"So immense is the scale on which Nature works in these regions that
it is only when viewed from a great distance that a spectactor can in
any degree comprehend the relation of the parts to the stupendous
-- W.H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Peru, 1847
Ecuador and Peru offer the possibility of, within just two or three
weeks, simultaneously challenging your wildlife, landscape,
architecture, and people photography skills.
In the Andean highlands you can photograph a civilization built on the
slopes of granite mountains where people can look up 3000' from their
frontyards to the snow-capped peaks and from their backyards look down
3000'into a canyon. The traditions and some of the stone buildings go
back thousands of years. On the eastern side of the Andes you will
find the authentic Amazon basin where Indian guides show you diverse
but elusive wildlife that will give your 600/4 lens with teleconverter
a good workout. In the colonial cities you'll find 400-year-old
Spanish architecture and streets. In the Galapagos you'll take animal
portraits with a 50mm lens.
Europe, Asia, and North America offer two mutually exclusive
alternatives: spectacular landscape or interesting cultural
attractions. We have built our towns in flat areas and abandoned the
high mountains as wilderness. Here in the U.S., for example, it is too
expensive and difficult to build roads and houses in the Sierra or the
Rockies so we've left them (mostly) alone. By contrast in equatorial
South America people needed to climb to 10-14,000' above sea level in
order to grow staple crops. Thus the 1000-year-old city and dramatic
mountainside are in one and the same location.
This mini-guide is divided into the following parts:
If you're short of time and want everything to be hassle-free, Wildland Adventures will arrange
everything for you from their Seattle office. Wildland's local
English-speaking guides will meet you at airports, hotels, the dock,
etc. If you have a lot of time and want to go local consider joining
South American Explorers Club, www.saexplorers.org. They have
clubhouses in Quito, Lima, and Cusco. I'm a member of the Explorers
Club but chose to let Wildland arrange everything for my trip to this
When to Go
The sea around the Galapagos can get cold (66-68 degrees!) and rough
starting in June. February might be the best month but any time between
January and April is usually pretty good, with sea temps 74-76 degrees.
Ecuador is at its best from June through September; the rest of the year
is "rainy season" and it can be somewhat chilly and damp in higher
elevations. The mountains of Peru dry out a little sooner, with April
through October being the best time to visit.
Peru is nearly as large as Alaska, home to more than 27 million people,
and contains some of the most interesting historical sites in South
America. Nearly everyone who goes to the Galapagos visits Machu Picchu
in southern Peru in the same trip because they're in the same
neighborhood. In terms of geographical distance this is a bit like
deciding that as long as you're going to Seattle you might as well see
It is almost impossible to avoid flying into the sprawling capital city
of Lima, home to nearly one third of Peru's population, and spending at
least one night here. Lima has good museums and important colonial
architecture. Stay in Miraflores, the rich Peruvians' suburb, and go to
the movies in the shopping mall built into the seaside cliffs. I stayed
in the Hotel Jose Antonio, Avenida 28 de Julio 398, and it was perfectly
pleasant with helpful staff. One good thing about Lima is that it is at
sea level so altitude sickness is not an issue.
Lima has a reputation for crime so it is best to take taxis at night and
hire a tourist guide if you are going to walk around with an
This is what draws everyone to Peru. Machu Picchu was a lost city of
the Incas until 1911 when Yale professor Hiram Bingham began clearing
the jungle around it. Machu Picchu is a bit to low in elevation to have
been ideally suited for growing crops and other standard Inca
activities. It might have been a seasonal retreat for high-ranking
Incas. Despite the fact that Machu Picchu is not all that typical of
Inca lifestyle it is well preserved and in a mysterious location so it
is where all the tourists want to go.
Access is via a short flight to
Cusco, a brutal 11,000' above sea level, then a train ride through the
Urubamba Valley (9,000' above sea level) for about four hours until you
reach the town of Aguas Calientes, only 6500' above sea level. You
might be tempted to rest for a few days in Cusco before proceeding to
Machu Picchu but if you have started in Lima it is much better to rush
as quickly as possible to the lower elevations of Machu Picchu and then
come back up towards Cusco as you acclimate.
If you want to make reservations far in advance and pay $500+ per night
you can stay in the Macu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, at 8000' above sea
level and right next to the ruin. Otherwise you'll stay in the town of
Aguas Calientes and take a bus up to Machu Picchu. Unless you are
acclimated to the high altitude you'll probably sleep better in Aguas
Calientes and the town has a lot more going on than the ruin. There is
a lively public plaza, shops, a choice of restaurants, and hotels
ranging in price from $20 to $180 per night.
