If you’re going to the Galapagos Islands, you’re probably going to spend 2-3 nights in Quito, Ecuador. Do not resist going to Quito in the interest of saving time! Old, colonial Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site…a nice city with lots to see. Suggest two full days here
STAY in Quito, Ecuador
- Villa Colonna–HIGHLY recommend! This is a B&B but VERY upscale: beautifully decorated 19th century mansion with Latin American antiques, plus a lovely interior courtyard, plus amazing breakfasts (linens, crystal, fresh flowers & wonderful food) and interesting, non-intrusive, informative hosts. Great location in the heart of old Quito. (6 rooms)
- Casa Gangotena–“the stateliest hotel in town” and “one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in the country,” according to Travel + Leisure, 2013. Andrew Harper and Departures magazine (2017) also like it. (31 rooms)
SEE THE SIGHTS in Quito
- Independence Square–Independence Square has it all: City Hall, alfresco shoe shines for $3, the Presidential Palace, the HUGE national cathedral with its green-and-white-checked tiled domes, boutiques tucked in niches, and lots of museums nearby, beautiful flower-filled gardens w/a big fountain at its center and lots of people, mostly native Ecuadorian Indians…in native Indian dress, which is refreshing because it is genuine, i.e., not put on for the tourists.
Fun and great eye candy!
- Jesuit Church of La Campania de Jesus–Decorated with seven tons of gold leaf, this is referred to as Quito’s Sistine Chapel.
- San Francisco Square–A huge (the largest in S. America!) monastery built in the 16th century occupies one corner of the square
EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY in Quito
Ask the sophisticated proprietors of Villa Colonna. They steered us to Zazu (in 2011), which we liked a lot.
Blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, pink flamingos, snorkeling with giant turtles, sea lions, purple starfish, penguins…they’re all here, and more, plus stunning water, islands and silence.
The gorgeously colored animals were expected. The beauty of the various Galapagos Islands was unanticipated. For example…
STAY in the Galapagos:
There are two ways to see the GI’s: Stay on a ship and cruise from island to island or stay at one of the few hotels on land and take day trips from it to the islands.
HOTEL/ship in the Galapagos
- The Grace…as in, THAT Grace! Highly recommend this ship, built in 1928. Its one-time owner, “Ari” Onassis, gave it to Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier as a wedding present…a little bit of Hollywood glam in the Galapagos! Nice staff, highly knowledgeable naturalist guide, mediocre interior decor and food (but who cares, given the scenery and staff)…per my 2011 trip. (8 cabins)
- Ecoventura‘s MV Origin…”The Origin is [Ecoventura’s] most luxurious vessel to date, with 10 staterooms for 20 passengers on the 142-foot yacht,” per Departures magazine (2017). I just looked at the MV Origin on Ecoventura’s website and think its public areas look a bit stiff and uncomfortable. The Grace is a much prettier ship.
The guide aboard The Grace was wonderfully knowledgeable, enthusiastic and fun.
SIZE MATTERS: You want a small ship for two, key reasons: (1) It can get into smaller anchorages/coves than a big ship, so you can go more places; (2) You will not have to wait for a large number of fellow passengers to lumber off the ship into dinghies taking them to/fro the various islands. At 145-feet long, The Grace was the perfect size.
TIP: Higher is not better. The closer your room is to the top, the more it will sway when the wind blows the ship. Go low for a smoother trip.
SHOE TIP: From The Grace (or any ship), you will get into a dinghy that will take you to various Galapagos Islands. Some have a dock and some don’t, which means that you will sometimes have to step out of the dinghy into water a foot deep or less. So leave the Jimmy Choos at home and succumb to practical amphibious (read: ugly) shoes that will give you support for light, uphill hiking! You will thank me.
- Pikaia Lodge–While I think its website is a bit cold, Pikaia Lodge is recommended by Departures magazine (2017) and travel aficionado Andrew Harper, who has rarely steered me wrong. PL is also a member of the Small Luxury Hotel group.
- Galapagos Safari Camp–upscale, African-style tented camp, recommended by Andrew Harper, with a beautiful website!
Cuzco is your jumping-off point for Machu Picchu and well worth a visit. But brace yourself: This former Incan capital is 11,000 feet above sea level. As in, LOTS of huffing and puffing while walking up its hilly streets. Hydrate! Recommend 1-2 full days.
