Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of Signature Travel Network, recently traveled to Peru and Bolivia and is back with these expert insights on how to enjoy the destinations.
There has never been a better time to visit Peru and Bolivia. New air services, great places to stay, and new attractions and experiences offer travelers more options than ever.
Most travelers to Peru begin their journey in Lima, the country’s capital city. This sprawling, chaotic, sophisticated city is where one out of every three Peruvians lives. While Lima does not have the physical beauty of Rio de Janeiro or Quito, it has exceptional art collections, outstanding colonial architecture and world-class dining. Spend time walking around Lima’s colonial district and take in the grandeur of the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square, as well as the enchanting Palacio de Torre Tagle and Casa de Aliaga, the oldest continuously inhabited home in the Americas. If you have time to visit only one museum, make it the Museo Larco, which houses the largest and best-preserved collection of pre-Columbian art in Peru. For dinner, book a table at Centro, IK or Astrid & Gastón, three of Lima’s premier restaurants. The best places to stay are the Belmond Miraflores Park facing the Pacific, the classic Country Club Lima Hotel overlooking a golf course, or design-forward The Westin Lima Hotel & Convention Center.
Ignacio Maza with a community of weavers in the Peruvian Andes.
The heart and soul of Peru is Cuzco, which is the ancient capital of the Incas and gateway to Machu Picchu, the country’s best-known site. To adjust to Cuzco’s altitude, my advice is to travel from Lima to the Sacred Valley, near Cuzco, but 2,000 feet lower. The area has fantastic archaeological sites such as Pisac and Ollantaytambo, spectacular landscapes, as well as Quechua-speaking communities that farm the land and preserve ancient traditions. I stayed at the new explora Valle Sagrado, an all-inclusive luxury lodge that offers over 20 half- and full-day unique experiences in the area. The explora lodge has an ultra-modern design, comfortable rooms, great dining and service, and a team of expert guides that make each day unforgettable. My two favorite experiences were the all-day hike to the Inca ruins of Chinchero, and the hike to Cinco Lagunas, for breathtaking views of the Andes.
Explora Valle Sagrado’s rooms are lined in wood and have views of mountains and cornfields of the Sacred Valley.
The star attraction of Peru, without a doubt, is Machu Picchu. This enigmatic 15th-century citadel was discovered in 1911 by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham. Over 2,000 travelers visit Machu Picchu daily, so planning ahead is a must. The only way to reach Machu Picchu is by taking a train to the town of Aguascalientes. From here, you board a bus that takes you up to the main entrance. Since Machu Picchu is on the edge of the Andes and the Amazon, the weather is unpredictable. Last summer, the Peruvian government changed the admission policy to the ruins, offering either morning or afternoon access, instead of the former all-day pass. My advice is to overnight in Aguascalientes at Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel or Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, or next to the ruins at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. Overnighting gives you more time to explore the ruins at your leisure, and hike up to high vantage points such as Inti Punku, the ancient Sun Gate. The other benefit of overnighting is that you have a second chance to experience the ruins in case of inclement weather on your first day. Machu Picchu is simply magical. Wander through the temples, the quarters of the nobles and workers, and the royal tomb. What makes the site so special is the setting: on a narrow ridge-top plateau, with the Urubamba River snaking around the mountain in the valley below and the high Andes in the distance.
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas has preserved original Inca stonework, colonial frescos and gold-framed paintings.
After acclimating to the altitude, you’re ready for Cuzco, or “navel of the world,” according to the Incas. The city was the ancient capital of the Incas and the hub of their empire. Start your visit at the Plaza de Armas, the center of the city and site of the Cathedral. From here, walk to the temple of the sun, former home of Inca rulers and high priests, called Qorikancha. If you can visit only one site in Cuzco, then this should be it. The stonework here is of the highest quality found anywhere throughout the Inca empire. Take time to walk down the narrow streets of old Cuzco and imagine what life must have been like centuries ago. A mile outside the city is the impressive Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán, Cuzco’s other must-see attraction. You will be impressed with the scale and the size of the boulders used in the construction. Sacsayhuamán is also where the annual Inca festival of the sun or Inti Raymi is held every June. I stayed at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, the finest hotel in Cuzco set in a tranquil plaza and made up of 17th-century convents and a former palace.