This was in many ways my favorite among the spots that I visited in
Peru. The Urubamba Valley has Inca ruins that are not crowded with
tourists. The Valley is also a good place to see Peruvian highlanders
living in traditional ways: growing crops, weaving, etc. There are
hotels, restaurants, and activities for tourists but most of the
activity in the Valley is by locals for locals. In the dry season, when
the weather is just about perfect, you could easily spend a week in
the Urubamba Valley riding bicycles, taking walks around Inca ruins,
riding horses, and visiting small towns. Don't miss Moray, a series of
concentric circular terraces built into a depression where the Incas
tested crops in the different amounts of sunshine falling on different
areas. Everywhere in the Valley you'll see people farming terraces that
were originally built by the Incas.
If you want city services, stay in the town of Urubamba (pop. 8000).
The town of Yucay (pop. 3000) is much quieter and has a nice courtyard
hotel called Posada del Inca. The regular rooms at Posada del Inca are
dark and crummy but the two-room suites are exceptionally nice.
The provincial capital of Cusco is a real city with a population of
about 350,000. This 11,000' city, surrounded by mountains that rise to
nearly 16,000', was the capital of the Inca Empire and has been an
important Spanish colonial center as well. Due to earthquakes and wars
not much remains from Inca times so mostly what you see are Spanish
buildings, throngs of tourists, and armies of annoying persistent
beggars, vendors, and touts. Cusco is not a place where a gringo can
stroll quietly. Come here after acclimatizing yourself to high
elevations in the Urubamba Valley or elsewhere in Peru. Stay one or two
nights to see the museums and the cathedral and eat in some unusual
restaurants. Prepare to pay $100+ per night for a hotel near the
Going to the Jungle
As long as you're in the region you might consider visiting the Amazon
jungle. Most people associate the Amazon with Brazil but in fact
you're much better off visiting the jungle in eastern Ecuador or Peru.
By the time it gets to Brazil the Amazon is an enormously wide river,
the natives have cleared the banks to ranch cattle, and generally the
local flavor is gone. The tributaries that reach up into the Andes
are smaller, the natives are more native, access is more difficult and
therefore the habitat has been less altered.
This isn't a great region for photography unless you have a lot of
time, dedication, and equipment. Ruben, my guide in Tambopata,
related the story of a BBC camera crew going up to the top of a
platform all day every day for two months to get some of the footage
for a 30-minute show.
In the peak tourist season of May through August the Peruvian Amazon
is subject to monthly cold fronts coming up from Argentina and Chile.
The temperatures can drop to 45 degrees at night and rise to only 60
during the daytime. Bring a wind-proof jacket, head and ear
protection, and several layers or you'll freeze to death on the boat
rides up and down the rivers.
Rather than slather yourself constantly in insect repellant, you might
wish to invest in DEET-impregnated clothing such as the Buzz-Off brand
of shirts and pants. Using liquid repellant entails a risk of eroding
the markings on plastic cameras and other gear.
If physical comfort is high on your list of vacation priorities choose
your lodge very carefully. Nearly all lodges are off the power grid
and generate power only sparingly in the evenings to recharge
batteries. No power means no air conditioning, no heating, no hot
water, no lighting for reading at night, etc.
There are a lot of different lodges in Ecuador and Peru offering various
degrees of comfort and various challenges in getting there. The
landscape changes all the time so it is best to talk to the folks
at Wildland Adventures who've actually
been to some recently and find a lodge that suits your temperament.
I stayed at the Tambopata Research Center, which is remarkable for its
concentration of Macaws, up to 200 of which may be seen in the early
morning hours at a clay lick. One disappointment was that the lodge did
not have any comfortable chairs for reading so it wasn't a great place
to relax and make friends because tourists, when not out walking, would
retreat to their rooms (cold and damp in May). Most people show up in
large groups of family and friends and they all seemed to be having a
South America's largest lake and one of the world's highest lakes with
commercial boat services is a one-day trip by bus or train south-east
from Cusco. Lake Titicaca is 12,500' above sea level and shared by Peru
and Bolivia. One interesting way to go home from Peru would be to spend
a few days in a hotel on the Bolivian side of the lake and then grab a
bus to La Paz, just a couple of hours away, to fly back to the U.S.
Arequipa and Canon del Colca
Directly south of Cusco, on the way to Chile, is the colonial city of
Arequipa. If you're coming up from Chile by bus this is a good place to
get acclimated to thin air, sitting as it does around 8000' above sea
level. Arequipa is also close to the Canon del Colca, at 10,000' deep
about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and filled with Andean Condors.