HOTELS in Cuzco
- La Casona Inkaterra–Located on a lovely, quiet square, this former conquistador’s mansion is small, sophisticated, and beautifully decorated with colonial and Incan accents. Andrew Harper recommends it, as do I, as this was our base in Cusco. (11 rooms)
- Belmond Hotel Monasterio–Converted from a 16th century monastery, this hotel has received a lot of mention in the travel media and is perfectly nice but lacking the charm of the Inkaterra. (122 rooms & suites)
- Belmond Palacio Nazarenes–“Dating from the 16th century, this former convent is now a luxe hotel with 55 suites, the city’s first outdoor heated swimming pool, lush terraces…” (Elle Décor, 2015)
SEE THE SIGHTS in Cuzco
- The Cathedral–baroque, 17th century
- The Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)–a huge Dominican monastery built atop the ruins of a former Incan temple
- People-watching–because MANY of the local Indians wear their colorful and beautifully woven shawls, hats, skirts, etc. Such a variety of hats!
- Museum of Pre-Columbian Art–Located on the same square as La Casona and Hotel Monasterio, this is a beautiful building with a semi-interesting collection due to its uninformative descriptions next to each object
- UNSAAC–Yale International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture (320 Calle Santa Catalina Ancha)–recommended by a 2012 Departures article
SHOP in Cuzco
- Pedazo de Arte (Plateros 334B)–“The owner of this charming boutique, Miki Suzuki, has an eye for the best local handicrafts, which she sells for bargain prices…” (Elle Décor 2015)
MACHU PICCHU! (advise 1 night w/5 hours total of MP touring time)
FYI: Machu Picchu is an abandoned fortified town built by the Incans in the 15th-century, which is pretty amazing, when you consider how hard it must have been to construct without modern tools and atop a mountain ridge 7,970 ft above sea level! It is located in Peru, 50 miles northwest of Cuzco. Although known locally, it remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Bingham, a Yale and Harvard man who later taught at Princeton, discovered Machu Picchu with the help of local farmers who led him to it through the remote mountain jungle.
IMPORTANT TIP #1: The typical transpo from Cuzco to MP is a crowded van-to-train-to-bus. However, who wants to be typical?! Advise you not to settle for that crowded van; instead, contact Inkaterra (upscale Peruvian travel agency and hotelier) to arrange for private transportation from Cuzco to the train. During the non-rainy season, you can get a train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. The train portion of the trip is wonderful because it is clean and travels through stunning, flowered-filled jungle scenery up to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of MP’s mountain. We saw wild impatiens, hydrangea, orchids and many more.
IMPORTANT TIP #2: Do not travel to MP during the rainy season because sometimes the rain is so torrential that the train to MP is cancelled.
IMPORTANT TIP #3: Upon disembarking from the train in Aguas Calientes, you have two options: hike up to MP (must be in good shape & have acclimated to the altitude, as it is steep…but possible) or take the bus up the switchbacks to MP.
HOTELS in Machu Picchu
- Belmond Sanctuary Lodge–Do it! The BSL is the one and only hotel located on the mountaintop with Machu Picchu. Strongly recommend you spend the night, so you can see the grand and glorious MP after the day-trippers depart, as well as avoid long MP entrance ticket lines. Though the Lodge was nice when I was there in 2011, a 2012 article in “Departures” described it as “a bit down on its ear.”
TIP: If the BSL is full and you can’t spend the night, I would not recommend spending the night in Aquas Calientes (the town at the base of MP’s mountain, from which you catch the bus up to MP), as it is dumpy.
I really wish I had known about this before going to Machu Picchu…
“Between Cusco and Machu Picchu, the geographically dramatic Sacred Valley abounds with views of the snow-capped Andes and largely unvisited Incan sites, including Moray, where agricultural terraces in concentric circles descend almost 150 feet.” (Departures 2012)
I also wish I had known about sophisticated, high-end Inkaterra, the Peruvian travel planner and hotelier that can arrange smooth, comfortable transport to/from Machu Picchu and other great areas of Peru, like the Sacred Valley. Look at Inkaterra’s beautiful hotel there…
“Stop for lunch at Hacienda Huayoccari (51-8/425-4197) where the estate’s owner, José Ignacio Lambarri Orihuela…opens his home to a select few, showing off one of the most impressive private collections of pre-Colombian artifacts.” (Departures 2012)
Other hotels in the Sacred Valley include:
“In Urubamba, one of the valley’s largest towns, Tamba del Inka…a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, opened its 128 rooms…on the banks of the Urubamba River in 2010…The lovely Sol y Luna meanwhile, recently added 15 deluxe casitas to its 25 gardened acres…with private patios, fireplaces…” (per Departures 2012) The photos on Sol y Luna’s web site look beautiful…a bit like Colorado in the summertime. Sol y Luna is one hour from the airport and Cuzco.