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century citadel, discovered in 1911, and visited by over 2,000 travelers every day.
The last stop on my journey was Lake Titicaca, roughly half the size of Lake Ontario and the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12,500 feet over sea level. Surrounding the lake are several archaeological sites, including Sillustani, a pre-Inca site with 36 funerary towers. The best place to stay near the lake is Titilaka, a Relais & Châteaux lodge on a secluded peninsula offering an all-inclusive luxury experience without peer in the region. Titilaka is the perfect “home base” from which to cruise to the Uros floating islands, built on bundles of reeds that grow on the shores of the lake. I also recommend visiting the neighboring Aymara communities and markets and Taquile Island. However, my one regret in Peru is that I was not able to travel on Belmond’s new Andean Explorer train, as it was sold out.
Isla Incahuasi at Uyuni in Bolivia is known for giant cacti that grow as tall as 30 feet high.
From Peru’s Lake Titicaca, I traveled overland to La Paz, Bolivia’s de facto capital. In recent years, Bolivia has become Latin America’s number-one emerging destination. The country has a great deal to offer, including natural wonders, great colonial architecture, amazing active / adventure options, peaks soaring over 21,000 feet above sea level, and a rising food and wine scene. Start your visit to La Paz in the centro histórico. Walk around Plaza Murillo, the heart of the old city, as well as the museums on Calle Jaén. The best art collection is at the Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore. Another fun place to visit is the Witches Market, where you can buy everything needed to appease the gods. Make sure you ride La Paz’s cable cars (teleféricos), which will whisk you from one end of the town to the other in minutes. From La Paz, visit Tiwanaku, Bolivia’s premier archaeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or Lake Titicaca, including the islands of the Sun and the Moon and the town of Copacabana. In La Paz, I recommend staying at either Atix Hotel, a member of Design Hotels, or Casa Grande Hotel. The best restaurant in La Paz is Gustu, which must be booked at least three to four months ahead.
Calle Jaén, one of the well-preserved colonial streets in La Paz, Bolivia, houses some of the city’s important museums.
Bolivia’s top attraction is Uyuni. The world’s largest salt flat and roughly half the size of Lake Ontario, Uyuni is truly one of the most spectacular natural wonders on earth. Situated in the southwestern region of Bolivia and roughly 12,000 feet over sea level, Uyuni will literally leave you breathless. The endless expanse of white salt in every direction will blow you away, no matter how well traveled you are. During Bolivia’s summer months (roughly November to February), water accumulates over the salt floor of Uyuni, and the surface reflects the sky, creating optical illusions that will dazzle you, as the horizon disappears. Uyuni is also the gateway to Bolivia’s Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a magical wonderland of geysers and multicolored lakes, and Bolivia’s answer to Yellowstone National Park.
The Cuzco Cathedral is one of the major attractions on Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square.
Although you can visit Uyuni as a day trip from La Paz, my advice is to stay at least two days / one night in Uyuni. There is a great deal to see in the area, distances are vast, and trying to cram everything into one day is exhausting. Fly from La Paz to Uyuni early in the morning, overnight, then fly back on an evening flight to La Paz on the second day. This will give you two full days in Uyuni, including the all-important sunrise and sunset. The salt flats start about 40 minutes drive north of the town of Uyuni, and stretch out as far as the eye can see. This vast white ocean of salt is unbelievable, and will not disappoint. There are no roads once you are inside the salt flats, so investing in a good driver with a sturdy 4x4 is a MUST. Your driver will navigate through the endless expanse of salt, guided by the sun, the surrounding mountains (when they are visible) and some of the islands in the middle of the flats, which act as reference points. Try to visit at least one of the islands. The most popular is Isla Incahuasi, covered in giant cacti that grow as tall as 30 feet high. At night, the stargazing is tops, as there is no light pollution.
The two best places to stay in the area are Hotel De Sal Luna Salada and Hotel Palacio de Sal. Both are made out of salt blocks and are simple and comfortable. Book way ahead as the two hotels are very popular, especially during high season (November to March). The hotels are located on the edge of the salt flats for easy access to adventures in Uyuni. A great resource in Bolivia is DMC Bolivia Milenaria. Note: U.S. citizens need a visa for Bolivia.