Peru : Machu Picchu & Galapagos Tour
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Once called the ‘Navel of the World’ by the Incas, Cuzco remains a city that blends colonial Spanish charm with older, more austere remains of pre-Columbian glory – one can still see the foundations of Inca structures on many of its city streets today. Cuzco’s most important landmarks include sites from both Inca and colonial times, such as the Korikancha (the ancient Temple of the Sun), the Inca street of Loreto with its 12-cornered stones, the cathedral, the Museum of Colonial Art, the archaeological park of Saqsaywaman (the fortress-temple), the nearby funerary shrines of Kenqo, and the water-worship site of Tambomachay.
Located more than 6000 feet above sea level in Peru’s mountain peaks, Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites. This legendary lofty city was abandoned by the Inca Empire, reclaimed by the jungle and lost to humanity until its rediscovery in 1911. Built by the Incas on the summit of "Machu Picchu" (Old Peak), in the middle of a tropical montane forest overlooking the canyon of the Urubamba, the 'Lost City of Machu Picchu' is a site of extraordinary beauty and enormous archeological significance. The complex reflects the Inca Empire at its height, with giant walls, terraces and ramps that appear to have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The phenomenal technological skills of the Incan engineers can be seen in multiple facets of the site: the exacting precision of the massive stone buildings, the water channels that reveal a deep understanding of hydraulics, and Intihuatana ("the highest point of the Sun"), which served as a solar calendar that regulated planting and harvesting.
Everything about Quito – from its setting along the slopes of Pichincha volcano to its having the best preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America – makes it a capital city worth visiting. (The ‘old town’ as the centre is known was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.) Stroll along its narrow streets and enjoy the buskers, vendors and locals going about their everyday business. Visit the monasteries of San Francisco and Santa Domingo, the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañia, the Cathedral of Quito or the hill of El Panecillo where you can view the 45m high statue of the Virgin Mary. Mariscal Sucre offers a taste of modern Quito with its trendy bars, restaurants and night life.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands famous for the fact that they were unpopulated by man until the 1800s and the amazing endemic species, especially the giant tortoises which give the islands their name. The islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the surrounding waters are a national park, and a biological marine reserve. Of the 18 islands Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz are now populated by more than 25 000 people. The original names were given by an English pirate, but the Ecuadorians have given the islands Spanish names. The Islands were made famous by Charles Darwin after he visited them on his scientific voyage on the HMS Beagle and the endemic species here contributed significantly to Darwinian Theory.
Santa Fe Island
Resting approximately eight miles southeast of Santa Cruz, the relatively small island of Santa Fe is one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos archipelago with rock formations below the water’s surface dating back almost four million years. The island is best known for its endemic Barrington Land Iguana as well as its towering prickly pear cacti which have been known to reach remarkable heights of up to 20 feet. The magnificent Barrington Bay is the only visitor site on the island. There are two hiking trails that start here. One leads to a scenic viewpoint atop a cliff and the other wends through a forest of gigantic opuntia cacti. The beach is popular with sea lions and is an excellent spot from which to snorkel the radiant blue-green waters. You may even spot a Galapagos green turtle gracefully swimming by.
Set off the east coast of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, the Plazas Islands are a phenomenal haven of wildlife. Formed from lava bubbling up from the ocean floor, the ancient islands are home to prickly pear cactus trees, and brightly coloured Sesuvium, which changes from green to orange to purple, depending on the season. Visitors can marvel at the strange animals such as Red and Yellow Land Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. The channel’s shallow waters provide a wonderful nursery for seal pups, which can be seen frolicking in the waves and playing on the shores. See famously impressive birdlife including Swallow-tailed Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Audubon’s Shearwaters, Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies, Frigates, and a variety of nesting seabirds. Tours and hikes are around two hours and suitable for all ages.
This aptly named little island lies just off the southeastern tip of Santiago Island and, as its name suggests, is shaped like a traditional Chinese Hat. The island has a single landing site on the northern white-sand, crescent shaped beach. From here visitors can follow a walking trail where they are likely to spot Galapagos penguins,Galapagos sea lions, and Sally Lightfoot crabs. The trail leads to the western part of the island which features volcanic rubble, sharp outcroppings, and lava formations. Visitors to this otherworldly landscape are typically treated to the sight of marine iguanas wallowing in tidal pools while Galapagos hawks soar above their heads.
With its dramatic red sand beaches and rich green vegetation, Rabida Island is located to the south of Santiago Island in the remarkable Galapagos archipelago. The geology of Isla Rabida sets it apart from the other Galapagos Islands, as it consists primarily of spatter-cone volcanic lava and eroded hills in extraordinary shades of red and brown. The island is also known for its excellent swimming and snorkeling opportunities where you can witness a remarkable diversity of marine life including green turtles, seals, dolphins, manta rays, sharks and tropical fish. Visitors can explore a popular walking trail that leads to a saltwater lagoon where you'll find large flocks of flamingos and white cheeked pintail ducks. This trail then continues towards the summit of the island’s volcano which provides awe-inspiring views of this exquisite island full of astonishing natural wonders.
Situated on Santa Cruz Island of the Ecuadorian Galapagos Islands, the tourist town of Puerto Ayora is famous for its striking natural scenery, breathtaking beaches and unique history. As the biggest town in the archipelago, it is from here that many excellent cruises, diving expeditions and land based tours depart. Tortuga Bay, which rivals any South American beach, is perfect for swimming and sunbathing and also offers the chance to spot sharks, marine iguanas, pelicans and the occasional flamingo; while the Charles Darwin Research Station is home to giant tortoises. Lava tunnels and two idyllic lagoons provide further opportunities to explore. The incredible Maprae Museum uses smartphone technology and augmented reality to tell the stories of ancient pre-Columbian artefacts, and is the first of its kind in the world.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Also known as Urabamba Valley, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is located in the Peruvian Andes, beneath the world famous site of Machu Picchu and not far from Cuzco, the unofficial Inca capital. This fertile valley is fed by a network of waterways and encompasses a wealth of archaeological sites, including Ollantaytambo, renowned for its extensive Inca ruins; Tipon, which features ancient agricultural terracing and a working irrigation system; and Pisac, with its ancient vestiges and colourful weekly market.
The longest mountain range in the world, the Andes stretches along the western coastline of South America from Venezuela to Argentina. The Northern Andes, however, encompasses only Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. The area boasts some of the richest tropical montane forests on earth and is home to a myriad of species including most of the world’s spectacled bears. Seven different eco-regions can be found along the way, as well as numerous charming colonial towns, Inca ruins and of course, Bogota – Colombia’s capital city and the third highest city in South America, sitting at 2,640 metres (8,660 ft) above sea level.
Northern Andes Ecuador
Boasting a dramatic landscape of soaring mountain peaks, numerous volcanoes, and exuberant cloud forests are the Northern Andes, a long, narrow plateau that looms over Ecuador's western region. Visitors to the area can lose themselves to the wide variety of things to do on the mountain slopes ranging from thrill-seeking outdoor activities to fascinating cultural experiences. Highlights include a scenic hike and canopy tour along the verdant landscape of Mindo Cloud Forest and a stroll along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town Quito to view stunning colonial architecture. Don't miss a visit to the small town of Otavalo, home to the tremendously popular Otavalo Market, reputed to be the biggest market for traditional jewellery, textiles and crafts in South America.