Took grandkids to Ecuador and Peru


With our two grandsons, Louis and Victor, ages 14 and 12, my wife, Monica, and I took a trip to Ecuador, including the Galápagos Islands, and Peru, particularly the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, in March ’05.

We joined a tour arranged by Alki Tours (6417-A Fauntleroy Way SW, Seattle, WA 98136; 206/935-6848, www.alkitours.com) for $3,344 per person. This included all airfares, the cruise package, hotels (with breakfasts), most of the lunches and evening meals, and taxes.

After an overnight stay in Quito, Ecuador, we flew to the island of Baltra, the only island in the Galápagos that is not included in the national park system. During WWII it accommodated a U.S. naval base since it is in a strategic location for protecting the western end of the Panama Canal.

We cruised around the islands aboard our very comfortable ship, Coral I, operated by Klein Tours of Quito (e-mail ecuador@kleintours. com.ec). The Coral I had recently been refurbished by cutting her in two from stem to stern, widening her by 10 feet and adding about 30 feet in length.

The Ecuadorian government is going to great lengths to preserve this unique area, with limits on immigration, a program to eradicate nonnative animal and plant species, licensing of all guides and tour ships and a limit on the number of visitors allowed each year.

Since we had about 20 fellow travelers on board, we needed two guides (16 people maximum per guide). Our two, Julio and Fernando, from Klein Tours, were both Ecuadorian natives, although only Julio was born in the Galápagos.

Our Galápagos tour was both exhaustive and exhausting, since we were taken on two or three trips on pangas (Zodiac rafts) each day from the ship to one of the islands. Then it was back to the Coral I for a meal and, in the heat of the afternoon, a rest or nap. While we ate or rested, the captain headed the ship around to the next island to be ready for yet another landing.

In all, we visited seven islands, including Isabela, where the Sierra Negra Volcano has recently sprung into life again, and Santa Cruz, where the Charles Darwin Research Station is situated.

We saw a plethora of unusual wildlife, including both land and marine iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobie birds, flightless cormorants and the only penguins living in the wild in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, at the research station we had to pay homage to Lonesome George, the huge tortoise which is billed as the rarest animal in the world because he is the only one of his species still alive.

Finally, we left the islands and flew to Quito, where we had a day touring the “2-mile-high” city and witnessed the changing of the guards at the Presidential Palace.

After an overnight stay, we flew to the Peruvian capital of Lima, continuing by air to the 12,000-foot-high city of Cusco in the Sacred Valley, where we joined a coach tour with Coltur (www.coltur.com.pe).

During our tour along the valley, we encountered many aspects of Peruvian country life, including women in the fields tending groups of llamas and dressed in traditional costume. At Ollantaytambo, we climbed high in the archaeological ruins.

With Jaime, our very knowledgeable guide, we also were treated to the hospitality of a local home, where we sampled a sort of homemade beer as well as guinea pig roasted on a spit.

The next day we caught an early train to Agua Calientes and then a bus to the incredible structures of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, we encountered rain and fog, but this did not detract from our enjoyment of the ruins.
Then it was back on the train to Cusco and our 5-star hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection Sacred Valley (www.casa-andina.com), in the suburb of Yanahuara, Urubamba. Local artists were selling their wares right on the grounds.

In the morning we flew back to Lima. Throughout our trip, each of us wore around our necks a special “pouch” to keep our passports, airline tickets and entry documents safe. While we were at baggage claim in the airport, Louis realized that he had left his document pouch in the pocket of his airplane seat.

We immediately contacted security, and the official phoned back to the plane, but by that time the pouch had vanished, his passport and exit paperwork along with it. Fortunately, our Alki Tours guide Tyson had kept control of our return tickets.

When we got to our hotel, we contacted the U.S. Embassy in Lima regarding the lost passport and postponed our return flights to Monday. A tour of Lima had been planned for the afternoon; it had to be led by the coach driver while our official Coltur guide, Jose, took Louis and me in a taxi across town to talk to the Tourist Police.

Jose explained our predicament to the officer in charge. It was a real blessing to have him translate the interview for us. Eventually, we got our piece of paper, and Jose advised us that it was customary to leave the official a “tip” for his dedication to duty.

On Saturday, after the rest of the tour group had left, we walked the streets of Lima’s Miraflores district and found a photo shop that provided us with six passport photos for six pesos (about $2).

During the weekend, I was in frequent contact with the duty officer at the embassy. I had kept a copy of Louis’ passport in my bag, which made it easier for her to “grease the skids.”

On Easter Sunday everything was closed down in the city to celebrate Eastertide, so we took a taxi into central Lima and visited the Gold Museum, then joined a large gathering celebrating Easter. (The crowd was overseen by police manning a water cannon and a soldier behind the gun of an armored car.)

On Monday morning we were met at our hotel by Maruja, another guide from Coltur, who accompanied us in a taxi to the U.S. Embassy, where we paid our $70 and eventually received a new passport for Louis.

Then it was off in a taxi to the Peruvian Immigration office to get the necessary exit papers. This took a while, but with our paperwork complete, Maruja escorted us back to Miraflores where we all had a well-earned dinner at Tony Roma’s on the seafront.

That night we caught the red-eye to Houston, where we had to go through U.S. Immigration. Of course, the new passport caused some consternation, as it didn’t appear to be in the records, so we were whisked off to another area where the officer eventually found the new records in plenty of time for us to catch our final flight to Seattle.

On this trip, we found the Peruvian people very friendly, and, in our case, our tour guides Jose and Maruja could not have done more for us.

If I can draw any conclusions from our adventures, they are these:

• Never keep all of your documents in a single container.
• Never place anything valuable in the airline seat pockets.
• Keep photocopies of your documents away from the originals and in the possession of a companion, if possible.
• Use reliable tour companies. Alki Tours of Seattle (thanks to Tyson), Klein Tours (thanks to Julio and Fernando) and Coltur (thanks to Jose and Maruja) get my highest recommendations.
• Have a debit card available and keep it in a safe place. Many places, including the U.S. embassies, insist on cash, not credit cards.

DOUG BADGER
Federal Way, WA