Inca ruins and amazing animals on a private tour of Peru and Ecuador

by Fred DeVinney, Oakland, CA

In May ’04, my wife, Jean, and I and friends Cass and Marlene Candell embarked on a wonderful private tour of Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and the Manu Wildlife Reserve in the jungle headwaters of the Amazon in Peru, followed by a week in the fabulous Galápagos Islands.

The cost of this 24-day tour, put together by Elizabeth Sanders of Tropical Nature Travel (Gainesville, FL; phone 877/827-8350 or visit, was $4,500 per person plus international airfare. With all internal transportation, guides, hotels and most meals, this cost less and included more than most of the package tours I had explored. For occasional lunches and dinners we were on our own, as we preferred.

We were met and escorted to and from our hotels for every plane, train or bus connection and supplied with well-informed, friendly guides throughout, all with excellent English skills.

Lake Titicaca

Arriving in Lima around midnight, we spent the night at the very nice Hotel Meliá before a noon departure the next day to Juliaca, where we were met and driven about an hour to the lovely Sonesta Posada del Inca in Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca (elevation, 12,500 feet).

To avoid altitude sickness, everyone had started taking Diamox the day before. We also drank the coca tea found in the lobbies of all our hotels. It worked!

We limited our first evening’s activities to the Restaurant Don Piero (Jr. Lima 348-364), where we had a very good dinner of alpaca steak and local fish, enhanced by the music of a local band.

The next day, we left by boat with our guide, Angel Pineda, for a visit to the famed floating reed islands of the Uros people. While the islands you can visit are a bit touristy, they are also fascinating. They have been the home of these people for hundreds of years and are indeed unique!

Our destination was the large natural island of Amantani, where we stayed with a local family. After lunch, we climbed another 1,000 feet to the shrine of Pachatata (Father Earth) for a marvelous sunset over Amantani and Lake Titicaca.

Our evening interaction with our host family was not what we had hoped for, as the guidebooks had indicated there is usually dancing in the local square. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay.

The next day we proceeded to another large island, Tequile, where we enjoyed observing the agrarian lifestyle on the island and the elders in their colorful Sunday dress.

Upon our return to Puno we bid farewell to Angel, whom we really enjoyed.


It seemed the 10-hour bus ride to Cusco would be a long, arduous day, but in reality it was a great experience. This trip on a first-class bus, with five stops along the way to see Inca ruins, a village museum, a cathedral and an alpaca, llama and vicuna farm, plus an outstanding buffet lunch, gave us a chance to experience the life and beauty of the high plateau of the Peruvian Andes.

We arrived in Cusco in time to make it to Tunupa, a restaurant on the main square, for an outstanding buffet ($15 per person).

Our hotel was the very fine Hotel Novotel Cusco, well located just off the main square. We spent four nights there overall and enjoyed wonderful buffet breakfasts. One dinner and lunch there offered good food but painfully slow service.

A laundry next door did everything for us in three hours.

Urubamba Valley

Our guide, Patti, who had spent a winter working at a Colorado ski resort to polish her English, picked us up the next morning for a tour of the colorful Pisac market in the Urubamba Valley. Then we continued on to Moray, the terraced, amphitheater-like Inca agricultural laboratory, where a picnic lunch was provided with enough food to feed an army! (We felt better after Patti distributed the extra food to a number of the local people as we left.)

A very worthwhile stop was the terraced salt ponds of Maras, our last stop before being dropped off at the Sol y Luna resort, near Urubamba, with nicely decorated circular cottages, lovely gardens, pool and stable.

This was to be R&R time, as we had two nights and a day free. However, that lasted only until breakfast, when we decided to hire a driver for about $30 for the four of us to go to Ollantaytambo, less than an hour away. With its massive Inca fortress and steep terrace, it is not to be missed.

The Mayupata riverside restaurant was recommended for Peruvian food, but we settled for a great wood-fired pizza for lunch and still had part of the afternoon for relaxation back at the pool. The Sol y Luna had a most atmospheric bar and restaurant offering good dinners for about $8-$10 per person.

Machu Picchu

The next morning we were driven back to Ollantaytambo for the train to Aguas Calientes, the stopping-off point for Machu Picchu. Patti took the train from Cusco to be our guide again.

