Unravel the Wild Mysteries at Two Renowned World Heritage Sites
Day 1: Quito, Ecuador / Otavalo
Upon your arrival in Quito, our local representative meets you at the airport and accompanies you on the scenic drive to the Andean Highlands, just over an hour away. Check in to our colonial hacienda, offering a warm and hospitable setting from which to sample the history, nature and traditional culture of this mountain region. Award-winning Hacienda Zuleta is the heart of a 4,000-acre working farm founded more than 400 years ago. Guest rooms feature period furniture, authentic family photos, hand-embroidered linens, heavy timbers and wood-burning fireplaces. The farm’s 300 Holstein-Friesian cows are the source for artisan dairy products including fresh cheese, yogurt and cream. Preserving the native flora and fauna is a priority for Zuleta’s multi-generation family owners, who have established a foundation dedicated to conservation. The estate’s extensive wild land has become an important sanctuary for Andean wildlife including rare spectacled bears, pumas, condors and various owls. Enjoy a welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Exploring the Andean Highlands
Rise early for a walk along the misty valley floor, passing ancient truncated ramp pyramids and burial mounds dating to 700 A.D. on our way to the Condor Huasi project. Here we’ll see rescued condors and perhaps witness a wild condor soaring overhead on the thermals. Look, too, for a glimpse of a rare Andean spectacled bear in the dense vegetation on the slopes above the valley. After lunch in the main house, visit the cheese factory to taste Zuleta’s semi-aged handmade cheeses, using milk from the estate’s cows. This afternoon, we'll walk to the nearby community for coffee and tea and to learn about the local “Zuleteño” way of life. Return to the hacienda for a hearty homemade dinner using local ingredients, many sourced from the hacienda’s own garden.
Day 3: Quito / Baltra, Galapagos Islands / Sombrero Chino
Depart early this morning for the Quito airport and our flight to the Galapagos. Landing on the island of Baltra, we meet our second Expedition Leader and transfer to the pier to embark the Ocean Spray
. After getting settled into our cabins, our guides offer an orientation to the ship and the adventures ahead. Lunch is served aboard, followed by our first landing at Sombrero Chino. This small island named for its unique shape—"Chinese Hat" in English— is located just off the southeastern tip of Santiago. The islet is home to a colony of sea lions that live on the white coral sand beach. A short hike leads to rare, well-preserved remnants of fragile volcanic rock. Snorkeling reveals some of the Galapagos' fascinating marine life, including the possibility of a swim with a resident penguin family.
Day 4: Isabela—Punta Vicente Roca / Fernandina—Punta Espinoza
Isabela is our destination today, the largest of the Galapagos islands. Shaped like a seahorse, it was created when six volcanoes flowed together. At Punta Vicente Roca, choose to snorkel (where we're practically guaranteed to swim with sea turtles) or take a panga ride along the shoreline brimming with wildlife. Chances are good we’ll see Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals.
This afternoon we cross the Bolivar Channel to reach Fernandina, the youngest island in the chain. Keep your camera ready in case we spy whales and dolphins in the passage. Fernandina, an active volcano, has one of the most dynamic and pristine ecosystems on Earth. An eruption in 2009 sent lava flowing all the way to the sea. We land at Punta Espinoza, where rippling hardened lava provides a stark backdrop for a surprising variety of life: flightless cormorants nest on the black rock, Galapagos hawks soar overhead, sea lions sprawl on the beach, and huge colonies of marine iguanas bask in the sun. Bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs pepper the dark lava at water's edge, a vivid counterpoint to the turquoise sea. A snorkeling excursion offers a good chance to see sea turtles and submerged marine iguanas feeding on algae.
Day 5: Isabela—Tagus Cove / Urbina Bay
Back on Isabela, spend the morning in Tagus Cove, where we may find penguins and pelicans. Graffiti on the rock walls dates to the 1800s, when pirates and whalers carved their ship names into the stone above a historic anchorage. Spend the morning in the water, kayaking or snorkeling. Then choose between two activities: a hike among the volcanic tuff cones for a closer look at the island's geological history, with views of Darwin's Lagoon, or a panga ride, where we're sure to see blue-footed boobies perched on the cliff ledges, along with brown pelicans, brown noddies, flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins.
Landing this afternoon at Urbina Bay, witness one of the best examples of geological uplift in the Galapagos, a phenomenon that occurs when molten rock beneath the surface suddenly shifts. In 1954, the shoreline was uplifted nearly 15 feet, exposing coral and stranding marine organisms above the water on what is now the shore. Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of large land iguanas, the iconic Galapagos tortoise, penguins, flightless cormorants and a variety of Darwin's finches. After a walk, we can snorkel right from the beach, hoping to see sea turtles and Galapagos penguins.
