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zMachu Picchu + the Galapagos Cruise (2020 Itinerary)

14 days

Peru + Galapagos cruise aboard our deluxe expedition ship

Our Distinctive A+R Style

+ Stay at the exclusive Sanctuary Lodge – the only hotel atop the mountain next to Machu Picchu; the next morning, you’ll have first access for a second visit without the crowds.
+ Discover more of Ecuador’s rich history and culture: The Andean market town of Otavalo, a family-run rose farm, and the Colonial wealth of Quito – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
+ Experience the modern face of Peru at MATE, a pioneering art museum in Lima.
+ Delight in all the scenery of the Galapagos with floor-to-ceiling windows in your Upper Deck stateroom aboard our intimate cruiser.
+ Explore 7 unique Galapagos landing sites – and enhance your voyage with free snorkeling gear, kayaks and a glass-bottom boat.
+ With 9 nights luxury hotel + 4 night cruise; 28 meals with wine at lunch and dinner; all sightseeing + shore excursions; all transfers; all 5 internal flights; Galapagos Park Fee + Transit Card; port charges; and all gratuities.

Show all itinerary details


Welcome to Lima

On arrival, you’ll be warmly greeted and escorted to the 5-star JW Marriott Hotel, overlooking the Pacific from a striking cliff-top setting in the vibrant city-center district of Miraflores. Settle in to your oceanview room and take the rest of this day to relax and enjoy as you wish.


Discover Lima c

Join our expert resident guide to discover the Colonial-era landmarks, colorful neighborhoods and vibrant city life of the capital. Begin in Plaza Mayor and admire the Cathedral; built in the 18th century, this handsome landmark is the oldest on the Square. Right next door, the Archbishop’s Palace is easily recognized by its grand wooden balcony. Just a few blocks away, the historic Church and Convent of San Francisco is perhaps the most impressive of Lima’s Colonial monuments. Behind its striking yellow and white façade, you’ll find a beautifully decorated interior with glazed ceramic tiles from Spain and carved ceilings that show a strong Moorish influence.
After lunch, visit the highly regarded Larco Museum; its superb collection of pre-Columbian artifacts is a great introduction to the many ancient sites you’ll explore in the coming days. Next up is a guided stroll through Barranco, a charming city neighborhood that has attracted writers and artists since the early 20th century. Today, it remains a vibrant cultural enclave with thriving studios, galleries and cafes.  Visit MATE, a pioneering contemporary art museum founded by Mario Testino, the Peruvian photographer famed for his evocative portraits of cultural icons including Diana, Princess of Wales, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. In addition to a permanent collection of Testino’s works, MATE features rotating exhibits devoted to established and emerging contemporary artists from South America and around the world. Dine tonight at one of our favorite Lima restaurants.  Meals B+L+D

After an early breakfast, you’ll be escorted to the airport for your included flight to Cuzco c, the ancient capital of the Inca. On arrival, you’ll begin your exploration of the city with the handsome Colonial landmarks that surround the Plaza de Armas - including the Cathedral that was completed in 1654 after nearly a century of construction.
The day’s sightseeing is highlighted by a visit to the new Casa Concha Museum. Here in a Colonial mansion built on the foundations of an ancient Inca Palace, you’ll be enthralled by meticulously presented exhibits - including the many artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham; after having spent the last hundred years at Yale University, this vast collection was just repatriated to Peru in 2011. Enjoy an overnight at the luxurious Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. Your specially oxygenated room will help to ensure your comfort at this high-mountain elevation.  Meals B


Through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu

Belmond Sanctuary Lodge - Machu Picchu, Peru

A two-day visit to Machu Picchu with Yaki, our expert Andean Trip Leader, begins with an unforgettable rail journey through the Urubamba River Valley, a timeless region of snow-capped Andean peaks, quiet villages and terraced fields that have been cultivated for centuries.
On arrival in the beguiling town of Aguas Calientes, you’ll board a coach for the 30-minute ride up the switchback mountain road that brings you to the entrance to Machu Picchu. The fabled Lost City of the Inca is certainly the single greatest landmark in Peru – and perhaps all of South America. Indeed, little can be written here that would do justice to the breathtaking grandeur of its mountain setting, the enigmatic aura that permeate this ancient citadel, and the unforgettable experience of standing among these ancient stones. And accompanied by our Yaki’s illuminating insight, your visit will bring to life the ancient civilization that built Machu Picchu.
Tonight, you’ll be one of the privileged few to stay at the singular Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel here on the mountaintop adjacent to the Lost City of the Inca.  Meals B+L+D


Sunrise at Machu Picchu + Back to Cuzco by Rail

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas - Cuzco, Peru

You’ll want to arise early today to take advantage of our lodge’s one-of-a-kind setting. As the only hotel next to Machu Picchu, you’ll be among the first to enter the site this morning. At this early hour, the day-visitors from Cuzco and the Sacred Valley have yet to arrive and even those who spent the night in the town below will still be making the 30-minute ascent. With fewer people and the softer light of morning just breaking over the mountain peaks, this early-morning visit to Machu Picchu is one of the most memorable travel experiences you will ever have.
In the afternoon, you’ll make the return rail journey through the Sacred Valley back to Cuzco. On arrival, you’ll be escorted once again to the luxurious Belmond Palacio Nazarenas where your specially oxygenated room awaits.  Meals B+L


This morning, you’ll ascend with our expert Andean guide into the mountain peaks outside of town. Perched here overlooking the terra cotta roofs of Cuzco are the magnificent ruins of Sacsayhuaman. Built in the 1400’s by the Inca Emperor Pachacútec, the massive limestone blocks of this venerated complex were cut with such precision that they fit together without mortar like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle! With some individual stones towering more than 10 feet tall and weighing several hundreds of tons, Sacsayhuaman is a monumental achievement of architecture and masonry.
Back in town, you’ll visit the San Pedro Market and Almudena Cemetery; here at these seemingly quotidian sites, your native-born guide will offer fascinating cultural perspectives and personal insights into how ancient traditions – many dating back to Inca times – still endure in the life of local citizens.  Your sightseeing ends at the Temple of the Sun and Convent of Santo Domingo. Regarded as one of South America’s most architecturally fascinating sites, it also demonstrates the fascinating layers of history here in Cuzco - where a sacred structure of one culture, the Convent, literally sits atop and practically encloses another, the Inca-built Temple of the Sun! Meals B

After breakfast, you’ll be escorted to the airport for your included international flight to Ecuador. Upon arrival in the capital, you’ll be met and escorted to the Plaza Grande. With only 15 suites, our luxury boutique hotel boasts elegant Colonial style in the historic heart of this World Heritage city. 
This evening, you’ll dine here at the hotel at Belle Époque, a sophisticated restaurant overlooking Plaza de la Independencia and celebrated for its fine Continental cuisine – prepared with the freshest locally-sourced Ecuadorean products.  Meals B+D


Today’s full-day excursion starts with a magnificent morning drive along the Avenue of Volcanoes, a route that takes you north of Quito into a stunning region of towering snow-capped mountains, including the perfectly cone-shaped silhouette of Cotopaxi, an active volcano, and the equally impressive, slightly more rugged peak of Cayambe. At the Quitsato Sundial, set on the equator, you can stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other one firmly planted in the Southern Hemisphere.
Your journey continues to the beguiling Andean town of Otavalo. In the main square, you’ll join other visitors, local residents, and indigenous peoples who come from the surrounding mountain villages to sell, barter and shop in one of South America’s most celebrated markets. Many are dressed in traditional Andean garb and the variety of products for sale is astounding – local farm produce, woven rugs, jewelry, clothing, stone carvings, paintings, musical instruments, household products, leather goods and pottery are among the many items you’ll find!
Also today, you’ll spend time on a family-run rose farm, to see and learn how the region’s mountain climate, so close to the equator, has proven ideal for the cultivation of numerous varieties of roses and hybrids. Indeed, Ecuador is one of the world’s leading exporters of roses and other cut flowers. Before making the return journey to Quito, you’ll stop at an authentic high-mountain hacienda for a delightful lunch of traditional Ecuadorean fare.  Meals B+L


The History + Culture of Quito

Plaza Grande Hotel - Quito, Ecuador

Today’s expertly guided sightseeing tour through the city’s finely preserved Old Town includes the Metropolitan Cathedral that was built over the course of nearly 300 years between 1562 and the early 19th century. Nearby stands the Church and Convent of San Francisco; considered to be one of the oldest churches in Latin America, built just one month after the arrival of the Spanish, it stands upon the foundations of an ancient Inca temple. Inside you will admire a uniquely ornamented ceiling with Moorish design elements and a beautiful Baroque altar.
With unique and personal insight from our engaging resident guide, your city tour will also illuminate fascinating facets of the local culture. On a guided stroll in the charming La Ronda district, you’ll discover finely-preserve, centuries-old buildings that are now home to thriving studios, workshops and boutiques. Spending time with some of the artisans who live and work here brings a rich personal dimension to your sightseeing.  Meals B