Though I had seen all the beautiful pictures of this site for many years, when I finally took the bus up the road of hairpin curves and looked out over Machu Picchu, it was still WOW! Patti spent almost three hours giving us an excellent tour as we walked through the vast grounds of this ancient site. She then returned to Cusco while we enjoyed a great lunch in the dining room of the Sanctuary Hotel, recently brought up to 5-star status by Orient Express.

Paying $575 for a double room, we blew the lid off our budget for previous lodgings by a wide margin, but since we would spend only one night at Machu Picchu in our lives, and the Sanctuary is the only hotel at the top, it was worth it. Life is not a dress rehearsal! The cost did cover all three meals, and the food would stand up to that of any world-class restaurant, including our San Francisco’s finest!

More importantly, after most of the day visitors left around 4 p.m., we went back in and just wandered around Machu Picchu, having it almost all to ourselves, until sunset. We went back in again around 7 a.m. for sunrise and spent an ethereal three hours watching the cloud-enshrouded peaks float in and out of view while the sun slowly burned the clouds away before the hoard of day tourists arrived.

After a little relaxation on the Sanctuary terrace looking out at Machu Picchu, we headed down the hill to Aguas Calientes for another great prearranged buffet and a Peruvian band performance, then we boarded the first-class train back to Cusco amidst splendid scenery.

Manu Wildlife Reserve

We were met by the friendly and efficient people of InkaNatura Travel (, the local tour agency, and escorted to the Novotel, where we had dinner and prepared for our morning departure to the Manu Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon headwaters.

Packing light, we left most of our luggage at the hotel as we needed only the minimum for the hot climate ahead. Our single-engine aircraft took us up over the scenic Andes and down to a grass landing strip hewn out of the dense jungle. There we were met by our 26-year-old guide, Percy, who, with his knowledge, wit and enthusiasm, would bring this dense eco-complex to life for us over the next four days and nights.

We headed down the Madre de Dios River for a couple of hours to the Manu Wildlife Center, which has some of the finest facilities available for this type of jungle exploration. While we had no electricity, there were individual cabins with bathrooms and showers. There also was a large central lodge with a pleasant dining area and a large bar with hammocks, which we utilized more as the days progressed. Generator-powered refrigeration and stoves allowed the kitchen to turn out a wonderful array of meals during our stay.

Each day we made a morning and afternoon excursion by boat and/or foot to explore this dense jungle environment. Percy opened its mysteries with explanations of the complex system of flora and pointed out birds and animals we would never have spotted on our own.

We encountered large caimans along the banks during the day and also at night with their red eyes eerily shining in the dark. While they were not in great abundance, we did see monkeys, capybaras, macaws, parrots and a number of unusual birds, including the strange-looking hoatzin. From two large platforms over 100 feet high, we viewed the vast canopy and jungle below.

At the clay licks, where hundreds of macaws and lone tapirs may come to feed, we ended up disappointed by the lack of macaws but awed by the tapir sightings. We did see macaws flying overhead, but May and June are months when the macaws are rare at the clay licks, and we knew this. Nevertheless, May is a very good month to visit Machu Picchu and, according to our guide, one of the best months for the Galápagos.

At sunset we walked 1½ miles to the tapir lick, where a platform had been built with mattresses, pillows and mosquito netting, to await the nocturnal feedings of the 500- to 600-pound tapirs, the largest native mammal in South America. Shy and solitary, they come to feed on the mineral-filled clay each night.

After waiting an hour, and almost asleep, I heard Percy whisper, “It is coming.” Soon, we saw a huge, prehistoric-looking animal lumber in and feed while Percy lit him up with an infrared spotlight which the tapir did not notice. A second one arrived 45 minutes later, and after another half hour a huge tapir emerged from the mud right beneath our platform — truly a thrilling experience!

We walked back in the dark with flashlights, sensing the dense jungle around us, both eerie and awesome.

Exploring the city

Flying back to Cusco, we declined an offer of a guided tour the next day as we wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon and the next day exploring on our own. We enjoyed walking in the beautiful Plaza de Armas and the surrounding area, then took in the splendid cathedral, Inca walls and marvelous Museo Inka (Cuesta del Almirante 103) and Pre-Columbian Art Museum (Casa Cabrera, Plaza de las Nazarenas) at our own pace.

