By Laurel Downing Bill
For Senior Voice 

A bucketlist journey to South America

Smithsonian helps plan dream trip for Alaskan couple


May 1, 2024 | View PDF

Photo courtesy Laurel Bill

Author Laurel Bill and husband, Don, in Peru. After a short hike up a path with ancient stone steps, the magnificent Inca ruins appeared in the middle of a tropical mountain forest more than 7,900 feet above sea level. The sight of the ancient Peruvian settlement, built around 1450 AD and abandoned in 1572, took their breaths away.

First in a four-part series.

Ever since Don and I said "we do" in Fairbanks in November 1973, my sweetie and I have been talking about taking a trip to South America to see Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon rainforest. When we saw an ad for a highly discounted Princess cruise from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile, we decided to "Just Do It" for our 50th wedding anniversary.

We then Googled how to get from Chile to our three goals and stumbled across Smithsonian Journeys. The Smithsonian Institution's travel program, which has operated for more than 50 years, offers unique, expert-led trips on all seven continents and partners with Audley Travel to create tailor-made trips to more than 80 countries.

Soon we were chatting with Audley representative Jasmine Scott, the company's expert on South America based in Boston. She explained that Audley and the Smithsonian specialize in independent, educational journeys customized to travelers' personal interests, dates and budgets.

My husband, 80, and I, 72, shared our interests with Jasmine. Don, a fisheries biologist for 20 years, wanted to see all the birds and wildlife he could while traveling through Peru and Ecuador. My interests, in addition to our top three destinations, included the historical aspects of each country-early civilizations and modern cultures -and wildlife adventures.

Agency stays within budget

Our research prior to finding Smithsonian Journeys showed an average seven-day tour of the Galapagos Islands on a small ship carrying 16 passengers was around $10,000 to $12,500 per person. Or about $25,000 total. We estimated another $25,000 would cover the other three weeks of air travel, hotels, food, ground transportation, fees to historical sites, and other miscellaneous expenses.

We told Jasmine we thought we should budget $50,000 for the trip, as that also is what we had saved over the years for this grand adventure. And we explained that even though we were senior citizens, we still were young at heart and didn't want to just ride around in cars and buses all day. However, we didn't think we could do physically demanding excursions, either, like white-water rafting or a four-day hike on the famous Inca Trail. We also let Jasmine know we were not five-star hotel people-moderately priced and comfortable lodgings were just fine.

Several phone calls and emails were exchanged during the spring and early summer to refine our plans to fulfill our dream trip in a "doable" timeframe of four weeks during December and January. Once we solidified our plans, Audley sent a detailed custom-made itinerary that included all airfares, airport transfers, hotels (with breakfasts included), guide information, and historical and wildlife tour fees costing $11,000 less than our budget. Also, to our surprise, we would be traveling through South America with our own English-speaking guides and expert drivers-no tour groups.

Travel agency listens

As we looked at our custom itinerary, we noticed Jasmine had really listened to our desires for this trip. She had booked us into small historical hotels, added food tours so we could try the local cuisines, and scheduled several wildlife excursions to see the birds and animals of each area. There was even a tour of a private home in Lima that dated back to the Spanish colonization days of the 1700s, which delighted both of us.

Once we approved the itinerary, the agency required a payment of 25 percent of the total to secure hotel, airline and guide reservations. The next payments were spread over several months, with the final payment due prior to our tour start date of Dec. 20, 2023.

We then received a beautiful grey, suede-bound book with our official plans, vouchers and tickets for the entire trip. It also included the names of guides at each location and their phone numbers in case we needed to contact them for any reason during our stays in their areas.

Don and I left Los Angeles on board the Sapphire Princess on Dec. 1 and docked in Santiago on Dec. 19. The next morning, we flew to Lima to begin our dream trip.

Plans exceed expectations

Thanks to the seamless planning and attention to detail provided by Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel, our dream unfolded spectacularly. From the moment we set foot in Peru, we were greeted with warmth and hospitality at each airport and whisked away on journeys of discovery that surpassed all expectations.

After navigating our way through several other ancient Peruvian ruins, we reached Machu Picchu. With our experienced guide leading the way, we were able to delve deep into the heart of this mystical Inca citadel, learning about its fascinating history and marveling at its amazing architecture.

Next, we set our sights on the magical Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. While enjoying our suite onboard a comfortable 118-foot yacht, we explored several islands with an expert naturalist, taking in breathtaking landscapes and encountering incredible wildlife that call this paradise home. From viewing myriad sea lions, Galapagos penguins and blue-footed boobies to strolling along pristine iguana-filled beaches and hiking over black lava trails, every moment was filled with adventure.

The Amazon rainforest was a place of unparalleled beauty and biodiversity. Boarding a ship with only 20 staterooms, we embarked on a voyage into the heart of the wild and untamed wilderness down the Napo River. With an expert naturalist by our side, we daily navigated the winding waterways in a motorized canoe and immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds of the jungle. From vibrant scarlet macaws to pink dolphin sightings, each day brought new discoveries, deepening our appreciation for the wonders of the natural world.

Throughout our journey, we were struck by the impeccable service and attention to detail provided by Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel. From seamless logistics to thoughtful touches that celebrated our milestone anniversary, every aspect of our trip was handled with care and professionalism. Their quality service let us focus on soaking in the beauty of South America and making our 50th wedding anniversary journey an experience that forever will live in our memories.

10 tips for traveling overseas

1. Plan ahead—it takes time to get trip organized.

2. Learn about your destination(s), if you need visas, etc.

3. Make a budget for:

• transportation

• accommodations

• food

Photo courtesy Laurel Bill

The Galapagos penguin is the smallest South American penguin and the most northerly breeding of the penguin species to live near the equator. Laurel and Don saw dozens of these cute little birds while touring the Galapagos Islands.

• fees and paperwork

• unexpected expenses

4. Make sure passport won’t expire within six months of return to U.S.A.

5. Make sure carry-ons are no larger than 22x15x10 inches deep.

6. Have a money belt to carry cash and passports discreetly.

7. Build rest time into your itinerary.

8. Pack a power strip for charging electronics and a power adapter if necessary.

9. Use packing cubes to help save space and keep clothes neat.

10. Check available overseas plans for cell service.

Next month: Age is not a barrier to a 10-day odyssey through Peru.


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