Organized group travel is presented as a second-class experience in a lot of travel writing, but we disagree. Many articles treat group travel like it’s for superficial people who want a superficial experience. The prejudice is that group travel is rushed and you won’t really get to know the local people and culture. We too avoided group travel in the past, but we’ve totally changed our minds after an organized group tour in Peru. We weren’t rushed at all. We had many meaningful encounters, like sharing an ordinary dinner with a local family in their home.
Of course, there are bad types of group travel, but if you avoid group travel because you think it can ONLY provide a superficial experience – you are missing out. You can have meaningful encounters with the local people and culture through a tour group company. We know how strange this may sound to some. We wouldn’t have believed it ourselves before, but our group trip has opened up a whole new world of travel opportunities for us. We wanted to highlight 3 of our meaningful personal encounters in Peru. We are very experienced travelers, Vanessa is fluent in Spanish, and we realistically could not have arranged these for ourselves.
Playing With Local Kids
The tour company totally undersold this event as, “a visit to a local school.” We were interested in visiting the school because it was in a rural mountain village. We wanted to see this unique slice of Peruvian life. We weren’t expecting it to be one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of our trip. We spent a couple hours playing with and getting to know a fascinating group of 5-year-olds and their amazing teacher. Our tour group was able to do some shopping and bring a bag of goodies for each child. It’s always fun to give gifts, especially to a great group of kids who don’t have much materially. We laughed and played in the schoolyard. Then we went inside where the kids showed off some of their English skills with counting and vocabulary
The kids were so open and transparent. We actually learned a lot about Peruvian culture from them. We could see some unique social dynamics at work in the class. Some of the roughhousing and teasing seemed common to 5-year-olds everywhere, but the class’ group response to a particularly naughty boy was enlightening. Ignoring the teacher’s correction, Carlos would repeatedly snatch Victoria’s doll and hide it until the little girl would cry. The teacher had to pull out the big guns. She disciplined Carlos with a song. Yes, a song. This is no doubt a regular form of discipline, because when she started singing all the students (except Carlos) immediately knew to join in. The lyrics were in Spanish but went something like this:
Someone’s being bad.
Someone’s being bad.
Who’s being bad?
Who’s being bad?
(then everyone points to Carlos)
Carlos is being bad.
Carlos is being bad.
This was so effective. Carlos scowled, crossed his arms, but he also stopped pestering his classmate. This form of discipline wouldn’t be permitted in the US, but we liked it. The teacher explained and gave us an insight into some of their cultural values. She said the song is not about shaming or being mean. The simple song teaches the value of social responsibility to the rule breaker and to the group. The group learns the importance of speaking up for what’s right, and the rule-breaker learns that he or she is accountable to others. We wish we could do that in the US. Imagine if you ran a red light. What if, when the cops pulled you over, everyone around pointed and sang a song about how you don’t care about other people’s safety, how you run red lights, and how you should obey the traffic rules. Wow, that would really make me think twice before speeding through a yellow light. Those kids are getting some education in that rural mountain school.
Dinner at the Home of a Peruvian Family
On another day, a few of our tour group shared a whole evening with a Peruvian family in their home. It was an ordinary family meal, and that’s what made it such an extraordinary experience for us. We were honored that they treated us like family and not like restaurant guests. The dad was unfortunately away on business that week, but we were very lucky to be hosted by the mom, 2 sweet kids, and a hilarious aunt.
Our hosts embraced us with open arms and made us feel at home by having us help chop veggies, set the table, and serve the meal. This was the perfect icebreaker. Instead of awkward, get-to-know-a-stranger type questions, we began talking about the simple tasks at hand. From there, the conversations really took off, and the language barrier was no problem. There were a few fluent Spanish speakers in our group (like Vanessa), and our tour guide, Juan, was there to help everyone communicate as well.
Of course, the authentic Peruvian food was delicious, but the laughter and the time shared with this family was the real gem of the experience. When we thanked the mom for kindly inviting us into her home, she explained that she also had a passion for travel. She spoke of wishing for chances to meet local people when she traveled, and of how happy she was to open her home to fellow travelers. She was really a kindred spirit and an inspiration.
Her sister was a hoot. She was so friendly and witty. She told lots of funny little jokes, including tales about the blood-thirsty “chupacabra,” they kept in the back room. After a few nail-biting stories, she brought out the “monster,” which was revealed to be their lovely little bird that tended to knock things over when out of his cage.
Getting to know the kids really added to the authenticity of the experience. Both kids loved sports, so there was lots of sports talk – and not just about soccer. Basketball and volleyball were actually some of their favorites. Sofie, at the ripe old age of 11, was on a championship volleyball team that was going to Argentina for a big tournament. Tomas, age 8, was proud to tell us about the “Chukchu” festival, where he and his dad would dress up, wear funny masks, and perform an elaborate dance. The kids provided the most authentic moment of the evening during the tour of their house. When we came to a closed door, they explained that we couldn’t go in because that’s where they threw a bunch of stuff to clean up for our visit. Mom wasn’t so excited with their candor, but wow, that was so real. We all do that. We loved it. We felt welcomed into their real lives.
A Ceremony with an Andean Shaman
One of our glorious mornings in Peru began with a traditional ceremony performed by a local Andean Shaman. In English, the ceremony would be called something like an “Offering to the Earth” ceremony. The ritual was conducted in the Quechua language, and that made it even more special for us. Quechua is the native language of the Andes and is basically an oral (not written) language. That means our shaman was personally part of an ancient tradition that was handed down from person to person for centuries. We felt so humbled and honored to be a part of this ancient ritual. Lucky for us, our tour guide, Juan, grew up speaking Quechua and translated the ceremony for us so we could learn a little more about the Inca civilization’s spiritual customs and beliefs.
The shaman performed this sacred ceremony for 2 purposes.
To give thanks to “Pachamama,” their term for Mother Earth.
To cleanse and rebalance us, the participants.
During the ceremony, the shaman chanted a series of prayers to Pachamama and blessings to us participants. At one point, each of us was given 3 coca leaves and asked to come up to the shaman. First, we were asked to think of 3 bad things in our life and purge them by blowing on the leaves. Then we were asked to think of 3 good things we want to add to our lives and blow on the leaves as a prayer to Pachamama. We then gave the shaman our leaves, and he combined them with several other symbolic offerings of Andean grains, treats, herbs, confetti and wool. When everyone had his or her blessing, the shaman ceremonially bundled our communal offering together. He would then take the offering to be burned at a sacred spot on the mountain, so Pachamama could transform it into a fertile ground for new beginnings. It was an enchanting experience, and we couldn’t have had it without the tour company.
These were some of our most cherished memories of Peru, and exactly the type of experience most travelers want. The group travel company understood our goals and provided amazing experiences that we could not have arranged ourselves. Travel tips about the benefits of group travel usually mention things like convenience or saving time and money. That’s all true, but there are deep personal and cultural benefits as well. We were “wowed” by the enriching encounters with locals that were only possible because of the group travel company. Certainly, not every group travel company offers experiences like this, but it is easy to find them if you look. The important point is to embrace tour group travel as one possibility for the deep, cultural experiences you want from your travel. We are so happy we did.