Embark your Galapagos voyage

La Pinta

You’ll be escorted to the airport this morning for your included flight to Baltra Island in the center of the archipelago. On arrival, cross the narrow Itabaca Channel by ferry to Santa Cruz Island and sit down to lunch at a local restaurant. Then join our expert naturalist for an exciting excursion into the Santa Cruz Highlands. Observe giant tortoises in their natural habitat, learn about the unique ecosystem of this pristine nature reserve, and discover its unusual lava tube formations.
Then travel to Puerto Ayora to board our Galapagos vessel, the intimate La Pinta. You’ll have time to settle in to your Upper Deck outside stateroom before joining fellow passengers for dinner. This evening’s briefing with our expert shipboard naturalists offers an entertaining and informative introduction to your upcoming voyage.  Meals B+L+D


Eden Islet + Chinese Hat Islet

La Pinta

Today’s excursions explore the diversity of two small and uninhabited isles. In the morning, a guided expedition in our maneuverable panga boats takes you along the shores of Eden Islet, where you might observe Nazca and blue footed boobies diving into the sea for food, reef sharks and frigatebirds. Conditions permitting, this is also a great place to take advantage of our free snorkeling gear and glass bottom boat. With its cinder cones, tuff cones and semi-eroded lava flows, Eden Islet also offers a chance to learn more about the volcanic origins of the Galapagos Islands.
After lunch, a guided nature walk on Chinese Hat Islet offers a chance to espy marine iguanas, Galapagos hawks, sea lions and Galapagos penguins. There’s also terrific snorkeling here amongst white-tipped reef sharks and penguins, or you might choose to explore these waters by sea kayak, glass-bottom boat or panga.  Meals B+L+D


Bartolomé + Santiago Islands

La Pinta

After breakfast, join our naturalists ashore for an invigorating walk to the summit of Bartolomé Island. A network of wooden stairs and boardwalks protects the fragile environment, including small lava lizards and a species of cactus found only in the Galapagos. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most picturesque and memorable vistas of your Galapagos adventure! Later, a panga boat excursion around Pinnacle Rock offers a great opportunity to photograph this iconic natural formation. Before returning to La Pinta for lunch, you’ll have time to relax on the beach, snorkel or ride in the glass-bottom boat.
In the afternoon, you’ll step ashore at Sullivan Bay on the southeastern coast of Santiago Island. There was a major eruption here only 100 years ago, and the sinuous Pāhoehoe lava formations look almost like still-flowing molten lava. There may not be much wildlife here, but the barren, other-worldly landscape makes for remarkable photography, and this is a great place to observe and experience the volcanic origins of the Galapagos archipelago.  In addition, the lovely coral sand beach of Sullivan Bay is ideal for swimming and snorkeling.  Meals B+L+D


Two Landings on Genovesa Island

La Pinta

Genovesa is celebrated for its remarkable birdlife including magnificent frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed and lava gulls, and yellow-crowned herons. This morning, you’ll step ashore with our naturalists at Darwin Bay. From the small sand and coral beach, an easy trail winds its way along a tidal lagoon, offering myriad opportunities to observe and learn about the island’s birdlife. After your guided walk, you can hike along a more challenging lava trail to a look-out point, go for a swim or snorkel in the bay. The more adventurous can paddle or snorkel along the cliffs at the edge of the bay.
After lunch back onboard, you’ll explore Prince Philip’s Steps - named for Prince Philip who visited the Galapagos in 1964 aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. As you approach the lava cliffs in our panga boats, keep your eyes peeled for animals using the crevices for shelter and for red-billed tropicbirds flying overhead. You’ll make landing at the base of a staircase that leads to the top of the cliffs where a mile-long path will take us to the other side of this small island. Along the way, you’ll have a chance to espy large colonies of Nazca boobies, frigatebirds, storm petrels and the elusive short-eared owl.  Meals B+L+D


Fly to the Mainland for Departure

After breakfast, you’ll disembark on Baltra Island and transfer to the airport for your included flight to either Guayaquil or Quito - where you can connect to your homeward flight. Or if you wish, you can extend your stay with us in Ecuador.  Meals B

Private Tour Add-Ons

Arequipa + Colca Canyon

Enhance your South America travels with the Colonial splendors of Arequipa and the magnificent condors of the beautiful Colca Valley. We include outstanding accommodations, all on-tour transportation and comprehensive sightseeing with your own personal car, driver and guide.

Lake Titicaca

Enhance your travels through Peru and South America with our 3-day Private Tour and discover the indigenous communities and spellbinding beauty of Lake Titicaca. We include chauffeured airport transfers and a full-day guided excursion across the Lake.

Amazon Lodges of Peru

Discover the remote and pristine Amazon jungles of Peru! Our private tour includes your choice of eco-lodge deep in the rainforest, roundtrip transportation from Puerto Maldonado and all meals. Then set out with our expert naturalists to explore the unique flora and fauna of the Amazon.


Family + Friends

Travel is one of  life's most rewarding experiences, perhaps even more so when it's shared with those you love! Take advantage of our Family & Friends offer and Save $100 per person anytime you book 4 or more people on the same A+R program.


Save $600 per couple + $300 solo on all of our Small Group, Small Ship and Private Journeys when you book and pay-in-full within 7 days of booking and prior to the final payment date listed in our published terms and conditions.

A Look at All that You’ll Experience

These videos, articles and podcasts will illuminate the enriching and exciting experiences that await you on our Original Journey to Peru and Ecuador. Drawn from respected independent sources, we’ve curated this multi-media collection to inspire your imagination. Enthralling as they are now on your screen, the things you see, read and hear will truly come to life when you travel with our engaging guides and expert naturalists.

Our A+R Library

About Your Journey: Machu Picchu + the Galapagos

You have chosen two of the most rewarding places in the world to visit… Whether you’re cruising through the Galapagos Islands, visiting Andean villages in the highlands, marveling at Colonial architecture in Quito, exploring flora and fauna in the Amazon jungle or visiting the rich tapestry of cultures and landscapes of Cuzco and Machu Picchu – or all of these – your journey will be filled with many unforgettable experiences.

Whatever your passions, Peru and Ecuador will delight you. You’ll encounter friendly people, sample great cuisine, discover vibrant artistic traditions, journey through captivating landscapes, and explore some of the greatest architectural achievements of humanity.

So no matter where your travels take you in Peru and Ecuador, whether it’s mountain, city, valley or jungle… get ready for one of the most memorable trips you’ll ever have!

A Word About Altitude
Cuzco is one of the highest cities in the world, at an elevation in excess of 11,000 feet. This extreme altitude usually requires visitors to allow for rest and limited activity on the first day. Visitors should be prepared for the lightness of head and shortness of breath that may come from higher altitude. Called altitude sickness or soroche in Spanish, most people are not overly bothered by the experience. If you are concerned with the prospect of high altitude, please consult with your physician prior to departure since there are now medications available to help relieve the symptoms.  Eating lightly the night before you travel to higher elevation, drinking more water than usual, and taking things slowly can help minimize the effects of altitude sickness.

Entering the Galapagos Archipelago
Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism has recently issued new regulations regarding health information to be provided by Galapagos-bound travelers:  passenger blood type is now required in order to be able to assist in the event of a medical emergency.  When checking in for your flight from Quito to the Galapagos, airport staff will confirm whether this information has been provided --its omission may delay your boarding.  You may provide this to Alexander+Roberts at your convenience or just be prepared to offer this information on the ground.

Additionally, the National Park Management has announced that all shoes including shoes that are checked within suitcases are clean of any debris or mud.  This is to prevent contamination issues that can disrupt the delicate nature of the Galapagos.

If You Face Physical Challenges
Machu Picchu, like other ancient sites worldwide, was of course constructed well before building codes or the existence of safety and accessibility standards. And in order to maintain the architectural and historical integrity which attracts visitors in the first place, much of the site has been intentionally left in its natural state. As such, you will encounter uneven terrain, irregular steps, and a lack of handrails, barriers, ramps and cautionary warning signs where you might expect them back home.

Therefore, it is extremely important for you to take great care and caution when exploring the site. Pay attention to all instructions and do not wander away from your guide, especially off designated paths into unmarked terrain. When exploring on your own, heed all regulations, be extra mindful of your surroundings and note any conditions which could increase the risks (poor visibility, wet slippery surfaces, etc).

Travelers to Peru and Galapagos should be in reasonably good health as this journey tends to be an active trip. The excursions and activities that are included often involve a great deal of walking over uneven terrain – both paved and unpaved. There will be hills to climb and descend, and steps usually have no wheelchair access. The Galapagos excursions are done in small inflatable boats (zodiacs or pangas) that transport you from La Pinta to the islands.  Visits include wet landings and require visitors to climb out of the zodiac directly into the surf.  Even indoor sites like museums and historical buildings may have only steps - no elevators or ramps.

For travelers with mobility issues or physical challenges, be prepared for a lack of accessibility that we enjoy in the United States. Hotels may be limited in the provisions made for such travelers and some do not have elevators. Airports are not always fully equipped with modern jet ways, and ramps for wheelchairs are often absent.

We regret that we cannot provide individual assistance for guests who need mobility assistance.  Nor can we ensure that local vehicles will be wheelchair-equipped. For these reasons, a qualified companion must accompany guests who need such assistance.
If you have any mobility or medical issues of which we should be aware, please advise Alexander+Roberts well in advance of your departure.

