One month after returning from this adventure, I can’t quite let it go yet… Here is a summary of this amazing backpacking trip across the Andes for those who did not have time to read the complete story 😉
This adventure took us from Santiago de Chile to Lima in Peru, via Bolivia, in 30 days and about 3 500 kilometers! We discovered amazing and unexpected landscapes more beautiful the ones than the others (lagoons, geysers, volcanoes, salt desert, Inca ruins…). We learnt that exploring these out-of-the-extraordinary places did not come easy. But it was worth it and I would do it all over again! The Andes truly offer magical landscapes to discover… Here we go.
Santiago was the starting point of our adventure! We discovered a very modern city, with huge buildings, lovely parks and hills, beautiful cathedrals, palm trees, and most importantly with the impressive Andes mountain range in the background. They were right there in front of us: beautiful, amazing, majestic! As Santiago is located only a few meters above sea level, the Andes seem to rise straight up to the skies like a huge wall protecting the city. The snowy peaks add a beautiful touch to this scenery.
We spent a lovely day in Valparaiso, a beautiful port city on the Pacific coast, about one-and-a-half hours from Santiago by car. Even though it is Chile’s second biggest city, Valparaiso has managed to preserve a very laid-back atmosphere, with its little streets flanked by colorful houses, its beautiful and artistic graffiti paintings and with the Pacific Ocean in the background. Exploring Valparaiso means going up and down as the city was built on a series of hills. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Valparaiso is a great place for a day trip from Santiago. We finished your day with a glass of pisco sour, a very popular drink in Chile, with an amazing view on the bay!
We left Santiago on a night bus, heading north, towards the Atacama Desert. The total ride took about 24 hours so we decided to split it into two and made a stop at Bahia Inglesa. We discovered a gorgeous beach, with white sand, rocks, birds, crystal clear waters. It was beautiful! We were in the middle of nowhere: a few houses, a few restaurants, the beach and… nothing! Our trip into wild nature was starting to take shape. The next day we started the second part of our ride north. The landscapes were constantly changing. At times the road would follow the coast, at other times it would go through the mountains. We loved it!
After spending 12 hours on a bus, we were very happy to open the door to our lovely and cozy room in San Pedro. This little haven of peace in the Atacama Desert is famous for its spectacular landscapes, as well as for the positive energy floating in its air. We discovered a lovely hippie town, with beaten paths flanked by small houses made of sun-dried clay bricks, located at the center of incredible natural sceneries: moon valley, geysers, lakes, etc. We would wake up each morning with a stunning view of the Licancabur volcano, which peaks at about 5900 meters. What’s more, it is said that the lithium mines from the nearby Atacama Salt Flat create good vibes in the air that make the inhabitants from San Pedro relaxed and happy. I don’t know if this was true or not, but we did feel a relaxed and positive energy during our stay and we only keep good memories about San Pedro!
Our first excursion during our stay in San Pedro was the beautiful Moon Valley. This vast area full of different textures, colors, reliefs, landscapes is said to be similar to the surface of the moon, thus its name. Its various stones have been carved by wind and water over thousands of years. We arrived via a little road with a strong feeling to be in the middle of nowhere. We grasped what it was like to be in a desert. Incredible landscapes but nothing around, no building, no electric cables, no tree! just the natural beauty of the place. We were amazed by this lunar landscape, these beautiful rocky forms covered by a white layer of salt.
The second place that we visited during our stay in San Pedro was the El Tatio geyser field. With this excursion, we started experiencing a new combo that we would later face several times in Bolivia: awakening at dawn / high altitude / minus zero temperatures. What we learnt during this trip was that visiting out-of-the-extraordinary places does not come easy! El Tatio is a geyser field located at 4 320 meters above sea level, about an hour away from San Pedro. We woke up at 4 am that day to reach the geothermic fields as early as possible, as the geyser eruptions are the most spectacular before the sun rises. We were ready to face the minus 8 degrees to explore this amazing site! When we got there, we forgot that we were cold and sleepy: we were just amazed by this natural show being played in front of our eyes! These giant columns of steam were rising up several meters high in a strange noise of splashing water. It was still dark. We felt like we had reached another planet again. We were captivated!
