Midway between Machu Picchu and the Salar de Uyuni, on the shores of magnificent Lake Titicaca, lies Santiago de Okola – a centuries-old community of farmers and fishermen whose Inca roots run deep. We dig Okola, and we think you will too…
SA Expeditions is passionate about sharing the wonders of South America, a continent that we have explored ceaselessly for a decade-and-a-half. In addition to uncovering the hidden secrets of big-ticket destinations like Machu Picchu and the Salar de Uyuni, we’re also committed to finding off the beaten path spots that allow travelers to really grapple with the culture, the history and the geography of the region and the people that we hold so dear.
As pioneers of community-based tourism ourselves, we know a good project when we see one. Our Chief Explorer has visited Santiago de Okola a few times, most recently on the Great Inca Trail Expedition through southern Peru and Bolivia, where he enjoyed an incredible farm-to-fork dining experience and delved into the community’s ten-thousand-year history while summiting the Dragón Dormido (Sleeping Dragon) which overlooks the village.
An authentic slice of Andean life
Santiago de Okola preserves an ancient way of life that dates back to well before Inca times. Its people have been farming, fishing, and living in the same way for centuries – and they have the stories, artefacts, and archeological sites to prove it. While the community relishes showing tourists their remarkable slice of the planet, tourism has not overtaken agriculture as Okola’s primary source of income. (Click on the link for an in-depth interview with our Bolivian partners who have been involved with the project since 2008.) Visiting Okola is an extremely authentic, fly-on-the-wall experience which reminds us all why we became travelers in the first place.
Spoilt for choice
After a tour of the village with a local guide (your SA Expeditions guide will be there to translate) you can choose between a number of optional activities. Hands-on activities include workshops on weaving (Okola is famous for its colorful sheep’s wool fabrics) and cooking. Okola is considered a micro-center of agricultural biodiversity in potatoes and quinoa, and the locals know how to make these humble ingredients really sing!
Depending on your energy levels, the hike to the top of the Dragón Dormido is a real winner. Not only are the views of the Cordillera Real and the Isla del Sol incredible, but the mountain is an important spiritual site that’s home to important ruins including terraces, storage chambers, huacas (ritual sites), and residences. If you prefer your brain to work harder than your legs, why not take a guided walk that focuses on the area’s medicinal plants (led by a local shaman) or on Okola’s ancient – and increasingly valuable – traditional farming systems.
Eat, drink, and be merry
All visitors to Okola enjoy a slap-up lunch of locally farmed produce and traditional high Andes dishes, washed down by some traditional music (flutes and drums), dancing, and flower petals. On paper the experience might not sound especially novel, but Okola is the real deal. Because tourists are still something of a novelty in Okola, there’s a real sincerity to the cultural exchange that takes place, and the village’s undisputed agricultural and culinary heritage means the food is top-notch too. The dancing might not be quite as high-caliber, but who cares after a couple of beers?
Location, location, location
Okola’s location on the ancient Inca Road, midway between the Inca capital of Cusco (gateway to Machu Picchu) and the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt pan) makes it a wonderful complement to any itinerary that takes in one or both of these massive (and very legitimate) drawcards. To make things even more convenient, Okola is only a two-hour drive (on excellent paved roads) from the Bolivian capital of La Paz which enjoys daily flights to both Cusco and Uyuni.
Most SA Expeditions’ travelers take in the Okola community experience on a day trip, before returning to the capital to sleep and dine in comfort (read more about La Paz’s nascent fine dining scene here). But it is also possible to reach Okola via the luxury overnight train from Cusco to Puno (although this does entail a five-hour drive from Puno to Okola) or on a private ferry for the Island of the Sun (1½ hours) on Lake Titicaca.
If Santiago de Okola sounds like your cup of chicha, speak to one of our Destination Experts about adding it to your Machu Picchu or Uyuni itinerary. Its location on the Inca highway means we’ll be featuring it on one of our exclusive Great Inca Trail treks soon.