Arriving by plane in Lima, we marked the beginning of our great adventure across South America had begun. Booking a hotel in the historic center, we slowly began the process of acclimatizing to the new culture. We would spend 6 months on the continent, traveling from one coast to the other and down to the bottom. It was epic. It began and finished in the Andes. South America is one of the greatest adventures on the planet. The Andes mountain range runs the length of the continent, touching many countries and impacting others. It is truly an incredible place to explore.
When we arrived on the continent we spent a few days in Lima trying to learn the language and getting used to being somewhere so foreign. Our efforts were hit or miss, but it was a lot of fun and we made many new friends. Our first major event for our trip was Carnival, which we planned to spend in Bolivia. We flew to La Paz, Bolivia’s biggest city and immediately suffered the effects of altitude sickness. We spent the first day in bed. Andes 1, backpackers 0. We quickly would learn to appreciate the power of the mountains. After spending a few days in the Altiplano, we wound up taking the world’s most dangerous road towards The Mighty Amazon River and Brazil. We wouldn’t be back in the mountains for 5 months.
On the return trip we traveled from Argentina to Bolivia and eventually Peru, where we had our return trip booked. We stopped at Lake Titicaca and traveled to Cusco and Machu Picchu before the trip came full circle with our arrival in Lima once again. We created some incredible memories and lived some great stories.
What makes the Highlands of the Andes so Amazing?
The Andes mountain range is the longest mountain range in the world, traveling from the top of the continent to the bottom. This means it impacts much of the neighbouring countries, as it is more than 7000 km long and has towering mountains that interrupt the continent like a spine. There are 7000+ meter tall mountains and the mountains can be found in 7 countries (Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile) on the continent.
The mountain range varies in width, between 200 and 700 km wide. Inside of this zone is the Altiplano, a mostly flat plateau that sits in between. Once you make it to La Paz – the world’s highest capital city in the world – there are many great outdoor adventures to experience.
While here, you must also try to take a trip down the “World’s most Dangerous Road” which until 2006 (a few years after this trip) was the main route from the highlands to the lowlands. It gained the Death Road title for the wrong reasons, as it it has claimed the lives of many people. We took a bus down the road and at several moments dug our white knuckled hands into the seats as we came much too close to the edge.
From here you can travel into the Amazon Basin in places like Rurrenabaque or south towards the Salar de Uyuni and mining town of Potosi. During our trip in 2005, we spent Carnival in La Paz and took place in the worlds biggest water-balloon fight. Alongside the parade, there were roaming bands of laughing kids who couldn’t wait to throw their water-balloon supply at a couple of gringos.
Where are the Highlands of the Andes and how do you get there?
We found that Lima had the best and most affordable flights onto the continent, so we chose this as our entry and exit point. The airport offers great air and land connections to other spots in South America, especially into the Andes. From here you can easily get to Cusco (the gateway to Machu Picchu) or to any of the major cities on the continent, like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro.
If you choose the overland route from Lima, there are many great things to do along the coast – including these 9 Incredible things we did in Peru – while you make your way south towards Chile, Bolivia or Argentina. The Andes are worth exploring, and we’ve done a small sample of the best things available in the Altiplano / highlands. There is of course the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and Cusco, as well as many other great on and off the beaten track treks.
Don’t miss out on nearby Lake Titicaca, accessible from both Peru and Bolivia. It is the largest high altitude lake in the word. Outside of Puno – on the Peru side – there are the floating islands of the Uros people, and taking a tour here was one of our favourite experiences (during both this trip, as well as a follow up trip to the Uros Islands in 2017). The Andes was where we had some of our best travel experiences in South America. It should be a no brainer to add this to the top of your bucket list for future travels.