If there was one region of the world that I would keep coming back to again and again, I think it might be the Andes highlands. It is hard to describe the landscapes here, ranging from snow capped volcanoes to otherworldly deserts. There is such a uniqueness to it and each day your mind will be blown again and again with the beauty you are looking at.
Peru and Bolivia provide a perfect first glimpse into the raw natural allure of the northern Andes region. Peru is, of course, incredibly famous thanks to its wealth of historic and cultural sights. Bolivia on the other hand is WILDLY underrated. Most travelers to Peru never bother to cross the border, and as such, Bolivia sees about a tenth of the tourists as Peru does annually. With a favorable exchange rate for most foreigners, Bolivia is well worth adding onto your 2 week itinerary.
Overview of the Itinerary
Let’s start by saying this region of the world is VAST. The distances between cities is long and domestic airfares can be pricey. You can reasonably, albeit quickly, see the natural highlights of Peru and Bolivia in 2 weeks. Because of the vast expanse of this area, 3 weeks or more is ideal, but I understand that many people don’t have the ability to take that much time off of work. As such, I have structured this 2 week itinerary to help you hit all the highlights without totally exhausting yourself.
I think it is important to set out a few key priorities of what you want to see during your trip, because the reality is you will not be able to do it all during a 2 week trip. I did this itinerary during a 1 month backpacking trip and I was still rushed. In full transparency, my priorities for this itinerary were seeing incredible landscapes and breathtaking places, while cities and beaches were not a priority –> read: you’re not going to find much detail about those activities on this itinerary.
To maximize time and stretch your dollar a little further, my itinerary starts and ends in different locations. In my experience, one way flights give you more flexibility and can sometimes be much cheaper than roundtrip airfare. I also do not visit Lima on this itinerary. Structuring my 2 week itinerary this way gives you a few extra days to visit Arequipa and Colca Canyon, which in my opinion are major highlights from my time in Peru that I would 100% recommend to anyone.
This is my ideal itinerary for 2 weeks in Peru and Bolivia!
DAY 1: CUZCO
Located in steep and high altitude mountains, Cuzco is a natural place to begin your two week itinerary in eastern Peru and Bolivia. With daily flights arriving from Lima and a few other major cities in South America, Cuzco is a well connected destination to begin — along with a destination full of amazing sites!
At 3200 meters (or 10,500 feet) altitude, the air is quite thin and it can be tough to breathe at first. If you need a day to adjust and acclimatize, Cuzco is a good place to do that since there is a lot of infrastructure. Plus, it is a very touristy city so if you miss some sightseeing here, it isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The crowds in Cuzco can be overwhelming, since it is an incredibly popular place to visit thanks to its close proximity to Machu Picchu, which receives 4 million visitors a year. We found the hawking craftspeople and endless tour operators seeking your business to be draining. But, the city itself does have some beautiful architecture, such as the central Plaza de Armas and main cathedral.
DAY 2: SACRED VALLEY
Although Machu Picchu is the most famous of the Inca landmarks in this region, it is by no means the only one. The Sacred Valley outside of Cuzco was an extremely important region for the Inca empire, serving as the breadbasket for the Incan warriors as well as housing some of their most sacred cities. A guided tour of the Sacred Valley makes for a perfect day trip from Cuzco!
The Incan empire stretched from Ecuador to Santiago at its height and had 200 known cities throughout the empire. In the Sacred Valley, you can see a fraction of the city ruins that remain, including Pisaq, a city that housed astronomers and agro-specialists, and Ollantaytambo, the resting place between Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
All of the cities are built with indigenous rock carved from the mountains the sites are located on.The walls and houses are built without mortar, so the rocks are cut to fit just perfectly on each other. Surrounded by huge, steep mountains, it is truly amazing how creative and talented Incans were in order to build these impressive structures. The Incas were also master terrace builders, so all the cities were largely self-sustaining with a variety of agriculture, especially potatoes and corn.
DAY 3: MACHU PICCHU
Located in a remote, jungle-filled, mountainous area, Machu Picchu is one of South America’s most famous tourist attractions. Rediscovered in 1911, it was thought to be the Lost City of the Incas. At its height, it likely housed 800 people, many of whom were high priests and astronomers.
Many tourists opt to visit Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail or one of the other hiking trails leading to the historic site. These treks can take anywhere from 3-8 days of trekking, which was a time commitment that didn’t quite fit with our short itinerary and plans. As such, we decided to visit Machu Picchu simply as a day trip. We spent the night in the small “Machu Picchu town” outside of the park entrance, which allowed us to arrive at the site at sunrise.
We (and 2000 of our closest friends) arrived at Machu Picchu just as the sun was rising in order to get the best views. And boy, it didn’t disappoint. The ruined city sit just below Wayna Picchu, a large mountain you see in all the pictures, which provides an amazing backdrop for this impressive city. The ruins were much bigger than expected, and largely well-preserved. You could feel the peacefulness and holiness of this site just by being there. Despite all the tourists, you can get a few moments of silence and tranquility, with only the sounds of the river below and a variety of bird calls.
