Cuenca & the Galapagos

9-Day Independent Vacation: Trip begins and ends in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Discover two mighty cultural treasures of the South American nation of Ecuador—both UNESCO World Heritage sites—on this customizable itinerary. Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city and features stunning colonial architecture as well as easy access to fascinating Inca ruins. The Galapagos, a 19-island archipelago and wildlife reserve off Ecuador’s coast, is one of the planet's most pristine ecosystems and home to flora and fauna found nowhere else.

Highlights include:
• Learn about Ecuador's history on tours of Cuenca and Cojitambo archaeological site.
• Explore the Galapagos on hiking and snorkeling excursions with a naturalist guide.
Enjoy additional optional activities in each destination, including a visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island.

From $2,945
per person*
Year-round through 2014
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Special Interest: Active Vacations, City & Resort Stay
Travel Provider:  AAA Sojourns

Package details include

One of Cuenca's four riversYour Ecuadorean adventure starts in Cuenca, located in the highlands of the southern Andes 7,500 feet above sea level. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Cuenca sits at the confluence of four rivers that are part of the Amazon River watershed. As a result, Cuenca and the surrounding area not only provide wonderful views of mountains and river valleys, but also feature a wealth of wildlife and natural diversity. You'll have a chance to explore up close on a choice of three optional activities: Take a horseback ride through the city's outskirts to the Tarqui river valley; mountain bike through corn and wheat fields or along the spines of the surrounding Andean peaks; or hike through Tushipungo Valley and the spectacular El Cajas National Park, home to 230 glacial lakes.

Cojitambo archaeological siteCuenca also boasts a fascinating history. Believed to have been founded around 500 A.D. by an indigenous people called Canari, the city was later conquered by the Incas around 1450 only to become a Spanish settlement just 50 years later. Cuenca's importance grew steadily during the colonial era and today, with a population of half a million, it is Ecuador's third largest city. Delve into these diverse strands of colonial and indigenous influences on a city tour that includes historic buildings dating back to the 1600s. Then go further back in time on a tour of the Cojitambo archaeological site, thought to reflect the remains of both an Inca ceremonial and military stronghold, but also of the older Canari people; terraces, stairs and a well are believed to be of Canari origin, while other buildings were added later by the conquering Inca.

One of the Galapagos' giant tortoisesThen go from Andean heights to some of the most fascinating islands in the world. The 19-island Galapagos Archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador's coast is home to plant and animal species found nowhere else. It was here that Charles Darwin, visiting in the 1830s, was inspired to develop his theory of natural selection. Preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, you can still see these fascinating species up close. Accompanied by a naturalist guide, enjoy four days on two islands and learn about the islands’ ecosystem with plenty of time to hike, snorkel and relax at the beach. See giant Galapagos Tortoises in their natural habitat, spot marine iguanas sunning themselves on volcanic rocks, and snorkel with sea lions and blue-footed boobies. Also choose among optional activities such as surfing lessons, a snorkeling expedition or a visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. The center has helped ensure the continuation of this magnificent species, releasing over 2,000 giant tortoises into the wild in the past few years alone.

An Ecuadorian woman in traditional dressPrice includes:
8 nights accommodations: 2 nights in Guayaquil, 2 nights in Cuenca, 2 nights on Santa Cruz Island and 2 nights on Isabela Island
Meals - Daily breakfast, 7 lunches and 7 dinners
Sights - City tour of Cuenca and excursion to Cojitambo Inca ruins
• See Giant Tortoises and lava tubes on Santa Cruz Island
Activities - Hiking and snorkeling on Tortuga Bay, hike of Sierra Negra volcano, and hiking and snorkeling on Tintoreras Islet
• Choice of horseback riding, mountain biking or hiking in Cuenca on Day 3**
• Choice of snorkeling, visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center or surf lessons on Isabela Island on Day 7**
Guides - A gocal guide accompanies you in Cuenca and a naturalist guide joins the group in the Galapagos
• All airport transfers plus gratuities for porters

**Note: The optional afternoon activities on Days 3 and 7 are at additional cost.

Note: This itinerary can be customized for activity level plus the number of nights in each location can be adjusted. All optional activities on Days 3 and 7 are at additional cost. Additional hotel nights can also be added, subject to availability. Inquire at time of booking.

In addition, internal flights, as noted below, are at additional cost and quoted at the published rate at time of booking. Prices are subject to change until ticketed and are non-refundable. Full payment is required for all internal flight tickets in order to confirm tour seat reservations. Luggage restrictions are 44 lbs. maximum per person from mainland (Quito or Guayaquil) to Galapagos. Inter-island flights weight restrictions are 25 lbs. per person. Additional weight will incur a fee for transport if space allows.

