Galapagos and Peru
Machu Picchu sits high in the Andes. (Photo: Wayna and Machu Picchu image by Towards Ithaca from Fotolia.com )
Peru and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador are two of the best-known destinations in South America. Peru encompasses large portions of the desert coastline along the South Pacific as well as the towering Andes Mountains and swathes of dense jungle in the Amazon. In contrast, the tiny archipelago constituting the Galapagos Islands sits more than 500 miles from mainland Ecuador, hidden away in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Peru boasts the Machu Picchu ruins, built by the ancient Inca in the Andean highlands. This South American country also features the Nazca Lines, a series of monumental sand etchings in the southern desert. To the east lies Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable bodies of water in the world. There's also the Colca Canyon outside of Arequipa. Trekking is popular in the north near Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca. Farther inland, the steamy rain forest offers visitors a chance to see exotic wildlife and primitive tribes.
Galapagos has several main islands where tourists spend the majority of their time. Santa Cruz is the most developed island, featuring the tourist-friendly town of Puerto Ayora. Santa Cruz is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station as well as the National Park Tortoise Reserve. San Cristobal has the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a secondary tourist hub. There's also the San Cristobal Interpretation Center, which allows visitors to get a better understanding of the Galapagos Islands in terms of history and biology. Isabela is the third-largest island, and while there's very little tourism infrastructure, the island's Sierra Negra Volcano stands out as a signature excursion for hiking groups.
Tour agencies operating out of the United States might be easier to deal with, but they also tend to charge more. Peruvian agencies usually offer similar services at cheaper rates, but it helps to know some Spanish when arranging a trip.
Frommer's Travel Guide recommends Adventure Life, a US company specializing in South American tours. Choose from options including organized mountain biking, rafting and rain forest eco-lodge expeditions. This organization has non-profit ties aimed at giving back to local communities. Frommer's also suggests checking out Peruvian tour agencies such as Explorandes and SAS Travel Peru, both of which offer excursions in Cusco, Huaraz, Puno and the Amazon.
Tour companies abound for travel to the Galapagos Islands, spanning the gamut of services, from budget trips to luxury cruises. Frommer's recommends Klein Tours, one of the oldest and most experienced companies in the area, for tourists looking to book with a US agency. In addition, Frommer's vouches for Surtrek, an Ecuadorian agency based in Quito, which offers a wide range of excursions with plentiful budget options.
When to Go to Peru
Peak tourist season in Peru lasts from June through August, but the Christmas holidays also are busy times. The weather is dry and better for sightseeing in the highlands near Machu Picchu around this time. However, travelers might find cheaper prices if they travel during the fringe months of May and September, or if they wait until the off-season.