West of Cusco, along the coastal highway, are the Nazca Lines, geometric
and animal figures painted in the desert circa 2000 years ago. These
can be 500' wide and are viewed by taking a ride in a small plane from
the Nazca airport.
North of Lima
Heading towards Ecuador there are some of the most important pre-Inca
ruins in the country, as well as Peru's finest beach resorts.
The second-smallest country in South America, about the size of
Colorado, Ecuador offers tremendous diversity of terrain, culture, and
wildlife. The land is flat on the Pacific coast in the west, flat on
the Amazon plain in the east, with the 20,000'-high ridge of the Andes
in the middle. The people have grown from 700,000 at independence in
1830 to more than 13 million in 2004, making Ecuador the most densely
populated country in South America. Thanks to the fact that much of
the country is inhospitably high or inhospitably low and humid the
animals haven't disappeared. In fact, one sixth of the world's
bird species make homes here.
Quito is the second highest capital city in Latin America (after La Paz,
Bolivia) at about 9500' above sea level. Quito was the capital for the
northern region of the Inca empire but the old city's UNESCO World
Heritage status rests on Spanish colonial constructions. Quito is home
to around 1.5 million people.
Quito has a reputation for pickpockets and muggings. Take taxis at
night. Hire a guide if you are going to walk around with expensive
To see antiques and crafts, stop into Ag Joyeria, Juan Leon Mera
N22-24 at Carrion, and the adjacent boutique.
Good hotel options: Hotel Sierra Madre, Cafe Cultura. If you want
something cheap and near the airport, stay at Australian Chris
Halliday's hostel, www.theandresrange.com, 593 2
3303 752. There is a new hotel in the old city, Patio Andaluz, but
most of the services that you'll need as a tourist are in the new
The equator's presence in Ecuador is celebrated in a suburban park
called "Mitad del Mundo"
Otavalo and Surroundings
This is an easy area to visit as an overnight from Quito and Otavalo
itself is very popular for its market.
South of Quito is the famous 200 km. "Quilotoa Circuit" of volcanoes,
small towns, and craters, as well as the signature cone volcano of
The coastal city of Guayaquil is the commercial capital of Ecuador.
It is hot, humid, and has some dangerous areas. Nonetheless if your
travel plans necessitate stopping here for a day or two don't despair.
You could spend an entire day doing street photography on the modern
whimsical Malecon 2000. Other attractions include a cemetery with
interesting monuments, a city park with land iguanas, the usual array
of big-city markets, etc.
Towards the border with Peru are some of Ecuador's most pleasant
colonial towns. The elevations are a bit lower and if you've got the
time it might make sense to stop in Cuena (8000' above sea level), for
example, before heading north to Quito. Ingapira, Ecuador's most
important Inca ruin, is in this region.
Health and Safety
While preparing for your trip you may read disturbing news reports
from Ecuador or Peru. There may be protests, demonstrations, or
strikes. Don't be put off by these stories. Crowds in Latin America
don't tend to turn violent the way a comparable crowd in Africa or an
Arab country might. You're not going to get murdered and have your
relatives back home watching your mutilated body being dragged through
the streets. This is not Iraq. At worst your taxi or bus will be
delayed by a road block for a few hours.
Islamic terrorism is not a risk in Ecuador or Peru.
Street crime is a problem in the big cities, especially Quito and
Lima. Leave the Rolex at home and if you're not with a guide leave
valuables in the hotel safe. Take radio taxis at night.
Malaria risk tends to be local in the jungle. Some areas are known to
be free of malaria and others are potentially risky. The Center for
Disease Control doesn't distinguish among areas of the Amazon basin,
however, and issues a blanket recommendation to take anti-malaria
pills. Doxycycline is one remedy and it makes your skin more
sensitive to sunburn. The other pills, e.g., Malarone and Larium,
tend to give you nausea and generally make you feel awful, which is a
problem if you're proceeding to the high areas where you won't be sure
whether your nausea is altitude sickness requiring immediate treatment
or merely the side effect of your antimalaria drugs. The Tambopata
jungle area that I visited in 2004 was free of malaria and none of the
guides or resident researchers were taking pills.
You really must avoid all insect bites due to the risk in South
America of contracting leishmaniasis, which is carried by sand flies.