We very much enjoyed a wonderful wood-fired-pizza lunch at one of the balcony tables of the Baghdad Café overlooking the plaza, and we returned for a late-afternoon refreshment and people-watching.

We also took a taxi out to the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman on the edge of town and spent a couple of hours just wandering around on our own. All of this could be part of an arranged tour, but we preferred to just wander, often in different directions, reuniting for two excellent dinners at the casual and very popular Inca Grill on the plaza and at the elegant dining room of the splendid Monas­terio Hotel (Calle Palacios 136;, Cusco’s most beautiful (and expensive) hotel.

On to Ecuador

After Cusco, it was on to Guayaquil, Ecuador, the gateway to the Galápagos. A very late plane got us in just in time for dinner at the superbly located and pleasant Hotel Continental. We had read that its upscale restaurant had won international awards, and dinner that night and a week later lived up to its reputation. At around $15 per person, it was excellent.

The location was ideal for a short walk to the waterfront promenade, the Malecon. (Don’t miss the iguana park across the street!) The 1½-mile Malecon is filled with gardens, shops, monuments and views of the Rio Guayas.

Also worth visiting is the hill at the north end with its painted homes, cafés and shops along the steps of Cerro Santa Ana, which lead to the lighthouse and wonderful views of the city and waterfront. It is definitely worth spending a day or more here, before or after the Galápagos.

The Galápagos
We flew out to the Galápagos Islands, about 600 miles offshore, after an overnight in Guayaquil. We had found Machu Picchu breathtaking and we thoroughly enjoyed Cusco, Lake Titicaca and the Manu Wildlife Reserve, but I would have to say that, for me, we had saved the best for last.

We spent seven fascinating, relaxing days and nights cruising among the varied islands aboard the 16-passenger Eden, which served as our hotel. The Eden was a pleasant boat ranked at the upper end of the middle range of available crafts, which was what we requested. Half the cabins had bunk beds, half had two singles and all had private baths, showers and air-conditioning. The ship had a great, friendly crew, a very experienced guide, Diego, and very fine meals, all of which made that part of the trip most enjoyable.

What really makes the Galápagos unique are the intimate encounters with the wildlife. We came so close to countless sea lions and iguanas that we could almost reach out and touch them. The giant land tortoise, weighing up to 500 pounds, is truly amazing and you would swear that it was the model for E.T. The brightly colored Sally Lightfoot crab, interspersed with the iguanas and sea lions lying on the rocks, is a photographer’s dream.

The spectacular mating ritual of the male frigate birds, inflating their red neck pouches to football-sized balloons, and the mating dance of the cute blue-footed boobies never failed to fascinate us. At times we literally stepped over and around nests of the boobies and their chicks.

The magnificently graceful albatross was to be found only on the small southern island of Española. Add to this the tiny Galápagos penguins, sea turtles, red-footed and masked boobies, tropicbirds, various gulls, pelicans, hawks and flamingos and you have a splendid and unusual array of wildlife that makes each day an adventure.

We usually made two shore excursions every day, returning to the Eden for lunch and some relaxing on the deck. Each island offered something unique. The opportunity to swim and snorkel almost every day was an option we took full advantage of. I will long remember the wonderful experience of swimming and playing with the sea lions, who loved to tease and zoom by, just missing us.

The adventure continues

On the fourth day we went back to Santa Cruz, where we had started, after going north to Genovesa and returning via Bartolome, San Salvador and Rabida. We visited the Darwin Research Center and dropped off those who had come for only four days. It really hit me then that I was so glad we had decided on a 7-day trip, as we were by no means ready to leave after four.

This midweek respite also gave us a chance to shop, have lunch and wander around Puerto Ayora, a port town located on Santa Cruz Island, before being picked up for our afternoon excursion. The accommodating crew took us back to Puerto Ayora after dinner to browse some more, as we were anchored in the harbor.

It was a nice change of pace, but I was simply looking forward to three more days with the wonderful wildlife of the Galápagos.