Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru

My wife Rachel and I recently returned from our honeymoon in South America.  Although I’d had visions of a luxurious trip to the French Riveria or the South Pacific, Rachel persuaded me with her enthusiasm for the prospect of hiking the Inca Trail and visiting the famous Incan city of Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail passes through the cloud forest
The Inca Trail passes through the cloud forest on the second day of the trek.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Inca Trail Planning

Trip planning began in the fall of 2014, with the trip built around the four day Inca Trail hike.  Rachel did some research on companies offering Inca Trail treks and settled on Peru Treks.  This company came highly rated as a trekking company and emphasized fair treatment of its support personnel (primarily composed of porters).

To limit the effects of heavy use on the historic trail, the Peruvian government allows only a limited number of permits for the trail, which can only be purchased by accredited companies.  500 permits per day are authorized, but that includes support personnel, typically quoted at three porters, cooks, and guides for every two trekkers.  High demand meant that we had to reserve well in advance.  My understanding was that the Inca Trail was most pleasant during the dry season during winter in the Southern Hemisphere and we booked our trek for mid-August 2015.

Although we booked with Peru Treks and paid our deposit in December 2014, we didn’t have definite confirmation that the trek would be going forward until permits for August went on sale.  I held off booking non-refundable aspects of the trip (aside from taking a chance and booking the airfare) until February 2015 when Peru Treks confirmed they had purchased our permits.

San Francisco Church, La Paz, Bolivia
San Francisco Church, La Paz, Bolivia

Trip Layout

Rachel doesn’t like trip planning, so aside from the Inca Trail, I essentially had free reign to plan the trip.  I decided to place the Inca Trail at the end of the trip to give us time to acclimate to the altitude (and give us something to look forward to!).  After learning of the beauty of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake, I decided to incorporate that into the itinerary.  Lake Titicaca is shared between Peru and Bolivia, with Bolivia’s city of Copacabana and Isla del Sol being particularly attractive.  I prefer open jaw trips anyway, to maximize the places we can visit without backtracking.

Moon Island in Lake Titicaca with the Andes in the background
Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca with the Andes in the background as seen from (a superzoom camera) Isla del Sol

By December 2014, I’d settled on the basic outline of the trip:

  • Fly into La Paz, Bolivia
  • Three days in La Paz with no formal itinerary other than a day trip to Valle de la Luna, with most of the time devoted to adjusting to the altitude
  • Three days at Lake Titicaca (Copacabana, Bolivia and Puno, Peru)
  • Two days in Cusco, Peru as required by Peru Treks
  • Four days on the Inca Trail, with Machu Picchu reached on the final day
  • Part of a day in Lima, Peru before returning home that night
American Airlines B757 on approach to El Alto, La Paz's airport
American Airlines B757 on approach to El Alto, La Paz’s airport

Flights

We were lucky that we were in a position to pounce on favorable airfares for August that were available in December 2014.  I was pleased to see good prices on open jaw itineraries on American Airlines for Washington National to La Paz via Miami and back from Lima (also via Miami).  Domestic First Class/International Business class was $1096/person compared with coach at about $850/person.  This was another case where the vagaries of airfare pricing elude me, but they benefited us in this case since the same itinerary in premium cabin roundtrip to Lima (instead of open jaw with La Paz and Lima) was pricing at $500 more per person.

I was aware that the “angled lie flat” seats on the 757 and 767 aircraft American was using on the routes between Miami and Bolivia/Peru didn’t offer quite as nice a product as some of the more modern aircraft going elsewhere in Latin America, Europe and Asia.  Still, it was well worth the extra $250 (as a honeymoon splurge if nothing else!) to have the more comfortable seat, meals, lounge access, and the frequent flier mile bonuses that American is offering this year for premium cabin flights.  We booked in December; the price for our flights actually dipped slightly in January to $1000 roundtrip but had doubled by spring.

Happy to be flying in Business class for only a slight premium.
Happy to be flying in Business class for only a slight premium.

I followed the advice of the travel blogs to check the seat assignments every so often and it was a good thing I did.  American didn’t send any notice, but sometime during spring or early summer, the equipment on the Lima to Miami 767 segment changed to a more modern interior.  The arrangement with 2-2-2 angled lie flat seats was replaced with a more comfortable interior with 1-2-1 flat bed seats.  We were automatically moved to the back row across the aisle, but I was able to move us to the middle section so we could sit together.

I booked a flight separately on LAN for a Cusco to Lima segment (adding it to the existing American Airlines itinerary caused the price of the itinerary to double even though the flight was $180 purchased separately).  Since the flight to Lima was the same day as our departure back to the United States, I allowed a ten hour layover in Lima.  That would give us time to visit downtown for a few hours while also protecting us in case of all but the longest delays.  I figured that even if our flight was cancelled, we’d be in good shape since LAN flies hourly or more between Cusco and Lima.

PeruRail's Andean Explorer
PeruRail’s Andean Explorer travels between Puno and Cusco, Peru

Ground Transportation

The trip had three main ground segments:

  1. La Paz, Bolivia to Copacabana, Bolivia
  2. Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru
  3. Puno, Peru to Cusco, Peru.

The last one was easy to plan, because I’d heard about PeruRail’s Andean Explorer train.  We were fortunate in that northbound itineraries like ours seem to be less popular and they were cheaper as a result.  Our tickets cost $169 booked online.

The first two segments were most easily traveled by bus, with several companies servicing each route.  I booked the La Paz to Copacabana segment in advance on Vicuña via Kanoo tours online for $7/person.  Once in Copacabana we booked the Copacabana to Puno segment with the Titicaca company (which was the only company offering morning departures) for 30 Bolivianos/person (if I recall correctly.  Equivalent to $4.35).

Our incredible suite at Hostal las Olas in Copacabana, Bolivia
Our incredible suite at Hostal las Olas in Copacabana, Bolivia

Hotels

As I usually do, I employed TripAdvisor to find hotels with the best balance of reviews, location, and price.  Fortunately it’s easy to get a great hotel for relatively little money in Bolivia and Peru.  We were very happy with all of our hotel choices during the trip:

  1. Stannum Boutique Hotel, La Paz (three nights, $126.59/night)
  2. Hostal las Olas, Copacabana (two nights, $54/night)
  3. Tierra Viva Puno Plaza, Puno (one night, $70/night)
  4. Hotel Rumi Punku, Cusco (three nights, $130/night)

Hostal las Olas deserves special mention as the crown jewel of our honeymoon accommodations.  It’s a hostel only in terms of lack of central heat and toiletries. $54 a night got us our own three-story tower suite, with three beds, a kitchen, wood-burning stove, and cupola with a hammock and a view of Lake Titicaca.

 Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus

Series on the Inca Trail (Camino Inka)

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (background)

Introduction (Cusco to Ollantaytambo by Bus)

Day One (Piscacucho to Wayllabamba)
12 km (7.5 miles) distance, +300 m (984′) elevation

Day Two (Wayllabamba to Pacamayo)
11 km (6.8 miles) distance, +1,200 m (3,937′)/-600 m (1,969′) elevation

Day Three (Part I, Pacamayo to Qunchamarka AND Part II,  Chaquicocha to Wiñay Wayna)
15 km (9.3 miles) distance, +350 m (1148′)/-1300 m (4,265′) elevation

Day Four (Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu)
5 km (3.1 miles) distance, +40 m (131′)/-265 m (869′) elevation

Inca Trail’s End: Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in Infrared

Identifying a Hummingbird at the Inca Trail’s Second Pass

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