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Reaching New Heights: A Family Trip of A Lifetime in Peru

“You’re my first group in almost a year and a half,” our guide Alberth excitedly shared with my family as he greeted us in Cusco with his beaming smile. At every step along our 10-day journey across the Sacred Valley and Peruvian Amazon, locals warmly welcomed us with masks on and arms wide-open, anxiously awaiting the return of tourism. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure whether we were making the right choice to travel to Peru at this moment. 

It’s no secret that Covid has taken a hard toll on Peru; according to Johns Hopkins University, Peru has had the world’s highest death rate per capita. Vaccination rates have been slow across South America, and our roundtrip flights to and from Lima were packed with so-called “vaccine tourists” to the U.S.. Despite a vaccination rate of only nine percent across the country, Peruvians are very eager for (and in need of) vaccinated visitors to safely bring back their tourism economy, which is down as much as 85 percent according to the government. During the pandemic, many hospitality workers turned to agriculture to support themselves—it takes three months to earn what they once made in one. Wider and more rapid vaccine distribution (and vaccinated tourists) can bring jobs back and jumpstart recovery.  

As I arrived at JFK airport, masked up with printouts in hand of both my negative PCR test and mandatory Peruvian health affidavit, an LATAM Airlines representative stopped me from entering the check-in line without a face shield. Very luckily, I met a kind fellow traveler, who became my new friend and PPE scalper. During my trip, face shields were required not only on every Peruvian domestic and international flight but also on trains, including the one to Machu Picchu. (The face shield requirement has since been lifted, but in public spaces in cities, masks are still required.)

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to start planning safe, responsible and meaningful travels to Peru and other destinations—this year and beyond. Our team can match you with the hotels and experiences that are right for you and provide information on travel safety policies and more. 

Coming from Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, my family and I met in Lima the morning after Peru’s closely contested presidential election, which still remains to be decided. After checking into the beautiful Belmond Miraflores Park overlooking the Pacific, we proceeded to the first lunch seating at Central, ranked sixth on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. For the first hour of our 14-course tasting experience, we had the pleasure of enjoying the entire restaurant to ourselves. This was our first glimpse into the privacy that we’d be so fortunate to experience throughout our time in Peru. From watermelon ceviche to succulent granita, we marveled at Chef Virgilio Martínez’s culinary ride up and down the elevations and ecosystems from the bottom of the Pacific to the heights of the Andes. Central was our first taste of Peru’s uniquely rich connection with nature and culture.

After shopping around the bohemian Barranco, we made it to Museo Larco with just enough time to explore before Lima’s curfew of 7:00 p.m. (now relaxed to 11:00 p.m.). A lifelong lover of cultural anthropology, I was ecstatic to see masterpieces from more than 5,000 years of ancient, pre-Columbian societies. But I didn’t expect to see my parents, who never quite caught the same travel bug I have, with cameras glued to their hands, echoing my awe and wonder as we walked through the visible storage rooms, open to the general public, housing 30,000 ancient pottery artifacts. We learned about one of the most integral elements of the Andean cosmovision: the yanantin or significance of duality (male/female, dark/light, inner/outer) and the belief that complementary opposites are essential parts of one harmonious whole. We immediately drew a parallel between yanantin and yin and yang, the almost identical principle from our own Chinese heritage, appreciating how these concepts evolved ancient worlds apart. And as we continued discussing and admiring all the beauty in the galleries, I was so grateful to discover this new culture through my family’s eyes and share my passion with them. 

Related The Indagare Guide to Travel During Covid

Machu Picchu & The Sacred Valley

By the next afternoon, we were in the heart of the Sacred Valley, where the Incas ruled from the early 13th to 16th centuries. From an elevation of over 11,000 feet in Cusco, we descended into the Andes, immediately feeling the spiritual energy and mysticism of the mountains. We cruised through, without any of the usual traffic, to Pisac Archaeological Park, known for its hilltop Incan citadel and views stretching across the Quitamayo gorge. In Alberth’s decade of guiding experience, our visit was the first time he experienced Pisac with only one family. It was difficult to imagine as he described the two lanes that are usually in place to control crowds along the hike. We were fascinated by his accounts of Incan rituals, sacrifices and quipus—a system of knotted cords to record information, the closest form of written language. He explained Ayni, the ongoing cycle of Andean reciprocity, the belief that everything in the world is connected and the concept of mutualism in all relationships between people and Mother Earth. At the apex, I brushed my palm against the lego-like stones of the main temple, each perfectly interlocked and laid in harmony with nature. We stayed in the park right up until it closed, as my father followed up on Alberth’s stories with endless questions. 

