Southern Trails

Discovering the best of Machu Picchu and the Galapagos and points in between

By: Mark Edward Harris/Photos: Lissa Hahn and Mark Edward Harris

Talk about coming face to face with history. I was standing inches away from the neatly boxed head of conquistador Francisco Pizarro, in the Cathedral del Lima, in Peru’s capital. The rest of his skeleton was in a wooden coffin viewed through Plexiglas. A more bizarre scene awaited us in the catacombs underneath nearby Monasterio de San Francisco. The piece de resistance here are human skeletons artistically arranged in macabre designs by priests centuries ago.

This was day one of a Ker & Downey escorted tour. Fellow photographer Lissa Hahn and I set out to explore the ancient land of the Incas and delve into the rich history and cultures of Peru and mainland Ecuador, then walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in the Galapagos. Ker & Downey, an expert in customized travel for more than 40 years with award-winning expeditions throughout Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and India recently expanded its programs into South America.

A representative from Ker & Downey’s Peruvian tour operator, Lima Tours, had met us for the drive from the airport to the magnificent Country Club Lima Hotel in the city’s fashionable San Isidro district.

The colonial landmarks and monuments of Lima have earned their inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Though there’s a temptation for tourists to head straight out for Machu Picchu the undisputed centerpiece of Peruvian tourism as quickly as possible, Lima’s historic center should not be missed. Casa Aliaga, for example, is South America’s best preserved colonial mansion, and has been occupied by the same family since 1535.

On the Inca Trail

After a morning tour of Lima, we return to the international airport for a short Airbus 320 flight to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. The Incas believed that Cusco’s elevation of 11,300 feet brought them closer to their gods. It also puts visitors into a zone where altitude sickness can be a problem. While coca tea is the local remedy for altitude sickness, there are prescription drugs for the physical problems associated with the thin air and visitors would be well advised to consult with their physicians before departure.

Ker & Downey, through its local tour operator, very wisely schedule a thorough exploration of Cusco and the surrounding area before and after a visit to Machu Picchu.

After a late lunch at the La Cava de San Rafael in Cusco, we descend with a driver and guide into the “Sacred Valley of the Incas” toward the town of Urubamba to the Sol & Luna Lodge. A night at the lodge will help us acclimate to the high altitudes of the Andes.

On the way, we visit Awana Kancha where the South American camellia is bred, and come face to face with alpacas, vicunas and llamas. We are given a demonstration of ancient weaving techniques. Peru is home to beautiful alpaca wool coats and sweaters that are a quarter of the price of those in high-end U.S. stores.

At the Sol & Luna Lodge we treat ourselves to much needed massages at their new spa. This is a magical place in a magical valley. With horseback riding and other outdoor activities available year-round, it’s worthy of a longer stay. Our only regret is that we can’t stay longer Machu Picchu is waiting.

At the train station, we board the luxurious Orient Express named for Hiram Bingham, the man who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. The journey takes an hour and a half, during which we’re served lunch while taking in the scenery of the Andes. We arrive at the town of Aqua Caliente for a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu.

One of the things I most remember from a middle school geography class is Machu Picchu (meaning “Old Peak”). It is an iconic site and is probably on nearly everyone’s must-see list. We spend the afternoon hiking among the ruins, then have “afternoon tea” at the Sanctuary Lodge. We took a bus back, but for those wanting to experience Machu Picchu in the early morning, an overnight stay at the lodge might be called for.

Back in Aqua Caliente with an hour before our train departs for Cusco, we head up to the local hot springs. After my experience, I suggest agents warn clients to think twice about taking a dip here. While it might seem soothing after a day’s hike, visitors end up bathing with backpackers coming off five-day trips along the Inca Trail without bothering to shower.

After returning to Cusco, we transfer to the Hotel Monasterio, part of Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises, for a two-night stay in a magnificent former seminary, where Gregorian chants warm the halls. The 16th-century exterior architecture and the religious paintings that adorn the walls make the ambiance here truly magnificent and deserving of the property’s place in the Leading Hotels of the World.

The next morning we awaken to military music emanating from nearby Plaza de Armas. A Sunday morning parade soon circumnavigates the town square and I make my way there to join in the festivities.

Just off the square is the Cusco Cathedral. One of the most interesting aspects of this breathtaking structure is a huge locally painted interpretation of “The Last Supper.” When Pizarro landed in Lima on Jan. 18, 1535, it was the first step in turning this open plain next to the sea into a political and military capital. The unsigned painting underscores the mixed feelings of the indigenous population toward the Spanish conqueror, as Pizarro is portrayed as Judas and a Guinea pig a traditional national dish serves as the main course.

