On our first day in Cusco, Peru, our Vantage Adventures leader, Enrique — a Cusco native —introduced us to the health benefits of the coca leaf, ideal for adjusting safely to the high altitude of this city. On our second day, we met with a shaman from a village deep in the Andes, who performed a ceremony of health and prosperity. On the third day, we were invited to dine in a local family’s home for a traditional meal.
From there, the authentic cultural connections just kept coming: We toured a women’s weaving co-op in Chinchero, a picturesque village where mothers still pass down this ancient skill to their daughters; tasted chicha, a traditional fermented corn drink, at a local village bar; and were greeted with hugs and cheers by schoolchildren in a remote public elementary school, while their mothers prepared a meal of cuy (guinea pig) and quinoa in our honor.
From the moment our feet touched Peruvian soil, traveling with Enrique and his junior guide, Albierto, felt like traveling with close friends who just so happened to be native Andeans. We had access to experiences, people and places we simply would not have if traveling solo as a family.
A division of well-established Vantage Luxury World Tours, Vantage Adventures is a new endeavor with the aim of offering families and solo tourists the opportunity to “be part of the picture” instead of just taking them. Vantage achieves this goal by providing truly local, authentic itineraries that can change on a dime as opportunities arise. One day, we made an impromptu stop to visit a local jeweler (and friend of Enrique’s), and another, we perused a bustling marketplace where we never saw another tourist’s face.
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Of course, many tour operators can put together a well-planned itinerary. The true test of a luxury adventure tour arrives when things go wrong. During our week in Peru, a farmers’ strike in the Sacred Valley (gateway to Machu Picchu) turned our schedule upside down. With the main route to the valley blocked by stones piled in the road, our Vantage Adventure guides swiftly and seamlessly made adjustments, rescheduling hotel rooms and swapping days on the itinerary so that we saw everything we came to see, just in a different order. Had I been traveling solo with my family, there’s no way I would have known who to call and what to do to ensure I could still access Machu Picchu.
In fact, on the day the strike was scheduled to end, a rogue group of farmers continued to blockade the streets, forcing our bus back from our desired route. Enrique and Albierto, as locals in touch with the political climate of the region, swiftly accessed the situation and determined a Plan B (and then a Plan C … because in Peru, you always need one). They directed our bus driver to an alternative route only locals would know to attempt. Our detour made for an exciting, albeit long, night, but ended safely at our luxury hotel while many other tourists remained stuck in Cusco.
This experience convinced me: Peru is a friendly but unpredictable country, sometimes difficult for foreigners to navigate. By entrusting my vacation experience to local guides from Vantage, I could be sure our travels would be rich in cultural awareness as well as safe, secure and comfortable. And we wouldn’t miss any must-dos on our itinerary. For me, this offers both monetary value and peace of mind.
• Authentic experiences. Every day with Vantage Adventures, our group explored Incan and Spanish colonial history, ate authentic Peruvian food and got lessons in Andean culture, politics and day-to-day living. Our vacation with Vantage included all entrance fees and permits, most meals and all transportation and lodging. As a parent who plans 100 percent of our family’s travel, it was a true vacation for me as well: I left the planning and execution of our trip to the experts, and as a result, I gained rich memories and came away with much more understanding of Peruvian life and culture than I expected.
• A chance to give back. Every region where Vantage Adventures travels adopts a place or cause as part of their Vantage Cares foundation. In Cusco, this took the form of sponsoring a rural school. Adventure guides have the chance to make a difference in their own community (remember, they’re locals). Vantage has taken on projects at the school such as painting the exterior and classrooms. Currently, they’re working to raise money to fund a field trip for the kids to Lima — these kids haven’t even seen Cusco, 45 minutes from their homes.
• All the big sights. Our trip took us to Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Andes, which includes two full days at Machu Picchu. We hit all the major heritage sites in the Sacred Valley, seeing the famed terraces and temples of the Incans, hiking part of the Incan Trail and taking Inca Rail from the high Andes to the lush rainforest. With 7 to 10 days for their vacation, families can book a similar itinerary, or they can add a small-ship cruise of the Amazon or the Galapagos.
• Upscale to luxury accommodations and high-quality meals. We stayed in Casa Andina hotels during our entire week; every property was 4-star or 5-star. I was continuously impressed by the organization of our leaders, who provided us with detailed daily itineraries every night so we’d know what to expect, when to meet up and even what to wear. Meals throughout the week ranged from casual but culturally rich fare to gourmet dining, always with options for families who wanted to do their own thing.
• Plenty of variety, with an emphasis on culture. Daily excursions rotated between historical sites, people-to-people interactions and outdoorsy pursuits, always peppered with Enrique’s rich knowledge of the land and citizens of Peru. Even while driving in the bus, he’d point out big and small points of interest, and no topic was off-limits. We could ask openly about the trash we saw piling on the side of the road (that section of town was made up of squatters who didn’t pay for garbage collection), the children we saw working (Peru has strict child labor laws, but they are different than what we’re used to in the States), or the dogs we noticed roaming happily in packs (most have owners, but yards and fences are an unknown notion to rural Peruvians). Every corner we turned, I learned something new.
While I’m not always a fan of group travel, some countries are harder to penetrate on your own. Vantage Adventures struck a good balance between hand-holding when necessary and encouraging independence when possible. After a week in Peru, I felt I’d really seen this beautiful place with my family, not simply crossed it off my bucket list.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Whitley.
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