After a quick visit to Calca’s local market, the sun disappeared behind the apus, or sacred mountains, and we arrived to Sol y Luna, a whimsical Relais & Châteaux property with 43 private casitas and a deep sense of place in Urubamba, about halfway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. It didn’t take long for Sol y Luna to become my mother’s favorite hotel that she’s ever visited. We would’ve been content staying on property all three days soaking in the Sacred Valley serenity and enjoying the colorful garden oasis, hummingbirds, spa and ranch.  

But at 6:00 a.m. the following morning, we began our full-day excursion to Machu Picchu with a visit to the town of Ollantaytambo, a stronghold of Inca resistance to Spanish colonization and now gateway to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. PeruRail is currently running about 10 daily trains, less than half compared to the pre-Covid schedule. The famous luxury train to Machu Picchu, the Belmond Hiram Bingham, runs three times daily from Poroy (Cusco) now. On our PeruRail Vistadome train, we spent our entire 1.5-hour ride with our face shields pressed against the panoramic windows, staring down at the Urubamba river and up at peaks of the Andes surrounding us on both sides. After meeting our guide in Aguas Calientes, we waited only five minutes for the bus (usually an hour) to the entrance of Machu Picchu and then only 10 minutes to enter the park (typically over an hour). 

Pre-Covid, Machu Picchu saw about 6,000 to 7,000 daily visitors (despite the official 2,500 visitor cap), and group sizes could be as large as 16. Now, there are only 500 to 1,000 daily visitors, many of whom are Peruvian nationals, as entrance fees are discounted to stimulate domestic tourism. Maximum group size is currently seven. Visitors must wear masks at all times, but it’s a small price to pay to experience Machu Picchu with a fraction of the crowds. 

Indagare’s Diana Li and her family taking in Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Photo by Diana Li.

During our visit, we had the luxury of time and space to properly feel the gravity of this sacred place. Before we walked down the steps into the citadel, we sat down in silence for 20 minutes to meditate on the iconic view. It was surreal that my parents, my brother and I finally made it here, after a year of postponement, and with so few people, to soak in the sun and share this view together. Between the Temple of the Condor to the seven shadow rocks perfectly mirroring the surrounding mountain line, the “Lost City of the Incas” is so much grander, more complex and more impressive than we had imagined. To borrow from Anthony Bourdain’s description of Machu Picchu: “For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.” 

Prior to Covid, it took several months of advance-planning to hike the multi-day Inca Trail, and it was just announced last week that permits will go on sale again on July 15 for the first time since March 2020. Travelers are recommended to book at least six to seven months in advance now, as the number of daily hikers has been cut in half to 250 until at least the end of 2021 (this limit includes porters and guides so only 100 to 120 tourists will be allowed per day). Machu Picchu is also expected to meet the requirements necessary to achieve carbon neutral certification by July 2021 and aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. If certified, Machu Picchu will be the first carbon neutral Wonder of the Modern World. (Contact your Trip Designer for help with permits, private guides and maximizing the impact of your trip.)

Our final two days in the Sacred Valley consisted of exploring the Maras Salt Mines, the Incan terraces at Moray and the textile houses of Chinchero. Despite not being able to spend a night in Cusco due to limited domestic flights, we were still able to visit the famous San Pedro market, load up on scarves from Kuna, Peru’s premier vicuna and alpaca clothing store, and explore the popular San Blas artist district where many doors are still shuttered due to Covid. Our top shopping discovery in Cusco was Xapiri Ground, a new art house, shop, gallery and café dedicated to supporting indigenous communities of the Amazon. 

Peruvian Amazon Adventure

For the second leg of our journey, we began at Iquitos, a Peruvian port city and gateway to the northern Amazon. At the airport, we met our incredible guides and fellow passengers aboard the Delfin III, a 44-passenger luxury expedition cruise designed to showcase the best of Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a vast area of Amazonian jungle known for its biodiversity, bordered within the Marañón and Ucayali rivers. Once on board at the private port in Nauta, a nearly two-hour drive from Iquitos, all passengers, required to provide negative antigen tests 24 hours prior to embarkation, were able to remove PPE for the entirety of the three-night cruise while the crew remained safely masked at all times. 