Two months after you return home you'll find that this parasite has
generated some little ulcers poking up from your skin. Your doctor
will be completely clueless of course. Eventually you'll learn that
the treatment is 60 injections, two per day for 30 days, of the heavy
metal antimony. In the U.S. this will cost about $7,000 so if you
don't have health insurance you might find yourself returning to Peru
for treatment, which is free to Peruvians and dirt cheap for everyone
else. Wear long pants and long sleeves in the evenings and spray
yourself with DEET for good measure.
To avoid food poisoning in any Third World country just say "no" to
lettuce, even in better restaurants. The Spanish for "without
lettuce" is sin lechuga. It is very difficult to purify
lettuce even with conscientious washing and disinfecting. Use bottled
water for brushing your teeth.
Your skin will take a beating from the high altitude sunshine and
dryness. Bring lots of high-test sunscreen, a broad-brimmed hat, and
In jetting from sea level to 9,000' (Quito) or 11,000' (Cusco) the
best that you can hope for is several days of weakness. Most people
will also get a headache, have trouble sleeping, develop a nosebleed,
and have difficulty digesting food. A minority will develop
life-threatening altitude sickness, which can only be treated by
descending at least 1500'.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness is by starting no higher than
7000' and spending a couple of nights at that first stop. Then try to
sleep no more than 1000' higher than the night before. In order to
avoid repeated acclimitizations construct your itinerary so that you
don't go up and down too much. If you're going to see Machu Picchu,
the Urubamba Valley, and Cusco, for example, fly to Cusco and
immediately embark on the 4-hour journey to Aguas Calientes, which is
the town just below the Machu Picchu ruin and is only at 6500' above
sea level. Spend two or three nights in Aguas Calientes while doing
day-hikes in the surrounding mountains. Then proceed by train to
Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba Valley at 9000'. Spend two or three
nights in one of the excellent hotels in this region while riding
horses, doing tours, and taking hikes in the mountains above. Finish
out your tour of the area with a night or two in Cusco. From Cusco
you can proceed to the even higher elevations of Lake Titicaca and the
various towns in Bolivia.
Whenever you move to a higher elevation drink a lot of water and
Gatorade and eat very lightly.
[If a $400+ nightly tab doesn't bother you there is a hotel in Cusco
that can pump additional oxygen into their rooms, yielding an
effective altitude of perhaps 7000'. This is the Hotel Monasterio and
is excellent in all other respects.]
A GSM mobile phone from the U.S. will work in Peru but not, as of
2004, in Ecuador. Ecuador has a GSM network but no roaming agreements
with U.S. carriers such as T-Mobile.
Internet cafes are popular with locals in both Ecuador and Peru at a
cost of $1-2 per hour. Many Internet cafes also offer booths in which
you can make international phone calls for about 25 cents per minute.
Many Internet cafes and camera shops will take a digital camera's
memory card and burn the contents to CD-ROM.
Flights to and Within South America
When researching this article I took 7 flights within Ecuador and
Peru. Aerogal from Quito to the Galapagos and back to Guayaquil
operates old Boeing 727s but they seemed well-maintained and were on
time. One flight actually left 45 minutes early due to a planned
runway closure in Guayaquil. The Aero Continente flight from
Guayaquil to Lima was cancelled. The substitute AeroPostal flight was
4 hours late, resulting in an arrival at the hotel in Lima at 5:30 am.
The Aero Continente flight from Cusco to Lima left 90 minutes
early... just about the time that I arrived at the airport. The tour
company claimed that they had confirmed with the airline and the
airline claimed that they had notified the tour company of the early
departure. All their later flights to Lima were full. It was a grim
In choosing an airline keep in mind that the Andes Altiplano has some
of the world's most challenging airports. Cusco, for example, is at
11,000' and a typical mid-day temperature is 20C, much hotter than a
standard atmosphere at that altitude. This results in a density
altitude of 14,000'. Aircraft don't perform their best in thin air even
with the miracle of the jet engine and its compressor. Airfares are
pretty low within Peru and travel by road can take days, resulting in
flights that are invariably full. A conversation with one pilot
revealed that his Boeing 757 out of Cusco was at maximum gross takeoff
weight despite having only 2.5 hours of fuel on board. The plane
climbed reasonably well but if one of its decades-old engines had
failed after takeoff it might not have been easy to steer the plane
around the peaks and continue climbing.
The only airline in Peru that has modern planes and high standards
seems to be LAN Peru, a subsidiary of LAN Chile. Their Airbus 320
planes are a bit cramped but most flights are only an hour or two.
LAN Peru flies more or less everywhere so it might be wise to ensure
that any trip you book is exclusively with LAN.