In the afternoon we tour the Santo Domingo Convent Monastery, which was built upon the Koricancha Temple, one of the most important Inca temples devoted to the worship of the sun. In the center courtyard is the “navel,” the center of Cusco which itself is considered the center of the Inca universe.

Inca structures were built to withstand earthquakes with ingenious interlocking stones. Unfortunately they weren’t anti-conquistador. Still visible throughout Cusco are Inca foundations supporting colonial structures. In the late afternoon we drive up into the hills that surround Cusco to visit some of the remarkable Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman with a great view of the city below.

Cusco is so much more than a jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, sufficient time should be planned to explore this colonial town.

A Journey to Middle Earth

My wake-up call comes at 6 a.m. as the first rays of light illuminate the magnificent hallways of the Hotel Monasterio. Fortunately the ride to the Cusco Airport is a short one. The LanPeru 7:50 a.m. flight puts us back in Lima at 9:10 a.m. with time to retrieve and recheck our bags for a 10:50 a.m. TacaPeru flight to Quito, Ecuador, arriving at 1:05 p.m.

No need to head to the foreign exchange here Ecuador switched to the U.S. dollar as its currency five years ago to battle devastating inflation.

A Klein Tours the Ecuadorian tour operator used by Ker & Downey representative meets us at the airport for the transfer to the Dann Carlton Hotel. While this hotel is convenient, there are several very elegant boutique hotels in the historic zone of Quito that are more charming. Also, the Swiss Hotel and Radisson were both given high marks by the people we spoke to.

The next day we did a full-day tour of the town of Otavalo in the province of Imbabura, known as the Region of the Lakes. On the way there via the Pan-American Highway, we make a short stop where we cross the Equator and take the obligatory “I was here” photos.

Otavalo has become a tourist destination because of its open-air market selling beautiful textile handicrafts made of wool and cotton, native paintings, handmade jewelry and numerous tchotchkes that display the creativity of Ecuadorian people. I pick up a wooden chess set with intricately carved and painted pieces of conquistadors and Incas. The conquistadors have horses for their knights; the Incas have llamas.

First constructed in 1790, the Hacienda Pinsaqui, located about three miles north of Otavalo on the Pan-American Highway, has 25 rooms with fireplaces, a 200-year-old garden with a pond and a historic chapel, and offers horseback riding and mountain biking. This Latin American version of the Ponderosa might warrant an overnight stay for those interested in exploring the environs, backpacking and slipping back in time.

After Otavalo, we head to beautiful Cuicocha Lake, passing through Cotacachi, considered the leather capital of Ecuador, with excellent leather goods at very low prices.

That night in Quito, we mentioned our interest in visiting the spa town of Banos and an expat recommended the hot springs at Termas Papallaca instead. The locals enthusiastically concurred. Klein Tours was flexible and made the arrangements. While Banos is eight hours south of Quito, Termas Papallaca is only an hour and a half northeast of the capital. The hot spring resort considers itself “Un paraiso en los Andes” (A paradise in the Andes) and after an hour soaking in their marvelous waters surrounded by dramatic mountaintops, we were in no position to disagree.

The Exotic Galapagos

From Quito, we fly 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast to the island of San Cristobal because, we find out later, the main airport to the Galapagos (located on Balta, on the north side of Santa Cruz Island) is closed. The official date for the reopening of the airport to select flights is Sept. 10, but local officials doubt that deadline will be met. (Agents should check with area representatives for the latest updates.)

Visitors and agents should be aware that this change of airport greatly affects the itineraries of the many small and medium-sized vessels plying the waters here, as San Cristobal is the westernmost island of the Galapagos, making it a much longer journey to Isabela Island. This could affect itineraries for cruises of less than five days.

With the airport on Balta closed, the cruise boats and ships use Wreck Harbor to pick up clients, and numerous high-speed boats ferry people to Santa Cruz for $30 for the three-hour crossing. Be advised: In late summer, the seas are cold and the water can be rough.

While most visitors experience the islands of the Galapagos by sea, ranging from yacht-sized boats to small cruise ships including the M/V Galapagos Legend and Celebrity Cruises Xpedition we explored the islands from a base on terra firma. In the last several years, world-class hotels have sprung up on Santa Cruz Island. Both the four-star Eco Hotel Finch Bay, located on a lagoon, and the magnificent five-star Royal Palm Resort, in the highlands, blend well into their surroundings, with designs sensitive to the environment.