Climate…What You Can Expect
As with most of South America, the seasons in Peru and Ecuador are opposite of North America with summer generally considered to be December through March and the winter months being June through October. More importantly for the traveler, however, is that the weather is more dependent upon where you are in the country rather than the season of the year.

Lima and the Desert Coast:  This area of Peru is mild to hot – and dry – for most of the year. In the summer months, December to April, average temperatures are in the mid to high 70’s but can climb well into the 80’s; average summertime lows are in the 60’s. From June to October, the winter months, temperatures are milder, with daytime highs averaging in the 60’s and overnight lows dipping into the 50’s. During this time, a gray mist called the garúa often shrouds Lima and the surrounding coastal region. This fog rolling in off the Pacific can occur year-round especially in the morning and late afternoon.  A jacket in the winter is advisable. Peru has some the world’s driest deserts which are, curiously, located along the southern coastline immediately along the ocean. Some months see no precipitation!

Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca:  The rugged and beautiful Andes dominate the spine of Peru and offer a variety of climatic conditions. The dry season is April through October. November begins the rainy season with December through March seeing the most precipitation.  High temperatures throughout the year are generally in the 60's or low 70's. During the months of May through September, there could be frosty mornings. The rest of the year, lower temperatures will be in the mid 40’s to near 50°. Keep in mind that altitude affects temperature so the higher you go, the cooler the temperatures. Also, remember that you are close to the equator and at high elevations. So although the air temperature might feel quite mild, the sun is strong and you should remember to use sun screen.

The Amazon Basin: As you would expect, the Amazon rainforests are hot and humid year-round. However, there are some seasonal variations. From May to October, there is less rainfall with high temperatures climbing well into the 90’s and sometimes approaching 100°. Overnight low temperatures average in the 60’s to low 70’s. Thermometer readings from November to April are not much different but you must be prepared for frequent downpours; these usually last for just a few hours but can sometimes continue for days. This precipitation fills the rivers and the hot humid air can feel even steamier. The southwestern Amazon basin, near the town of Puerto Maldonado, is far enough south of the Equator to be a few degrees cooler than in the north near Iquitos. Also, this region is subject to cold fronts that sweep in from Argentina between May and September. This weather system can push daytime highs down into the 50’s.

Quito and the Highlands: Although Quito sits near the equator, its elevation (more than 9,000 feet above sea level) blesses the capital with almost spring-like weather all the year round. The average high temperature in this region is in the upper 60’s and the average low is around 50°. The weather is coolest from June to September, but this is usually just a few degrees lower than the rest of the year. These are also the driest months, but then again the annual range is not extreme: June, July and August average less than 2 inches of precipitation per month. During the rest of the year, the average rainfall ranges from less than 4 inches per month (Nov to Jan) up to an average of around 6 inches in March and April. In other words, you can encounter rain any time of year, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find your trip spoiled by the weather.

The Galapagos:  Although these islands straddle the Equator, the climate is tempered by Pacific Ocean currents and breezes. January through May is the warm and wet season with daytime highs climbing well into the 80’s. Ocean temperatures are usually comfortable as well, hovering around 75°. During these months, heavy tropical showers and drizzly rain are not unusual but skies are often clear and sunny. From July to December, it’s generally cooler and windier, with daytime highs in the 70’s. Water temperatures drop, sometimes below 70°, and the skies are often overcast with occasional mist or drizzle.

A Note about Wildlife Viewing in the Galapagos
There are a few places on Earth where animals are easier to see and photograph than in the Galapagos. The animals are unique and seldom found in such numbers elsewhere. They are easy to locate, unafraid and allow you to approach very close. One of the biggest problems you will have is trying not to step on the wildlife! Always be careful where you place your feet, especially when you are backing up to take a picture. It is important to keep a respectful distance from babies and eggs; the animals still need their zone of privacy. The best time for animal watching is early morning or late afternoon. On almost every island you visit you will see sea lions, marine iguanas, Sally Light-foot crabs, lava lizards and Darwin’s finches. On most islands you will see: herons, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and mockingbirds. On selected shore excursions you will see masked boobies, land iguanas, Galapagos penguins (very shy), fur seals, red-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, frigatebirds, pink flamingos and the nesting grounds of iguanas. Giant tortoises can be observed at the Darwin Research Station or in the Highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

The ecological system on the islands is a fragile one and the naturalists and guides will help to maintain it by reminding you that there is no smoking on the islands, no touching the animals or using flash when filming, and no removal of shells or flora from the islands.

Famous Peruvian and Ecuadorian Handcrafts + Markets
The shopping in Peru and Ecuador is among the very best in all of Latin America with fine quality and excellent prices for many traditional crafts. The region’s long traditions in textile weaving and pottery make these products especially attractive. In shops, boutiques and open-air markets you’ll find great buys on alpaca wool sweaters, blankets, shawls, hats, pottery and jewelry.

Shopping in the open-air markets is irresistible for many visitors, with tempting prices and a large and colorful variety of gifts and souvenirs.  Although bargaining is not as strongly ingrained in the Peruvian or Ecuadorian culture as in other parts of the world, some price negotiation is expected at these markets. Be attuned for facial expressions which might suggest that you are being too demanding or difficult. Any price drop you negotiate early on will probably be the final price. Walking away in hopes of a better deal might work… but not always. And be aware that intrinsic worth and value are usually well reflected in the price offered. And often time the seller really needs the money they are asking for in the purchase price; sometimes it’s better to make a friend than a deal! That said, it’s still wise do some comparison shopping before making your first move. There can be tremendous price variations for similar items in the same market!

By all means, enjoy your shopping! But we do recommend that you avoid objects that appear to be ancient artifacts. Many so-called artifacts are anything but old. In addition, the export of genuine ancient relics is strictly controlled so that cultural treasures do not leave the country. Animal skins, things made with tropical bird feathers, and similar items should also be avoided. Some could be made from endangered species and their export (and import into the USA) is illegal. Buying only from reputable shops will help you to avoid problems.

Money Matters
The Peruvian currency is the Sol. Notes are denominated in 10's, 20's, 50's, 100's and 200's. Coins are in 1, 2 and 5 Sol pieces. One Sol is equal to 10 coins of 10 centimos (cents). Exchange rates do fluctuate, but 1 U.S. Dollar is roughly equivalent to 3.4 Soles. You will encounter people in the streets offering to exchange your U.S. Dollars for Soles. For your personal security, we recommend that you avoid the black market exchange and convert your currency at banks, hotels and official exchange houses (casas de cambio).

Counterfeit bills are not uncommon. Whenever receiving Sol notes, especially if you do change money on the street, hold the bills up to the light and look for the watermark. Many merchants will not take torn, taped or well worn bills, so try to avoid these in order to minimize problems with future payments.

The U.S. Dollar is the unofficial second currency of Peru and many shops, restaurants, taxi drivers and hotels will accept payment in U.S. Dollars, though few accept denominations larger than $20 bills.

Peru is still very much a cash-based society. In the principle cities, major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard and American Express) will be accepted at most hotels and onboard La Pinta as well as in many shops and restaurants. But outside of the cities and at street markets everywhere, you’ll most likely have to pay in cash, either local currency or U.S. Dollars. Traveler’s checks can be very difficult to cash, even in some of the banks and hotels. We do not recommend bringing the majority of your funds in traveler’s checks. It is a good idea to contact your credit card company before you travel to advise which countries you are visiting. 

The local currency throughout Ecuador is now the U.S. Dollar. It is no longer necessary to exchange money. For small change, Ecuador also has its own coins, equivalent to half dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies.

ATMs are a good way to get traveling funds while in Peru. They are not on every corner, but you will find them in nearly all towns and cities. Note that many ATMs are linked to only one network, either Cirrus or PLUS. Also, you can often choose to withdraw funds in either Peruvian Soles or U.S. Dollars.

Conversing with the Locals
Spanish is the official language of Peru and Ecuador. In the highlands, many people also speak Quechua, an Amer-Indian language that was recently given official status as well. In the region around Lake Titicaca, residents also speak the ancient Aymara language. English is not necessarily widely spoken but it’s pretty well understood by most people working with visitors from abroad. English is the unofficial second language of both Peru and Ecuador.  Restaurant menus in areas frequented by tourists are usually available in English.  Even with language difficulties, people are very friendly and will generally go out of their way to help you.

About Electricity
The electric current in Peru is 220 volts AC. Most outlets are for two flat prongs.

Electric current in Ecuador is 110v AC / 60Hz. Ecuador uses the same two flat-pronged outlets as the USA, but most outlets do not have the third hole for the grounding prong. Onboard La Pinta, you will also find 110/220v outlets.

For more information on plugs and sockets, review the information at:

Meal Time…
Some visitors may be a bit surprised by the superb cuisine available in Peru; indeed, the restaurants and eateries here are among the best in South America and Peruvian chefs and dishes are at the forefront of an emerging worldwide trend in Pan-Latino cuisine.

