It’s always been a dream of ours to experience Machu Picchu and combine it with a visit to the Galapagos. Recently, this dream came to fruition. Sherri and I just returned from a two-week journey to Peru and Ecuador to visit these magical destinations. Some say it is the “journey” that counts, in our case, it is all about the destination!
After a relatively long journey starting from San Francisco, we finally arrived at our first destination, Lima, Peru. It was a short 2-night stay at the beautiful Country Club Hotel in the San Isidro District of the city. We took a morning city tour to understand the history and culture of this country better. The city has many things to offer, from the cuisine and museums to the beautiful Alpaca clothing lines, but we ran out of time. We then headed out to Peru’s Sacred Valley on the 3rd day to start our more vigorous part of our trip. We flew to Cusco and then had a transfer to this remote location. It took about 1 ½ hours on a picturesque ride through multiple villages, highlighted by local women who hawked barbequed Guinea Pig (a local delicacy) on the side of the road during our trip.
The Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, is a picturesque valley stretching west to east along the Urubamba River for 62 miles between Pisac and Machu Pichu with elevations ranging from 6,730 feet to 9,800 feet above sea level. On both sides of the river, mountains rise to higher elevations with majestic peaks overlooking the valley. Stunningly picturesque. The ride was bumpy at times but it was all worthwhile when we reached our destination, the Explora Valle Sagrado.
The Explora is a unique hotel which offers the luxury of the essential while giving you the opportunity for in-depth exploration of the surrounding area combining visits to archaeological sites with a trekking experience with qualified guides. They offer over 20 different ways of discovering the natural and cultural wealth of the Sacred Valley and its fascinating Inca heritage. In our short time there we experienced an exhilarating 5 Kilometer trek through the Racchi Plateau at an elevation of over 3500 meters plus in-depth hikes through the Yucay village and visit to Ollantaytambo, a cultural and political center of the Incas. We were also very grateful that we had no altitude sickness even with these physically demanding activities. At the end of the day, we knew that we will be back to the comfort of the Explora, just like the ship when we cruise.
Leaving the lovely Explora behind we took the VistaDome train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente, the jumping off point to our visit to Machu Picchu. The enjoyable train ride takes you from the Andean highlands to the beginnings of the tropical mountain forest where you will find the once lost Inca citadel. A winding 20-minute bus ride takes you to the entrance where begins your journey to the past. The architecture is impressive in its own right but made almost unimaginable by its location atop this mountain. It was a humbling experience standing there to absorb everything in our sight. How the Inca accomplished this is one of the mysteries of this fallen empire.
We returned to reality with our need to travel to Quito to continue our travels, now in Ecuador. We stayed one night in Quito at the Casa Gangotena Hotel, a Spanish Colonial residence that has been converted into a boutique hotel of unusual grace and beauty. Situated in the center of the Old City on Plaza de San Francisco, it overlooks the grandeur that was once the capital of Spanish Ecuador.
Three and one-half hours north of Quito by van lies the Mashpi Reserve, a 3000-acre conservation property that forms a part of the Choco Cloudforest. You truly enter another world of lush vegetation and mist once you arrive at the Mashpi Lodge, one of National Geographic’s Lodges of Distinction. Here you experience luxury accommodations combined with the services of Naturalist/Guides who take you through various excursion options being offered. Guests here have the opportunity of taking part in up to 10 different cloud forest experiences. Your guides will recommend the best daily programme for you depending on your interests and your level of physical fitness. As the topography in Mashpi is mountainous, the trails are rarely flat. So, it’s important to listen to your guide's advice on which excursion to take. Many of the trails’ steepness is an advantage since the hillsides enable more light to penetrate the forest, thereby increasing the diversity of plants and animals that you can observe. Several rivers cross the Mashpi Reserve with many waterfalls, cascades, and pools that you can actually swim in! The water is not that cold. A 10-minute walk from the lodge is the Observation Tower. There is no better place than here to appreciate the beauty of the Cloud Forest, especially at sunset. It takes 162 steps to reach the top of this eight-story tower, but the view from the top is worth every step. Two other ways to experience amazing views are the Sky Bike and The Dragonfly Canopy Ride. The Sky Bike is a two-person bike like vehicle which travels along a cable in the forest about 200 meters long. One person pedals and both get a great view of the forest canopy up close. You can guess who pedaled in our case! (Jack) The Dragonfly is a 2 Kilometer canopy ride (cable car) where you sit back and relax for a 40-minute glide through the treetops. Relaxing, educational and fun! At the end of each excursion, refreshing natural juices and fresh towels await you when you return to the lodge. All meals were included in our stay at Mashpi and we both agreed the variety of dishes in the meals was very good. After another 3 ½ hour transfer back to Quito, we stayed one more night at the wonderful Hotel Casa Gangotena to prepare for our next destination in our itinerary, the Galapagos.
