Review of Avalon’s “Discover the Galapagos and Peru” Tour WGG
Pros: Machu Picchu is spectacular; the Metropolitan Tour Directors in Peru and Ecuador were outstanding.
Cons: High Altitude, Early Mornings, Poor Galapagos Cruise arrival and departure arrangements
General Matters: Avalon uses Metropolitan Touring to manage this tour. Avalon also procures rooms on a third-party ship (for us the Isabela II), also associated with Metropolitan Touring. There is not much “Avalon” in this tour.
Day 1: Lima – Most flights from the U.S. arrive in Lima very late at night and you may not arrive at your hotel until the early morning of the next day (Day 2 of your tour). We traveled a day early and would recommend it. The Avalon booked hotel was the Casa Andina Private Collection Miraflores. It was a nice facility and located within convenient walking distance to various sites, such as the Inca Market – a good place to get a feel for Peruvian handicrafts. (While there, buy a water bottle sling holder. It is on a strap you wear over your shoulder and under the opposite arm. This will prove handy.) If you do not come a day early, you will not have much free time in Lima (or much time to rest before the activities begin). Our Tour Director for Peru was Victor. He was outstanding, providing many more services than required and staying with us until we flew to Ecuador.
Day 2: Lima – In the early afternoon, a local guide takes you on a city tour of Lima. The traffic in Lima is horrendous. Most of this 4 hour tour was spent in gridlock. The highlight was the Larco Herrera Museum which housed many wonderful Peruvian artifacts. We also did a brief stop at Parque de Amour (Lover’s Park) – a beautiful spot overlooking the sea. In our opinion, the visit to the Cathedral and Monastery were not worth the time spent in traffic to get there. We finally returned to the hotel an hour later than scheduled and, consequently, we were an hour late for our dinner. The group was dragging by the time we ultimately got to our rooms that night.
Day 3: Fly to Cusco – This was our first of several early wake-ups – about 4 AM, with a 5:30 departure from the hotel. Breakfast service at the hotel did not start until 6AM, so they provided a pseudo-continental breakfast with cookies and a ham and cheese sandwich. Cusco is at 11,000 feet – a noticeable change in altitude and difficult for some of the travelers. In Cusco, Victor was joined by a local guide, Jamie. Jamie was also outstanding. He stayed with us until we left Machu Picchu. The tour deviated from the program upon our arrival in Cusco. Instead of seeing the sites near Cusco, we immediately left for the Sacred Valley. This was probably wise as the valley is at about 9,000 feet and allows an easier adjustment to the altitude than remaining in Cusco. We visited the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo, had some free time to shop at the local craft market, and visited a local home (very basic and complete with guinea pigs roving the floor). The night was spent at the Casa Andina Private Collection Sacred Valley. It may be the nicest hotel in the area, and certainly the grounds were beautiful, but the rooms were very simple with few amenities. Dinner was a buffet at a restaurant away from the hotel. If the evening is cool, bring a coat as we found most restaurants to be about the same temperature inside as outside. The buffet was good, but the best looking parts were the raw fresh vegetables. As our Tour Director cautioned us about eating any fresh vegetables that had not been peeled or cooked, we avoided these items. Despite the warning, several in our group had intestinal problems at some point while in Peru; and one traveler ended up terminating his trip and returning home once we arrived in Ecuador.
Day 4: Travel to Machu Picchu – Another early morning, rising about 6AM. This is the point where you have to separate your belongings into what you will need for one night and everything else as you will only have a “carry-on” for your time in Machu Picchu. Your luggage will rejoin you in Cusco. We drove to the train station at Ollantaytambo and caught the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (also called Agua Caliente). The train only provides for limited luggage, which is why we had to limit ourselves to one carry-on each. While we had been told nothing larger than a backpack, the Vista Dome car seemed to be able to accommodate the large airline carry-on wheelies without problems. We dropped our bags at our hotel, the Sumaq, and proceeded to catch one of the buses that travel the narrow switchback road to Machu Picchu. Agua Caliente is at 6,700 feet and Machu Picchu is at 8,000 feet. Touring Machu Picchu requires walking and climbing uneven stairs. Even at 8,000 feet, the altitude can be an issue for some. Victor and Jamie, however, took it slow which allowed almost all to complete the trek. While we heard there were rules to the contrary, we saw many walking sticks and bottled water was carried by most of the tourists. Machu Picchu was all it was supposed to be! There were some periods of rain during our visit, which at times hindered visibility, but also added mystery. The Sumaq hotel was very nice and the dinner at the hotel was quite good.
Day 5: Back to Machu Picchu and on to Cusco – The morning was free and the tour included tickets to return to Machu Picchu. It was a beautiful morning, so I returned to Machu Picchu to see it under clear blue skies and bright sunlight. Spectacular! The opportunity to visit on two different days, once in the PM and once in the AM, increased the chance for clear weather. Victor led a climb to the Sun Gate – the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail. Following lunch, we returned by train to Ollantaytambo. We got to Cusco late that night following a lengthy nonstop bus ride over the mountains (not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder). Our hotel was the Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco. This is a “quaint” facility, originally an 18th Century house, but it lacks good street access and elevators. The bus stopped about a block away and we schlepped our carry-on bags to the hotel. Our luggage was already in our rooms. While a decent facility, it also had minimal room amenities.