Ingredients and culinary styles vary markedly by region, but one common denominator throughout the Peruvian cooking is a blending of indigenous and Spanish influences. Along the Pacific coast, seafood predominates and one of the most popular dishes is ceviche, where fish and shellfish are marinated (but not cooked) in lime or lemon juice with chili peppers. The result is much like raw seafood that has been pickled; it’s often served with onions, sweet potatoes and roasted corn. Highland fare tends to be a bit heartier and more substantial. Corn and potatoes have been staples since pre-Inca times and the same is true today. Meat is served with rice or potatoes and river trout is also popular. Lomo saltado is quite ubiquitous on restaurant menus; this is beef with onions, tomatoes, peppers and french fries served over rice. Soups in the Andean regions are also quite delicious. Pachamanca is a traditional meal, sort of like a Peruvian picnic. It involves slow roasting meat over hot stones placed in the ground. Cuy (guinea pig) is considered to be a delicacy in Peru and it’s one of the favored meats for special occasions. River-caught fish is a staple in the Amazon, including trout and paiche (a very large species). Popular side dishes include the local root yucca, palm hearts, bananas, plantain and a tamale made from rice. In the main towns and cities, visitors will find plenty of familiar fare, including American style meals and international menus featuring everything from fine Continental cuisine to wood-fired pizza. One uniquely Peruvian creation is the Chifa. These restaurants are all over the country and serve Peruvian-influenced Chinese food developed by the country’s fairly large immigrant Chinese population. Chifas are as popular with non-Chinese Peruvians as Chinese carry-out is here in the United States. Just as popular are casual eateries serving pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken).

Is the Water Safe to Drink?
Do not drink the water in Peru and Ecuador. Soft drinks, beer, wine and bottled water (with or without carbonation) are readily available. It is also advisable to avoid ice cubes.

Our ship, La Pinta, is fully equipped with a modern water purification system. Upon check in, each passenger will receive a water bottle that can be refilled with purified water from the water dispensers located on the cabin deck.  Do not drink the water out of the tap on the cruise ship as this water has not been purified. All water and ice cubes served to guests in the restaurant and bar have been purified and are safe.

Your Trip Leaders + Guides
As you journey through Peru and Ecuador, our experienced local guides and trip leaders will attend to your needs in each city or region. Our staff has been carefully selected for their professional expertise, engaging demeanor, and in-depth knowledge of the local sights, history and culture. And with their insider’s perspective, they know the best places for shopping, dining and entertainment in the cities they call home!

Know the Customs + Traditions
Many American visitors conclude that all of South America operates at a slower pace than North America. So remember that you’re on vacation… Slow down, be patient and be prepared for what you might consider a mañana mentality.

A few other comments to guide you…. Never ask someone not to smoke, even in areas not designated for smoking (it’s better just to move to a new location). Also, seek permission before taking a photograph of anyone since many superstitions still go along with photography in South America.

Some sights and museums restrict photography, in particular the use of flash.  Always check with your tour guide or site officials when in doubt. 

Early Mornings on Your Itinerary
In order to experience the amazing Inca sites in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, your itinerary in Peru is tightly organized with several very early morning departures. In addition, the awesome majesty of these sites will entice you to explore in-depth and perhaps to walk quite a bit more than you’re used to doing at home. These early morning wake-ups and the extensive walking combined with the high altitude of the region can make your itinerary quite tiring…. So please come prepared for an active but rewarding vacation!

Travelers to Nazca will be asked for additional personal information upon arrival:  due to strict government regulations, the aircraft that fly over the Nazca lines must account for each passenger’s weight.  Please forgive our guides for asking: this information is key to balancing the weight on the flight.

A Note about our Ship…
La Pinta is one of the finest vessels operating in the Galapagos. Of course, the ship sails in full compliance with all regulations of the Galapagos National Park Service.

Fully reconstructed for ocean cruising in 2007, La Pinta offers just 24 staterooms, all on the same deck and of approximately the same size.  They vary only in their ability to accommodate 3 passengers, and 8 cabins have connecting doors.  All cabins are spacious exterior suites with floor to ceiling windows, two twin beds or one queen bed, desk, bathrooms with environmentally friendly amenities, hairdryer, in-room safe, telephone, individually controlled central air conditioning, multi-channel sound system for closed circuit music and connection for personal iPods.

Life onboard… A delightful daily routine quickly develops, starting with a morning wake-up call and a hearty buffet breakfast. A morning excursion usually includes the opportunity to swim or relax ashore. You return to the La Pinta for lunch as the ship charts a course for another island.   TV monitors on the cabin deck and lounge give you easy access to the timings of the daily activities.

Cruising can be a great opportunity to work out in the ship’s fitness center with its full-length windows, relax in the lounge or check email in the library (though Internet connections are low-bandwidth and intermittent).

Around mid-afternoon, join your naturalist guides for another shore excursion. Back on ship, you can relax or enjoy a cocktail before dinner.

Every evening before dinner, guests are encouraged to gather in the spacious lounge for an informative presentation by the ship’s naturalist guides, all licensed by the Galapagos National Park Service. These informative talks provide invaluable information on the following day’s shore visits. You’ll learn what type of terrain is to be covered, special clothing or footwear that is recommended, and what species might be encountered. You’ll gain some insight into the natural history, flora and fauna of the islands to be visited, providing you with excellent context for your next day’s adventures.

Meals onboard… are served in the ship’s dining room with expansive breakfast and lunch buffets and casually elegant dinners served course by course. Weather permitting, lunch may be served al fresco on the lovely Sun Deck.  Evening meals usually feature two entrée choices, including vegetarian options. The ship’s skilled chefs prepare a variety of Ecuadorean and International dishes using the freshest ingredients. There is also a coffee & tea station which is open 24 hours-a-day.

After dinner, you can head to the Observation lounge and bar to have fun with karaoke or enjoy a nightcap before retiring.

Shore excursions… begin aboard a small boat (known as a panga or zodiac) which will take you from the ship to the island and back. There are two types of landings - wet and dry. Wet landings are the easiest and are so named because you swing your legs over the side of the boat step into shallow water, usually just calf or knee-deep. For this kind of landing, waterproof sandals or Tevas are recommended. Because waterproof sandals are usually not the best for walking, we suggest having good walking or hiking shoes in your daypack. You can of course make the wet landing barefoot, but sharp volcanic rocks make this inadvisable.

For a dry landing you will climb from the boat directly onto a pier or rocky shoreline. However, because of the ocean swell and slippery rocks, take extreme care lest the dry landing become a wet one! If you are unsure or unsteady, always ask for assistance. You will be required to wear a life vest when going to/from your shore excursions.

Be sure to have in your daypack whatever else you need for the excursion – lip moisturizer, sunscreen, binoculars, etc.

Basic Rules aboard your Ship… The ship’s crew will familiarize you with some basic rules including a request to recycle all trash, no paper should be thrown in the toilet, and no trash should ever be left on an island or thrown overboard.

Air Conditioning… The ship is fully air conditioned, but staterooms do not have individual air conditioning units.  You will find a control switch in your cabin which can be adjusted to regulate the fan speed.
The Boutique… carries a range of personal care items, souvenirs, camera batteries, etc. Purchases will be signed and charged to your shipboard account which can be paid at the end of the cruise in cash or by credit card.

A Safety Box… is available in your suite.

Wellness… There is a full-use fitness room a hot tub and a Medical officer (M.D.) permanently on board and available 24/7.

The Jacuzzi… is located outside the Sky Bar and is a wonderful place to relax after your last shore excursion.

Laundry Services… The La Pinta does not offer guest laundry services onboard for personal items.  If you are taking the 7-night cruise, the ship can take your laundry prior to landing in Puerto Ayora and have it back to your cabin the next day.  A regular clothes dryer is available onboard for wet clothing on the Aft Deck.

Towels…  Colored towels are available by the Jacuzzi and reception area, and can also be carried ashore on your morning and afternoon island excursions for swimming and snorkeling.

Lectures…  In addition to the evening briefings, La Pinta’s naturalist guides also give fascinating lectures on Darwin, and the islands’ natural history and culture.

Whale Watching…  Whales are most active in the Galapagos between July and September.  Whenever you’re on deck or enjoying the view from your suite, it’s always worthwhile to keep an alert watch for whales as the La Pinta makes its way through the archipelago. In particular, as your ship sails along the northwest coast of Isabela Island you’re entering waters where whales have been regularly sighted. Be sure to inform your guide if you wish to participate. The best time is early in the morning so we recommend that you request a wake up call so you can be on deck by 6:00AM that morning.

Access to the Bridge… La Pinta is equipped with state-of-the-art marine technology and a visit to the Bridge is always fascinating.  We ask that visits be arranged through the Hotel Manager.

Sand…  Despite its natural beauty, sand causes serious problems! It can transport insect eggs and seeds from one island to another and may obstruct the pipelines of the ship’s sewage system. Please check your feet and footwear before stepping aboard the panga boat and get rid of all sand before entering! Shake out your towels and brush off your hats, clothing and daypacks!

Snorkeling… in the Galapagos promises to add entirely different and very enriching experiences to your journey. It requires a certain degree of preparation that will be provided by your guide, but it should not be attempted by people without swimming ability. Snorkeling gear is available at no charge on board.  Due to the cooler waters of the Humboldt Current its best to wear a wetsuit (also available at no charge onboard) for snorkeling, especially from July to November when water temperatures are lower.

Smoking and non-smoking areas…  Smoking is only allowed on the Sun Deck and on the outside promenades on each deck. Be sure to NEVER THROW CIGARETTE FILTERS OR BUTTS OVER- BOARD! A single one pollutes more than 5 gallons of water! Smoking is not permitted in the cabins or anywhere indoors.

