Part 2: Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning

LAST UPDATED: 4/23/23 – Part 2 – Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning
In Part 2 of our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning, we take a look at the logistics of seeing both of these wonderful locations on the same trip.

Things are really starting to come together in terms of planning for our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands trip, so I thought I would post another update to share our travel planning process with you. 

If you haven’t read Part 1 of our planning process, we discussed how we picked the travel dates for our trip by answering the “what”, “where”, and “when” in our travel planning process.

In this article, I am going to discuss the logistics of our trip.  By answering the “how” and “how long” questions in our travel planning process, we will be able to start filling in our transportation and accommodation needs for the trip.  However, before we can start shopping for flights and hotels, we need to know how long we are going to be staying and what our itinerary is going to look like.

The “How” and the “How Long”

One of the most important logistical questions that we need to answer when taking any trip is how long we plan on being there.  Once you know that, you can start looking at how to get there. 

If you are taking a beach vacation and are planning on just laying by the pool or the beach and unwinding, then this might be a pretty easy question to answer.  However, if you are planning on doing some sightseeing, taking some tours, and visiting multiple locations, then the answer to this question can be a whole lot more difficult to determine.

Using a Tour Company

There are a number of different ways that you can handle the logistics of your trip.  The easiest way to address the logistics of your trip is to take the trip thru a tour group.  When you book a trip thru a tour company, they typically handle all of the logistics for your trip.  This includes, but is not limited to, such things as the following:

  • Airport pick-up and drop-off
  • Hotel Accommodations
  • Attraction Tickets
  • Transportation to and from attractions
  • Tour Guides
  • Some meals

This makes answering the “how long” question pretty easy, as tour companies typically define the length of the tour.  While this is without-a-doubt the easiest way to plan a trip, it is typically also the most expensive option as well. 

You aren’t going to have to handle all of the logistics and planning yourself, but you will be paying someone else to do that work.  This method of planning is also usually the most rigid, meaning there is typically far less flexibility in customizing your trip to fit your specific needs.

Tour companies typically have everyone stay at the same hotel, use the same transportation, and only give you limited time to venture off on your own.  Therefore, your options for hotels and sight-seeing will be much more restricted to what they have planned.

One reason many people, especially solo travelers, will choose to use a tour company for their trip is security.  It is typically much safer to travel with a tour group than it is to travel on your own. 

This obviously needs to be taken into account when deciding on which type of travel is best for you.  Below is a summary of the pros and cons of using a tour company to plan your trip.

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning - Tour Group Pros and Cons

Planning Everything Yourself

On the other end of the spectrum, you could always handle the logistics for your trip completely on your own.  Obviously, this will provide you with a lot more flexibility.  You are going to have a lot more control over the following aspects of your trip:

  • Travel Dates
  • Hotel Accommodations
  • Modes of Transportation
  • What you see and don’t see
  • Where and when you eat

Tours that you plan on your own are typically a lot cheaper than trips planned by tour agencies as well.  It makes sense because you are not paying someone else to do all the planning for you.  We have saved as much as 50% on our travel costs just by doing a majority of the planning on our own. 

Now, there will be occasions where you will find some very good deals on tours, but I would look closely at the details of these tours because typically there is some sort of catch.

So there certainly are a lot of positives when it comes to planning your trip completely on your own.  There are also a lot of trade-offs.  For one, it is a lot more work for you.  You have to organize your airport pickup and drop-off, you have to research and book all of your hotel accommodations, you have to organize tour guides when necessary, and so forth.  It can be an awful lot of work.

You are also sacrificing some on the safety aspect because you won’t be traveling on a tour.  As I mentioned before, there is some value to traveling with a group from a safety perspective. 

More importantly, there is value to traveling with a tour guide who knows the area very well.  This is another factor that must be taken into account when planning any trip.  Below is a summary of the pros and cons of planning your trip completely on your own.

Self Planning Pros and Cons

Combination Option

Before you get too worried that neither of the options I listed above sounds entirely appealing to you, there is a third option you should consider.  This is the option that we enjoy using the most because it combines many of the positive aspects of the tour group option with the positives of the self-planning option.  It is essentially the best of both worlds’ approach.

Instead of planning every detail of your trip, you can plan the major logistical aspects of your trip, then purchase tours at your locations to handle the smaller details.  This allows you to pick and choose with more flexibility the following aspects of your trip:

  • Travel Dates
  • Hotel Accommodations
  • What you see and don’t see

This gives you a lot more control over when you will be able to travel and what you will get to see.  We used this option when we traveled to Tanzania and it worked out great.  We were able to book our own flights and accommodations and then fill in with some tours. 

