A lot of panicking went into planning my combined Machu Picchu and Galapagos Trip. When you’re planning a trip abroad, it’s hard to choose your destination. Especially when you’re not sure if you’ll ever be back.
This is how I felt when I was studying for my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I knew I wanted to take a short trip after the 4-week course ended, but didn’t know which plane ticket I wanted to buy the most. Peru? Ecuador? Chile? South America was beautiful, quirky…and once in a lifetime? I had no idea
What if I never go back? What if travel blogging doesn’t work out for me and I never leave Virginia ever again? And I’m not going to lie…travel blogging is probably not going to work out for me.
So, I panicked.
I decided I wanted to go to Patagonia, Torres del Paine, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Ushuaia, and everything in between.
There were two key issues with this non-plan. Time and money. Classes started two weeks after my TEFL course ended, and I was a broke college student. Also, I had zero experience travelling around South America, no time to plan a trip, and no confidence in myself when it came to finding my way around. Things are different now, but at the time, South America was a mystery to me.
So, I did what I usually do when faced with obstacles—asked someone to take care of it for me.
Something I want to make clear in this travel blog is that ANY type of travel is legitimate. I don’t always backpack around Europe and fly by the seat of my pants, so I’m not going to portray myself as someone that does.
In this case, I contacted SouthAmerica.Travel.
I’d never used a travel agency before, but am happy with my experience using SouthAmerica.Travel. I was given a single travel agent (thanks Tye!) who talked budgeting with me, and helped narrow down my list of “must-sees.” With his help, I was able to craft a trip that was tailored to all of my needs.
Being high maintenance as hell, I still chose the most expensive destination—the Galapagos Islands. After learning about them in biology, and on various TV shows, I knew I had to experience this amazing ecosystem and its one-of-a-kind fauna.
Not only that, but I wanted the Galapagos Island experience. This meant a cruise around the islands. Can anyone else hear my wallet crying out in distress? The Galapagos cruises tend to be way outside most students’ budgets. This became apparent when I realized I was the only traveler under 40 on the boat who wasn’t with their parents. Oh, well. This just meant that everyone felt bad for me and gave me their pills and patches when I got sea sick.
There are less expensive ways to see the islands. You could stay on one of the islands that allow people, and just explore. Or you could get there and hope one of the boats had vacancies they were willing to fill for half the price. I was not about that. My worst-case-scenario brain wouldn’t let me arrive without a plan.
In the end, I went to Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Guayaquil, and the Galapagos Islands. The trip was 11 days long, and included tours at every destination, a daily breakfast, 5 transfers, and accommodation at 3-star hotels (better than my usual hostel). They were able to get me an off-season discount for the Galapagos cruise, and in the end, I paid $3,950. About 2/3 of the budget went to the Galapagos trip.
Here’s a rough breakdown of my trip:
My Combined Machu Picchu and Galapagos Trip Itinerary
Lima (Day 1 & 2)
In Lima, I stayed at the 3-star Allpa Hotel. It was centrally-located, clean, and connected to a restaurant that sold sushi. I remember this because I was on a real sushi-kick at the time.
I had one full day in Lima, which was spent on a tour of the city. The tour was fun and informative. Although, there was a mix up when I (an English-speaker) accidentally showed up to the Spanish tour. Oops.
They offered to find me the English-speaking tour, but I chose to brush up on my Spanish instead. Every once in a while, the tour guide would direct something at me in Spanish to make sure I knew what was going on. Everyone found it quite amusing.
I then spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating sushi because—predictably—I was sick. As in I had a fever, like a moron.
Cuzco (Day 3-7)
Everyone told me that I would get sick in Cuzco because of the high altitude (12,000 ft.). They gave me advice on how to combat altitude sickness by chewing coca leaves, drinking mate de coca, and eating lightly.
I ignored their advice and relied on youth to get me through.
As a result, I spent the first day unable to stand up. My fever combined with the altitude was the perfect storm. I was dizzy, nauseous, feverish, and achy. At one point, I remember calling the front desk of the hotel and trying to ask them for pills in broken Spanish. They were very confused.
Eventually a baffled man showed up at my door with a packet of unmarked pills and a bottle of pink liquid meant to restore my electrolytes. To this day, I have no idea what those pills were. But they were GREAT. Enough said.
I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but I cannot say express this enough—be prepared for the altitude in Cuzco! I met three girls who were also from Virginia, who got sick on the first day as well. On the other hand, there was one guy who lived in the Rockies who was perfectly fine. Where you spent most of your time definitely played a part in determining who made it and who didn’t.
But I digress.
In Cuzco, I stayed at the Hotel Terra Andina. Like the Allpa Hotel, the Hotel Terra Andina was centrally-located, beautiful, and offered complimentary breakfasts. They also had free mate de coca (to combat altitude sickness). It was just a short walk to outdoor markets, which was perfect considering I could barely walk.