For those traveling to the Amazon regions:  Each visitor should limit gear to good binoculars; camera gear; tight weave, light weight, light colored, long cotton pants; long sleeved, tight weave, light colored cotton shirts; undergarments; absorbent socks; ankle high hiking boots; sneakers; a powerful flashlight with batteries; a small toilet kit; a water bottle; sun block lotion; sunglasses; a secure, broad brimmed hat; 100% waterproof head to ankle rain suit; insect repellent; yellow fever inoculation certificate; small denomination bills and a small day pack.  Luggage is hand-carried at various stages for a long distance.  Please limit the weight of your bags to no more than 32 pounds.  If you are travelling to destinations that require more luggage, you may leave your additional luggage with the staff in Puerto Maldonado before embarking on your journey into the Amazon.  Your luggage will be waiting for you upon your return.

Important Overnight Bag
If your tour includes an overnight in Machu Picchu you will need an overnight bag for your stay. This can be your carry on piece. Just make sure that this is a bag which will hold everything you need for an overnight stay. Your guide and driver in Cuzco will arrange for safe storage of your remaining luggage.

Because Peru Rail runs at full capacity on the trains to and from Machu Picchu, they are very strict about their luggage policy.  While aboard the train you are only allowed one bag up 62 inches (length + height + width) weighing up to 11lbs. You will be allowed a small backpack or purse to carry your water and camera in addition to your overnight bag. Your overnight bag will be delivered to your Machu Picchu hotel upon arrival. When journeying to Machu Picchu, don’t forget comfortable walking shoes and if you have room, a rain poncho can be very handy.

Out + About in Peru and Ecuador
This information is designed as a comprehensive overview of the country and to provide you with broad context for your travels. Not all of the places described below may be included in your program, but if this entices you to explore more of Peru and Ecuador, our travel experts can work with you and your travel agent to plan an extension to your program (if your itinerary and schedule allow a longer stay).

About Lima
Lima’s rich Colonial history stretches back to its founding in 1535 by the famous Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. Within a generation, Lima was known as the City of Kings - the center of trade and power for the Spanish Crown’s entire American Vice Regency which stretched from Quito to Santiago. For nearly 200 years, Lima was also the headquarters of the infamous Spanish Inquisition. A devastating earthquake in the mid-18th century destroyed many of the city’s fine Baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces and mansions. But the historic center of Lima is still home to many handsome buildings and landmarks of the Colonial era. Indeed, it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

About the Central Coast… Paracas National Reserve, Ballestas Islands and Nazca
South of Lima along the Pacific coast is the desert province of Ica. Although this is one of the driest places on the planet, there’s a unique combination of sites to discover. The Paracas National Reserve encompasses a dramatic rocky coastline, the eponymous Paracas Peninsula and the Ballestas Islands. Founded in 1975, two thirds of this 5,600 square mile Reserve is made up of open sea. The remainder is mostly dry desert landscape punctuated by tiny fishing villages and a spectacular rugged coastline. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the Reserve is the Ballestas Islands (Islas Ballestas). Visitors are not allowed to go ashore on the islands, but guided boat excursions promise amazing up-close encounters with the wildlife. More than 100 species of migratory and resident seabirds have been sighted here, including pelicans, vultures, red footed boobies, and cormorants. Most popular with visitors are the huge colonies of sea lions that live (and bark noisily) along the rocky shores. From January to March, when baby sea lions are born and frolicking about, the colonies are even louder! Though less frequently seen, dolphins and whales also inhabit these waters and giant Andean condors can be seen riding the air currents.

This arid region was also home to the ancient Paracas and Nazca cultures which flourished here from roughly 1300 BC to AD 700.

The surprising town of Ica is the capital of the province. First settled more than 10,000 years ago, modern-day Ica offers a handsome central district of Colonial mansions and churches. The Regional Museum of Ica, one of the finest small museums in Peru, has an impressive collection of artifacts from the ancient civilizations that inhabited the area including the Paracas, Nazca and Inca cultures. On display are ceramics, textiles, mummies, trophy heads and quipus, knotted strings which the Inca used for calculations and record keeping.

The Nazca Lines are undoubtedly the main draw for visitors to the region, and they rarely fail to impress and even overwhelm. Etched into the arid desert by an ancient culture, there are more than 10,000 lines that crisscross the plain. Among the enormous geometric shapes like triangles and trapezoids are nearly 70 drawings of animal and plant figures. The figure drawings are enormous, some more than 1,000 feet long, making it difficult to get any sort of perspective from the ground. A flight-seeing excursion is an absolute must for visitors to Nazca. Once in the air, you can easily discern these enigmatic drawings including a parrot, dog, spider, monkey and hummingbird.

About Cuzco
The legendary capital of the Inca Empire is truly one of the highpoints of any trip to South America. Cradled high in the Andes at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet, Cuzco is a magical and beautiful city. Its magnificent Inca monuments and splendid Colonial architecture are complemented by its unique ambience. Cuzco is a vibrant city colored by its rich history, indigenous mestizo culture and the influence of adventure-seekers and enlightened travelers from all over the world.

The city is best explored on foot, but the high altitude can make this quite demanding. If you’re arriving here directly from Lima, it’s best to take it easy on your first day here.

About the Sacred Valley of the Incas
It’s only 60 miles from Pisac to Ollantaytambo along the fast-flowing Urubamba, but this scenic river valley north of Cuzco is home to some of the Continent’s most famous monuments, villages and landscapes. Renowned as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, this beautiful region is one of the most visited in Peru. Yet it maintains a timeless ambience; villagers still speak Quechua as they work the fields with the simple implements used by their ancestors. Weavers use the same ancient techniques as they have for generations and market day in the village is still an important ritual.

Most of the Sacred Valley sits at an altitude of about 10,000 feet (1,000 feet below Cuzco), making this a good place to begin your exploration of Peru’s ancient monuments and mountain landscapes.

About Machu Picchu
The legendary Lost City of the Incas is certainly the single greatest attraction in Peru - and perhaps in all of South America. Indeed, little can be written here that would do justice to the breathtaking majesty of the surrounding mountain landscape, the enigmatic power and aura that so permeate this ancient citadel, and the unforgettable experience of standing among these ancient stones.

Trains from Cuzco all leave early in the morning and the scenic rail journey through the Sacred Valley takes about 4 hours. If you embark the train in Ollantaytambo, it’s just 90 minutes to the base of Machu Picchu. All trains arrive in the riverside town of Aguas Calientes. From there, a 20-minute bus ride up a mountain switchback road brings you to the entry to the ruins. During peak season, daily visitors through Machu Picchu can exceed 3,000 people! But despite the crowds, this ancient Inca city never fails to impress.

If you’re visiting for the day, you’ll have several hours to explore Machu Picchu with your guide. This allows plenty of time to delve deeply into the ruins, from the much-photographed Temple of the Three Windows to lesser-known but equally impressive areas where the Inca’s engineering skill, architectural prowess and landscape artistry are so evident. Return trains to Cuzco depart in the mid to late afternoon.

Visitors who overnight in Aguas Calientes have the opportunity to take that first 6:30AM bus up the mountainside to the ruins. This affords several hours before the day visitors arrive from Cuzco, an opportunity to experience the Lost City in relative solitude as the early morning light breaks across the mountain peaks. With an extra day here, travelers can also embark on the famed Machu Picchu hike to Intipuku, the Gate of the Sun. The view from this mountaintop vantage point is truly breathtaking. Pathways can be slippery in the early morning dew so use extra caution!

About Quito
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, there was an important Inca city here in this beautiful narrow valley high in the Andes. Although there are no longer any traces of this ancient city,  perfectly-preserved Spanish Colonial buildings still stand in Old Town almost exactly as they appeared nearly 500 years ago. Indeed, this architectural gem is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But Quito is also very much a 21st century city, and along with these Colonial monuments there is a gleaming modern section of the capital filled with glass skyscrapers, international boutiques, and trend-setting eateries.

In short, the city offers a wonderful blend where you can experience fascinating history with all the comforts of the 21st century. Much of your touring will concentrate on the amazing sites of the Old Town….

Close To Quito – There are a number of wonderful day trips that can be made from Quito. The Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest is about 90 minutes from downtown but feels worlds away. This protected region lies generally below Quito, ranging in elevation from 3,800 feet all the way to the peak of the Guagua Pichincha Volcano at more than 15,000 feet. The diversity of flora and fauna in this lush cloud forest is mind boggling with thousands of species of orchids and bromeliads and more than 350 unique birds including Cock-of-the-Rock, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Toucan Barbet, and Torrent Duck. For the nature enthusiast, a number of simple but comfortable lodges in the region make it easy and convenient to spend a couple days exploring the forest.

About Imbabura Province, Otavalo
The province of Imbabura offers a wealth of wonderful experiences just 60 miles north of Quito along the Pan-American Highway. The area presents one of Ecuador’s most beautiful landscapes -- a breathtaking region of snow-capped volcanoes, pristine high-mountain lakes, and tranquil Andean villages. And with a number of different indigenous groups, it’s also one of the country’s most culturally vibrant provinces. For many, the strongest appeal may be the shopping: Imbabura is also home to several small towns renowned for their skilled artisans… San Antonio de Ibarra for its generations-old wood carving traditions… Cotacachi for its fine leather work… and Otavalo for its skilled weavers.

