Machu Picchu, Galapagos: A Difficult Journey Well Worth the Elevation
By Nancy Ruhle
When smarTours advertised a fifteen day trip combining Machu Picchu in Peru and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, I jumped at the chance. It proved to be a difficult trip, even for younger members of our tour group; nevertheless, it was fascinating, exhilarating, and absolutely worth it. The main problem for most people was the altitude. Surprisingly, the highest point was not at Machu Picchu, but at Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and the place where most tourists stay before heading to Machu Picchu.
Cuzco is almost 11,000 ft. above sea level, an abrupt change after a flight from Lima, at 436 ft. We were welcomed into the lobby of the Novotel Hotel with an offering of coca tea, which is the Peruvian method of preventing altitude sickness. The lobby of this excellent hotel is open and inviting—an oasis after an afternoon of sightseeing at 11,000 ft. Cuzco itself is a jewel—a combination of Inca foundations and Colonial architecture, and its narrow streets are decidedly photogenic. Women in colorful native costume, accompanied by a llama or alpaca or both, will pose for photos—for two soles , of course.
Advice : Have your doctor prescribe a medication for altitude sickness and take it beforehand, as directed. Drink lots of bottled water. Walk slowly. If you do have a problem with the altitude, make use of the oxygen tanks that the hotels have on hand.
Machu Piccchu , the Incan city lost to the world until 1911, is reached from Cuzco by a four hour train ride or by trekking the Inca Trail. We rode on the VistaDome train, which provided excellent viewing of the fascinating landscape, taking us first over the mountain outside Cuzco via switchbacks, then across farmlands (potato is the #1 crop), and finally through the lush Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River. The Urubamba is one of the rivers feeding into the Amazon. Expecting high elevation, as I had seen in pictures of Machu Picchu, I was quite startled to find myself suddenly in a tropical climate.
The train ride ended at Aguas Calientes, a little village at the foot of the mountain. One member of the tour group was instantly bitten by black flies and everyone grabbed for insect repellant. Aguas Calientes (warm waters) is populated by people from a variety of areas in the Andes, all catering to tourists. There are tiny shops brimming with affordable products and small restaurants line the main street. Our hotel, the Machu Picchu Inn, was located in the center of it all. Other tour groups have stayed just outside the village on the river. If money is no object, you could stay at the hotel up on the mountain near the entrance to Machu Picchu. Buses transport visitors from the village up to Machu Picchu via a narrow road with numerous hairpin turns.
Machu Picchu—words fail me when I try to describe it. As we climbed up and down the stairs of rock, gazed across the agricultural terraces and the "urban sector", admired the stonework in the walls, listened to our guide (who has hiked the Inca Trail 1500 times) describe the beliefs and rituals of the Incas, and reached out to feel the energy above the Intihuatana , I was filled with awe at the intelligence and abilities of those ancient people. It was not until our return to the U.S. that I realized that Machu Picchu had grabbed my heart, leaving me with an enduring emotional attachment to the place.
On the return train trip, crew members modeled beautiful woolen clothing that was for sale. Our guide commented to me that the proceeds went not to the locals, but to the Orient Express, the British company owning the train.
Advice: Bring your insect repellant!
Sacred Valley of the Incas
Our first stop on the all day excursion through this marvelous valley was a private arrangement by Lucho, our guide, at his friend’s weaving place. His friend, along with several women in native dress, demonstrated how the different wools are cleaned, spun, dyed, and woven by hand. One lady brought out her baby and showed how the babies are wrapped and carried in the shawls on women’s shoulders—a common sight in Peru. Articles were for sale afterward and it was a pleasure to buy directly from the weavers and pottery makers.
Stops at the authentic Chincherra market, the touristy Pisac market, the great fortress of the Ollantaytambo, and a huge buffet lunch filled in more hours, but my favorite visit was to an Inca village and an original one-room house occupied by a family. The people slept in one corner, cooked in another corner, and had an altar to the dead in a third. The altar even contained skulls of ancestors. In one area of the dirt floor guinea pigs clustered together, squealing. They were part of the food supply.