Day 6: Isabela—Elizabeth Bay / Punta Moreno
On Isabela's south side, explore Elizabeth Bay with its sprinkling of islets, a lagoon frequented by sea turtles, and red and black mangroves filled with birdlife. On a panga ride, search for feeding sea turtles along with lava herons, Galapagos penguins, rays and flightless cormorants. In the afternoon, head west to Punta Moreno, home to several endemic species found only to the area’s barren lava flows. The point is located between two volcanoes, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul, and we step ashore to walk atop the hardened lava. At first glance, the corrugated rock landscape appears lifeless. However, the smooth, ropy black surface is dotted with numerous coastal lagoons harboring a wide variety of birdlife. Commonly seen species include flamingos, paint-billed crakes, white-cheeked pintails, herons and cormorants. We’ll also see endemic Galapagos flora taking root on this young lava flow, including giant opuntia cactus, Palo Santo trees, carob trees and lichens. The protected waters of Moreno Bay are surrounded by mangroves, creating perfect habitat for sea turtles, which we may spot from the pangas or as we snorkel.
Day 7: Santa Cruz—Darwin Station / Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
On Santa Cruz this morning, visit the Fausto Llerena giant tortoise breeding center at Darwin Station, which operates in tandem with Galapagos National Park. We'll learn about efforts by scientists, guides, rangers and park managers to preserve the islands' most famous icon, as well as the wider Galapagos ecosystem—the archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the tortoise-rearing facility, see tiny babies bred to help increase the depleted tortoise population—a central part of the station's conservation mission. To date, the program has returned more than 10,000 tortoises to the wild.
Late this afternoon, ascend into the misty highlands of Santa Cruz to arrive at NHA's exclusive Tortoise Camp, where we spend the night. Our private camp, which offers safari-style tents and unique treehouse lodging with distant views of the ocean, is tucked among lush vegetation that attracts giant tortoises. We'll have a chance to view these ancient, amiable creatures in their natural setting (they're most commonly seen from July through February), and they often amble right into camp. Nearby, explore a network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns. Please note: At times, the camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Day 8: Santa Cruz Highlands / Santa Fe
Our exploration of Santa Cruz continues with a visit to a tortoise reserve in the highlands, or more time at our own Tortoise Camp, depending on where we expect to find more of these placid ancient reptiles. Returning to the Ocean Spray,
have lunch aboard, then sail for Santa Fe, home to a large population of sea lions, lava lizards, the unique Santa Fe land iguana and the Opuntia cactus. On a short hike through a cactus forest, look for endemic land iguanas that wait patiently underneath for fruit to drop. Returning to our catamaran, we go deep-water snorkeling around a small islet, in a natural aquarium with great reef diversity. Then, paddle or take a panga ride along the island’s north coast, where large cliffs and sea caves are used for nesting and roosting by many species of marine birds—as well as basking green sea turtles and sea lions.
Day 9: Española—Punta Suarez / Gardner Bay / Osborn Islet
Española is one of the most prolific wildlife sites in the Galapagos. About 4 million years old, Española is far enough away from the other islands that it is home to the greatest number of endemic species in the Galapagos, along with striking landscapes created by millions of years of erosion. This morning at Punta Suarez, hike on the headlands in search of abundant birdlife, looking for Hood mockingbirds, blue-footed boobies, nesting swallow-tailed gulls and Galapagos hawks. Española is also the world's main nesting site for the huge waved albatross.
Returning to the quiet bay where our catamaran awaits, lunch is served aboard as we sail to Gardner Bay and tiny Osborn Inlet. Paddle or ride a panga along the island’s north shore to see a cliff formed by eroded cinder cones and layers of old basalt—prime habitat for giant cacti and many different bird species. Osborn Islet is just one of many stunning little islands that beckon underwater exploration. Ashore, an idyllic white sand beach awaits, where sea lions laze by the dozens and Pacific green sea turtles frequent the rocky part of the shoreline. Back on board, it's time for farewell cocktails and a last celebratory dinner at sea.
Day 10: San Cristobal / Lima, Peru
Back on the island where Darwin first landed in 1835 and where the Galapagos’ first permanent settlements were founded, we visit an interpretation center for a concluding overview of Galapagos history, ecosystems, geology and wildlife. Giant tortoises are also bred here and roam the grounds in a semi-natural habitat. At last, it’s time to bid farewell to the islands and continue to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Fly from the Galapagos to Guayaquil, where our representative waits to assist with the transfer for our international flight to Lima. On arrival in Peru's capital, we are met outside baggage claim and escorted to our accommodations conveniently located at the airport.
