From Santa Cruz the path is upwards; Cochabamba and La Paz being the first destinations. Since I recently reviewed in detail this country - see Planning Bolivia and my other Bolivian journals – the descriptions here would be skeletal and refer only to the travel planning considerations of such a trip.
The fourth biggest city in Bolivia (with roughly half a million inhabitants) Cochabamba shares the basic design of Bolivian cities: a tiny downtown surrounded by endless shantytowns. However, its peculiarities make it well worth a visit: the main city in the Bolivian Valleys has the best climate and food in the country. Rich in extremes, Bolivia has few mild areas; in Cochabamba the proximity to the equator and the Amazonian Basin is balanced by the height since the city is well above the 2500m above the sea level. It is higher even than Santa Fe in New Mexico. Yet, most Bolivians refer to it as being "deep down in the valleys."
Further south is the Avenida de las Heroinas, where many cheap restaurants offer some of the best Bolivian food. Following it eastwards, the cable car reaching the Cristo de la Concordia is reached. If walking the streets did not cause any symptoms of altitude sickness (80% of the people feel perfectly well at this altitude) then the hill may be climbed by foot. At the southern edge of the downtown, there are two points of interest. Next to the San Sebastian Hill and the main bus terminal is an amazing food market. Being in such a central location in Bolivia, Cochabamba displays products from the various climates zones. Tropical fruits fight for space among the Altiplano's potatoes and altitude fruits from the valleys. Beef from Santa Cruz is shown next to guinea pigs from the Altiplano. Nowhere in the country is this richness equaled. East of it is the northern shore of the Alalay Lake. Despite being undeveloped, the novelty of seeing a major Bolivian city next to a lake makes the visit well-worth.
La Paz is one of the few world cities you won't forget your first view of it; like Rio de Janeiro, Venice and Hong Kong, it was built on a unique environment. This effect is especially true if you arrive to the city by bus from the south (like from Oruro or Cochabamba); then, after passing its twin city, El Alto, which sits flat on the plateau, the land breaks down and you will see a city occupying a crater-like space. That combined with the lack of oxygen at that extreme altitude, you would experience a perfect illusion of having landed on another planet. After recovering your breath you will take a second look and discover that the crater is open in one side and just there, filling the whole of that opening is Mount Illimani. You will fail not to fall in love with it at first sight; its snow-covered trinity of peaks is the permanent stage of that huge amphitheatre called La Paz. Dusk or dawn, rain, sun or clouds, the mountain always provides an ever-changing focal point of beauty. Please see my Planning Bolivia journal for more on this beautiful city.
Here the traveler has several options. Depending on time, venturing also a bit into the Bolivian Amazonian Basin is recommended. The most accessible options there are: Coroico and the Death Road and Sorata, which provide unforgettable views of tropic rainforest blending with snowed mountains in perfect – though unusual – harmony.
However, in a cross-South America trip as this is, the main destination from here would be to what used to be the Inca Empire.
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.
The Southern Seas
If looking at very old literature – from the 19th Century or older – one would find the Pacific Ocean was known back then as the Southern Seas. If looking at a map, this name makes little sense; unless you know what to look at. Loot at the Panama Canal, it crosses the land from east to west. It means the Caribbean Sea is north of it, while the Pacific Ocean is in fact … the Southern Seas.
From La Paz there is a very short way to the ocean. Buses from La Paz terminal depart every morning to Arica on the Chilean coast, and arrive there in the early afternoon. Few places in the world allow you to climb from sea level to well over four kilometers height in less than two hundred kilometers of well-paved road.
The spectacular border between the countries is divided in two different areas: the Chilean and Bolivian outposts are some ten kilometers from each other, and each one provides different views. The Chilean side name is Chungara, which is the name of the neighboring lake as well; both are at 4844m above sea level. The deep blue water practically touches the immigrations’ building and friendly birds allow the traveler to take pictures while waiting for the stamp. Beyond the lake, there are two beautiful volcanoes of an almost perfect conical shape that are called Nevados de Payachata and which occasionally smoke. In Bolivia, the pass is called Paso Portezuelo de Tambo Quemado; near it is the highest mountain in Bolivia, actually a silent volcano called Sajama that rises up to 6550m above sea level.
Most of the way passes through a very arid and steep landscape with occasional llamas and cactuses, but one hundred and fifty kilometers after the departure, Putre, Tarapaca Region’s capital, is reached. If wishing to explore it, the best is in the way back of Arica.
Closing the Loop
Back in La Paz from this short detour in the circle drawn by this trip, it is time to move southwards, to the highest mountain in the Americas.