A recurring theme while talking about Machu Picchu is altitude. Despite the attraction not being at an extreme altitude, 20% of people would experience mild altitude sickness symptoms here. Invariably, all human bodies would experience an acclimatization process to the decreased air pressure; I’ve described that extensively in the past. That means bad news for travelers rushing through the area, especially if unaware of his – or hers – reaction to altitude; everybody is different with respect to that. Well, that is unless you descent into Cusco.
Despite Cusco being higher than the vast majority of human settlements, La Paz is even higher. Acclimatizing in La Paz before reaching lower Cusco makes more sense since most of the activities and attractions in La Paz require less effort (unless engaging intreking or climbing) and the large city provides a more comfortable environment for resting a few days. Moreover, there is another reason for choosing this path. It closely follows the source and heart of the Inca Empire, which was deeply related to the Andean High Plateau and not to the arid coasts of the Pacific Ocean. Making a round trip between La Paz and Cusco allows visiting Lake Titicaca and Tiwanaku, both related to the birth of this altitude empire.
Did SeenThat just said "round trip?" What a bore!
In this case "round trip" doesn’t mean tracing back your steps. Lake Titicaca is vast, offering the traveler two main routes between La Paz and Puno – the main significant town in its Peruvian side. Most travelers chose the shortest past through Copacabana. It allows exploring of the "Isla del Sol" (Island of the Sun), a pivotal point in Inca mythology, as well as visits to one of the most important cathedrals in Bolivia and its adjacent "Calvario." Yet, I have described in the past also the crossing via Desaguadero, the town at the southern tip of the lake. Each one of these trajectories offers special views and thus is worth experiencing both of them. In this case "round trip" doesn’t mean "boring." Buses and taxis to Puno are available from the Peruvian side of both borders.
Truth is that both paths are relatively easy and straightforward. The only point of concern is security, and that holds for both sides of the border. Eventually, Peru and Bolivia are pretty similar societies, what holds for one is usually true for the other. Thus, I must repeat my recent warning about ATMs. Two times in a six months period, I got no money from the machine, though the transaction was registered at the US bank. The result was extensive paperwork which could be performed only at the financial center of the country (La Paz). Apparently, this is the result of somebody intentionally cutting the communications during the transaction. The local authorities told me it happens roughly twenty times a day.
Save the troubles and instead of using ATMs, enter the bank and ask for an "Adelanto." A regular transaction would be performed, that means an additional fee but the security in this case is absolute: if the transaction is registered, then the money must be issued.
Another important issue is to avoid showing off very valuable goods. That includes cheap cameras, worthless cellular phones and – for the ladies – also shiny earrings. Check out local headlines: people get killed here for less.
The Other Side
Once in Puno, the last leg of the trip takes the traveler to Cusco. The two main transport options are regular and tourist buses. In this exceptional case, tourist buses are recommended, since they stop at several attractions along the way. There are several companies offering those, the trips cost $25 and can be paid also in soles. As always, paying in local currency is advised. Most buses leave at 8 AM and arrive at 5 PM, allowing seeing all the attractions during daylight. An additional advantage of the tourist buses is that they include a healthy buffet lunch.
The main attractions are from the colonial period, like the Andahuaylillas Church, from the Inca period, like the Wari ruins and pre-Inca remains, like Pukara. However, nothing compares to the awesome natural views along the way. They resemble very much the Bolivian high valleys – like Cochabamba and Sorata - deep narrow valleys with dramatic hills surrounding them. Here, however, they run all the way down to the Pacific Ocean, the brownish high plateau turning into greenish high valleys which eventually end up in a different desert. However, much before the coastal desert Cusco appears. Next to it is the Lost City of Machu Picchu.