Exploring Peru With My New Family
By Jenny Gilbert
A group shot in the Sacred Valley of the Incas - photos by Jenny Hartshorne
Since I’ve been back from my seven-day vacation in Peru, friends ask me, "Hey what have you been up to this summer?" I love saying I went to Peru... There's a bit of mystery to it. Not the same as "Went down to the shore for a week."
I say "Well, I was in Peru, went to the Amazon Rainforest and stayed in a cool jungle camp with thatched huts and hammocks in front, macaws and parrots flying free, tarantulas in the trees nearby. The jungle was full of boas, anaconda, monkeys and of course lizards of all sizes."
I organized the trip with my new blended family by signing up with Active South America, a really first-rate tour company. Since there were only five of us we were matched with another family of our size. You can also bring ten people and create your own group.
When we arrived at the airport at 5:00 am Sally met us there and took us back to the hotel in Lima. She let us rest and explore Lima on our own and then met us that night in the lobby of the hotel and told us what was going to happen each day.
That night we met our other family and all went out to eat at a great local chicken place.
The next day we traveled for two hours down the Amazon River in a dugout canoe, and minutes after we arrived in camp, we took a guided walk through the jungle. We were even swinging on ropes.
At one point I thought, "Wow! This is the rainforest! The canopy of trees above me, amazing brilliant loud birds with bright colored feathers, macaws and parrots flying around free, giant purple bougainvillea, ants that look so tiny and innocent, but watch out because they’ll cover your body in minutes and numb you permanently...
There seems to be danger everywhere, and yet Lucy, our adorable big-grinned guide, seems so calm. She rubs together two leaves from a tree and displays red dye all over her hands...
Jenny and Steve in a dugout canoe
The Best of Both Worlds
At night we left that world and left the netted beds in our cabins, went past the hammocks and the salt water pool and headed down the steps into the bar, where the Mexican bartender Luis was fiddling with his laptop, loading up songs of Bob Marley, Police and other bands I loved.
We asked him what the local drink was and he immediately made us two Pico sours. Oh my goodness were those ever great!
So here I was at the bar. I had taken a two-hour ride in a carved-out canoe down the Amazon River, done a jungle tour of plant life from flowers that looked exactly like parrots' beaks to tarantulas and killer ants, and now was sipping on the most refreshing cold relative to a whiskey sour meets margarita and listening to Bob Marley with great PA system. Two worlds coexisting.
It's not that you can’t get away; it’s the blending of the best as far as I could tell.
Oh yeah forgot to mention the amazing lunch we had after we arrived of sautéed caiman, the breed of alligator that lives within yards of our camp.
Max and a friend
Delicious and elegantly served by many helpers with fans overhead and large long tables, delicious avocados and tomatoes and cabbage and fresh carrots and always always potatoes of all size, shapes and flavors.
Courtesy and Kindness
Our leader Sally -- there is no one sweeter -- looks like an Inca princess you might see dressed in jewels and brightly colored garb, but no, Sally is from the highlands. Born and raised a farmer, she and her family raised potatoes and sold them and lived in a tiny village over the mountain with her sister and brother.
She told us stories of the Shining Path, a well known terrorist group, haunting her village and slaughtering her teachers for teaching the wrong history.
Sally again, an amazing combination of authenticity, courtesy, kindness and enthusiasm who had suffered from the terrorists, struggled to pursue her career in a world where girls got married early and gave up any aspirations.
Peder and Lucy having lunch by the Amazon lake
She really liked us all and really wanted us to have a good experience, not only to make her look good, but because her heart wanted that for us.
She wore her Keen shoes and her Active South America shirt, with a bright hair tie, a pretty silver pair of earrings or a bracelet made of local red nuts that are known to be good luck.
She spoke English, French, and Spanish and would chat with airport authorities, camp guides, bus drivers or waiters to get everything handled from flight conflicts to my dressing on the side. She really made the trip for me.
Day Two was our adventure day. We canoed into a jungle lake off the Amazon River, hiked around two miles, stepping over tarantulas, and heard screaming monkeys in the forest.
Tom climbing the stairs after a peek at the monkeys on Monkey Island
We landed our dugout canoe on a river bank where we ate roasted chicken thighs wrapped with spicy rice and peppers in palm leaves. Lucy, our guide with big brown eyes and a great smooth smile, handed out our lunch as we all sat down behind a long long tree that had been sawed horizontally in half and served as a perfect table with a matching tree to sit on.
We looked out on the expansive Amazon lake as we ate our delicious meal and watched the wild dogs run around us enjoying all the scraps.
My boys were concerned not to let the dogs eat the chicken bones until the local guide, who actually lived on this river bank, said that’s all they eat: chicken bones. So we started tossing.
At this point Lucy said if anyone wanted to go swimming, the "changing area" was up the hill. After a quick change behind an ant-covered tree, there was a long rope hanging from the tree and it had knots every few feet.
The lodge in the jungle
We swung from the tree and jumped into the lake and had a great time until one of our family friends, a little 10-year-old named Matt, bumped up against the tree on his ascent and landed his butt right on a huge white-pronged caterpillar.
