Picchu itself.
Next, a train journey back to Cusco, where we visited many sites from the Spanish colonial period, interspersed with remnants of the Inca culture. Our visit to Cusco represented the end of our time in the High Andes. We had avoided suffering from altitude sickness altogether. We flew from Cusco to Lima. On our last night, we enjoyed a pisco sour cocktail at Barranca Hotel as a violinist entertained the customers with a medley of Latin American music.
All in all, our 20 days in South America exceeded expectations by quite some way. The travel arrangements, though complex, were managed perfectly by Cox & Kings and by their local agents. The Atacama desert, the Salar de Uyuni and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu were the highlights. We will look to return and explore other parts of this extraordinary continent.
To see Cox & Kings' collection of group tours and private itineraries to South America, as well as inspiration for tailor-made travel, please click here. To arrange a tailor-made trip to Latin America with Cox & Kings, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.