Instead of just visiting to go on safari, we were able to also do a tour of a coffee plantation and fly to the island of Zanzibar to explore that unique and wonderful destination.  The tour guides we used took care of all the small details on our tours.

We plan on using a similar approach with our trip to see Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, so I will be able to illustrate to you much more clearly how this planning process works.  However, before I do that, let’s review the pros and cons of the combination option.

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning - Combo Approach Pros and Cons

Getting Back to Our Trip

Now that we know the options that we have available for planning the logistics of our trip, we can start to put the planning together.  We should be able to start thinking about the “how long” and the “how” parts of the planning process a little closer. 

We are going to be using the combination approach, which means we aren’t going to look for an all-inclusive tour.  If you did want to look at an all-inclusive tour for your trip to see Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, below are some tours that we were able to find online that visit both.

It also means that we aren’t going to be doing all of the trip planning on our own either.  There are just too many logistical components to visiting these locations.  New rules have gone into effect at Machu Picchu that require a tour guide to visit the site, and there would be far too much transportation and far too many activities to coordinate on your own if you want to see the Galapagos Islands the right way.

So we will focus on planning our transportation to-and-from South America, as well as a majority of our hotel accommodations and in-country flights, but we will look for local tours at Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands that we can leverage.  This will give us more flexibility in our travel dates and save us some money, but will also spare us from having to plan the plethora of minor details.

Galapagos Islands Tour

Galapagos Lizard.jpg
Among our list of priorities when booking a Galapagos Islands tour was seeing as much of the wildlife around the islands as possible.

Before we book any flights or make any hotel reservations, we need to look at when tours are available.  The first tour that we decided to book was our tour of the Galapagos Islands.  There are far fewer tours available for the Galapagos than there are for Machu Picchu, and these tours tend to fill up fast.  So the availability of the Galapagos Islands tours would be the primary factor for determining when exactly we visit.

In case you haven’t read Part 1 of our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands Planning, we checked into the available tour dates and we decided on a visit in early September 2018.  This would give us the optimal conditions at Machu Picchu and would give us enough time to book our tour of the Galapagos Islands.  The next step is to decide which of the available Galapagos Islands tours to book.

We typically use Viator (which is owned by TripAdvisor) to book our tours because they vet the tour operators that they list, they provide a lot of reviews and traveler feedback to assist you in making your decisions, and they offer 24-hour support for the tours they sell.  We did a preliminary search for Galapagos Islands Tours and took a look at our options.

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Planning - Viator Galapagos Tours
We used Viator to book our Galapagos Islands tour.

There were a number of different factors that we used to make our decision on which tour was the right one for us.  Those factors included the following:

  • We want to see a lot of wildlife (sea lions, giant tortoise, penguins, iguanas, etc…)
  • We want the opportunity to do a lot of snorkeling
  • We want to be able to snorkel with sea lions
  • We want to sleep in hotels, not on a boat

We ended up going with the 6-Day Galapagos Land Tour: Los Tuneles Program because it met all of the requirements we were looking for, it is a very reasonably priced tour, and it has gotten a lot of great reviews on TripAdvisor. We checked into availability and the tour is available September 8, 2018, thru September 13, 2018, so we locked into those dates.

6-Day Galapagos Land Tour - Los Tuneles Program
This tour met all of the requirements we had for a tour of the Galapagos Islands.

This tour exposes you to all of the different wildlife that we want to see in the Galapagos Islands, and includes snorkeling outings almost every day.  In addition, there are a few opportunities to snorkel with sea lions, which is high on our list.  Finally, the tour includes hotel stays instead of accommodations on a boat, which was a high priority for some in our party.  These factors made this the perfect tour for us.  With that locked in, the next step was to look for a tour of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Tour

Machu Picchu Train.jpg
We decided to book a Machu Picchu tour that included a train ride to Machu Picchu instead of hiking the Inca trail.

We thought that picking a tour for Machu Picchu would be a lot easier than it was to pick a tour for the Galapagos Islands, but we were wrong.  There are so many factors that you don’t initially consider that we had to take into account.

Because of the complexities and time required to get to Machu Picchu, as well as the new rules for visiting the site, the logistics for visiting Machu Picchu have become increasingly important.  To get to Machu Picchu, you have to take a taxi or bus to the Ollantaytambo train station, then take a several hour train ride to Aguas Calientes (which is only a few miles from Machu Picchu), and finally another bus up to the site. Because of this, with some tours, you are only able to get two or three hours at the actual site.

Furthermore, the new rules for visitation require you to choose one of three circuits to tour when you purchase your tickets.  Making things further confusing is the fact that some tour companies don’t tell you which circuit you will tour or give you the option of picking a circuit.