In order to learn more about the history of Machu Picchu, we took a guided tour of the site which lasted for 2 hours. We learned so much about the ingenuity of the Incas was well as their religious beliefs. The Incas worshiped Mother Earth and the Sun. Thus, they were excellent astronomers and built their Temple of the Sun to perfectly reflect the equinoxes and solstices. All the stones used in Machu Picchu were carved from Machu Picchu mountain, so as to not disturb Mother Earth by relocating materials.
In order to visit Machu Picchu as a day trip, you need to buy an entrance ticket and train ticket (if you aren’t doing a trek) several weeks in advance for a specific day of arrival. A visit to Machu Picchu is a pretty expensive endeavor even if you are just going for a day trip. In total, we spent about $500 for our tickets, hotel, tour and transportation.
DAY 4: AREQUIPA
Just a short 1 hour flight from Cuzco is Peru’s 2nd largest city — Arequipa. This charming cobblestoned city is nestled inside some of the highest mountains in the area and serves as an amazing jumping off point for some of the best hiking and remarkable landscapes. On our way into the city, we were lucky enough to see the sun set over the mountains, creating a purple and pink sky to backdrop the jagged mountains.
We spent our day in Arequipa simply wandering around the city and enjoying the warm sun. Known as the White City, Arequipa was the most beautiful city I visited in Peru. The stark white arches in the old city and giant cathedral are highlights. The Plaza del Armas here is a beauty as well, complete with Spanish style arches and hints of Moorish architecture.
Arequipa has lots of narrow cobblestone streets with old monasteries and fortresses, creating a dense but historical feeling. There are lots of great artisan shops and unique handcrafted goods. Because the city feels so old, the streets are narrow making all of the traffic come together in these tight turns and little streets. You’ll hear lots of honking!
The women in this part of Peru dress more traditionally and wear these little hats that look like they could fall off their head at any minute, but you’ll notice it as you wander the streets. Arequipa is a great place to sample some amazing Peruvian cuisine! Compared to some of neighboring countries, the food in Peru is much better with lots more flavor and variety.
Day 5-6: COLCA CANYON
Colca Canyon is truly one of the most breathtaking landscapes you can imagine, and it is 100% a must-visit on a 2 week trip in Peru. It is the second deepest canyon in the world made up of so many layers which creates this ineffable and awe-striking landscape. There are snow covered mountains on top, followed by steep tree covered valleys. Farming terraces were built in the valley dating back to 4000BC in order to grow food, which continue to be fertile today. Below the terraces there is the steep drop into the canyon, followed by the Colca River.
To really appreciate the natural beauty here, we decided to do a 2 day, 1 night trek of the canyon and valley. If you opt to do this, get ready for some early mornings! We left Arequipa at 2am and started hiking into the canyon around 6am. We met up with our guide as well as the other couples we hiked with (2 people from Holland, and 2 people from Canada) when we arrived at the drop off point. The tour operators organize the treks this way so that you finish your descent into the canyon at the peak heat of the day.
The first day of the trek was almost entirely down hill. The sun is very intense here since it is close to the equator, so make sure to back lots of sunscreen and a hat. The trek had some really amazing vistas, especially once we got in sight of the river. You could really get a feel for how deep the canyon is and how much people have depended on it as a source of life for thousands of years.
We spent the night at an oasis near the river that was nicely sheltered with well equipped cabanas. There was a delicious hot meal and great company during the night. The following day we woke up at 5am to begin our hike out of the canyon, in order to beat the sun. The walk up was very difficult and steep at parts, but with a slow and steady pace, we all made it out of the canyon and felt great about all of our hard work! In order to reward ourselves, we went to a nearby hot spring to relax our muscles. The natural hot springs were around 100 degrees, and felt incredible after 2 days of hard hiking.
DAY 7-8: LAKE TITICACA
From Arequipa, you’ll take a 6 hour bus ride through some raw and stunning high altitude wilderness to the Peruvian border city of Puno. Keep your camera handy for any alpaca or vicuna crossings! In Puno, you can take a bus for an easy overland border crossing into Bolivia with the destination of Copacabana. Keep in mind that US passport holders will need to pay a reciprocity entrance + visa fee when they enter Bolivia. For overland crossings, this can only be paid in cash USD. Bring it with you!
The waterfront town of Copacabana is a cute little beach town full of hippies, boats and fresh fish. Bolivia is significantly cheaper than the rest of South America, so we booked a lake view room for $12 a night! We got to watch the sunset from our beds, which felt like such a luxury.
Many people don’t realize this, but Peru and Bolivia are extremely high altitude countries. They house some of the highest cities in the world, making the air very thin and tough to breathe. It is common for tourists to have problems with altitude and get quite sick — this happened to us in Puno which is at roughly 12,000 feet altitude. In order to fight the altitude sickness and give your body a break, Lake Titicaca is a nice place to take an acclimatization day during your 2 week itinerary in Peru and Bolivia. Simply spend a day on the shores of the lake relaxing, napping and letting your lungs and blood get adjusted to lower oxygen levels.