While I was primarily in Cuzco so I could get to Machu Picchu, Tye also arranged for me to have a 4-hour tour of the city and nearby ruins. I didn’t know much about the city beforehand, and was happy to learn the error of my ways. It wasn’t just a stopping point before Machu Picchu, but full of a rich cultural history tourists should definitely take time to explore. By the end of the day, I made friends on the tour and ate alpaca kabobs with them.
I should also note that when I went to Cuzco in July of 2017, there were multiple protests going on. One I believe was about teacher salary. Because of these protests, one of my tours was delayed by an hour and half, and another was cancelled altogether.
I was scheduled to have a tour of the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo, but the protesters ripped up the train tracks to the site so no one could go. In fact, it was lucky that I even got to see Machu Picchu at all. Many tourists couldn’t go because of the damage to the tracks.
I both understood and was annoyed when tourists complained about this. Yes, you paid a lot of money to see Machu Picchu, but you have to understand that you’re basically entering someone’s home. The country isn’t there solely for your entertainment. There are people who do have their own problems, and have the right to protest. Then again, I can also say this because I was lucky enough to actually see Machu Picchu. Below is a video of the protests in the streets of Cuzco.
This is where SouthAmerica.Travel and Tye really came through for me. They arranged for me to drive some hours away to another town in Peru, and take the train from there. I was one of the lucky few during that time to see the ruins. One of my favorite parts of my Machu Picchu tour was the fact that it only had three people. I’m not a fan of large tour groups, so it was perfect.
Guayaquil, Ecuador (Day 7)
I only spent an afternoon and evening in Guayaquil, but enjoyed it enough that I wanted to mention it here.
I stayed at The Grand Hotel Guayaquil, a beautiful 4-star hotel just a few blocks from the water and boardwalk. Also, right next to it was an iguana park—a literal, open-air park teeming with iguanas. It was so cool! And a bit freaky. I was afraid to sit down anywhere, just in case.
Guayaquil is one of the two main stopping points before going the Galapagos—the other point being Quito. I only had an afternoon there, but would love to go back and spend more time. It was cute, quirky, and welcoming. On a spontaneous 30-minute boat ride, I was adopted by an Ecuadorian couple who took it upon themselves to show me around for the next 2 hours. I used my limited Spanish on this trip.
The Galapagos Islands (Day 8-11)
Getting onto the islands is a process. Your luggage is scanned for foreign organic substances before even getting on the plane. Then, you and your bags are once again checked at the airport on the island. Only after this has been completed can you board your cruise. I stayed on the Coral I & II Cruises and it was luxurious. Much better than my usual young-broke-person accommodations—something I could say about this entire trip.
The interior of the boat was decked out in gorgeous dark wood. There was a coffee machine, a fully-stocked bar, and the buffet dinners were delicious. You could spend your time in the sun on the top deck, or hang out in the lobby with other passengers. Two experienced guides stayed with us on board, and at the end of every day, they would give us a run-down of the next days activities, along with some fun facts about the islands we were going to visit.
On the first day, we went to the island Santa Cruz and saw the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center and Charles Darwin Station. It was here we got to see the Galapagos Giant Tortoises and learn about the breeding centers. I also got to accidentally buy my brother a $60 shirt. It was meant as a cheap gag gift, but I didn’t check the price tag…because I’m a moron. So, the bastard actually got a good gift when I was trying to pay him back for all of the cheap stuff he’s gotten me over the years.
On the second day, we visited the Mosquera Islet and North Seymour Islands. At the first destination, I got to make a fool out of myself over how adorable the sea lions were, and at North Seymour we got to see blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and swallow-tailed gulls. None of the aforementioned creatures had any fear of us. While we were supposed to stay a healthy distance away from them, it was okay for the sea lions to come up to us. Which they did. Often. And in the cutest (and smelliest) manner possible.
On the third day, we went to Santa Fe and South Plaza. We got to see more sea lions, walk through an endemic cactus forest, and see the endemic Santa Fe land iguana. On this day, we also got to go snorkeling! The water was cold, and predictably I was the one person who didn’t get a wetsuit. Oh, well. It was still amazing. We swam with the sea lions and one actually started biting my flipper. So much adorable in one place was almost too much for me.
On the final day, we went to San Cristobal and visited the museums before leaving. It was hard to make myself leave because there was nothing I wanted more than to enjoy the islands indefinitely. My combined Machu Picchu and Galapagos Trip was one of the most educational trips of my life, and I loved learning about the Inca and the animals of the Galapagos. It was also the most expensive trip I’ve been on—worth it.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,But I have promises to keep,And miles to go before I sleep,And miles to go before I sleep.—Robert Frost (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)