As he landed in the water and started screaming with pain, we all thought he had been bitten by some urchin in the water but then my stepson Max discovered the caterpillar and realized it was three together and they had these spears on their hair.
It was a bit spooky looking at Matt’s dad, Dan, and thinking, "Yikes! What if this is a deadly caterpillar? Here we are, having traveled one hour by plane, three hours by boat and then another two miles from the jungle camp to this wonderful and yet extremely remote eating spot. How soon can we get this little guy to a real hospital?"
A room at the lodge
Well luckily it didn’t matter, after Advil and some other ointments that his mom had packed, he was okay, and as we were canoeing back to the place where we would hike back to take the boat, I asked Lucy, "So Lucy, what sort of animals live in this lake anyway?"
She replied very jovially "Well there are piranhas, 20-foot caiman, and probably some anaconda, but they’re all over that way, not so much near the shore."
In Tune With the Jungle
Love this trip, love the danger and the authenticity of it all. Love the fact that she lets us swim and knows it will be fine. She is one with this jungle of hers and feels safe with it all.
That made the trip so much more interesting for me, that we swam with the animals in that lake and we felt (or some of us did) the dangers of the weather, the altitude, the changes in diet --from hamburger to alligator. It all worked. We were staying in tune with the jungle.
The salt flats of Salineras... Now I know this sounds wicked boring... "Salt flats, who cares?"
But let me tell you this wasn’t so much the salt flats that made it interesting as much as Omar, our Peruvian guide. We hiked into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, down to these flats of salt which the Peruvians irrigate like crops, as they have done since Inca times.
They water the salt and then drag it up these extreme climbs to sell it in these little shops. I bought some -- very coarse and, as far as salt goes, delicious.
But the walks and talks with Omar were wonderful, the views and watching my three boys walk along laughing and hiking -- actually hiking. I usually can’t get my 13-year-old to do this, so this was a unique experience and it was well worth it.
Rugged Meets Black Bow Tie
We ended the hike in this amazingly calm place. A man in full Inca garb, colorful striped poncho, head gear and tan pants and moccasins was playing the pan pipe with a band of guitars behind him. The place was a series of thatched huts surrounded by parrots and macaws flying everywhere, grasses and meditation areas.
We were offered the most delicious selection of foods from hot curried chicken to sushi, to tofu stir fry to fresh beets, carrots, white bean salad fresh arugula and greens and sprouts and I mean it wouldn’t stop.
There was a selection of delicious desserts, mousses, tarts, fresh fruit, cakes, a stew of some Peruvian hot rice pudding... and a man in a black bow tie and tuxedo shirt waiting on us with delicious sparkling cold white wine and silverware and china.
I mean here we were right off the mountain, rugged climb through the salt flats and hours of terrain and we end up here?? How much heaven can I take in one day?
So that was the third day of this great trip to Peru. Again the contrast in this country: rugged meets black bow tie. I loved that.
The family that was with us did the whole trip so we left after we came back to Cuzco and they went to Lake Titiacaca and lived with a family on this remote floating island which is 12,507 feet above sea level and the island floats on reeds where the Quechua people live very primitively without electricity or running water, and they lived with them for two nights and wore masks and were a part of a ceremony that is customary in their village.
Children in the Valle Sagrado de Los Incas
We skipped that part, but I would have loved that, especially for the boys to see how other people in remote places of the world get along just fine with nothing plugged in.
I highly recommend this country, but I suggest you avoid Lima if possible; it's ugly and not exciting. Cuzco was a cozy, culture-filled town with markets, colorful people and great restaurants.
Macchu Pichu is remarkable, awesome. This ancient city was built on a mountainside in 1460 as a residence for Inca rulers. The architecture reflects the different classes from bottom to top, and there are sundials and rooms designed for viewing the summer solstice.
The train to Machu Picchu is right out of Indiana Jones, winding thru the mountains, up and up and up, with donkeys plodding along the side of the mountain carrying packs for hikers.
All in all this was the most interesting country I’ve been to. The people are the friendliest, completely poor and yet generous with smiles and kind words. The food is so diverse and fresh, with cultures of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Spanish in a delicious melting pot of flavors.
The prices, by the way, are like Mexico except what you get in food and crafts is so much more unique and beautiful.
I highly recommend Peru, and Active South America to anyone. Our trip was really organized without you ever feeling like a stupid tourist.
Every night we ate together with the other family at one great intimate tasty place after the next. Sally dealt with the waiter, paid all the bills and tipped him. We never had to do that at all; we only had to pay if we ordered wine or beer, otherwise everything was included. This was a wonderful aspect not to worry about foreign money and paying.
The people I dealt with at home when I was organizing the trip couldn't have been better. They would call me back from Austrailia and constantly told me, "No worries" as I made yet another change to the itinerary. Then they handed us off to Sally, Lucy and Omar who were the Peruvian guides, but they were in touch with the Australian people so they would know our details and our concerns.
Jenny Gilbert is a certified life coach who lives in Lambertville, New Jersey, with her husband and three boys.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Peru