After acclimatizing for a day, we took a boat trip on Lake Titicaca which is the highest in the world at almost 13,000 feet above sea level. It also happens to be the largest lake in South America. It has islands scattered throughout the lake, and you can rent boats or get a ride to check out the islands. Isla del Sol is a bit far from the city, and it took us about 2 hours by boat to get there. And this isn’t some speedy boat; we were going about 8mph, no joke.
Once we arrived at Isla del Sol, we met up with a tour guide and took a 2 hour hike on the island. The island doesn’t have any cars and houses about 2,000 indigenous people year round. The views from the island were absolutely stunning. Lake Titicaca is surrounded by mountains, some of which have glaciers and snow cover year round. The water was also calm and crystal clear. From the top of the hills, you could see to the bottom of the lake, even about 50 feet off the shore. In recent years, they have even found a city submerged underneath the lake! On the island, there are some ruins from Tiwanaku people as well as Inca ruins that we toured.
DAY 9: LA PAZ
Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz is in a valley, so the entire city is built up on the slopes of the valley. When we rode the bus from Copacabana (approximately 4 hours), it was incredible to see the sprawling red brick city climbing up the mountain and valley walls. It goes as far as the eye can see. Plus, the highest mountain in Bolivia forms the backdrop of the city.
We wandered around the downtown, which has a mix of old European influence and South American confusion. The roads all change names and end randomly and curve around in nonsensical directions, but then the area around the town square is in perfect blocks. We checked out the musical instrument museum, where they let us test out a bunch of the different instruments. There was even a guitar made out of a tortoise shell! Then we went to the Plaza del Armas, which was FILLED with pigeons that people were feeding.
DAY 10-13: SALAR DE UYUNI
One of my most anticipated stops on our whirlwind 2 week tour of Peru and Bolivia was the Salar de Uyuni. Located in southwestern Bolivia, this is the world’s largest salt flat, spanning over 8,000 square kilometers. It’s almost the size of Ireland! For those of you who aren’t familiar, a salt flat is essentially a dried ancient salt lake, which creates a really bizarre and amazing landscape.
We signed up for a 3 day full-service tour of the salt flat + nearby national parks which started and ended in La Paz. Our group included 3 other English speakers and we moved around in a Jeep Land Cruiser to see all the sites. We began our first day of the tour at the salt flat, learning about its formation and history. Bolivian people still harvest raw salt off the flat and then ship it throughout the continent. It provides about 40% of all the salt for Chile and Argentina.
The flat itself has a sun-dried top layer of the salt that is a few feet thick, so you can walk and drive on it. The bright white salt flat (almost blindingly so) stretches as far as the eye can see. It is ringed with high mountains as well as a few islands throughout, but it is so vast that you lose all sense of perspective. The sheer whiteness of the flat boggles the eyes (as well as the camera), making it feel like another planet.
For the other two days of our tour, we visited a variety of natural areas and landscapes in southwestern Bolivia. One of those wilderness highlights was a stop at steam geysers at 5,100 meters (16,700 feet) above sea level. The best time to see the geysers is at sunrise, so we woke at the ungodly hour of 4:30am. When we arrived, the smell of sulfur was very strong but the geysers were in full force. They pop through the thin cracks in the ground and release swathes of gas and steam. They also create fumaroles which are essentially huge pits of boiling mud and toxic minerals. They boil at over 500 degrees! All the bubbling, spurting and steaming sounded like a symphony from deep below the earth.
We also made several stops in the Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa National Park. This region of the world is so interesting. There are lots of open spaces and large plains since it is a high altitude desert, ringed with snow capped volcanoes and colorful lagoons. Several of the lagoons have flocks of Flamingos living there. There are 3 types of Flamingos that live in Bolivia and Chile, some of which are pink, while others that are more white. They feed off of the algae and minerals from the nearby volcanoes which largely determines what color their plumage will be.
DAY 14: LA PAZ
Your tour of the Salar de Uyuni and southwestern Bolivia will most likely include transportation back to La Paz, making this a natural ending point for your 2 week itinerary in Peru and Bolivia. However if you want to continue traveling in this region, you can typically ask for an alternative departure point from your tour.
For example, we asked to be dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile at the end of our trip, which is just on the other side of the border from Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa National Park. From San Pedro, we continued traveling south to Santiago, stopping at several places along the coast in between!
Another option that I would suggest is traveling from San Pedro de Atacama across the border into Northwestern Argentina. My husband and I just did a road trip there in January 2020 and it was absolutely mind-blowing. The incredible scenery continues, along with lots of opportunities to drink Argentina’s famous wine. Of course, you’ll need a longer trip than 2 weeks to add on these other locations, but the extended trip is well worth it. This is truly one of the most breathtaking corners of the world!