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Planning a trip to Machu Picchu, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Washington Post

by Carol Sottili

Who: Sally Otis, 29, and her husband, Brad Pittack, 29, of Cheverly

Where: Machu Picchu, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Why: To celebrate their 30th birthdays

When: April 2010 for 10 to 14 days Budget: $5,000-$7,000

"Brad and I have a passion for travel and enjoy getting off the beaten path to gain a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures. We're open to staying in hostels or low- to mid-range hotels."

Sally Otis and Brad Pittack couldn't have chosen two more intriguing yet controversial tourist destinations. Both Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands are popular places for avid travelers to cross off their "been there" lists. More than 300,000 people visit the 500-year-old ruins at Machu Picchu each year. Nearly 175,000 visit the Galapagos, an archipelago about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, known for endemic species that were studied by Charles Darwin.

Conservationists fear that tourists may be endangering the unique qualities that make these places so attractive to visitors in the first place. So the ambitious goal is to see these places with minimal disruption and a rather modest budget.

Right off the bat, airfare is going to take a nice chunk out of the kitty. Taca offers the cheapest fares: Expect to pay about $1,000 per person to fly from Dulles to Cuzco, Peru (overnight stop in Lima required), and then on to Quito, Ecuador, with return from Quito. Add an extra $400 for the flights from Quito to the Galapagos; your Galapagos tour operator typically arranges this, but if you go it alone, Tame (http://www.tame.com.ec) and Aerogal (http://www.aerogal.com.ec) fly this route.

And we're off.

Day 1: Arrive in Lima at about 8:30 p.m. There is a layover of about nine hours before the flight for Cuzco departs. Stay in the airport (it gets decent reviews on http://www.sleepinginairports.net) or at a nearby hotel: La Hacienda Peruana Hostel (http://habitacionesenlimaperu.blogspot.com), about five minutes away, has an airport shuttle and double rooms for about $58.

Days 2 and 3: Arrive in Cuzco. Most travelers stay here for at least a couple of days to acclimate to the 11,000-foot elevation. There are plenty of inexpensive hotels in the city. Niños Hotel (http://www.ninoshotel.com), for example, is $44 a night double, and profits go to child aid projects. Cuzco, the continent's oldest inhabited city, offers wonderful architecture, including the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, which took 100 years to build, and many examples of Incan architecture, including the Coricancha temple.

Days 4-8: Start the four-day, three-night hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Most tourists take the train (http://www.perurail.com) from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, but about 200 start the 28-mile trek each day. You must be accompanied by a registered guide. Mike Weston, who runs Andean Travel Web (http://www.andeantravelweb.com), an online guide to adventure travel in Peru, is also manager of Peru Treks (http://www.perutreks.com), which offers guided Inca Trail hikes for $465 per person. "This trek needs to be reserved three or four months in advance since the trek permits issued by the government are limited in number and sell out pretty quickly," Weston warned in an e-mail.

Peru Treks can also arrange homestays and applies some of its profits to community projects. Other groups that offer guided treks include Inca Trail Reservations (http://www.incatrailreservations.com) for $450 per person and SAS Travel Peru (http://www.sastravelperu.com) for $500. The price typically includes the bus from Cuzco to the trailhead, guide, entrance fees, meals, tents, porters, transfers and the train back to Cuzco. You'll spend only a half-day in Machu Picchu, which should be plenty of time to wander through the ruins. Transfer back to Cuzco for an overnight stay.

Day 9: Flight to Quito, arriving at about 1 p.m. An overnight stay is required, as all flights to the Galapagos leave in the morning. Hostal Isla Isabela (http://www.hostalislaisabela.com) has a good reputation and costs $48 a night double. Quito offers lovely colonial architecture and interesting markets. The Teleferiqo cable car is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions; it takes tourists several thousand feet up the slope of the Pichincha volcano.

Days 10-13: Fly to the Galapagos. For those with a couple of weeks to spare, it's possible to see the islands without being part of a tour, but you must be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide to visit most national park sites. There are local storefront agencies, especially in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, that offer day tours, and inexpensive hotels are easy enough to find. But with limited time, it's far more efficient to book a tour.

Tourists either take a cruise or do a land tour. Cruises are more popular, because passengers get to see more islands and wildlife. They are also often more expensive, especially if you book on one of the larger luxury vessels. Land tours are typically cheaper, but you don't see as many islands.

The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (http://www.igtoa.org) certifies that its members are committed to sustainable tourism and has produced a series of videos to educate tourists before they go. "Tourism is a two-edged sword, and it's important for travelers to pick the right operator," said the group's executive director, Dave Blanton, in an e-mail. The organization does not represent companies based in Ecuador, and many members specialize in more upscale itineraries. Expedition Trips (877-412-8527, http://www.expeditiontrips.com), an association member, books reasonably priced cruises, starting at about $1,230 per person for a four-day outing aboard a small yacht.

A local company, SharkSky Ecoadventures (http://www.sharksky.com), owned by a native of the Galapagos, has a four-night adventure tour, which includes kayaking, biking and horseback riding or volcano hiking, for $1,025 per person double.

Day 14: Fly back to Quito. You'll have to stay overnight again, because the flight to Washington leaves at 7:30 a.m.

Day 15: Fly home.

Cost: About $6,400, leaving $600 for food and incidentals.