Day 6: Cusco – This was the day we visited all the Inca ruins near Cusco; Pucapucara and Sacsayhuaman, as well as parts of “old” Cusco, as was originally scheduled for Day 3 when we first arrived in Cusco. This was one of our few reasonably relaxing days.
Day 7: Fly to Quito – Another 4 AM wake up as we make our way to Quito, Ecuador. While breakfast at the hotel was supposed to start at 5 AM, they were not fully prepared at that hour. Consequently, breakfast was rushed and incomplete – an experience repeated at every location where we had such an early departure. Quito is at 9,000 feet, so those that had not adjusted to the high altitudes got no relief here. It is a long drive from the Quito airport to the city. We were met by our Tour Director Marco. Marco was also very good. He stayed with us until we flew to the Galapagos and re-joined us when we returned to Quito. Avalon used the Swissotel in Quito – the best hotel of the trip with very nice rooms, good room amenities, helpful staff and excellent restaurants. Also, it is just a block away from a big Supermarket if you needed to purchase any supplies. That night we had an excellent meal at one of the highest rated restaurants in Quito – but again, when you start your day at 4AM, you are little too tired to really enjoy it.
Day 8: Quito – Some people opted out of this tour, preferring to sleep in and just relax. For those that went, it included the Equatorial Monument, offering a photo opportunity to straddle the line and have half your body in the Southern Hemisphere and the other half in the Northern. We also visited some historic sites in downtown Quito. Traffic in Quito is also very bad, but more orderly than in Lima.
Day 9: Visit to Otavalo – This is a long day on the road for not much. You do visit the shop of a local weaver and observe the process. Many on the tour bought some handmade items at this stop. The street market in Otavalo is large, but while there are many stalls, most are offering the same handicrafts. The “home hosted” lunch was at an old Hacienda and was very good. We got back to the hotel in the late evening.
Day 10: Fly to the Galapagos – Again, a 4AM wake up and the beginning of the worst day of the entire trip. This is another opportunity to separate from your luggage things you may not need in the Galapagos. The Swissotel graciously stored these items for you. [It might be a good idea to carry a lightweight stuff bag to accommodate your stay behind items.] As you leave Quito, it is cool and you will probably dress accordingly. It is one hour earlier in the Galapagos than Quito – meaning we were up at 3AM Galapagos time. You are met in Baltra by crew members from the Isabela II – there is no Metropolitan Touring or Avalon Guide. It was 95 degrees in Baltra, hotter than expected for early April. Under the direction of the Isabela crew, we moved our luggage to several different locations (“leave it here, no move it there”, etc.). Eventually, our luggage was loaded on a truck to be taken to the ship. Orders were barked out that we needed to make sure we had sunscreen, a hat and water – the first time water had not been provided by the guides before any excursion. This was a little like the first day in military boot camp; somewhat chaotic and certainly not warm and friendly. We boarded an un-air conditioned bus for short ride to a passenger ferry, crossed a channel and boarded another un-air conditioned bus for a long ride to the highlands. We had a satisfactory lunch at a location in the mountains, considerably cooler and greener than Baltra, but also it was obvious we were killing time as we were required to linger for about an hour after everyone had finished eating. Next stop was the Darwin Research Center – well, actually a spot about a ten minute walk to the entrance of the Darwin Research Center. It was back to 95 degrees and humid as we slogged our way into the Center. From the entrance, it was another ten minute walk to any of the sights. While the name “Charles Darwin Research Center” conjures up images of a modern scientific center, it was actually a collection of large stone pens where some giant Galapagos tortoises were kept. We saw less than a dozen adult tortoises in these large pens during our 90 plus minutes of trekking up and down the hills of the Center and all of the tortoises appeared to be suffering as much in the 95 degree heart as we were. Not much movement and certainly no interaction with visitors. There were some cages where a number of baby tortoises were being kept. They were more active, but again no interaction. In short, this was a disappointing stop. All of us were hot, sweaty and tired by this point. Next, we were given the option of spending an hour in town before being transported to the ship or going directly to the ship. Transport to the ship was by RHIB, a little tricky for those with any mobility issues. It was after 5PM before we got to the ship and those that stayed in town arrived shortly after 6PM. The luggage, however, did not get to the rooms until later – I have no idea where the luggage had been all day. We had a mandatory safety drill and were instructed to be ready for our opening briefing at 7 PM, with dinner immediately following. There was little or no time to clean up and get settled. The briefing advised us that we were not on a “cruise”, but rather on an expedition; an apt warning. By the time dinner rolled around, about 7:45 – we had been up for almost 17 hours. Not a happy group, but most slept well that night.
