The trip starts in Cuzco today. The Inca capital is among the most attractive cities in South America, with much of the centre comprising colonial-era buildings with Inca foundations, and it is full of interesting museums, churches and pre-Columbian sites. To help acclimatise, we have a relaxed walking tour of the compact Inca capital this afternoon to discover its historic buildings and winding streets.
Today has been left free for us to explore the city in more detail. You may wish to take an optional visit to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the incredible ruins at Pisac, or a river-rafting trip can be arranged on the Urubamba River (normally Grade III, although river conditions vary throughout the season).
This morning we take the train from Cuzco to the greatest ruin in the world, the lost city of Machu Picchu. This is one of the architectural and engineering marvels of the ancient world, in a mountain setting of staggering immensity. The Spaniards never found it; the Incas left no records about it, so Machu Picchu remains a great enigma, a city lost for centuries in the jungle. We arrive in Aguas Calientes, a lively town in the valley below Machu Picchu, this afternoon, and the rest of the day is free for visits to the hot springs or shopping in the large craft market. For those who wish to walk to Machu Picchu, there is an optional daywalk along a section of the Inca Trail, taking in the ruins of Winay Wayna and the Sun Gate. Although this optional walk is available at no extra cost, it must be pre-booked since numbers are strictly limited and you should request this option at the time of booking.
Today we take an early bus up to Machu Picchu for a tour of the ruins at their quietest and most evocative (before the day trippers arrive from Cuzco). After free time to explore individually, we then board the train in the afternoon, following the steep-sided and winding Urubamba Valley before we climb up onto the high plateau close to Cuzco.
This morning we depart Cuzco on a flight to Quito via Lima. There is free time to relax and start our exploration of the city, which has one of the best-preserved colonial centres in South America.
We have a half-day city tour of Quito, one of the smaller and more attractive of the capitals of South America - 2,850m high in the western cordillera of the Andes. Quito is the second highest capital in the world, and as always at altitude, it is a good idea not to do anything too strenuous at first!
We return to Quito airport for the flight to Galapagos and the island of Baltra via Guayaquil. Our luggage will be taken to the boat, whilst we will take a short ferry crossing to Santa Cruz Island where we drive to the highlands to look for wild tortoises. We follow this with a visit to the Charles Darwin Centre, where we can learn about the ecology of the islands and visit the centre's turtle hatchery. After this visit, we board the boat at Puerto Ayora, the island's main town. As we won't see our luggage after landing on Baltra until this evening, please make sure that you bring your camera, sun cream and appropriate clothing: comfortable footwear for some short walks (possibly amongst grass), light clothes, a hat/cap and a light waterproof in case of a shower or mist.
Our Galapagos Cruise alternates between two itineraries and so for the next seven days, your specific itinerary in the Galapagos depends on the departure date of the trip (please ask your sales consultant if unsure). Itinerary A: Walk on the tiny Plazas Islands to see a cactus forest, land iguanas and seabirds, then cruise to the white sand beaches of Santa Fe . Itinerary B: A short walk on the tiny island of Chinese Hat before snorkelling with sea lions (and penguins if lucky!); on to the dark red beach of Isla Rabida to walk amongst spatter cones, pelicans, Blue-footed and Nazca boobies.
Itinerary A: A day at San Cristobal Island: the white sand beach, Blue-footed boobys and old cone of Cerro Brujo, giant tortoise at Galapaguera and crystal clear waters around the striking spear of Kicker Rock. Itinerary B: We start three days exploring the largest island of Isabela with an exploration of the mangroves at Los Tintoreras and walk to the huge 5-mile wide caldera on Sierra Negra volcano.
Itinerary A: Swim with sea lions and marine iguanas at the paradisiacal beach at Gardener Bay on Espanola (Hood) Island. In the afternoon, walk amongst Nazca and Blue-footed boobys and nesting Waved Albatross (in season) next to pounding surf at Punta Suarez. Itinerary B: Cruising round Isabela's west side, we're likely to see whales and dolphins. We land at Punta Moreno's swirling fresh lava flows and also explore the islets of Elizabeth Bay with the largest colony of penguins in the Galapagos.
Itinerary A: At Floreana Island snorkel in the spectacular sunken crater of Devil's Crown amongst thousands of fish. We wil then visit the lagoon at Punta Cormorant (often with flamingos) and Post Office Bay, the mailbox used by 18th Century whalers. Itinerary B: In 1954 Urbina Bay was uplifted 4 metres and we walk here amongst exposed coral heads, wandering giant tortoises and huge land iguanas. We'll then make an afternoon visit to Tagus Cove and Darwin Lake, directly opposite recently active Fernandina Volcano.
Itinerary A: To Dragon Hill, a nesting site for land iguanas with a large lagoon; dramatic Sullivan Bay with a walk on a huge lava flow only 100 years old before swimming from the white-sand beach in crystal clear waters. Itinerary B: Land at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina in the midst of a huge colony of Marine iguanas; the sea life is very rich here and supports a large sea lion and fur seal colony. We then cross the straights and explore the cliffs of Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela.
Itinerary A: Less-visited Genovesa (also called Tower) Island is home to an abundance of red-footed boobies, fur seals, storm petrels and Short-eared Owls. Here, we look for tropicbirds at Prince William Steps before snorkelling, whilst at Darwin Bay, Galapagos mockingbirds also await. Itinerary B: Excellent birding on Santiago (James) Island at Puerto Egas followed by an afternoon snorkel and a walk amongst incredible volcanic scenery up little Bartolome Island - cones, lava tubes and Pinnacle Rock.
Itinerary A: We explore the mangroves of Turtle Cove at dawn watching marine turtles rising for air; rays and herons fishing from the trees. Itinerary B: An early morning walk on North Seymour amidst Palo Santo trees and blue-footed booby colonies. Both itineraries: After a late breakfast we disembark for the journey back to Baltra to transfer to the airport and the flight back to the mainland. A short stop at Guayaquil is followed by what is often an exciting flight over the volcanoes of the Andes to Quito.
The tour ends in Quito today with those on group flights boarding their return flight to the UK.