The unforgettable journey through Peru

Rebecca Foreman leads her family on a magical tour through Peru’s treasures 

‘Machu Picchu, it’s on my bucket list.’ If I had a peso for every time someone said that to me… I’ve since decided I don’t like the term ‘bucket list’. Firstly, it refers to doing or seeing something before one kicks the bucket, which sounds as depressing as possible. Secondly, it’s believed to have been derived from someone dying through hanging, when someone kicked the bucket from underneath them. Sorry, let’s not put something as magical as Machu Picchu and bucket list in the same sentence again. 

Our tour company warned us that January would be the beginning of rainy season in Peru, suggesting that perhaps we should plan a different time. I’m glad we didn’t, because Peru is a destination that’s heavily trafficked any time of the year, so choose the time that suits you best.

We flew into Cusco, once the capital of the Incan Empire, where we were collected by our driver Luis, who proudly pointed to many Incan wall remains as we weaved through the city en route to Ollyantambo. Village women in traditionally colourful skirts and Andean hats were selling wares on the streets, against the backdrop of an incredibly picturesque mountain range.

Once arrived, we were in one of the most popular tourist sites in Peru, ‘Ollyanta’, as the locals call it; all quaint cobbled streets and trinketry shops selling ponchos of every colour. It is located at the northwestern end of the Sacred Valley, about 95 km (60 miles) north of Cuzco and home to some of the best-preserved Inca ruins in Peru. It also heralds the beginning of the four-day Inca Trail, or for those with two children in tow (like us), the option to catch the train to Machu Picchu. 

Luis helped us with our bags to hotel El Albergue, perfectly pitched next to the train line, and we settled into the rustically restored haven, devouring local Peruvian food before starting our tour of the Sacred Valley. English-speaking guide, Nancy Garcia, and Luis steered us high into the mountains where our first stop was the archeological site of Pisaq, followed by an alpacca farm and textiles centre Awana Kancha, which detailed every creed of the alpaca and llama families. Finally we headed home via the Inkariy Museum, where you can see a visual puppetry representation of Peru’s rich history.

Machu Picchu is busy any time of year, with a set number allowed into the site daily, so pick morning or afternoon and prepare to brave crowds

The following day we ticked off the Sun Temple, salt pans of Moras, and the mysteriously ringed Incan ruin known as Moray. It is not uncommon to hear the dulcet tones of a pan pipe wafting out over these incredibly spectacular sites as you stare in wonder and snap happy, along with bus-loads of tourists wanting to do the same. Nancy, however, had timed our arrival perfectly and before the days end, we had also managed to squeeze in a special treat for the kids at the chocolate museum where they made their own chocolate from scratch (later devoured on the train to Machu Picchu that evening).

Machu Picchu is busy any time of year, with a set number allowed into the site daily, so pick the morning or afternoon and prepare to brave crowds. Unless you want to walk up to the higher summit, Huayna Picchu, for which you will need a full day.

Instagrammers abound

Of course, a world wonder will be teeming with Instagrammers and Machu Picchu is no exception. Kim Kardashian lookalikes, yoga extremists, couples wearing matching ponchos, they’re all here snapping selfies, which to my mind is at direct odds with enjoying the here and now. Simply being present here should be the ultimate glory. Like that scene in the movie The Life of Walter Mitty, when Sean O’Connell (aka Sean Penn) travels to photograph the Himalayan snow leopard, but finally upon seeing one, chooses instead to look at it rather than take the photo because he wants to stay in the here and now and not be distracted by his camera. Sadly, that’s not for the vast majority anymore. It’s not going to gain likes and it’s not going to mark the fact that you’ve been there and done that before that bucket is kicked.

Did it feel like we had entered a battle for the best photo vantage points? Did it feel like if a fellow traveller stepped in front of your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap a five-hundred-year-old citadel it could tarnish the moment forever? Did it feel like the whole experience could bring out the worst in human nature as we were entering the site? Yes, it did. But thankfully we had Nancy, who skillfully shepherded us through the turnstiles toward higher ground. Maneuvering us from one condor vantage point to another all the while explaining ancient village life, water drainage and crop rotation. She had us whipped around that citadel in under two hours because she was aware that our children’s two-hour window without food was slowly closing. (For parents, it’s worth noting that once inside the citadel there is no food for sale. Or toilets). 