Our adventure in Chile ended with the visit of three beautiful lagoons, only half an hour away from San Pedro de Atacama. We were fascinated by the desert landscapes: it looked as if the grounds had been sprinkled with salt. The volcanoes were rising out in the distance. It was beautiful! Our first stop was at the Cejar Lagoon, famous for its high salt concentration which allows you to float. We then reached two little lagoons, or actually two “cenotes”, which look like two eyes, thus their name (“the eyes of the Atacama Salt Flat”). The highlight of this excursion was the extraordinary sunset on the Tebenquiche lagoon. As the sun gradually went down, it gave a totally different color tone to this landscape.
We left San Pedro de Atacama early one morning, to embark on a very rich three-day adventure that would take us to one of the highlights of our trip: the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia. We would spend the next three days at more than 4 000 meters above sea level, in the middle of the desert, and each one of these days would be filled with incredible discoveries: colorful lagoons, hot springs, geysers, strange rocky formations, volcanoes, salt flats, flamingos (lots of flamingos!), cactus, etc. The landscapes would constantly be changing. On this first day, we discovered the beautiful Polques hot springs. It was 10 a.m. We were at 4 400 meters of altitude, the temperature was below 0°C and we were invited to take an open air bath made of thermal water at 30°C! When we reached our next stop, we had the feeling that we had just landed on Mars! We had arrived at the Sol de Mañana geyser, at an altitude of 4 900 meters! Finally we reached the beautiful Laguna Colorada. We realized that, as the sun was going down, the color of the lagoon was changing. It went from pitch red to purple and blue and pink. It was beautiful! And then we tried a new experience: spending one night at an altitude of 4300 meters…
On the second day of the adventure taking us to the Uyuni Salt Flat, we explored some beautiful lagoons, including the Hedionda lagoon where we were fascinated by the colony of flamingos standing only five meters away from us. Part of the water of the lagoon was frozen and the flamingos were walking on the ice. We also discovered the “stone tree”, a seven-meter-high strange rock formation, in the middle of the desert. At the end of the day, the landscape was starting to change and the grounds began to look as if they had been sprinkled with salt. We were very close to the Uyuni Salt Flat…
On day 3 of our excursion in Bolivia, we woke up at dawn to be ready to watch the sun rise in the Uyuni Salt Flat! Finally! This desert spreading over 12 000 square kilometers and located at about 3 650 meters of altitude is entirely covered with salt! It was formed over thousands of years. A prehistoric lake used to cover most of southwest Bolivia and, as it gradually dried up, it left a huge salt area. Today, it is the world’s largest salt flat. Our guide took us to a place called Isla de los Pescadores (Fishermen Island). It was still pitch dark when we arrived and we started climbing this little hill. We were progressing through what seemed to be a forest of giant cacti! And finally the sun began to rise and we discovered this huge sea of salt all around us. It was beautiful!
After spending three amazing days in the middle of nature near the Uyuni Salt Flat, we were now on our way to the Bolivian capital: La Paz, the highest capital in the world! At that point of the trip, we began to feel tired. As beautiful as the landscapes had been, we had not slept much during our excursion, both because of the altitude and the early wake up calls. And these three days in high altitude had been followed by a rough night on a train with little sleep as well. After regaining some energy, we discovered a colorful city, set in the middle of beautiful mountains in red tones and we found out that the best way to explore La Paz was to take the cable cars! We strolled around the animated streets of the historic center and watch the sun set on the beautiful Illimani volcano.