Otavalo – with its world-famous market, is perhaps the most visited of these three towns. Nestled in a picturesque valley under the watchful gaze of two mighty volcanoes, this charming Andean town hosts an enormous open-air market every Saturday, with locals in traditional dress selling their finely made handicrafts… woven rugs, jewelry, clothing, stone carvings, paintings, musical instruments, pottery, and more. Although there are fewer vendors on non-market days, shopping here on any day of the week promises plenty of fun and great bargains.

About the Avenue of the Volcanoes
It was an early 19th century German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who coined the phrase ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes.’  And indeed it is wonderfully appropriate. Heading southward from Quito, whether by rail or by road, is a spectacular journey quite unlike any other in the world. With Ecuador’s location on the Equator, it’s natural that the journey transports you through a nearly tropical landscape of orchids, lush vegetation, and palm trees. But look up and you see flora more typical of the tundra, glaciers and snow capped peaks.

The Avenue takes you up and down a series of mountain slopes and into the fertile valleys that lie in between. As you descend from the high Quito plateau into the first valley, the first volcano that stands out to the east is the mighty peak of Antisana, 18,720 feet above sea level! But looming over the entire region is the incomparable Cotopaxi Volcano, beautifully symmetrical and crowned with snow. This is the 2nd highest peak in the country and it’s the highest continuously active volcano in the world. On a clear day, you can see this mighty mountain, sometimes with its peak rising above lower level clouds.

About Cuenca
Descending from the Avenue of the Volcanoes into the southern highlands you’ll note that the Andes appear broader and flatter, without the dramatic snowcapped peaks of the north. But it’s still a very beautiful region and Cuenca, the capital of Azuay Province, promises a rewarding visit. With approximately 400,000 residents, it’s the 3rd largest city in Ecuador but it retains the charm and ambience of a small town. Much of this appeal lies in the extraordinary preservation of its Colonial architecture. Indeed, many regard Cuenca as the most beautiful city in Ecuador, and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

About Guayaquil
Many visitors assume that Quito, the capital, is also the largest city in Ecuador. But in fact the bustling Pacific port of Guayaquil has an unofficial population of close to 3 million, nearly 50% more residents than Quito. Most American visitors are simply transiting here en route to the Galapagos. But for those who spend more than just an overnight, there are number of places worth exploring.

The Guayas River is endlessly fascinating, always busy with ships, small boats, canoes and even rafts, all laden with produce from the interior. The riverfront Malecón Simón Bolívar has been revitalized and rechristened Malecón 2000, and it’s once again one of the city’s most popular destinations, abuzz with malls, restaurants, museums, parks and markets. It’s easy to spend an entire day here gazing at the river traffic and joining residents and visitors alike in the many dining, cultural and entertainment venues.

About the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands lie about 600 miles off the mainland coast of Ecuador. Sailing in the wake of Charles Darwin more than 170 years after his famous voyage, visitors today can still experience some of the best wildlife viewing in the world - little changed, indeed, since the young naturalist arrived aboard the HMS Beagle. A cruise through the archipelago is definitely one of the most unforgettable travel experiences available.

It’s estimated that the Galapagos Islands were formed about 5 million years ago and that some of the new islands in the western part of the archipelago emerged as recently as 1 million years ago. Like the Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos are the result of non-explosive volcanic eruptions, where the molten material emerges smoothly forming rivers of lava resulting in what we see today – the tops of shield volcanoes that poke above the sea, rising up some 30,000 feet from the ocean floor.

When these islands first emerged millions of years ago, they were just barren expanses of basalt rock. But today visitors find the islands filled with life… plant and animal species not found anywhere else in the world! This curiosity has intrigued casual visitors and scientists alike since Charles Darwin arrived in 1835 and made these creatures the cornerstone of his theory of evolution by natural selection. And ever since then, the unique species of the Galapagos have been the primary draw for visitors flocking to these islands.

When these islands were still very young, animals and plants somehow made their way here from the South American mainland. Obviously, only some could make the long journey across sea and sky. This is one reason for the prevalence of sea birds that could fly the distance, sea mammals that could swim, and reptiles that likely floated across inadvertently but were able to survive without food or fresh water for the duration. In contrast, amphibians and land mammals would have been unable to make the journey – either accidentally or “purposefully.”

Plant seeds and insects most probably were hitchhikers carried over by the birds, sea mammals and reptiles. Once on the islands, certain creatures were able to survive in this bleak new environment, and those that did so were able to live and reproduce without any of their natural predators, all left behind on the South American continent. This quirk of nature is one of the reasons the islands are so renowned for wildlife viewing. Without any large predators, the animals of the Galapagos developed with hardly any sense of timidity or insecurity. As a result colorful birds, playful sea lions, lounging iguanas, and other fascinating creatures all seem oblivious to you and your camera as you approach within steps of them!

Since the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the Galapagos Islands have served as a living laboratory for evolution. The classic example most often cited to illustrate the process of natural selection is the famous Darwin’s finch. Within the archipelago you will find 13 similar species of finches that had a common ancestor on the South American continent. But over thousands of generations, 13 species have evolved – each with distinctive characteristics that have allowed them to survive and flourish in very specific environments. Some have short powerful beaks that can split seeds; others have longer bills better suited for catching insects.

As you visit the islands of the Galapagos you’ll discover a surprising diversity of climatic and vegetative zones, depending upon your location in the archipelago and where upon a specific island you are. Many of the flatter islands are quite barren while the more mountainous islands tend to be quite verdant. There are six zones in the Galapagos. In the Coastal Zone, for example, you’ll find plants that do well despite the high salinity of this borderland between sea and land; mangrove, saltbush and other aquatic plants predominate. Various types of trees, cacti and flowering shrubs grow extensively in the Arid Zone. As you ascend into the more densely forested Transition Zone, you begin to find fewer cacti and more small shrubs and perennial herbs. The unique vegetation of the Scalesia Zone begins to appear about 650 feet above sea level and up to an altitude of around 1,600 feet. It’s more fertile here than at the lower elevations and among the forest trees you’ll also find ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other plants that do well in the higher humidity. The open forests of the Brown Zone have disappeared on many of the islands due to human activity. Above 1,500 feet, you begin to transition into the Miconia Zone, characterized by dense growths of shrubs, fewer native trees, and abundant ferns and moss. On the inhabited islands, this zone is often cultivated as coffee, fruit trees and vegetables do well here. Occupying the highest regions of the islands above 1,800 feet, the Pampa Zone is generally devoid of trees or shrubs. In this humid environment you instead find unique ferns and grasses, including the Galapagos Fern Tree which grows to an impressive height of 10 feet.

Animals in the Galapagos
As noted above, the micro-climates of the Galapagos offer diverse ecosystems and unusual flora. The geological formations and spectacular volcanic landscapes provide a dramatic backdrop for every island landing. But for nearly every visitor, the main attraction is the unique wildlife and the opportunity for amazing, up-close encounters.

Many island hikes will include unforgettable sightings of the islands’ reptiles. Most common is the black marine iguana which you’ll often encounter in impressively large numbers as they gather together in groups to sunbathe along the rocky cliffs and shoreline. Most likely descended from a long-extinct land-based reptile, these primitive looking creatures are the only sea-going reptiles, diving into the ocean to great depths to feed on seaweed. Land iguanas, yellow in color and larger than their sea-diving relatives, are not as ubiquitous as the marine iguana but still sighted by nearly all visitors. There are also seven species of smaller lava lizards.

The giant tortoise is probably the most famous reptilian resident of the archipelago; it’s also quite rare. One of the most ancient of reptile species, they exist today only in the Galapagos and on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. When Darwin arrived, there were 14 subspecies in existence. But thousands of turtles were slaughtered for their flesh and by the beginning of the 20th century, three had become extinct. The Pinta Island subspecies lost their last lone survivor in 2012, Lonesome George. He was discovered in 1971 and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island where he lived until over 70 years old.

Galapagos bird life is always fascinating, even for visitors who don’t consider themselves to be bird watchers! There are 29 species of land birds and 19 species of sea birds. Of these 48 types of birds in the Galapagos, 27 are found only on these islands. A number of them are particularly impressive, even for the casual nature observer. The magnificent waved albatross breeds only one place in the world, and that’s here on Española Island. With a wingspan that can reach nearly 8 feet and a very long, bright yellow bill, they are one of the most impressive Galapagos sea birds. There are 2 species of frigatebirds in the archipelago, known for their long black wings, ominous-looking hooked beaks, forked tails and most especially for the bright red sacks beneath the beaks of the male birds, inflated during the mating season to attract female frigates.

There are only 800 to 1,000 pairs of flightless cormorants in the entire world, and they are all found on the remote coasts of Isabela and Fernandina Islands. Without any predators and able to efficiently swim and dive for food, these large dark birds have lost the need to fly. When they spread their wings to dry after feeding, it appears even that their wings have lost more than half their feathers! Rarer still is the lava gull. Found only in the Galapagos, there are only an estimated 400 pairs of these dark grey gulls still in existence. Of the 13 species of Darwin’s finches, the mangrove finch is threatened with extinction and only 40 to 50 pairs remain in the world.