Quito is lower than Cuzco, but still high at about 9500 ft. (Our hotel was the Hotel Dann Carlton, an excellent place to stay.) Henry, our informative guide, took us on an all-day excursion outside the city, visiting the small town of Calderon where they still make "bread dough" figurines, the Otavalo market, a site at the equator, a town known for leather goods, and a family home for an Ecuadorian lunch and entertainment. I even tried the guinea pig. One memorable sight of the day was that of huge butchered pigs hung outside houses. Henry said that customers would buy sections of the pig over a period of a few days.
The Galapagos Islands are reached by airplane from Guayaquil. Because the islands are protected, baggage was searched for any organic materials, and before takeoff the flight attendants came through the cabin, spraying the overhead compartments while passengers sat there.
Our ship for four days was the MV Galapagos Explorer with a capacity of 100 passengers. A modern, comfortable cruiser, it offered excellent meals. Shore excursions were made via zodiac boats, and we were broken into small groups for tours of the islands.
For three days we made stops at the islands of Espanola, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz. Surprisingly, the volcanic rock on one part of Espanola made for difficult walking. What makes the Galapagos so exciting is the fact that the birds, reptiles, and mammals have no fear of man.
We had to stay on the paths with our guides; nevertheless, birds were close by and I got a good look at my "destination bird", the blue-footed booby. On the gorgeous beach at Bahia Gardner we were so close to the sea lions that I could hear the sucking sounds of a baby nursing from his mother. Although an unexpected road repair kept us from seeing giant tortoises in the semi-wild, we did have up-close-and-personal experiences with them at the Darwin Research Station.
We were on the Galapagos in October. I asked a guide for his opinion on the best time to visit the islands and he thought March was the best.
Advice: Be prepared with something to cover your face when they spray the airplane. Make use of walking sticks that the guides offer you when you’re on volcanic rock.
On the evening of our return to this large city, a group of us had dinner at Zazu , a restaurant recommended by tour members who had eaten there. Zazu was written up in a travel magazine as one of the top three restaurants in Quito. The place lived up to its hype. We met the young German owner who is married to an Ecuadorian woman. The executive chef himself came out to take our orders and made special concessions. The food was fabulous and affordable, the service impeccable, and the ambience pleasant. This is an outstanding restaurant.
After a tour of Quito the next day, we enjoyed a farewell dinner at a large and private colonial home whose owner delighted in hosting tourists. It was a unique and fun way to end an exceptionally good tour.
More advice : You can’t be too careful about what you eat and drink. One woman suggested laying a facecloth over the water faucet as a reminder not to drink the water. And one thing the guidebooks don’t tell you: used toilet paper goes into the waste basket found beside every toilet, not into the toilet itself. That includes the great hotels.
To Sum It Up
Within a single trip I hoped to experience the spirituality of Machu Picchu and the up-close-and-personal acquaintance with the fauna of the Galapagos Islands. The affordable tour company, smarTours , enabled me to achieve both. Bonuses were the additional excursions in Peru and Ecuador, plus the fact that our fellow travelers proved to be exceptionally compatible. I highly recommend this tour for physically active adults and teens.
Nancy Ruhle lives in Los Gatos and is writing a fiction novel about a dog detective.
The website is www.smarTours.com .
The name of the tour was Machu Picchu & Galapagos Cruise. Prices varied according to when you went. The main cost for two people was $6998. However, when you add on the other fees it jumps to $7956. Those fees (per person) include the optional $129 for travel insurance, $100 for Galapagos Park fee, and $250 for U.S. departure taxes and airline fees. Also, you have to remember to budget for tips and whatever meals not covered in the tour.
The currency in Peru is the nuevo sol. Plural is soles. (Spanish pronunciation.) I looked up the current exchange rate and it is:
$1 is equivalent to 2.83 nuevo sol
1 nuevo sol =about 35 cents.
Ecuador uses the American dollar and is a little cheaper than Peru.
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