If you find yourself in Buenos Aires and want to do some overland travel in South America, why not make your way north, through northern Argentina and Bolivia all the way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. This journey from Buenos Aires to Machu Picchu overland takes you through small towns and big cities, staggering mountains and stark deserts.
This trip, a version of a route that's popular with backpackers, makes a great ending to a program of work or study in or near Buenos Aires, or an adventure on its own. It can also be done as part of a longer overland trip between Patagonia and Colombia.
Though it starts at sea level, most of this itinerary is at high altitudes. It is designed to allow you to ascend relatively gradually, so that you can acclimate and reduce the risk of altitude sickness. Still, symptoms are certainly possible. Coca leaves, which are easy to obtain in Bolivia, are said to help with the symptoms. Follow the safety advice given in the Altitude sickness article.
Most of the route is by bus and train, and it includes some long bus rides. If you're not good with taking a couple of overnight buses, you may want to add some extra stops along the way to break them up into smaller chunks.
If you don't speak Spanish, it's a good idea to bring a Spanish phrasebook. That being said, every part of this trip is on the Gringo Trail and all the stops on the way get plenty of European backpackers, so you should be able to survive with English if you have to. If you decide to take the Inca Trail for the last leg of the journey, it doesn't hurt to learn a few words of Quechua, but again, English should be adequate and Spanish is plenty.
Check the visa requirements before you go. The route starts in Argentina, goes through Bolivia, and ends in Peru. (An alternative variation goes through Chile instead of Bolivia.) American citizens in particular should be aware that unlike in much of South America, they require a visa to enter Bolivia. As of early 2018 it can be obtained on arrival in Villazón, but make sure you have all the necessary documents, or better yet obtain the visa in advance.
Buenos Aires to Salta
The first step is to get from Buenos Aires to the northern Argentinian city of 2 Salta. The train only goes as far as San Miguel de Tucumán, so you'll have to either take the train first and then switch to a bus or just take a bus the whole way. It's a long way from Buenos Aires to Salta, so you may want to add a couple of stops on the way. Well-known destinations in between include 1 Rosario, 2 Córdoba, and 3 San Miguel de Tucumán.
Once you're in Salta, it has some interesting sights of its own, but it's particularly good as a launching point for day trips to the small towns and mountains that surround it.
Salta to Humahuaca
Spend at least two nights here to help you acclimate. While you're in town, take a day trip to Serranía de Hornocal, which is Humahuaca's star attraction, and consider visiting other towns nearby such as 4 Purmamarca or 5 Uquía.
Humahuaca to La Quiaca
The border town of 4 La Quiaca is just a three-hour bus ride away, which will take you through impressive mountain scenery and a bunch of tiny towns. The second half of the ride is on a poorly maintained road, which is why it takes a whole three hours. If the last part of the highway was as well maintained as the rest of it, it would probably only take two hours.
Spend a night in La Quiaca if you aren't pressed for time—this is good for acclimating to the altitude, and for experiencing a more authentic side of northern Argentina (Humahuaca and its surrounding towns are more touristy).
La Quiaca to Uyuni
You can cross the border into Bolivia on foot. Make sure to budget in a couple of extra hours in case the border crossing takes longer than expected.
Once you're in Villazón, the border town on the Bolivian side, it's a 10-minute walk to the bus station or a 30-minute walk to the train station. Taxis are also available. If you've already spent a night in La Quiaca, there's not much point spending a night here too, so just head to the station and continue on your way.
For heading to the little railroad town of 5 Uyuni, you have two choices: bus or train. The train is more comfortable and more scenic, but it doesn't run every day, so you'll have to check the schedule and plan your trip carefully to be able to take it.
The train takes about nine hours. It leaves in the afternoon and arrives in Uyuni late in the evening. Accordingly, it's a good idea to book your lodging in advance. If you don't, a couple of touts will be there at the station advertising hostels when the train arrives. They'll also be happy to give you directions to your hostel or hotel if you booked one in advance.
Salar de Uyuni
Though Uyuni is full of tourists, the small town really just has one attraction: the incredible, otherworldly 6 Salar de Uyuni salt flat nearby. It would be ludicrous to stop in Uyuni without going to the salt flat, so the morning after you arrive, set out on a tour.
One-day and multi-day tours are available. Both are cheaper for groups of 4–6 than for individuals or smaller groups, so if you made friends with other travellers in Villazón or on the train, you may be able to get a better deal by doing the salt flat tour with them.