For getting to Ecuador and Peru from the U.S. the airline with
the most flights is American Airlines from Miami (I stopped on South
Beach and took a few snapshots) and to some extent
Dallas. Continental also flies to most Latin American destinations
from Houston. Overnight flights are popular with business people who
don't want to lose a day of work and for making connections within the
U.S. most airlines strive to get passengers into Florida or Texas by
9:00 or 10:00 am. This means that you might be leaving Lima at
midnight or 1:30 am.
As of 2004 Lima was subject to long lines for immigration in both
directions. It is not uncommon to be standing on line for 1.5 hours.
If you're in Cusco, for example, you can avoid this situation by
making your way south to La Paz, Bolivia and flying back to the
U.S. from there. (It would not be a good idea to fly into La
Paz from the U.S. due to its 12,000' altitude.)
You'll want binoculars for the Galapagos and the jungle. Binoculars
are specified as NxM, e.g., "8x42". The first anumber,
N, refers to the magnification. The second number, M,
refers to the size of the front lens element and a larger number
generally indicates more light-gathering capability. An 8x42 pair,
for example, offers 8x magnification, which is comparable to a 400mm
telephoto lens on a 35mm camera, and a 42mm lens diameter.
Most people aren't steady enough to handhold more than 8x
magnification and in the Galapagos you sure don't need more than that
because oftentimes you're practically stepping on the animals. If
you're using binoculars in twilight or for astronomical observations
you might want a 50mm front element or even larger if you can manage
the weight. Most people, however, find that 40 or 42mm is adequately
Magnification and lens size aren't the only relevant factors in
choosing binoculars. If you wear eyeglasses you will want "long eye
relief" so that the full image is viewable even when your eyes are
kept back from the eyecups by an intervening eyeglass. For wildlife
viewing you want "wide angle" or "wide field of view" so that you have
a better chance of spotting birds and other moving creatures. In the
jungle you'll need a waterproof and fogproof design.
Minolta makes a remarkably good binocular series for about $150 called
the "Activa". These are waterproof, fogproof, wide angle, long eye
review, and available in 8x40. They are reasonably light but not
especially compact. If your interpupillary distance is narrow you'll
appreciate the fact that the two halves come together very close. One
of the $1000 German binoculars will yield a slightly better view but
if you're already laden with expensive camera gear it is nice to have
some binoculars that are cheap enough so you don't have to worry about
In the jungle many of the birds will be hard to study without much
higher magnification, e.g., 15-20X. Usually your guide will carry a
tripod and (cheap Bushnell) spotting scope so that you don't have to
worry about preparing for this requirement. If you're interesting in
looking at small birds in detail, though, you might consider the
electronically image-stabilized binoculars made by Canon and Fuji
(Nikon remarkets Fuji's IS binoculars in some markets). These tend to
Ecuador and Peru together are huge, comparable in area to Alaska. It is
a mistake to try to pack too much into a 10-day trip especially given
that much of the time you might be physically uncomfortable due to
seasickness on a boat, lack of temperature control in the jungle,
altitude sickness in the Andes, etc. Add a few extra days to rest
compared to what you might do within the U.S.
Major Sights in 25 days
Day 1: fly to Lima
Day 2: early morning 1-hour flight from Lima to Cusco, immediate
4-hour taxi/bus/train transfer to Aguas Calientes (elev. 6500'), below
Days 3-4: hiking a bit on the trails surrounding Machu Picchu
(elev. 8000'-10,000'), returning each night to sleep in Aguas Calientes
Day 5-7: 1.5-hour train ride to Ollantaytambo and possible
30-minute taxi to another town within the Urubamba Valley,
a.k.a. "Sacred Valley", all at about 9000'. Spend the days touring
Inca ruins, hiking, horseback riding, and relaxing.
Day 8: 1-hour taxi or bus ride to Cusco at 11,000'. Look around
at the Colonial architecture and enjoy the good restaurants.
Day 9-11: fly to Puerto Maldonado and spend some time looking at
birds and monkeys in the Amazon Basin rainforest
Day 12: fly to the Galapagos via Lima and Guayaquil
Day 13-19: boat-based tour of Galapagos
Day 20: fly from Galapagos to Quito at 9000' for another bout of
altitude adjustment (add a mid-level stop in the southern town of Cuenca
if you have another few days and want to adjust to the Quito elevation
Day 21: look around in Quito
Day 22-25: tour the small towns, natural areas, etc. that surround
Quito, then fly back home from Quito