Editor’s Note: Laila van der Meulen is the Tour Operations Manager at Classic Journeys for regions as diverse as Peru and Italy’s Amalfi Coast. She’s been a world traveler for even longer since striking out from her native Amsterdam as a child and traveling over much of Europe with her family at an age when many of us are just happy to go to the mall. She joined our scheduled Peru & Machu Picchu Family Journey in mid-April and, despite her well-used passport, still found that Peru had plenty of power to delight in ways she didn’t always expect.

Two firsts: A spectacled bear in the wild…and a blonde.

When we were on the Inca Trail, our local guide Marisol saw a spectacled bear in the wild for the first time in the 10 years she’s been guiding! We all saw it, too, of course – a cub up in the top of a tree. But it was so amazing to see Marisol react. She’s a native. She’s taken the trail countless times. Her surprise and delight really helped us understand what a rare and remarkable experience we were actually having. For her, it was a truly spiritual moment.


In fact, one of the things that’s best about being with Marisol is that this is her home. When she explained to us how the Conquistadores forced Incas to become Catholic under threat of death – and how the Incas still held on (in the background) to their reverence for Mother Earth – she wasn’t just reporting something she’d been taught. For generations, her family has been Catholic, but she herself also remembers Mother Earth all the time. On the Inca Trail, for example, she talked us through making an offering of coca leaves, the thing that she does to give thanks for a special moment or a place of great beauty. It wasn’t some sort of folkloric demonstration. It was a sincere gesture that she shared with us.

On that same subject, some of our guests had traveled a few times with other companies that are friendly competitors of Classic Journeys. They commented how different it was to be with a local guide. They said that on their other trips their guides were young Americans flown in from the States. Nice people, well informed. But the fact is, those guides were as much foreigners as the travelers themselves. Our guests really saw the difference in what it’s like to be with a local. We could really ask Marisol anything about religion or politics or what a llama herder feeds a llama. She made it clear that any topic was okay.

Woman overlooking Lake Titicaca, Peru

I saw what the local connection means again, just after the trip. I had the chance to stop at Marisol’s house to meet her family. There was a young woman there who had just moved from the countryside to be a caregiver. I was the first white person she’d ever seen. I have blonde hair so I think that made me even more exotic to her. It’s really remarkable to realize we’re in a country where that kind of meeting can still happen.

Picnics…and Machu Picchu

Let me start big and say Machu Picchu is amazing. But everybody knows that. It doesn’t disappoint. You walk up the Inca Trail and keep thinking will I see it around the next corner? And it’s not there and you keep going. And then all of a sudden, without warning you’re looking out over the whole site, and it really hits you. But the awesome part of this trip is that it’s not as if everything else is secondary to Machu Picchu.

For instance, a couple of picnics made a pretty big impression on me, too. I know it sounds trivial by comparison. But not really. Twice – once after we went mountain biking in the Sacred Valley and a second time after we finished a whitewater rafting trip on the Urubamba River – we wrapped up with some very awesome picnics. This is not potato salad and hot dogs on a blanket. Completely out in the middle of nowhere, there was a tent set up to serve as the kitchen for chefs who prepared real meals just for us. To be there in the wide-open mountains in the river valley with this sort of wonderful treat was the kind of thing I always remember best about a trip. You’re continually reminded that little special moments can mean just as much as a famous sight like Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, Peru

The Quinoa Rainbow

I always come home from a trip knowing things I didn’t know before. I really like the learning part. For instance, quinoa fields look like rainbows. The plants have these fuzzy heads and the stems are a lot of different colors. I eat quinoa all the time, but I never knew or considered how it came to be. Marisol plucked a head so we could see the little seeds, and she could tell us all about how it’s grown and the history of it. The packaging of the quinoa we buy at home says it’s an ancient Incan food, but to see the reality of that is one of those cool things you just don’t forget.

The food is great here. (There’s a major food movement going on, and there’s a lot of really fine cuisine. In fact, for more on that see https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/wall-street-journal-calls-peruvian-food-the-next-big-thing/) But we didn’t restrict ourselves to just the familiar items. Alpaca was on the menu occasionally. One of the kids had roasted guinea pig twice. And why not? That’s a traditional national food in Peru, and being able to try these things if you want to is a big part of getting in touch with the local culture.

In the still of the sacred valley

Where I live in San Diego there is never a moment where there are no other people. So I have a really big appreciation for being where there aren’t always other people in your peripheral vision. The Rio Sagrado Hotel gave us some of that quiet time. You expect to be in remote areas when you’re out in Andean countryside, but at a fine hotel? That’s another thing. All of the rooms looked out over the Sacred Valley. We couldn’t see any other houses, or even any of the hotel’s other rooms. Such quiet. On our trip, we were in Cusco for Palm Sunday. The day drew lots of people into town, and it was great to see the traditions they were living out. But to end up out in that valley just felt like the ultimate luxury. The serene swimming pool comes with panoramic with views of the river and mountains. There’s a spa looking over the valley too and the restaurants have big picture windows overlooking it all.

Hotel Rio Sagrado in Peru.

From there, we ended up at the Inkaterra, just down the slope from Machu Picchu. That was its own special treat. At tea hour every afternoon, they brew tea made from leaves grown on the hotel’s plantation. They have an amazing garden too where tons of hummingbirds hum around and orchids are everywhere.

What I brought home

I got a scarf, yes. And some embroidery. But I came back with the kind of memories that make me want to re-pack my bag tomorrow and head out again. Cow herders slowly moving their herds off the track while we waited patiently. Shopping in village markets with heaps of multi-colored peppers being sold by native women dressed in the same colors. Standing in a valley with Inca ruins and doing a 360-degree turn to see nothing but snow-capped mountains in every direction.

A woman weaving .

Spend 7 days and 6 nights exploring Peru and Machu Picchu with Classic Journeys on a Cultural Walking Adventure or Family Journey. From $4195/person. Call 800.200.3887 to reserve, and then start preparing for your big adventure.