Day 1 - Arrive in Guayaquil, Ecuador
Arrive in Guayaquil where a representative will meet you outside the customs and immigration area. He or she will answer your questions, brief you on the immediate arrangements and escort you to your hotel.
Accommodation: Hilton Colon or similar - 1 night

Day 2 - Scenic Drive to Cuenca & Cuenca City Tour
The journey from Guayaquil to Cuenca is short but stunning, running along a scenic route from the coast through El Cajas National Park. Upon arrival in Cuenca, enjoy a city tour of the city’s highlights with your local guide. Cuenca is a beautifully preserved colonial city nestled in the lush hillsides of the Andes in the heart of southern Ecuador. The arrival of the Spanish in the area gave rise to a fusion of colonial and indigenous cultures, evident in the city’s churches, murals, stained glass, ceramics, weavings and architecture.

Even though Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city, it exudes a predominantly small town feel, boasting a distinctive Spanish architectural style dotted with French influences. With a spring-like climate throughout the year, Cuenca is steeped in rich Incan history and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Its people are warm and inviting, sporting traditional dress and Panama hats. Later, check-in to your hotel.
Accommodation: Local hotel in Cuenca – 2 nights

Day 3 - Cojitambo Inca Ruins & Optional Activity
This morning, visit breathtaking Cojitambo Mountain, one of the hidden gems of Ecuadorian tourism and an absolute must-do. As an alternative to Ingapirca, which is the most obvious stop for visitors seeking out Inca ruins, Cojitambo also offers spectacular views of Inca ruins and rolling valleys from a prime vantage point. It comes as no surprise that this strategically placed town was so significant to the Incas during their heyday.

In the afternoon, choose among three optional activities (each is at additional cost):

Horseback Riding Tarqui Valley - Whether you are a horse-lover or simply enjoy a ride on occasion, you will be welcomed at Bellavista Equestrian Center, which is a mere twenty minutes from Cuenca. Our expert guide will find a horse to meet your expectations and level of expertise, and after you are equipped with all of the basics in the stables, embark on a journey overlooking the valley of Tarqui. Admire the local architecture, culture and diverse ecosystem along the way. Our horses are well trained and easy to ride. And since safety is our top priority, you will be asked to wear helmets and follow the safety instructions from our local expert.

Mountain Biking in Cuenca & Surrounding Area - Due to Cuenca’s location in an Andean valley, the potential for cycling tours in the city and its surroundings is great. Cuenca offers easy access to the eastern and western cordilleras of the Andes (cordilleras are mountain ranges) as well as many of the valleys that divide these two cordilleras. Roads of first and second order, which can be traveled in any type of vehicle, permit quick access—a one-hour drive, maximum—to the beginning of your ride. This also allows you to combine different bike routes in one day.

The geography of Cuenca area, as well as its cultural and natural diversity, makes for picturesque and interesting rides through mountain scenery. Pedal across fields of corn, fruits and wheat, and next to ancient houses still bustling with the life of the friendly locals. Additionally, Cuenca’s architecture is even more unique and stunning from the seat of a bike, where you can go at your own pace and appreciate everything around you. A bike tour gives you a more familiar knowledge of the city, allowing you to become part of the city’s everyday life and culture by participating in its hustle and bustle.

Tushipungo Valley and Lake Hike - The pretty Tushipungo Valley sets the scene for a hike that meanders through cattle farms until arriving at the spectacular El Cajas National Park, a stretch of protected land extending for 71,000 acres and home to an incredible 230 glacial lakes. Here, you’ll traverse rolling paramo grasslands through wild quinoa and rosemary. And don’t forget to bring your binoculars, as there is an abundance of birds and mammals such as the Andean fox, whitetail deer and spectacled bear. Trout are also plentiful in several of the moorland’s lakes. The history behind the ‘U’ shape of the lake, the lowest elevation in El Cajas National Park, is due to prehistoric glacial activity. Take the small path through the cloud forest, along rippling brooks and around the lake, for excellent nature watching.

Day 4 - Travel to Galapagos Islands / See Giant Tortoises & Lava Tunnels
After breakfast, board a flight to Guayaquil and then a connection flight to Baltra Island (flights at additional cost). Note: A $10 USD fee per person for a Galapagos Transit Control Card is payable in cash upon checking in for domestic flight to Galapagos. In addition, a $100 USD Galapagos Entrance Fee per person is payable in cash only upon arrival at Baltra Airport; the fee is $50 for children 11 years of age and younger. (Both fee amounts are subject to change.)