In order to limit or hopefully neutralize the effects of tourism on the islands, the government of Ecuador has imposed an annual 65,000-person limit on visitors and has imposed a $100 Galapagos Island National Park fee.

From the Eco Hotel Finch Bay we explored the area with kayaks, and from the Royal Palm we were given a guide who brought us face to face with giant tortoises. One is even thought to be 170 years old. It was thrilling to think that Darwin could have, at least in theory, met up with this very same creature.

On another excursion we encountered iguanas that blended so well into the lava rocks that you could be standing next to one and not realize it.

While in the islands, the amazing variety of wildlife included blue- and red-footed boobies, marine and land iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, brown noddies and Galapagos hawks.

We saw unique volcanic landscapes such as dark red beaches, cinder cones, tuff-stone and lava formations. We snorkeled and swam on the lookout for sea turtles, fur seals, octopus, sea horses and hammerhead sharks.

It added yet another exotic layer to our tour of some of the treasured places of South America.


Tour Operators

Of course, there are a huge number of tour operators serving South America. Here are three companies used on this trip (others can be found below).

Ker & Downey
I highly recommend Ker & Downey, as they did a first-class job with this trip. The operator has a 16-day tour that starts around $6,040 per person (based on double occupancy), and includes intra-South America flights, all meals as specified, accommodation in the Moon Suite on the Coral I yacht, train fare, private road transfers, private tours and museum fees.

Lima Tours
Lima, Peru

Klein Tours
Quito, Ecuador


Country Club Lima Hotel
Lima, Peru

Hotel Monasterio
Cusco, Peru

Sol & Luna Lodge
Cusco, Peru

Dann Carlton Hotel Quito
San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador

Royal Palm Resort Galapagos
Galapagos, Ecuador

WEB EXCLUSIVE: More Tour Operators

This information and more can be found on the South & Central America Travel Association Web site (

Abercrombie & Kent
A&K features local offices in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, which, according to the tour operator, enable them “to ensure every client experiences the very essence of this exciting and still relatively untouched destination.”

Altura Tours
Altura is a specialist in Latin America, Europe and the Mediterranean. Choose from its many independent, hosted, escorted or group programs by special interest or category.
305-255-5251, 800-242-4122

Austin Lehman Adventures
The tour operator has numerous tours to South America, including: Chile: Wine Country, the Lake District, and Patagonia. Ecuador: Galapagos Biking Hiking Rafting/Kayaking. Ecuador: Galapagos Islands. Peru: Machu Picchu Biking Hiking Horseback Riding Rafting/Kayaking. Peru: Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu

Avanti Destinations
Avanti Destinations, a member of the Rail Europe Group, is a leading FIT tour operator with over 23 years of experience, offering modular FIT packages to Europe and Latin America. In Latin America, this includes city packages, beach resorts and soft-adventure programs such as kayaking, cave tubing, hiking to Machu Picchu and Galapagos cruises. The company is a member of USTOA, ASTA and CLIA.

Big Five Tours & Expeditions
Big Five is a purveyor of luxury adventures, natural history travels and cultural journeys. Its South and Central American portfolio of destinations includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. According to the company, tailored programs reflect the current demand for independent and small-group escorted tours.
772- 287-7995, 800-244-3483,

Brendan Worldwide Vacations
Clients interested in exploring Peru will not be disappointed with Brendan Worldwide Vacations packages to the historically and culturally rich country. The seven-night Wonders of Peru package and the eight-night Empire of the Incas package display Peru’s Spanish and Incan heritage to its fullest. Stops include a visit to Lima’s baroque cathedrals and cloistered monasteries, Cuzco’s ancient Incan ruins and the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu. Brendan also offers a nine-day Amazon River Cruise Tour from Iquitos to Lima. All packages include roundtrip economy airfare from Miami on LAN PERU, including regional sectors; roundtrip airport/hotel transfers and complimentary baggage handling; selected choice of meals per itinerary; services of an English-speaking local host; sightseeing programs and hotel taxes and service charges.
800-421-8446, 818-428-6000

The new Globus exotic vacations offer monogram packages, which feature a complete itinerary planned by a local expert such as the eight-day Galapagos Highlights through Quito, Santa Crus, Santa Fe and the Baltra Islands. The panoramic, multi-country 14-day South American Sampler and the 18-day South American Odyssey tours give a comprehensive look at the continent and offers optional extensions like to the Amazon, Peru or Buzios.

Jet-A-Way Holidays
Jet-A-Way is a wholesale tour company specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean. It specializes in complete FIT bookings for all its destinations and offers air and land packages, or land only when needed.