From La Paz, we took a bus to go and discover the mysterious archeological sites of Tiwanaku and Pumapunku. It was midday and the sun was strong at 3 800 meters above sea level. There was not a single tree, no shade. There was nothing around us but the ancient ruins. We learnt that the city of Tiwanaku used to be the center of a powerful pre-inca civilization that ruled over part of Bolivia and Chile for hundreds of years. As we were wandering around the ruins, the same question was popping over and over again in our heads: how did they do it? If you look closely at the stones scattered around the site, you are left thinking that there is something strange. How could people cut stones in such a precise way so many years ago!? How could they carve perfect circles and squares in stones? It is as if the stones had been laser cut to perfectly fit in one another…
We left La Paz early one morning to embark on a new amazing adventure: spending one night on the legendary Lake Titicaca! It seems that there is something mysterious about this lake, which is so huge, so high, so deep and so intricatly associated with the Inca civilization! We embarked on a small boat in direction to the Island of the Sun, the cradle of the Inca civilization. The majestic Andes mountain range was right there in the background, with its beautiful snowy peaks. We discovered a beautiful hilly island and we hiked part of the trail that goes all around the island. We had a gorgeous view on the agricultural terraces covering some hills and on the lake, which definitely did not look like a lake but more like a sea!
After a scary ride on an “angry” Lake Titicaca on our way back from the Island of the Sun, we reached Puno in Peru! We were ready to explore a new country, on the footsteps of the Incas! We took a bus to reach the little village of Ollantaytambo and made several stops on the way. We discovered lovely Peruvian villages as well as Inca ruins. During the first part of the ride, we were in a dry desert. The sky was blue and the mountains were in a beautiful brown shade. During the second part of the ride, the landscape radically changed. There was much more vegetation, the climate was more humid and there were many clouds.
After being on the road for three weeks, after spending a few nights in “basic” places, at more than 4000 meters of altitude, after a scary boat ride on an angry Lake Titicaca and after so many long bus rides, all we wanted was to rest for a few days in a cozy place! The hotel Tierra Inka in Ollantaytambo was the perfect place to do that! Staying in Ollantaytambo was like going back in time! It seems that not much has changed since the 13th century, when the impressive Inca civilization was living there. We discovered a lovely village wrapped in mountain fog, with narrow cobblestone streets and massive stone buildings made to resist earthquakes throughout time. We were impressed by the series of little canals built by the Inca and which are still running throughout the whole village and which gave a lovely touch to this mountain village.
On August, 15th we jumped out of bed when the alarm clock rang at 4:45am: we were going to Machu Picchu!! Finally! Going to Machu Picchu was a dream and it was the second highlight of our trip across the Andes (after the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia)! There is something mysterious about this Inca City, built in the middle of misty mountains, at about 2 430 meters above sea level, in a spectacular setting. As we arrived, we started walking up a little mountain trail and were fascinated by the setting. There was something beautiful about the light. The sun was going up and the morning mist was gradually disappearing. It was nice and warm. We were surrounded by this gorgeous tropical mountain forest. And then suddenly, there it was, right in front of our eyes: the beautiful lost Inca City, more beautiful than I could have expected!
After six relaxing days, we left our beloved Ollantaytambo to continue our journey on the footsteps of the Incas: this time to the beautiful Cusco! We started exploring the city that once was the capital of the Inca Empire. We discovered a beautiful and impressively well preserved colonial city, with imposing churches, red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies. Women dressed in the traditional Peruvian way and accompanied by baby lamas ask for a little bit of money in exchange for a photo. On the plaza de Armas, we felt that Cusco’s colonial was palpable. The plaza is flanked by three massive churches, one of which was built on the site of an Inca temple! When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they destroyed the Inca buildings and used the stones to build their churches!
Our adventure in the Inca Sacred Valley ended with the visit of the impressive archeological complex of Sacsayhuaman. Located on a steep hill overlooking Cusco, it is composed of massive fortified walls in a zigzag shape! Like we had seen in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, the walls were made of huge stones so tightly fitted together that a sheet of paper would not fit in-between! Mortar was not used; the stones were so perfectly cut that their shape made them stay together. From the top of the hill, we had the best view on Cusco and the Plaza de Armas.
Our amazing adventure ended with the short visit of the Peruvian capital. We first explored the lovely area of Miraflores and enjoyed walking around the beautiful Parque del Amor which reminded us of the Parque Guell in Barcelona. We then discovered the colonial heart of Lima around the gorgeous Plaza Mayor and were impressed by the San Francisco Monastary.