The trip starts in Lima today. Those on group flights arrive this morning and will be transferred to our hotel, where rooms will be available in the early afternoon. There will be some free time before our afternoon tour of colonial and modern Lima. We visit the modern residential district of Lima and then explore the historical downtown area. We will discover the Plaza de Armas, cathedral and presidential palace as we take a short walk around the colonial centre, and we visit the incredible church of San Francisco, which houses one of the oldest libraries in the Americas and sits on top of a labyrinthine network of catacombs which still house the bones of Lima's wealthy 18th and 19th century residents.
We drive south from Lima today, visiting Pachacamac Fortress, the Incas' largest coastal city at the time of the conquest. We stop for a late lunch on fresh seafood at the attractive fishing village of Pucusana. A stroll around the village where the day's catch is displayed at the market and a boat ride around the bay (subject to weather conditions) offer great insights to a contemporary Peruvian coastal town. We continue southwards to the town of Paracas where we spend the night.
A short drive from our hotel takes us to the port where we board our launch to visit the world famous Ballestas Islands, a national park which contains the highest concentration of marine birds in the world. There are sea lions and numerous species of birds on the islands themselves and we will also see the Paracas Candelabra, a curious pre-Inca design on the cliff-face, only recognisable from the sea. We drive on to Nazca in the afternoon, stopping first at the interesting Ica archaeological museum, and visit the viewing platforms close to the famous Nazca Lines. These are one of the world's great archaeological mysteries, consisting of enormous figures and patterns etched in the desert sand, best seen from the elevated position of the viewing platforms. There should also be time for optional visits to the nearby Antonini archaeological museum, a pre-Inca cemetery, or the Nazca Aqueduct, which gives an insight into the Nazca civilisation's ingenious subterranean irrigation system.
Today we have a long drive (approx. 10 hrs) south through the coastal desert, with great views of the dunes and the Pacific Ocean, before we turn inland into the mountains on the road to Arequipa.
Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city set in a fertile oasis, with many historic buildings characterised by their use of white volcanic stone from the nearby Misti, whose dramatic cone dominates the town. In the morning we visit the Cathedral, the Jesuit church of La Compañia and the huge serene convent of Santa Catalina, which retains typical features from the 16th and 17th centuries and is a peaceful refuge for the nuns who still live here today.
A spectacular drive takes us to the Colca Canyon, one of the world's deepest canyons. On the way we pass volcanoes and will see almost certainly see vicuñas in the highlands before we cross the Patapampa Pass (4850m) which marks the descent into the canyon itself. The sight of the green and fertile terraces of the canyon as we take the winding road to the town of Chivay is a real contrast to the barren yet beautiful landscapes we have travelled through for most of the day. This is the first day where we may feel the effects of altitude - although we do not linger at the top of the pass we spend the night at around 3600m and so it is a good idea to take it easy on arrival in Chivay.
Today we have a full day exploring the Colca Canyon, starting with a visit to the Cruz del Condor, the best place to see the mighty Andean condors as they glide on the morning thermals. We also see ancient tombs which line the cliffs on one side of the canyon, and make stops in the villages along the way which house several interesting colonial churches. Depending on time, we may take a short walk along farm tracks to learn more about the agriculture on which the whole region is dependent. After a long day of exploration, an optional visit to the hot springs near Chivay this evening is a wonderful way to relax.
Today we drive through the mountains to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. En route we have opportunities to see vicuñas and possibly flamingos before making a short visit to the unique burial towers (chullpas) of Sillustani. The altitude here (3800m) makes physical effort very tiring and the evenings very cold so taking time to rest is highly recommended.
We have a full day on and around Lake Titicaca, visiting the descendants of the Uros Indians, who live on islands of floating reeds and, save for a few modest concessions to the modern world, still live as their ancestors would have done centuries ago. These days, although tourism has had a significant economic impact on the islands, the Indians still use a barter system to trade with those living on the mainland, and fishing and weaving remain key elements of their daily life. An afternoon of exploration with short walks is designed to highlight the culture of the indigenous groups who inhabit the small towns and villages alongside the lake.