Associated with IsramWorld, Latours is a full member of the USTOA’s $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program. The company offers a range of travel discoveries in Central and South America.

The tour operator hosts a wide array of South American itineraries, including: Inca Mysteries, Ancient Civilizations; Peru, Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands; Best of Ecuador; Best of Brazil; Adventure on the Amazon; Exotic Argentina & Brazil; Classical South America; Highlights of Chile, Argentina & Brazil; Essence of South America; Splendors of Chile; Discover Patagonia & the Straits of Magellan; Cuzco & Machu Picchu; Mystical Lake Titicaca; Spectacular Iguassu Falls, Montevideo, Uruguay.

Tara Tours
Hermine and Daniel Taramona founded Tara Tours in Miami 25 years ago with the purpose of creating personalized tours to Central and South America. Tara Tours staff has visited many of the countries in the region and uses their firsthand knowledge to aid travelers.
305-871-1246, 800-327-0080


WEB EXCLUSIVE: A Travel Industry Exec Hits the Inca Trail
By Eric Maryanov, owner,

What do you get when a group of over-achieving, hard-working industry leaders head out for the ultimate travel adventure? A trip to Peru and a reality check like none other, that’s for certain.

I recently returned from an amazing and rewarding journey to South America. Not only did we go to Peru, but we took the once-in-a-lifetime trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This three-day excursion led us up and down thousands of stone steps hand-laid centuries ago throughout the Andes Mountains by the Mayan tribesmen. There were eight of us in the group, plus two guides and 26 porters who carried all the food and supplies on their backs. We hiked from morning until evening, camped at night and after three days and 30 miles, we made it to the breathtaking Sun Gate entry of Machu Picchu.

Even with more than 25 years in the travel business, and having seen much of the world, this trip was truly awesome and ranks up there with most memorable life experiences. It is hard to put to words the stunning vistas and sunsets from a lookout of 1,200 feet, but if every picture tells a thousand words, my photos will speak for themselves.

However, since I am writing about my adventure, the word I will use to describe it is accomplishment. The sense of achieving something that many people will never have the opportunity to experience, and the effort required to get from start to finish, is what makes hiking the Inca Trail such a remarkable lifetime event. This is what travel and life is all about anyway, right?

As hard as it was initially to break away from the office and engage in full technology disconnection, the 8½-hour flight from Los Angeles to Lima gave me a chance to get used to the idea. There is no time like the present, and knowing my pile of work would still be waiting for me when I returned, the opportunity to hike to new heights, both literally and figuratively, couldn’t be missed.

Not normally a physical person, but still in fit shape and moderate age, I have always wanted to trek the Inca Trail. So I did. What was once top of my list of things to do in life, I can now proudly check it off to experience.

At the top of Machu Picchu, industry experts from and Brendan Vacations pause for the breathtaking scenery. The group hiked for three days and 30 miles to see this extraordinary view. From left, Catherine Reilly, Director of Operations, Brendan Vacations Ireland, Gary Murphy, Pres. Brendan Vacations, Whitney Ramirez, VP Brendan Vacations, Eric Maryanov, President, and David VanNess, VP Marketing 

Machu Picchu is probably the most visited site in South America, attracting travelers from all over the world. While this major tourist destination is a great photo opportunity and offers day hikes for visitors, access to the trail is regulated to prevent overcrowding. Machu Picchu is an international World Heritage site; administered by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization these sites are recognized and preserved for their outstanding cultural or natural importance to the legacy of humankind. And I got to experience it.

The high altitude of Machu Picchu, plus its location south of the Equator, means reverse seasons and cold nights. While hiking for days over steep terrain and sleeping in tents is not considered a luxury vacation, the fact that we ate gourmet meals seated at a table each night qualifies this adventure as deluxe camping.

For some people, the altitude change and thinning air can be unbearable. Luckily I was not one. The trick to feeling as good as possible with less oxygen is to take the hike slow and easy, stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, keep the sugar intake going and avoid foods that are hard to digest, like red meat. Subtle, but what a difference it makes.

So I’m back in my natural environment again, professionally recovering from being away and am still trying to catch my breath, yet, for very different reasons. The experience at Machu Picchu was breathtaking, special and amazing; the frantic pace with which many of us live will also take our breath away. Life is too short for regrets so get out your dream to-do list and start planning your next adventure today.

Since 1984, is a leading provider of personalized travel services to the greater Los Angeles area. Based on the Westside, has knowledgeable travel experts in offices serving Santa Clarita Valley and the South Bay.