Day 11: Cusco
A morning flight to Cusco lands us in the heart of the once-grand Inca empire. From the indigenous Quechua word qosq’o
, Cusco means the “navel of the earth.” Set in a high Andean valley, Cusco was founded in the 12th century and thrived until Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca civilization in their 16th-century colonial quest. Our accommodations at a restored colonial palace evoke the material splendor of that era. Parts of the building date to the mid-1500s when Francisco Pizarro, the first Spanish governor of Peru, was its occupant. Learn more about this fabled city on a guided walking tour this afternoon.
Day 12: Sacred Valley of the Incas
The Sacred Valley’s treasures unfold today as we follow the Urubamba River past farms, villages and Inca architectural ruins. The original vast Inca empire was connected by a network of 10,000 miles of stone roads woven through the Andes’ imposing terrain. Suspension bridges spanned rivers and aqueducts to carry from mountain streams to irrigate terraced fields. Vestiges of these ancient crops, backdropped by knife-edged peaks, are on display during our drive today. We stop to see the impressive Inca ruins at Pisac, where there may be time to visit the local market where Quechua Indians, dressed in vivid attire, sell their handicrafts. At Awana Kancha, a cultural exhibition center, witness traditional textile weaving and meet llamas, alpacas and guanacos, the iconic animals of the Andes whose wool is used in a wide variety of garments and blankets. This afternoon, there's time to relax before dinner amid the inviting garden environs of our charming hotel.
Day 13: Machu Picchu
This morning we board the train at Ollantaytambo for a 1.5-hour journey along the Urubamba River, which narrows into turbulent whitewater as we travel deeper into the mountains. Disembark at the village of Aguas Calientes and board a bus for the short remaining drive to Machu Picchu. Little prepares one for the spectacle that awaits. As we ascend into the ruins, there’s a sense of wandering through a mystical city in the sky, surrounded by green mountain ramparts that soar into the clouds. A local tour guide joins us to help interpret all we see as we explore the labyrinth of granite houses, temples, walls and cisterns. Llamas wander among terraced steps that once grew maize and potatoes for some 1,200 inhabitants.
Based on its sacred geography and astronomical orientation, archaeologists believe Machu Picchu may have been a royal estate and religious retreat. Important ceremonies were conducted here, including a winter solstice rite at which a priest would “tie the sun” to a hitching post stone to prevent it from disappearing altogether. Stay tonight at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in private casitas built of stone, tile and cedar, surrounded by the thick greenery of the cloud forest. More than 300 orchid varieties grace the grounds of this secluded luxury retreat along the river, and a network of trails on the grounds invites a serene stroll.
Day 14: Machu Picchu / Cusco
Return to Machu Picchu for further exploration this morning, our time unscripted for personal discovery. Among the ruins there’s opportunity to ponder, in Hiram Bingham’s words, the “bewildering romance” of a place that “appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed.” Or, for those who wish, hike to the top of Wayna Picchu, the imposing mountain that provides the famous backdrop for the ruins in classic photos. The Incas built the original trail to the top, where they built temples and farming terraces. Local myth holds that the summit of Wayna Picchu was the residence for the high priest of the ancient city. This challenging hike takes 2–3 hours and climbs approximately 1,200 feet from the base at
Machu Picchu, ascending a steep face using stairs and cables for support. The hike is not recommended for guests with physical limitations or those with a fear of heights. Should entrance tickets for Wayna Picchu be sold out, an equally challenging hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain will be available.
This afternoon we make the return journey to Cusco by train and bus, stopping en route to explore Ollantaytambo, a small rural town surrounded by steep terraced mountainsides. Ollantaytambo rests on traditional Inca foundations and is one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning. Enjoy a farewell dinner in Cusco this evening, as we reflect on all the memories we've made during our Machu Picchu and Galapagos adventure travel extravaganza.
Day 15: Cusco / Lima / Depart
This morning we travel just outside Cusco to visit the ruins at Sacsayhuaman, with the most impressive example of Inca walls in the Sacred Valley. The site is still enveloped in mystery, and we ponder how the Incas moved these enormous stones to this site without the advantage of wheeled carts, and how they managed to fit such large, honed granite stones together so tightly that a pocketknife blade cannot be inserted between them. After lunch in Cusco, fly to Lima late this afternoon to meet departing flights this evening.
Physical Rating: Moderate