The Isabela II carries about 40 passengers. When we traveled, April 2014, the ship was clearly tired and showing it. There was rust and corrosion and the rooms were only marginally clean. In one case, a member of our group filmed the particularly sorry condition of his room and showed it to the Captain. That room was cleaned immediately. The Isabela II was scheduled for dry dock in May, although I do not know what all is to be done. It is a small ship, which is good for the island visits, but also makes it sensitive to sea conditions. Those prone to seasickness need to keep that in mind. Nevertheless, the ship met our needs and I would be willing to take it again, although I think there are nicer ships (i.e. Pinta).
Wine with dinner was included for Avalon sponsored passengers. However, as only about one-half the passengers were Avalon, the crew had to sort us out each evening. There was only one guy that served wine and often we were almost done with the main course by the time he offered a glass of wine. For those that have been on Avalon River Cruises, the difference was apparent. Fortunately, the wine wasn’t all that good anyway so we didn’t miss much.
There are three routes in the Galapagos: the Northern, the Central and the Southern Islands. Our trip was for the Southern Islands. On the Isabela II, each day generally had three events – a morning and late afternoon land excursion and an early afternoon water event (snorkeling or a glass bottom boat tour).
Day 11: Floreana Island – Most of our ground excursions were “wet” landings. This means that RHIBs back-up to the shore and you swing off the sides into water – sometimes just a few inches of water, sometimes a foot or so depending on the waves. Again, those with mobility problems may have difficulty, but the Isabela crew tried to help everyone accomplish this task – both coming and going. There really isn’t much to see on this island. About the only wildlife were a few crabs on the rocks. It is the location of the “post office” – a barrel where post cards are left in hope that another traveler will come along that lives near the addressee and hand deliver it. We managed to do that and it was a fun experience. This was also the first opportunity to snorkel [the Isabela provides all the equipment although some folks brought their own.] It was done from the shore and there was not much to see, but it served as a good training session for those with little snorkeling experience. However, outstanding deep water snorkeling was ahead just after lunch. It was fantastic. I have never seen such a large quantity of fish of all variations and colors; plus we were joined by playful sea lions. For me, snorkeling was the highlight of the Galapagos.
Day 12: Espanola Island – While the guide book described the hike here as “easy”, it is not. The naturalists on the ship warned everyone. The 1 ½ mile hike is almost entirely over irregular lava stones and you had to watch each step you took. We were warned that if someone could not complete the walk, all would have to return. A walking stick and hiking shoes were very useful for this excursion. If you could do the walk, there were many birds to be seen – including Albatrosses engaging in their mating rituals. There were also many sea lions and iguanas. With a lack of many natural enemies, the wildlife has little fear of people and you can get quite close; although caution is urged, especially with the sea lions. This was a great excursion for the “birders” in the group with many great photo opportunities. There was a deep water snorkeling event in the early afternoon and the late afternoon was spent on a long white sand beach, home of many sea lions.
Day 13: San Cristobal Island – There were two morning options: One was a somewhat strenuous hike to the top of a volcanic bluff. Again, while described by the guide book as “easy”, the guides were quite clear that it was not. While promises of many bird sightings were made on this hike, few were actually seen. Others took to the RHIBs for a water tour around the island. There were lots of birds at a distance and some very scenic geological formations. Another outstanding deep water snorkeling event was in the early afternoon and another walk on the beach in the late afternoon with more sea lions and iguanas.
Day 14: Return to Quito – This was the second worst day of the trip. Our “5 day” cruise is really only three days, as the first day and this day hardly count. Today was a 6AM wake up; bags out of the room by 7:00 and breakfast at 7:30. As soon as you left your room for breakfast, they begin tearing the beds down and cleaning the room for the next guests. They clearly did not want you to return to your room – but most needed to at least visit their bathrooms and collect their carry-on bags, although we were clearly not welcome. We were now in time-killing mode until our flight to Quito. They showed us a very good film about the Galapagos, a series done by David Attenborough – something that would have been more useful at the beginning. [The series is available on YouTube.] Following the film we were taken by RHIB to the shore. We boarded another un-air conditioned bus and went to an un-air conditioned “Interpretation Center” (not much interesting here) and from there we were dropped in town for a few hours. While this was an opportunity to shop for a Galapagos souvenir, or get lunch, water, or a snack; there was far more time than needed and many spent it just sitting on benches in town. We eventually got to the airport and boarded our flight for Quito. We were met by Marco and began the long drive back to the Swissotel. That night, we enjoyed a very good “farewell” dinner in the hotel.
Day 15: Return Home – Most flights back to the U.S. leave very late at night. While the Swissotel was able to give late check-out to most of the group, it was still no later than 2PM. As we did not leave for the airport until 8PM (for an 11:30 PM flight), most of the group had 6 hours to kill – no easy task. We had booked an extra-night which allowed us to stay in our room until it was time to go. It was worth it.
That is our day-by-day summary of the trip. We are glad we did it, but it was not a relaxing excursion. While Machu Picchu and the other Inca ruins were all we had anticipated, we keep thinking, aside from the snorkeling, that there is more to the Galapagos than we saw. Maybe the Northern Islands trip would be better. However, it will be awhile before we consider a return engagement.