Morning found us off to Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito (new and quite efficient) for a flight to Baltra in the Galapagos. No non-stops as our flight made one stop in Guayaquil, actually the largest city in Ecuador. Mid-day found us arriving in Baltra where, after a thorough search of our luggage by specially trained dogs for items not allowed in the Galapagos. If you think the U.S. has tough restrictions, try the Galapagos! We were met by our Naturalist/Guides from our ship, the Isabela II, who double as airport greeters and transfer mavens. A 30-minute ride took all 29 of the new passengers to a lunch in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, where we had a nice buffet while watching Giant Tortoises out in the open field. Quite the introduction. From here we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station to witness how the National Park Administration guides the conservation efforts in the islands. Then it was our first zodiac ride to our boat, the Isabela II, awaiting us in the bay for our 4 night/5 day journey around the islands.
The Isabela II is an expedition-style ship that has 20 cabins with a capacity of 40 passengers total. We found this size ship to be ideal, for with this amount of passengers the ship has three full-time naturalist/guides. This is an ideal passenger to guide ratio. It worked out well as we basically had three groups that needed to travel separately. One for English speaking passengers (from Canada, Australia, and the U.S.), one for Spanish speaking passengers (mainly from Ecuador and Chile) and one for Japanese speaking passengers. The Japanese group had an Ecuadorian escort of Japanese descent who was fluent in both Japanese and Spanish. It all worked out quite well. We were very pleased to be able to meet the passengers from different countries of this small group of people. The cabins are comfortable and efficient with all that you need. All meals are included, which, by the way, were varied and delicious! Some of the best food we had during our South America trip was on the Isabela II. Alcoholic beverages are additional as are tips. As internet access is via a low-bandwidth Satellite service, wi-fi was intermittent at best. This, coupled with no TV, actually made for a much better naturalist style trip. No electronic distractions.
Again, every day was packed with all kinds of activities. Our first full day on the ship found us at Santa Fe Island. Here we did a wet landing off our zodiacs on a white sandy beach to visit the Sea Lion harems. Our walk around the island also found us observing the endemic Land Iguanas found here plus sighting a very accommodating Galapagos Hawk that posed for us with our ship in the background! Later we kayaked around this inlet to get a very close up view of the fauna.
The next day found us on North Seymour Island where we saw Frigates soaring on the thermals plus the nesting Blue Footed Boobies. We witnessed the mating characteristics of Frigates where the male has a bright red membrane on his throat which can balloon up to almost the same size of his body to attract females. They are also called the Magnificent Frigate. Great name and Mother Nature does plan things so well. We also first experienced Marine Iguanas on this island. Every island has a different mix of flora and fauna which can surprise you at every turn. In the afternoon we visited Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island. A nesting area for the Pacific Green Sea Turtle, this island also contains a couple of lagoons which are feeding grounds for various wading birds, including Flamingos!
Our final full day we visited Bartolome Island, a Galapagos icon. You have to wear your walking shoes for this one, as we climbed a steep staircase that goes to the highest point on the island to give you a spectacular view of the entire island group. Here you also have visual evidence of the volcanic origin of the Galapagos. The natural environment continues to evolve because of these volcanic activities. After the walk back down from the peak, we re-boarded our zodiacs to travel to a beach by Pinnacle Rock where we experienced some remarkable snorkeling. Besides swimming with huge schools of fish, we actually swam with a Galapagos penguin for a short moment! It was the only one Penguin that we saw, so you can imagine the odds.
Before we knew it, it was time to pack up for our journey home. It was quite a busy and physically challenging trip. We are so glad that we made it through without a scratch. What we are more grateful for is how the traveling experience so enriched us. Seeing how people live their lives humbled us. Seeing the wild animals roaming around in their natural habitat makes us more aware of the need to protect and preserve our delicate natural environment. The memories of the trip have now become a an indelible part of our lives. That is truly what the magic of travel is all about.