The revival of the Aymara - and to some less extent also the Quechua – culture in Bolivia is one of the most fascinating things awaiting the visitor. The most visible aspect – at least from the international angle – was the recent change of the country’s name from "Republica de Bolivia" to "Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia," a change that emphasizes the many cultures forming this country. However, changes do not end there.
I commented on the past on the peculiarities of the Bolivian Spanish, especially of the dialect spoken on the Andean High Plateau. It uses many archaic Spanish words, and is spoken slowly, for the joy of foreigners confused by the usual Spanish race to maximize the number of vowels pronounced on any given second. This sluggishness is the result of Aymara (and Quechua) vowels having diffused into the local Spanish. Three main vowels exist in Aymara, namely "a," "i," and "u;" each can be pronounced in a short and long variations; very unlike the length-fixed Spanish vowels (the vowels represented here follow the Spanish pronunciation). Aymara speakers often exchange "e" with "i," and "o" with "u." Whenever Bolivians want to emphasize a word, they use a long Aymara vowel in one of the syllables, forcing them to slow down the Spanish-fire. The revival of Aymara is resulting also in a better transcription of Aymara names; the new names feature "k" and "w," two consonants that are seldom used in Spanish. Thus, what in the past was "Tiahuanaco" (other spellings exist) became now "Tiwanaku." I’ve heard Aymara people pronouncing the name and must admit the new spelling is much clearer.
This cultural aspect of a visit to Bolivia transforms the country into a key location for experiencing what is left from the Inca, much more than the Spanish-oriented Peru. Yet, beyond language, the regional old cultures had left few signs. Their houses melted down into the ground, returning to the earth they were made of, and they did not possess any significant writing system. Little had survived, and the stories told about the origins of Tiwanaku vary with the tellers. Moreover, the Inca moved populations around constantly, as a cruel control method over civilians. Then the Spaniards worked hard on the destruction of the original cultures. After a few centuries, all that is left are smeared shadows.
Tiwanaku was probably contemporaneous to Angkor, apparently dating from the late first millennia. Apparently – again this ambiguous definition – the denizens were Paucara (or Pucara) people, who spoke a language closely related to Aymara. Then a calamity occurred and they migrated across the Titicaca Lake, founding Cusco and the Inca Empire. This short lived empire succumbed to the Spaniards after a few generations. Many Bolivians like telling stories about secret passages underneath the lake. Sadly, many misconceptions on the topic bound among guides in the area, instead of saying "I don’t know" they prefer telling very imaginative stories; on the specific journal linked here I gave specific examples and corrections.
If wishing to meet what is left from the Inca Empire, there are two key locations for the international traveler: Cusco and La Paz. Both are very high; unluckily, most travelers completely obliterate altitude acclimatization considerations. Despite Machu Picchu the attraction not being at an extreme altitude, a significant percentage of people would experience mild altitude sickness symptoms there. 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 from sea-level Lima, 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 in trekking or climbing). Moreover, large cities – as La Paz is in comparison to any other settlement in the area - provide a more comfortable environment for resting and acclimatizing during 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 also the Lake Titicaca and Tiwanaku, both related to the birth of this high altitude empire.
If adopting this strategy – centering the high altitude trip between La Paz and Cusco – then visiting the Titicaca Lake and Puno is unavoidable (flying over the spectacular landscape of the area in a single hour would be a waste). Lake Titicaca is vast, offering the traveler two main routes between La Paz and Puno. 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, which is split between Peru and Bolivia. Each one of these trajectories offers special views and thus is worth experiencing both of them. Buses and taxis to Puno are available from the Peruvian side of both borders. 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.