Over the next three days, we enjoyed quality time together in the remote wilderness, without WiFi or distractions. Keeping the pisco sours and chilcanos flowing enough for all of us, my brother made fast friends with not only the bartenders but fellow families who were also making up for lost time together. Whenever any passenger spotted a pink river dolphin jump, they “rang the alarm” for all to see. Between sunrise and sunset, each day was “choose your own adventure,” perfect for our family with a variety of preferences. One morning, my father and I kayaked together for three miles, alternating between our binoculars and paddles. Alternatively, my mother and brother enjoyed massages aboard. Somehow, we all managed to make it through the adventurous jungle trek, complete with canopy-walking. We attempted piranha-fishing (my father successfully caught a sardine), tasted a dozen new-to-us Amazonian fruits (my mother became addicted to macambo), learned how to make pisco sours and delved into the world of shamanism. We were also very lucky to meet two marine biologists, Joanna Alfaro and Jeffrey Mangel, who conduct research in partnership with Delfin and founded Pro Delphinus, a nonprofit committed to the conservation of threatened and endangered marine fauna. Not only does Delfin Amazon Cruises support wildlife conservation, but especially in this time of recovery, they are committed to supporting the local riverine communities and practicing responsible tourism. 

On a night skiff safari with our guide Denis, we were gliding across the onyx waters until the sky mirrored the river. In complete darkness in the Amazon, with the engine off, the rainforest came into harmony. The cacophony of frogs and the Amazonian wildlife was nearly deafening. Dolphins hiding underwater emerged to the surface, splashing just a few feet away. And during the day, we ventured to see sloths, caiman lizards, tamarin and saki and squirrel monkeys, piranha, blue-and-yellow and scarlet macaws, poison dart frogs and what seemed like most of the astounding 800 bird species found here. Two small barracuda even jumped right into our skiff, causing peals of nervous laughter and screaming as we quickly snapped photos before sending them back into the river.

A highlight of Delfin III was the Peruvian Amazon food prepared by Chef Isaac Saavedra and his team, who are wildly passionate about showcasing local ingredients like camu camu, cocona, and granadilla, difficult to taste back home. My favorite dish during our whole trip (including our meals at Central and Maido) was patarashca, a traditional dish with fresh doncella catfish, grilled and wrapped in bijao leaf. 

On our final evening, our guides surprised us with a truly magical jungle cruise. For three months every year, thousands of dusky-headed parakeets congregate at the same time each day on the same small island for mating rituals. As our skiff turned the river bend, our jaws dropped as we watched the sky fill with clouds of parakeets. Trees on the island literally held more parakeets than leaves. The chirping songs of thousands of parakeets were magically timed to the setting sun. Surprising us with champagne, Denis gave a moving toast, thanking us for coming to the Amazon and the opportunity to share their culture and nature with us. In return, we raised our glasses to the Delfin crew for a trip of a lifetime. 

As we returned back to the ship at dusk, I darted up to the top deck and spontaneously dipped into the pool. Floating on my back, I stared straight up at the sky until the Southern Cross appeared. I thought of all the Peruvians we’d met and wondered how they stayed so welcoming and positive, despite still navigating these challenging times. I remembered the concept of ayni that Alberth taught us in the Sacred Valley. Still practiced to this day from Inca times, people take turns serving one another and helping each other.

Our time on the ground in Peru proved just how important supporting communities in need also helps preserve cultures around the world. In true ayni reciprocal fashion, Peru gifted us memories that we’ll cherish forever. I’ll always be a “dream chaser,”  a term Melissa Biggs Bradley, our founder and CEO at Indagare, coined in her recent article “A New Era: Renaissance Travel.” Covid taught us that we will never know what the future holds, and I’m committed to making our time count with those we love and making our money count in supporting local communities. Each Christmas, my brother and I give our parents a photo calendar, filled with the past year’s memories, and it was no surprise that last year’s fell short of pages. Before we even said our goodbyes in Lima, my parents requested not only a calendar but a hardcover photo book capturing our family adventure to Peru. And now, our text thread continues with brainstorms of where we will reunite next and who we can support in 2022. 

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to start planning safe, responsible and meaningful travels to Peru and other destinations—this year and beyond. Our team can match you with the hotels and experiences that are right for you and provide information on travel safety policies and more. 

– Diana Li on June 30, 2021

Quotable

Machu Picchu is also expected to meet the requirements necessary to achieve carbon neutral certification by July 2021 and aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. If certified, Machu Picchu will be the first carbon neutral Wonder of the Modern World.

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