Transfer by boat to Santa Cruz Island, the second largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago after Isabela, but with its largest city, Puerto Ayora. In order to get up close and personal with the giant Galapagos Tortoise, the group will then take a 40-minute journey from Puerto Ayora to private farms that conserve pristine native and endemic vegetation for the habitat of these magnificent creatures. As we follow the trail winding through this landscape, you’ll get plenty of chances to marvel at Galapagos Tortoises in all their splendor—just don’t forget your camera! These majestic and gentle creatures, part of a family best known for their dome-shaped shell and gigantic form, are often found partly submerged in mud ponds to combat skin parasites or to regulate their body temperature on warm and sunny days.

Continue to explore the volcanic origins of the island by journeying through an intriguing 1,312 foot (400 m) long lava tunnel to the other side. Later, return to the hotel for the rest of the day at leisure.
Accommodation: Local hotel in Puerto Ayora - 2 nights

Day 5 – Tortuga Bay Hike & Snorkel
This morning after breakfast, depart Puerto Ayora for a 3km hike to Tortuga Bay. The hike is on an easy concrete path that runs through a field of prickly pear, (Opuntia) cacti, (Matazarno) and Palo Santo trees, where mockingbirds and finches are abundant. At Tortuga Bay we’ll find a beautiful white sand beach where the group can spend some relaxing and watching the wildlife. We’ll walk the full length of the beach until we get to the small shore. The bay’s calm waters are perfect for some snorkeling or you may want to rent a kayak.

Day 6 - Travel by boat to Isabela Island & Hike of Sierra Negra Volcano
After breakfast, take a speed boat to Isabela Island, the largest in the Galápagos Archipelago. Upon arrival we will drive up to the highlands of Sierra Negra Volcano in order to enjoy the magnificent views of the caldera of this volcano. Sierra Negra (4,890' feet above sea level) last erupted just two years ago and today we’ll hike its slopes to see its 30-square-mile caldera, petrified lava formations and fumaroles. Enjoy spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding islands followed by lunch at a local farm.
Accommodation: Local hotel in Puerto Villamil – 2 nights

Day 7 - Hike & Snorkel on Tintoreras Islet
Visit a small island called Tintoreras, a unique volcanic formation. On its west face a primitive species of lichen flourishes in the moisture brought by the prevailing wind. You will find young marine iguanas and may see white-tipped reef sharks. Snorkel in the quiet lagoon where you may also see blue-footed boobies, sea lions and other marine wildlife.

In the afternoon, choose among three optional activities (each is at additional cost):

Snorkel Concha Perla - After lunch, travel to Concha de Perla, a perfect spot for those who love swimming or snorkeling. Concha de Perla is a shallow, calm bay with crystal clear water that allows you to enjoy the fascinating marine life of the Galapagos. If you are lucky you will be able to swim with sea lions and penguins.

Hike Wetlands & Visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center - A boardwalk leads us over the marshlands or humedales—brackish lagoons that provide a habitat for four mangrove species, marine iguanas, flamingos and numerous migratory birds. The wooden walkways lead to a tortoise breeding center with interesting interpretive displays. The center has been responsible for the breeding and release to the wild of over 2,000 giant tortoises in the past few years alone. From the center, a walk along the beach takes you through town and back to the hotel, where you can take a swim or stop in town to get a taste of local life.

Surf Lessons – Enjoy a chance to engage in surf classes from Puerto Villamil’s beautiful beach. Our local surf expert will provide with the boards, wet suits and will tailor the lessons to everyone’s level of expertise. After a few minutes on the beach reviewing the basics, venture into the water where expert assistants will help you stand on your surf board and catch the waves.

Day 8 – Travel to Baltra Island and on to Guayaquil
Transfer to the airport to catch our flight back to Baltra Island and then back to Guayaquil (flights are at additional cost). Upon arrival in Guayaquil we will be transferred to the hotel.
Accommodation: Hilton Colon or similar – 1 night

Day 9 - Depart Guayaquil
Transfer to the airport and depart on your homeward-bound flight.

Limitations & Restrictions

*Prices are per person based on double occupancy, are subject to availability at time of booking, and may change without notice. Single supplement may apply. Except for packages including air transportation, unless stated otherwise, airfare, taxes and government fees are not included. Offers valid for new bookings only. Member Benefits are per person and apply to first and second traveler only. Member Benefits are available only with advertised fare and are subject to change without notice. Your travel arrangements may be modified or canceled subject to the travel providers’ policies. Blackout dates and other restrictions may apply. We make every effort for accuracy at time of printing but reserve the right to correct errors. AAA Travel strongly recommends the purchase of trip protection insurance. Except for packages including air transportation, fares may not reflect additional fuel supplement or port charges and vary by provider.

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