Two Adventure Vacations in One – Trip Report of a Wonderful Family Vacation to South America and the Galapagos
Many times, when you travel a long distance, you want to grab every adventure you can while you are that far away. That’s what happened when we planned our family vacation this summer. Traveling with my husband, 10-year-old daughter and friends of the family, we decided to make it a double adventure and see Machu Picchu and then the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
The Ancient Inca Ruins & Machu Picchu
If you were to ask us what we enjoyed most about Machu Picchu, it would be virtually impossible to decide. For example, the hike to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu was up steep hills and narrow paths which made it much more exciting than your average hiking trip. At the same time, I loved walking the market at Pisac where the local Indians meet to sell their wares, clothed in beautiful bright colors with babies strapped to their backs. Our first night in Lima, Peru was at the Country Club Hotel, an historic hotel located in one of the most exclusive residential and commercial districts in Lima, San Isidro. The hotel is considered a national monument and is decorated with over 300 pieces of original artwork of both classical and Peruvian Colonial styles. It’s like staying inside a museum and was an amazing place to start off our adventure.
The following day we flew just over an hour to Cuzco, which sits at an altitude of 11,200 feet, and started our tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Our guide drove a Mercedes mini-bus for the one-hour ride from Cuzco to the colonial town of Pisac, where we toured the Inca ruins and colorful marketplaces. After that our route followed the meandering Urubamba River through verdant farmlands still in use today for the production of maize, fruit and vegetables for the city of Cuzco.
During our time in the Valley, we visited the village of Ollantaytambo, considered to be the best example of Inca city planning. The massive fortress at Ollantaytambo with its steep terracing occupies a highly defensible position on a rocky promontory above the village. Every foundation was made of ancient stones and everywhere you look you could see antiquity.
We spent a night in an adobe bungalow at the beautiful Hotel Sol y Luna, and the next morning we boarded a glass-enclosed Vistadome train to travel the 90-minute journey to the village of Aguas Calientes below Machu Picchu. From here we took a 20-minute bus trip up the switchback road to the legendary “Lost City of the Incas” – Machu Picchu.
We took another guided tour of the ruins at the citadel of Machu Picchu. We hiked to the Sun Gate to see the sun rise over the mountains and trekked several hours to see the Incan Bridge, which is cut right into the cliff wall and was used as a secret entrance into Machu Picchu.
We had lunch at The Sanctuary Lodge with its sweeping vista views of the citadel. It’s the only hotel situated adjacent to Machu Picchu. The hotel is set high in the mountains. Both the citadel and this hotel are surrounded by a lush cloud forest. This city was lost to history until it was discovered in 1911, by American explorer Hiram Bingham. Today, it is considered one of the most renowned examples of Inca architecture still in existence.
We didn’t stay at the Sanctuary Lodge, but we enjoyed our night in Aguas Calientes below the mountain. While there we spent the night at the Inkaterro Pueblo Hotel, where 85 quaint houses resemble a typical Andean town surrounded by the rich ecosystem of the jungle which comes right up to the hotel.
After that, we returned to Cuzco on the train and stayed at Monasterio del Cuzco, a former monastery dating to 1592, situated right beside the lively Cuzco central square. This amazing hotel is an attraction in itself, with all the feeling that you are in an ancient monastery. The walls are filled with beautiful tapestries and art from centuries ago. You could actually feel the hushed tone when you entered, giving you an impression of how the place must have originally felt. The atmosphere was unlike any of the other hotels in which we stayed.
We spent our last day in Peru visiting Cuzco, where we had more tours of ancient sites like the Cathedral, which dates back to the time of the monastery-turned-hotel, and put our hotel experience into an interesting context. We also visited Koriacancha, where the most revered Inca temple, the Temple of the Sun, has actually been built into the colonial Church of Santa Domingo.
On To The Galapagos Islands
After that we traded our mountain climbing for sea legs and headed to Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil. After a brief stop, we took a 90-minute flight to embark on the National Geographic Endeavor, an expedition ship designed for discovery and active exploration throughout the Galapagos Islands. The Endeavor is a small expedition ship; originally a fishing trawler built in 1966, and converted to carry passengers in 1983. It has 56 outside cabins and accommodates 96 guests. The accommodations on the ship were tight, but comfortable and the service was wonderful and the food was great. However, when you are taking a trip like this, it’s not about the ship, it’s about the adventure.
I would like to take just a moment to praise the ten guides on board the ship. They were so incredibly well informed about the islands and the wildlife. We learned so much about the history, the birds and the marine life on the islands that we felt like we were fully prepared for our excursions on land.
During the 9-day expedition at sea we stopped to explore eight different islands. Our ship was not allowed to dock at any of the islands so each day we took Zodiac boats. Some of the landings were wet landings, meaning you had to wade into the island, while others were dry and we would disembark onto rocky coasts.
On the first stop we went to North Seymour Island, a tiny uplifted seafloor which is home to sea lion colonies and blue-footed booby nesting colonies. It was quite a treat to walk along a beach and see a large rock in the distance only to find, once you got there, it was really a sea lion basking in the sun. The animals were so familiar with people on these expeditions that they allowed us to come very close. The animals are protected on the islands and have no fear, so they feel totally at home around you. The island is host to one of the largest populations of blue-footed boobies in the world which offered us the chance to view their fascinating courting rituals. The males dance, showing off their bright blue feet, make noise and display their wings and feathers to try and attract a mate.
Every island we visited had another amazing thing to see. In one direction there were 100-year-old turtles on the beach and, in another, marine iguanas that looked like small dinosaurs and, in others, seemingly every kind of bird imaginable.
Off the coast, we were able to swim, kayak and snorkel and on board ship, we were treated to great presentations that taught us about the studies and work of Charles Darwin. On board our trip we had Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Weiner and his wife, who is also an author. Mr. Weiner won the Pulitzer for his book, “The Beak of the Finch,” about evolution and scientific discovery and he could really speak with authority about Darwin’s work. His wife was a wealth of information about Darwin’s personal life, so the combination of the two really gave a us a great picture of Darwin’s work and life in the Galapagos while we were sailing between these islands.
While these fascinating educational presentations were being offered on board the ship, the children were kept entertained with a host of activities designed specifically for them. This allowed everyone in the family to fully enjoy the voyage.
It was a fantastic two weeks. This definitely isn’t your typical beach vacation, but for families who want to experience culture and nature it’s a vacation you will never forget.
If you decide to take an adventure like this, take every bit of advice from your travel agent or vacation planner. That’s what we did and everything was perfect and special. We had private guides that took us on each leg of the trip and we stayed at the most magnificent hotels and ate wonderful local food.
With a trip like this the guides make all the difference. You will get so much more out of the trip if you get a local English-speaking guide to make your trip worry-free and to explain what you are seeing each step of the way.
About Author: Elaine Osgood is CEO of Atlas Travel International, a travel management company out of Milford, MA. For information about Atlas Travel or for assistance planning your own trip to South America visit their website at www.atlastravel.com.