Two More Checkmarks on the Bucket List….And One More Destination Added

There are vacationers, and then there are travelers. Vacationers are usually trying to “get away from it all”; they want to plop on a beach, indulge themselves at a resort, and relax. Travelers, on the other hand, are excited about exploring a new destination, experiencing another culture, and learning about the history of the area.  My clients Patrick and Megan definitely fall into the latter category. Here is the fascinating  trip report from their recent travels to Ecuador and Peru:

Isn’t it ironic how one vacation leads to another?  Patrick and I typically find that with every destination we check off of our “bucket list”, we wind up adding at least one destination in turn.   Our combined trip to Machu Picchu (Peru) and the Galapagos (Ecuador), sought to accomplish the goal of visiting two destinations we’d long hoped to tackle.  The Galapagos had been on the list since my teenage years, and Machu Picchu was added in my early 20’s after hearing about the beauty of the long lost Incan fortress while on a trip to Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons (see the cyclical nature of this?!)

We worked with Ann to plan a 14 day trek that would take us through the highlights of each destination, with some bonus days on each side spent in Cusco, Peru and Quito, Ecuador.   After a nighttime arrival in Lima, Peru on May 23rd, and a hopper flight to Cusco the next morning, we started out our adventure with a tour of the Sacred Valley that lies in the valley of the Urubamba River and our ultimate destination, Machu Picchu.  The Sacred Valley sits slightly lower than Cusco, at 9,500 feet above sea level, so this was also a perfect point of altitude acclimation for us (we also helped to remedy this by drinking lots of coca tea, which has only traces of the more powerful drug, but has been used by the locals for thousands of years to deal with the altitude).   Throughout the Valley, we got to see the importance of handicrafts in Peru- first by visiting a local alpaca & llama farm, and then through the lens of vibrant displays at the Pisac market, where sellers display their goods for both locals & tourists alike.  We also got to see our first glimpses of Incan architecture at the Ollantaytambo ruins- and wondered in amazement how a civilization without the use of the modern wheel lifted multi-ton boulders and  assembled them in a way that has withstood hundreds’ of years of  earthquakes and human devastation, yet still remained intact!

The next day we set off on an early morning train to Machu Picchu, where we would hike around the ruins and tour the Incan complex that remained hidden in the Andes until the early 1900’s.  Traveler tip: We decided not to do the formal 4-day trek up to Machu Picchu because of time limitations, but learned from our guide that you could arrange a special trek to scale the mountain in 1 day.  We would recommend this to any who want to complete the trail and are willing to forgo some of the specific ruins along the way in favor of reaching the top!  While we didn’t plan this ahead of time, we took advantage of the next day and a half to hike up Huayna Picchu- the mountain in the backdrop of all Machu Picchu photos, learn all about the ruins, and hike to the Sun Gate and Incan Bridge.  One of our favorite moments was an early morning arrival to wait for the sunrise- a must do if you’re going to be there before 7 am.  Amidst everything else taken into account when building the structure, the Incans planned for the sun to hit specific locations during its rise and the summer/winter solstices.  At night, we stayed in Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.  It was in the town that we heard the stories of fellow travelers who had spent time in the Amazon of Peru (Ann had told us we could make a full 2 weeks of Peru, but we opted against).   We even saw pictures of a leaf that was 3x the size of a 6ft traveler and heard tales of a tree that “walks” because its root system lives outside of the ground.  Destination Amazon added to the list!  Aguas Calientes Traveler’s Tip: Be sure to take advantage of the hot springs and an Incan massage to ease your muscles after trekking around!

After leaving Machu Picchu, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, where a driver picked us up to bring us to Cusco.  We arrived in the city just past sunset, and immediately were swept up by energy and music radiating from an Arts Festival happening that weekend.  We had heard that the people of Peru enjoyed celebrating- to the point where they might not even know exactly why they were rejoicing.  Simply put, festivals are a part of their culture.  Over the next day, we enjoyed more culture and learned about the old capital city of Peru.  The city’s life is centered around the Plaza del Armas (in fact, every South American city has a “Plaza del Armas”, where the guns were shot off on Sundays in the past), our hotel in the San Blas district was only a few short steps away.  We enjoyed visiting the various churches along the square, and walking the windy (and steep!) streets of San Blas.   Traveler tip: Be sure to check out the San Pedro market on the outskirts of the town.  It’s filled with local produce and hundreds of stalls of everything from goat cheese to fresh cut flowers!