I wish I had more time to drink-in the scene before us, but the kids (and my husband) were at that point of no return. We’d probably pushed it with three jam-packed days of site seeing prior, but after we’d made our way around Machu Picchu we were ready for lunch.  

Agues Callientes is a picturesque market town aside a gushing river, where you can find many places to eat and enjoy a thermal spa, for those needing to ease aching Inca trailed muscles.

 Incan ruin known as Moray: World Traveller Middle East
Mysteriously ringed Incan ruin known as Moray

Back at Ollyanta, Luis was waiting faithfully for us at the station and joined us for a quick dinner at El Albergue, before dropping us off at our hotel in Cusco later that evening. By then I had worked out what made this journey seem so easy, especially with two children in tow. It was because our tour company had every detail covered, but without us even realizing how efficiently yet loosely they had organized us. We had told them where we wanted to go and they had connected all the dots so that it felt like we were always independent, yet in reality, they had been lovingly holding our hands the entire time, reading needs, steering us through tiredness, jetlag – and even the kids’ two hour feeding window – with both flexibility and structure.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The following day Nancy and I did a walking tour of Cusco, the historical capital of the Incan empire from 13th-16thcentury Spanish conquest. Cusco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983 and hosts up to 2 million visitors a year, but as we strolled through Inca ruins and cobbled streets, stopping for coffee and cake, what interested me more was hearing about her life.  She talked of her marriages and children and the five years of study required to become a licensed tour guide. These things interested me much more than any Spanish conquest, so by the time we met up with the rest of the family at the Plaza de Armas and Nancy departed, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a firm friend. She had been with us every step of the way, shepherding us through Peruvian majesty, skillfully dodging Kardashian wannabes, and such acts one can never forget.

llamas and colourfully dressed villagers strolled peacefully as if extras in a Peruvian tourist advertorial

The following morning Luis picked us up for the last time and dropped us at Wachuq train station for a ten-hour PeruRail expedition from Cusco to Lake Titicaca. Thankfully, we all had clean, pressed clothing because this was undoubtedly a first class treat and, for me, one of the best experiences of our time in Peru. Local musicians provided background music while we ate from freshly prepared menus served in two dining cars decorated in the style of 1920s Pullman cars. Sitting at white tablecloths holding polished silverware, it all felt rather civilized as we stared out of the window at undulating mountains with rivers running throughout, while llamas and colourfully dressed villagers strolled peacefully as if extras in a Peruvian tourist advertorial. Little wonder this route is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the world. 

Having arrived at the stunning Lake Titicaca, 3,810 metres above sea level in the Andes Mountains, astride the border between Peru to the west and Bolivia to the east, we were shuttled to the stunning five-star Libertador hotel and spa, which had preferential front row seats of the Uros islands. 

Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest of the world’s large lakes. It is one of less than twenty ancient lakes on earth, and thought to be three million years old. Incredible.

Onto Lima

In the morning we had an arranged boat tour: first stop, the floating Uros reed village. Here we were personally introduced to the tribal leader of one of about 40 constructed islands and were invited to explore their floating homes before being serenaded off by the tribe’s women as our boat then headed east to Taquile Island. It’s home to a unique community, refined yet rustic, intelligent yet undeniably simplistic, and governed by collective labour and the moral Inca code “You shall not steal, lie, or be lazy.” Their woven textiles are recognized by UNESCO and considered among the finest of the world. They’re made by the men, starting at age of eight. 

Finally, we were packing our bags for the last stage of our Peruvian adventure: Lima. Our transfer collected us and whisked us toward the Country Club Lima Hotel, a superbly decorated 83-room city abode, built in 1927 and declared a historic monument for its architecture and feature works of art from the Museo Pedro de Osma. Easy to see why the room rates were on the pricy side.

After arguably the best night’s sleep of my Peruvian journey – given the heavy black-out curtains and high thread count – a top notch lunch was in order. Astrid y Gaston, one of Lima’s best and voted in the top 50 restaurants worldwide, seemed fitting. Luckily, the concierge pulled strings and we were able to secure a table at short notice. There could have been no better way to end our trip.

In this fast-changing world, things are seen and most are quickly forgotten. But travelling through Peru is worth remembering, not in order to tick off any list, or accumulate likes, but to simply enjoy its majesty and spirit, it’s higher perspective. I recommend it to any world traveller who likes to live for the here and now.