The 3 species of booby that inhabit the archipelago are especially fun to observe. The Nazca booby, sometimes called the masked booby, is the largest member of the family; it’s identifiable by its white body, brownish-black wings and tail, a long orange-yellow bill, and its black-masked appearance. The red-footed booby, with its distinctive webbed feet and bluish grey bill, is a consummate diver able to plunge nearly 100 feet into the ocean to feed! The blue-footed booby is the most common and during mating rituals, the male birds show off their famously blue feet with a high-stepping courtship dance.

The Galapagos penguin can be seen in the waters and on the coasts of Fernandina, Isabela and Bartolomé Islands. This is the only penguin species found north of the equator and is able to survive here because of the cold Pacific currents that swirl around these islands. Standing just a little more than 1-foot in height, these are also some of the smallest penguins in the world. They look rather ungainly on land but if you’re fortunate enough to observe them while snorkeling or scuba diving, you’ll discover that their swimming skills are breathtakingly fast and graceful.

Land mammals were far less likely to make or survive the long journey from the mainland. As a consequence, there are far fewer land mammals than birds and reptiles here in the Galapagos. In fact, the only native land mammals are the red bat and the hoary bat – probably blown across on the high winds of a Pacific storm – and the Darwin’s rice rat. All of the other land mammals on the island were introduced by human settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. These include domesticated animals, livestock, and hitchhikers like the common brown rat. Over the generations, many of these mammals escaped into the wild, upsetting the delicate ecology of the islands and creating extensive problems for the native flora and fauna. Everything from cats and dogs to goats and pigs have become feral; their wide path of destruction has included everything from eating turtle eggs and baby iguanas to soil erosion and devouring native plants.

In contrast to their landlubber cousins, sea mammals simply swam with the ocean currents to arrive on the islands. Although there are only sea lions and fur seals, they have thrived here in the Galapagos and a 3 or 4-day cruise through the islands will include several memorable encounters with these fascinating creatures. With its playful inquisitive nature and cute young pups, the Galapagos sea lion is especially popular with visitors. The male bulls can grow up to 7 feet in length and the larger ones tip the scales at close to 800 pounds! Sea lion colonies can be quite impressive, comprised of dominant males and “harems” of between 5 and 25 females (cows). Within the colony, young pups spend time together in a “rookery” (similar to a nursery) – napping, feeding and playing together. You will often see one female caring for a group of pups while the other cows go off into the ocean to feed. In the water, the pups are often extremely playful with snorkelers, sometimes swimming up to stare into your mask before darting away! Note that older dominant bulls can be territorial and aggressive. Be sure to pay attention if your guide advises you to stay away from certain areas and particular animals.

The Galapagos fur seal is the other sea mammal that you may observe on your island excursions. Smaller than the sea lion, these furry creatures are typically about 5 feet long and no more than 150 pounds when fully grown. Where sea lions are inquisitive, even around humans, fur seals are shy by nature and thus less often encountered by visitors. While sea lions gather on the same beaches where visitors arrive daily, fur seals prefer to group themselves in colonies along less accessible cliffs and rocky shores. During the height of a sunny day, they will often shield themselves from the strong Equatorial sun by retreating onto protected rocky ledges and caves along the lava cliffs of the western islands.

Visiting the Islands…
The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 major islands, 17 smaller islands and more than 40 rocks which are more-or-less permanently above the ocean surface, but Galapagos National Park rules limit visitors to 54 sites. These landing sites were carefully selected to minimize the impact of tourism throughout the Galapagos while still providing visitors with a fascinating overview of the islands’ unique flora, fauna and geology. Visitors must always be accompanied by a licensed naturalist guide and group sizes at some sites are limited by Park Service rules. Traveling aboard La Pinta, your island landings will be in groups of no more than 16 people.

At many of the visitor sites, the construction of piers and jetties is not allowed. In some instances, your visit to an island will begin with a wet landing. That is, a small panga boat will transport you from ship closer to shore. You’ll be required to step out of the panga into shallow water (ankle to knee-deep) and wade ashore. On other islands, the panga will tie to a pier for you to step directly ashore.

Baltra is one of the smaller islands and there are no National Park visitor sites. Previously, most scheduled flights from the mainland arrived at the Baltra Island airport which was built by the Americans during WWII. Until the opening of a smaller airport on San Cristobal in 1986, this was the only one serving the Islands. In April 2013, Ecuador opened a new terminal to replace the aging facility.  From the airport, it’s a pleasant drive over the channel and across Santa Cruz Island to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos and the starting point for most cruises.

Santa Cruz Island in the center of the archipelago has the largest resident population, with about 6,000 people living in the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Center is located here in town as well. Although this is a scientific research facility, it is open for guided visits. The Van Straalen Visitor Center here has an informative presentation on the geology and natural history of the Galapagos. At the Tortoise Breeding Center, giant tortoises are hatched and raised until they are old enough to be returned to their natural island habitat.  One of the designated visitor sites on Santa Cruz is the Tortoise Reserve where giant tortoises can be seen in the wild. Coastal sites on the island offer great opportunity to observe sea turtles, pelicans, marine iguanas, herons and many other species. On the northwest side of Santa Cruz, Dragon Hill is one of the newer visitor sites, so named for the large population of land iguanas that can be seen here. Dragon Hill became an important nesting site for these elusive creatures after they were reintroduced here by the Charles Darwin Research Center. From the top of the hill there are impressive views of the bay, and the area is rich with wildlife including flamingoes, migratory birds and lava lizards; along the shore there are marine iguanas, sea lions, pelicans, and small colonies of blue footed boobies.

The interior Highlands of Santa Cruz offers an extraordinary visitor experience. Traveling on a coastal road that begins in Puerto Ayora, the route turns inland climbing through a variety of eco-zones past agricultural land into the mist-covered forests of the higher elevations. This is an amazing trip for bird watchers, with nearly all Galapagos bird species present here including Darwin’s finches and vermilion flycatchers. The Highlands are an excellent place to observe giant wild tortoises in their natural habitat. Geologically, the region offers lava tubes, craters and sinkholes. Lava tubes are formed during major flows when the external lava gets cold and hardens while the interior remains fluid and continues to flow. The resulting tunnels, here up to 1,300 feet long, offer the fascinating opportunity to literally get inside the geological make-up of the Galapagos!

Bartolomé is a small island off the southeastern coast of James (Santiago) Island. The unique geological formations including cinder and spatter cones are quite dramatic and give Bartolomé a lunar landscape. Most visitors make the climb to the summit of the inactive volcano for spectacular views over the island and bays, with the much-photographed Pinnacle Rock in the distance. Steps to the summit protect the volcanic ash from erosion by visitors and make the climb a little bit less difficult. The island offers two fine beaches accessible to visitors. Snorkeling here can be quite exciting with schools of tropical fish, playful sea lions and teams of penguins hunting underwater. This sandy beach offers another great view of Pinnacle Rock. Just a short hike away, the second beach offers close encounters with stingrays, spotted eagle rays and white-tipped sharks that swim surprisingly close to shore!

James Island (also called Santiago or San Salvador) is included in nearly every Galapagos itinerary, due to its central location in the archipelago and multiple visitor sites. It also offers compelling evidence of human impact here in the islands. Once rich in vegetation, goats were released here in the late 1800’s. They thrived, increasing to more than 100,000 and eating everything in sight. Although the Park Service is working toward eradication with some success, it’s not unusual for visitors to see goats and signs of their presence. One of the most interesting visitor sites in all of the Galapagos Islands is here at Puerto Egas. It begins with a wet landing off the dark volcanic sands of James Bay. Walking along the rocky coast, visitors can examine tidal pools, brimming with life including sponges, snails, hermit crabs, barnacles and fish like the endemic four-eyed blenny. Also along the coast are shore birds, marine iguanas, sally light foot crabs and sea lions. From the coast, there are two approved visitor site trails. One leads up the side of the volcano. It’s a steep hike but bird lovers are delighted with great opportunity to spy one of Darwin’s finches, the Galapagos hawk and the vermilion flycatcher. At the crater rim, you can look down into the extinct volcano. The floor of the crater has sunk below sea level and salt water has seeped in creating a small lake. The second trail is a continuation of the hike along the coastal tidal pools. At trail’s end is Fur Seal Grotto, one of the few places in the archipelago where this elusive creature can be observed at fairly close proximity. Here you often see fur seals and sea lions swimming in large pools and coves ringed by spectacular volcanic rock formations. The clear waters, volcanic rock formations, sea lions and fur seals make this one of the best snorkeling spots in the Galapagos.

Fernandina is the youngest of the Galapagos Islands, about 700,000 years old. Its location at the western edge of the chain, on the far side of Isabela Island, makes it inaccessible for many Galapagos ships and itineraries. But it offers one of the most unique landscapes in all of the Galapagos. Being one of the most geologically active, it’s in a constant state of change and without the native plants and animals of the other islands, its harsh and remote landscapes are like no other place on the planet. The lava fields and flows also offer a rare opportunity to witness recent volcanic activity. After a dry landing, a rocky trail leads past enormous colonies of marine iguanas to a peninsula rich with other wildlife. Vegetation is nearly non-existent; there simply hasn’t been enough time for plant life to take hold yet. Lava cactus seems to be one of the rare exceptions. These tiny plants with yellow to brown spines live just a few years and produce delicate creamy white flowers. As you near the point of the rocky peninsula, there is another gigantic colony of marine iguanas along with barking sea lions, and flightless cormorants. More recently, Galapagos penguins have been observed nesting in the area.