When we sat down to determine which factors were most important to us when picking a tour of Machu Picchu, we settled on the following list:

  • The train ride to Machu Picchu instead of hiking the Inca Trail
  • As much time as possible at the site
  • Arrive at the site as early as possible to get good light for pictures
  • Be able to access the high-ground at Machu Picchu for picture taking
  • Be able to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind Machu Picchu) if possible

We knew that hiking the Inca Trail would not be an option for us because some of the older people in our party would not be able to make the trip.  We are also going to be short on time because we are incorporating a trip to the Galapagos Islands into our Machu Picchu trip.

With this in mind, we took a look at TripAdvisor for tours that did not involve hiking the Inca Trail that would give us the most time at and access to Machu Picchu as possible.

Machu Picchu Tours.png
We used TripAdvisor to book our tour of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.

When looking at the available tours, there was one tour that really had most of what we were looking for.  The Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu from Cusco tour depart Cusco at 4am and gets you to Machu Picchu early in the morning, which will allow us to get some pictures early in the day when the light is best.

This tour also includes a permit to climb Huayna Picchu.  The number of permits to climb Huayna Picchu is limited to just 400 climbers a day, so this isn’t something you can obtain when you get there.  Finally, the tour includes all transportation to-and-from Machu Picchu, which is important to some of the older members of our party.

Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu from Cusco.png
This tour met all of our requirements for a tour of Machu Picchu.

Once we had a Machu Picchu tour picked out, the next thing we had to do is determine what date to book the tour for.  That required us to look at our schedule overall because we needed to make sure we allowed ourselves enough time to get to Machu Picchu, and then enough time to get from Machu Picchu to the Galapagos Islands (where our tour was set to start on September 8).  Here is the schedule we came up with after some deliberation:

Machu Picchu and Galapagos Trip Rough Itinerary

 September 3 Fly to Lima, Peru
 September 4Spend the day in Lima
 September 5Fly from Lima to Cusco, Peru and spend the day in the Sacred Valley
 September 6Tour Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
 September 7Travel Day
 September 8Galapagos Tour Day 1 – Pick-up at Baltra Airport in Galapagos
 September 9Galapagos Tour Day 2
 September 10Galapagos Tour Day 3
 September 11Galapagos Tour Day 4
 September 12Galapagos Tour Day 5
 September 13Galapagos Tour Day 6
 September 14 Travel Day

We want to make sure we build-in enough time to get to Machu Picchu, and we also want to make sure that we properly acclimate to the higher altitude.  For this reason, we decided that we will travel to Lima, Peru several days before we schedule our Machu Picchu tour.  We will spend a day touring Lima before flying to Cusco, Peru.

Not only do we want some time to explore Lima, but it will allow us to acclimate first to the 1,300 feet of that city.  After a day touring Lima, we will then fly to Cusco, which is the launching point for our Machu Picchu tour.  Instead of staying in Cusco on September 5th, we will immediately head to the Sacred Valley for the day after landing.  At an altitude of between 6,730 feet (at the Urubamba River) to 9,800 feet (at Pisac), this will give us the opportunity to acclimate at a moderate altitude for the day before heading back to Cusco (which sits at 11,154 feet).  If you are looking for some more tips on how to avoid altitude sickness, has some wonderful advice.

On September 6th we will wake up early and tour Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, and then head back to Cusco for the night.  The next day we have left as a full travel day to ensure that we will have enough time to get to the Galapagos Islands in time for our tour on September 8th.  This is important because we want to ensure that we make it to our Galapagos Islands tour on time.

Finally, after the six-day Galapagos tour, we will leave September 14 as a full travel day for getting back home.  We will not try and schedule a flight home to the United States on September 13, even though our Galapagos tour ends that day, because we want to make sure we leave ourselves enough time to get from the Galapagos Islands back to Quito, Ecuador for our flight home.

Up Next….

So far in our planning process, we have walked you thru how we settled on the time of year we decided to travel, and how we decided to handle the logistics of seeing both Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands.  We now have a rough itinerary for our trip, and we have tours for the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu booked.  In Part 3 of our Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands planning, we will fill in the rest of the itinerary with transportation and hotel lodging.  Things are really coming together nicely!

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  1. Both places are in my top five places that I need to visit. Definitely will be following and bookmarking your updates. Thanks for sharing your planning process!!

  2. You are so organized. You put me to shame. I am planning to post on structuring your own trip to Patagonia, but I’ve been so busy doing the planning that I haven’t had much time to post. Thanks so much for this post as Machu Picchu and the Galapagos are high on our travel list. This info will be invaluable.

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