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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
It added yet another exotic layer to our tour of some of the
treasured places of South America.
Of course, there are a huge number of tour operators serving South
America. Here are three companies used on this trip (others can be
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.
Country Club Lima Hotel
Sol & Luna Lodge
Dann Carlton Hotel Quito
San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
Royal Palm Resort Galapagos
|WEB EXCLUSIVE: More Tour Operators|
This information and more can be found on the South &
Central America Travel Association Web site (www.travelatlatinamerica.com).
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
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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
|WEB EXCLUSIVE: A Travel Industry Exec Hits the Inca
By Eric Maryanov, owner, All-Travel.com
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
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
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
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
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
ALL-TRAVEL.com 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 ALL-TRAVEL.com, 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, ALL-TRAVEL.com is a leading provider of
personalized travel services to the greater Los Angeles area. Based
on the Westside, ALL-TRAVEL.com has knowledgeable travel experts in
offices serving Santa Clarita Valley and the South Bay.