From Cusco, we took a flight to Quito, the jumping off point for our next destination, the Galapagos.   Coming from Cusco and the Sacred Valley, more rural areas, to Quito, a city of 2.5M people, was a bit of a shock to the system, to say the least!  The city itself is split into a New & Old Town.  We stayed in the New Town, which also has more bars and restaurants, although it’s recommended that any location after dark be reached by cab.  We ventured up to “Ciudad del Mundo”, the place of the equator, and straddled the Northern & Southern hemispheres.  We also walked the Old Town, with its influences of Colonial architecture still present today.  Other highlights included a cable car ride up Pichincha (Telefericoz), an active volcano, where you could see the entirety of the city, and also lunch at Pim’s, a restaurant which shares a hill with a Virgin statue, which also overlooks Quito from another angle.  Traveler’s Tip: For some true Gringo action, be sure to stop and have a margarita in New Town at Azuca on Plaza Foch, where you’ll see other tourists looking to relax after a day of touring.

 The next day, we left Quito en route to the Galapagos, where we would board the Santa Cruz Guayaquil, the boat which would take us around the Galapagos for the next 6 days and 5 nights.  The Santa Cruz could hold 90 passengers, but we lucked out in that only half that amount were on board (and we were even outnumbered by the crew, which amounted to 70+ people!).  We were thrown almost immediately into the routine of the ship- wet or dry landings on different islands, nature walks, and snorkeling adventures.  Everything that is said about the wildlife of the Galapagos is true- we saw one stunning sight after another.  At our first stop, we were acquainted with the famous Blue Footed Boobies (their feet are not really blue, but they lack pigment, which then appear as blue when they pick up the light).  The Boobies do a pretty interesting mating ritual with the “guys” spreading their wings and doing a “dance” from one leg to the other.  During our visits to the islands we learned a bit about Darwin (how could you not?), a great deal about why the islands are constantly changing based on plate tectonics, and a ton about the different wildlife.  We saw more land and sea turtles than you could count, thousands of iguanas, and even pink flamingos!   Traveler’s Tip: Make sure to pack an under water camera so you can take some footage during snorkeling expeditions!

On our last day on Floreana Island, we visited a beach where sea turtles lay their eggs.  Our timing was great because the eggs hatch along with the full moon,  and it happened to be a full moon that night.   We lingered on the beach to see if we might see a migration (remember the video you saw in 5th grade science where sea turtles hatch & migrate in droves to the ocean?  This is the place where it actually happens…)  Instead, we saw a huge stork walking around the beach, posing for shots against a picturesque background.  You may see where this story goes, but soon we witnessed said stork digging into what turned out to be a sea turtle nest, and helping assist in some natural selection of his own.   This tale, among others, is only one of the many stories we have to bring back from our adventure of a lifetime!

Ecuador’s secrets

If you saw my earlier blog post, here’s the answer to that geography quizEcuador.

In a country roughly the size of Colorado — and known mostly for its offshore treasures, the Galapagos Islands — you can also find ancient Incan ruins, beautiful colonial cities, unspoiled Pacific beaches, thriving Indian markets, dry mountain highlands, misty cloud forests, and steamy Amazon jungle.

While US tourists represent about 25% of all visitors to Ecuador, many of those (sadly) see only the international airport in Quito or Guayaquil, before setting off on a Galapagos cruise. They’re missing some of the country’s best-kept secrets!


The Pacific coast offers world-class surfing, whale-watching, and the remnants of pre-Colombian cultures.

In addition to the capitol city of Quito (a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with churches, convents and plazas), the Andean highlands offer the world’s highest active volcano in tropical latitudes, high-altitude wellness spas and hot springs, native craft markets, Incan ruins, and outdoor adventure like ziplines, rafting, hiking and horseback riding.

Ecuadorean cloud forest

Further to the east, Ecuador includes a large area of Amazon rainforest, where visitors can stay in jungle lodges or on river cruise boats, and enjoy tours by naturalists or indigenous guides.

Ecuadorean Amazon

The country is easy to navigate, with a good road system and four national airlines (the longest flight between any two points in the country is just 45 minutes), and it is a year-round destination, with a fairly steady climate and twelve full hours of daylight every day.

Ecuador is clean and safe, it is in the same time zone as the eastern United States, it uses the US dollar as its official currency, and the city of Cuenca (the “Florence of South America”) was recently named the “Best Place in the World to Retire” by International Living Magazine.

So what are you waiting for? I know I am making plans to visit Ecuador next year, and will definitely be combining some time on the mainland with my Galapagos cruise.

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)