Uyuni to Sucre
Once you get back from the salt flat, there's not much point waiting around in Uyuni—the town itself has almost nothing to see or do. Unless you really need another day to rest, head out the same evening (or the next morning) on the bus to 7 Sucre. If you take the direct night bus, it's only seven hours, but if you want to travel during the day you'll have to transfer in 6 Potosí, which adds some travel time. Of course, you can always spend a night or two in Potosí, which is known for its silver mines.
Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, and it's an attractive, hilly city with friendly people.
Sucre to La Paz
Sucre is the official capital, but Bolivia's real metropolis is 8 La Paz, a bustling city built in a canyon. The overnight bus from Sucre takes about 12 hours—if you want to break it up, you could add a stop in 7 Oruro or 8 Cochabamba.
La Paz to Lake Titicaca
After at least two or three nights in La Paz (there's a lot to see there), it's onwards to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, located on the border between Bolivia and Peru. Here you have a choice: you can head to the main city on the Bolivian side, 9 Copacabana, or the main city on the Peruvian side, 10 Puno. Or you can do both, one after the other. Either one is accessible by bus from La Paz.
Lake Titicaca to Cuzco
Cuzco is a city of layers, with colonial buildings built literally on the stone foundations of the Inca architecture that was there before. Surrounding the city are mountains and the remains of all kinds of Inca fortresses, temples, and villages. If you like hiking, museums, architecture, or ancient ruins, you can easily spend a week in and around Cuzco without getting bored.
Cuzco to Machu Picchu
There are a few different ways to get to Machu Picchu once you're in Cuzco. (These are the main methods—each one has a few variations, described in the relevant articles.)
- The most popular option is to take the train. Trains leave from Poroy (near Cuzco) and from 9 Ollantaytambo, an interesting destination in its own right which can be reached from Cuzco by bus or shared taxi. Either way, the train will take you to 10 Aguas Calientes, the town near Machu Picchu, from which you can either take a bus or hike up to the ruins.
- The Inca Trail: probably most in the spirit of overland travel, the Inca Trail allows you to hike some 45 kilometers (26 miles) through the mountains on the same stone paths used by the Incas. You're required to book a guided tour for the trek. Your tour guide will pick you up from your hotel or hostel in Cuzco and bring you to the trailhead, and after four or five days of hiking, you'll reach Machu Picchu. If you decide to do the Inca Trail, make your reservation months in advance. There are only a limited number of spots, and tickets sell out early.
- The other option, less popular but possibly appealing if you're looking to save money, is to hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. This means a few hours of hiking, but it's much cheaper than the Inca Trail or the train. See Aguas Calientes for details about this option.
If you'd rather skip Bolivia, it's also possible to do the itinerary going via the Atacama Desert in Chile. Buses are available from Salta and San Salvador de Jujuy (near Humahuaca) to 1 San Pedro de Atacama, from which you can explore the desert and then head north to Peru. This option might be particularly appealing for U.S. citizens who don't want to bother with a Bolivian visa, since they're allowed to visit the other three countries visa-free.
If you want to have it all, another option is to go from Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama, and then take a Salar de Uyuni tour that starts in San Pedro and ends in Uyuni, where you can continue with the rest of the itinerary.
Theft and robbery are risks on parts of the itinerary. In particular, be careful in the big cities of Buenos Aires and La Paz, and watch out for pickpockets anywhere where tourists congregate.
Once you reach Machu Picchu, the only way out is to go down to Aguas Calientes (on foot or by bus), and then take the train to Ollantaytambo (an Inca town surrounded by mountains dotted with ruins, definitely worth visiting in its own right) or to Poroy, near Cuzco. If you're ready to head home, you can then fly out of Cuzco's airport. If not, the question is where to go next.
You've barely begun to experience what Peru has to offer. Head west to the metropolis of 11 Lima and the mysterious 12 Nazca Lines, south to the colonial city of 13 Arequipa, or north and east to the jungles of the 14 Peruvian Amazon and 15 Madre de Dios.
If you've done the itinerary in the other direction, ending in Buenos Aires, you can keep heading south to Patagonia, go west to Santiago via Mendoza, or take the ferry east to Uruguay, where it's possible to combine this itinerary with a trip along the coast of Uruguay.