Isabela is easily identifiable on a map as the largest of the Galapagos Islands and for its distinctive seahorse shape. Like her neighbor Fernandina, Isabela is relatively young. It was formed about one million years ago with the merging of six shield volcanoes, five of which are still active. There are a number of Park Service visitor sites on the island and one of the most interesting is right at the “mouth” of the seahorse. This is a marine site where visitors explore along the spectacular volcanic cliffs either from panga boats or in the water by snorkeling. Masked and blue footed boobies perch on the rocks and flightless cormorants gather along the shoreline. The Cromwell Current, a cold Pacific upwelling in this part of the archipelago, brings rich nutrients and abundant marine life – evident in the unique greenish color of the water. Whether you’re in a panga, snorkeling or diving, this is a great place to observe sea turtles, Manta rays, sea lions, dolphins and penguins.

North Seymour is a small islet just north of Baltra Island. Created from a geological uplift rather than volcanic activity, it’s a relatively flat island with typically arid vegetation including prickly pear cactus and salt bushes. After a dry landing, the visitor trail extends for a little over one mile crossing the rocky island to a sandy shoreline. North Seymour is a great place to witness the unusual relationship between blue footed boobies who nest on the ground and the large frigatebirds who nest just above them in the salt bushes. Boobies are excellent fishing birds, able to dive from mid air into the sea to catch fish for themselves and their young. In contrast, frigate birds produce very little oil for their wing feathers and are therefore not waterproof – making them very poor at fishing. Instead they will attack boobies just as they are returning from a successful fishing trip – stealing their catch to feed themselves and their young! North Seymour is also home to sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas and swallowtail gulls.

San Cristobal is the easternmost island in the Galapagos and one of the oldest. Unlike the harsh volcanic landscapes of Isabela and Fernandina far to the west, visitors here find eroded peaks and rich vegetation. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the provincial capital and the second largest town in the archipelago. As home to one of two airports in the islands, San Cristobal is often the first or last stop on a cruise itinerary. Just a 10-minute drive from town, La Loberia is one of the island’s approved visitor sites. Unique vegetation in a variety of unusual colors greets the visitor. From there it’s a pleasant walk down to a sandy beach that is home to a great sea lion colony and nursery. During low tide, you can sometimes observe mothers teaching their pups to swim in the shallow tidal pools. The marine iguanas that gather here on the nearby rocks are among the largest specimens in the Galapagos.

Isla Lobos is just up the coast from Puerto Baquerizo. This tiny basalt outcrop just off the coast is home to a noisy population of sea lions and is also a nesting site for blue-footed boobies. Cerro Tijeretas (or Frigatebird Hill) offers a delightful one-hour hike from town. The hill is often visited by frigatebirds and the summit offers a spectacular view of the island’s white sand beaches and the charming rooftops of Puerto Baquerizo. In 1998, the Galapagos National Park Visitor & Interpretation Center was opened in town. The interesting architecture, landscaped gardens and panoramic ocean views alone make this a worthwhile stop. In addition, there are informative exhibits on the islands’ natural history, human impact, eco-systems, flora and wildlife. In the center of San Cristobal, El Junco is the only large freshwater lake in the entire Galapagos. Surrounded by dense Miconia vegetation at an elevation of nearly 2,300 feet, El Junco offers an interesting excursion and scenery quite unique from the other islands. Cerro Brujo (or Wizard Hill) is on the western side of the island. This spectacular white sand beach offers good snorkeling and beach walks. It’s home to Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, sea lions and a variety of shore birds.

Española is the oldest and southernmost island in the archipelago. Because of its remote location, it offers a number of interesting endemic creatures not seen elsewhere, species that have adapted to the island’s unique environment. Marine iguanas on the other islands, for example, are black in color, allowing them to camouflage against the black lava rocks where they gather. On Española, adult marine iguanas are brightly colored, with a reddish tint except during mating season when they become more of a greenish color. There are only two National Park Service visitor sites on the island, but they offer some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing in the entire archipelago.

Punta Suarez is on the western tip of the island and the wildlife here can be astonishing. Just walking along the beach after a dry or wet landing (depending upon sea conditions), you can observe sea lions, lava lizards, marine iguanas, gulls and crabs. Farther along the designated trail are nesting sites for masked and blue-footed boobies. Other birdlife to be seen are the Galapagos dove, hood mockingbird and several subspecies of finches – large cactus finch, warbler finch and small ground finch. At the end of the trail is the world’s only nesting site for the magnificent waved albatross. Presently, the colony is estimated to include about 12,000 pairs. These amazing birds mate for life and every April the male begins an elaborate 5-day ritual to re-attract his mate, a performance of strutting, honking and beak fencing. Once the couple is reacquainted they produce a single egg and share responsibility for its care. The colony remains on Española until December when the chicks are fully grown. From January through March, the birds are away from the island feeding off the coast of Ecuador and Peru, taking advantage of the life-rich Humboldt Current that flows along South America.

Gardner Bay lies on the northeast coast of the island and offers a beautiful white sand beach. The immediate vicinity is considered an open area and you are free to explore without your guide standing close by. It’s a great place to photograph lounging marine iguanas and lazing sea lions. Gardner Bay also offers excellent snorkeling and the opportunity to swim with sea lions. Farther off shore, you can observe colorful tropical fish including yellow tailed surgeon fish, king angelfish, parrot fish and the occasional manta ray, sea turtle or white-tipped shark.

Rabida Island is one of the most geologically interesting in the Galapagos, with eroded hills and lava emitted from spatter cones. This unique volcanic origin is apparent upon your wet landing where you wade onto a beach with a striking deep maroon color! In the nearby caves and along the shore, you can usually observe marine iguanas and sea lions in fairly impressive numbers. Behind the beach in the salt brush are the nests of brown pelicans, a rare opportunity to see these great birds up close. Above in the cliffs, visitors can spy blue-footed and masked boobies. The visitor path continues to a small saltwater lagoon where various birds come to feed including pink flamingos, Bahama pintail ducks and common stilts. The designated trail ends atop a rocky red cliff with magnificent views of the peaceful cove, the Pacific and the richly hued volcanic cliffs. Off the landing beach, snorkelers will often see sharks and manta rays.

Plazas Islands are twin islands located off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both islands were formed by a geological uplift. The island's southern portions have a greater degree of uplift, contain cliffs with spectacular views.
Visiting South Plaza begins with a dry landing. The rocky trail circumnavigates the island displaying the combination of dry and coastal vegetation zone. The island is home to enormous prickly pear cactus and the endemic succulent sesuvian. These succulents with almond-shaped leaves are green during the rainy season December-May. Then become red during the dry season giving the island an unusual appearance.
South Plaza has one of the largest populations of land iguanas in the Galapagos. The iguanas seem to be everywhere once you land. These yellow-brown land iguanas feed on the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus.
South Plaza is also home to marine iguanas living along the coast and a hybrid iguana whose fathers are marine iguanas and mothers are land iguanas. As the walk continues along the sea cliffs swallow-tailed gulls, frigatebirds, Audubon shearwaters, red-billed tropicbirds, brown pelicans, blue-footed and masked boobies are frequently seen.  Along the shore a colony of bachelor sea lions can frequently be seen.

Floreana Island is one of the oldest islands. Floreana illustrates the aging process of a volcanic island. Unlike the younger western islands, Floreana's volcano has been long extinct and is in the advanced stages of erosion. The erosion process gave the island the nutrients and soils need to sustain plant life. The combination of this rich soil and a good water supply have given the highlands of Floreana a diversified landscaping of native and introduced flora.

Floreana is best known for its colorful history of buccaneers, whalers, convicts, and colonists. In 1793 British whalers established the Post Office Barrel to send letters to and from England. This tradition has continued over the years, and even today visitors may drop off and pick up letters, without stamps, to be carried to far destinations. Punta Cormorant offers two highly contrasting beaches. The landing beach is of volcanic origin and is composed of olivine crystals, giving it a greenish tinge. At the end of the short trail is a carbonate beach of extremely fine white sand. Formed by the erosion of coral skeletons, it is a nesting site for green sea turtles.

Genovesa Island owes its distinctive horseshoe shape to its unusual geological origins; the island consists of the remains of a large crater which has been partially submerged, with just a portion of the caldera walls rising above the sea! There are two authorized landing sites here on Genovesa – nicknamed “Bird Island” for the remarkable diversity of its winged inhabitants. At El Barranco, an invigorating 2-hour walk across lava fields is regularly rewarded by terrific encounters with sea lion colonies, Galapagos fur seals, and numerous bird species including vampire finches and Nazca boobies. Darwin Bay offers a gentle walking path along the beach with opportunities to observe frigate bird colonies as well as Galapagos sea lions, swallow-tail gulls, barn owls and the elusive red footed booby! The unique flora along the beach includes red mangrove, prickly pear cactus and the incense tree.

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