Today we take a bus ride across the altiplano, the high plains separating the Andes from the jungles. Although it is quite a long drive (approx. 10hrs), it is interesting and often spectacular. There are scheduled stops along the route to visit some of the most interesting sites to help break up the day and we get a feeling for the immensity of the Andean landscapes. These include Pucara, a pre-Inca town, and La Raya Pass, the watershed and geographical dividing line between the altiplano and the Vilcanota Valley where Raqchi Inca temple is located. We arrive in Cuzco in the evening.
This morning we head out of Cuzco to the colourful handicraft market at Pisac, at the entrance to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. After some free time to browse the stalls, we take a walking tour of the huge Inca ruins above the village. After lunch, we drive down the valley to Ollantaytambo, where we visit the immense Inca fortress and explore the unique village whose streets still fillow the pre-conquest grid plan.
Today the group divides between those doing the Inca Trail and those staying in Cuzco. Please see below for the Inca Trail itinerary and infromation on trekking conditions. For those not taking the Inca Trail option, there is the chance for some optional rafting on the Urubamba River (approx. US$50) this morning before our return to Cuzco in the afternoon.
Day 13 - 14
For those not walking the Inca Trail these days are free in and around Cuzco, which is one of the most pleasant and interesting cities in South America, and an excellent place for shopping, eating and drinking as well as a variety of optional tours, including visits to the sites of Pikillacta and Tipon to the south of Cuzco, exploration of the colonial religious monuments in Cuzco, or hikes in the surrounding hills.
For most people the highlight of the trip is the visit to 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 depart Cuzco in the morning and take the train to the town of Aguas Calientes, where we arrive in the afternoon. The rest of the day has been left free to enjoy the hot springs or hunt for a bargain in the lively craft market. Those who have walked the Inca Trail will meet us in Aguas Calientes this evening.
In the morning, before the bulk of tourists arrive on the trains from Cuzco, we take the bus up to the citadel of Machu Picchu for a guided tour. The well-preserved Inca architecture, combined with its spectacular location on a mountain spur high above the Urubamba River, makes Machu Picchu one of the world's most impressive ruins. There will be plenty of free time to explore the site further before we board the board the train in the afternoon for the ride along the Urubamba River to Cuzco, where we spend the night.
We have a full-day tour combining the highlights in and around the city. Outside the town are Inca ruins, notably the fortress of Sacsayhuaman where the Inca armies made their last stand against the Conquistadores. In the centre we visit the Plaza de Armas, and many examples of the famous Inca stonework like those of the Coricancha sun temple located in the Santo Domingo church and Monastery.
Today has been left free to relax and enjoy the many attractions of Cuzco. For those that would like, it is possible to visit the cathedral, San Blas Church and a religious art museum (sites not visited the previous day) on a combined entrance fee ticket for approx. US$10.
We leave Cuzco early today as we take a short flight to Puerto Maldonado, a small town in the rainforest. On arrival, we transfer to the dock for a boat trip to our lodge in the Tambopata Reserve - this journey takes between 1½ and 3 hours depending on the lodge used. On the way we may see caimans, river turtles and waterfowl. After some time to settle in, we will take a short walk along the forest trails near the lodge to look for nocturnal animals.
Activities today will vary according to the lodge used, but will generally include a mixture of walks along the forest trails, time spent in canoes to explore rainforest lakes, and the opportunity to get high into the canopy for a completely different view of the forest. The resident guides are normally around in the evening to answer questions, and tonight we take a canoe out onto the river as we search for caiman by torchlight.
We return to Puerto Maldonado after breakfast today and board our flight back to Lima, where the trip ends. Depending on our arrival time, there may be time for last-minute shopping or optional excursions this afternoon before the group flights depart in the evening.