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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Touring Peru

We are usually very independent travelers, setting our own itinerary and changing our plans on a whim. But when time is limited, a group tour can be a good way to see a lot of things without much effort. With only two weeks in Peru and a long list of places we wanted to visit, we decided to join up with a tour group a few times – and found that no two tours are created equal. The main reason? The tour guide.

Our first tour experience in Peru was a day trip around the Sacred Valley. The itinerary called for stops at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. We boarded the mini-bus which would be transporting us to each of these sites – and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into when the guide started her commentary in Spanish. But not to worry – what we didn’t know yet was that many tours in Peru are conducted in both English and Spanish, catering to a diverse clientele of local tourists and visitors from abroad. It turned out that our guide for the day spoke excellent English and knew a lot of interesting facts about each place we visited. She had a little trouble keeping all the participants together – a handful of high school boys in our group wanted to do their own thing – but overall the tour was a good way to efficiently visit places that are not easily connected by public transportation.

A week later, we signed up for another tour – and did not feel the same satisfaction coming out of it. One of the things we had most wanted to do in Peru was to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca and stay overnight with a family on one of the islands. Doing this sort of trip independently is possible for those hardcore Lonely Planet sort of travelers – but we did not have the time or means to go through all the trouble of doing it on our own. We signed up for a tour – one that started off on the wrong foot and never got better.

The tour operator picking us up at our hotel the first morning was half an hour late. When we got to the docks and boarded the boat, the tour guide never bothered to introduce himself until a couple of hours into the ride out into the lake - and then the boat kept breaking down on the rough waters, adding hours to the ride. By the time we made it to Isla Amantani, the island where we would be spending the night, all of us felt seasick and cranky. Without explanation, our tour guide hiked us up a rocky hill and finally assembled us in one of the village’s gathering areas – just as a misty drizzle began. This is where we would be matched up with our families – but rather than taking charge, the guide let us just awkwardly find some people to go home with out of the villagers there. Without any direction, it took us awhile to sort out which villagers were actually intending to have a visitor and which were just there to watch. Then we had to determine how many visitors each household could accommodate. We were all cold, wet, and starving by the time we finally made it “home.”

We figured out that we were supposed to spend some time settling in and eating lunch, but then what? The itinerary had mentioned something about hiking, but the guide never told us anything for sure. So after lunch – which our host family had just served to us in our bedroom – we were sitting around confused, until the head of the host family finally motioned to us that we were going somewhere.

He led us to the center of town, where our tour guide finally appeared. The other members of the group trickled in over the next half hour or so, escorted by their families and looking as confused as we felt. By then, the afternoon was almost over and the sun was getting lower in the sky – but our guide spent another half hour lecturing inexplicably about island life. When we could actually understand something he was saying, it was something he had already said in a slightly different way. How could we escape this??

Finally, it was time to hike. Sure, it was rainy, windy, and dark, but the guide lead us to the head of the path. All of us started making our way up to Pachamama, ruins honoring the Mother Earth that were located on a hilltop in the center of the island. Concentrating on putting on foot in front of the other as we fought the strong winds, we didn’t realize at first that our guide wasn’t following us – in fact, he was nowhere to be found. We didn’t know until later, but he had returned to the center of town to stay warm and catch up with old friends, leaving our group to fend for ourselves in a unfamiliar place in terrible conditions.

The next day wasn’t any better as far as our guide was concerned. We enjoyed wandering around Amantani and another island, Taquile, and riding the boat (the water calmed down a lot compared to the first day), but we never quite knew where we were supposed to be when. And any time our guide managed to assemble the whole group to provide commentary, he would keep us together for a painfully long time as he rambled about nothing. When we got back to Puno, he hinted about a tip – but for a tour like that, I just couldn’t part with any more money for him. Sorry!

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