One of the most impactful influences in our travel experiences happens around the people we meet and engage with during our visits. More often than not our social interactions with fellow travelers and our experiences with locals determine how we leave feeling about a place or vacation and shape the memories and stories that follow.
When Intrepid Travel asked if I wanted to experience a tour with them I jumped at the chance with Peru as my destination of choice (my tour was Classic Peru) and my first South American country. In my self-funded vacations, I have never been on an extended tour/guided trip. Aside from the occasional walking tour for an hour or two, tour group travel has never been something I ever sought out.
Because all of my arrangements were set for me ahead of time, I relied heavily on what my travel companions shared about their experiences in booking with Intrepid.
Though it is pricier to arrange transportation transfers through the company it is also the convenience of not having to figure everything out when you are there, especially upon arrival which can be late or confusing if in a foreign country. People in our travel group did both even when their next trip consisted of another Intrepid Travel tour – which was more than half the people in the group. This all depends on budget and comfort. I am a creature of comfort and have always been happier to pay extra to have things arranged for me, but it’s nice to know you can do either and save your money for other things.
Travelers also have the option, if going solo, to share a room with other solo travelers. You can book a single room at an extra cost, but it’s important to note that depending on where you are traveling this might not always be an option, especially in more remote and rural spots.
I had a solo room which was nice because I was working and would often do so late into the night. But equally nice was how our group would come together, either at the hotel bar or as a smaller group in one of the bedrooms to chat and everyone really seemed to enjoy their roommates.
One of the solo rooms I enjoyed.
FINDING YOUR PEOPLE
When booking your trip, it’s hard to tell what the age ratio will be. It’s easy to assume that adventurous, rigorous tours will skew younger and the more leisurely tours will skew older. But I will be the first to sign up for the latter, especially if they are food tours, and I would hardly be considered elderly.
It’s important to keep in mind that – and the group I was in was a beautiful example of this – by being together you already have a few things in common: an interest in the destination and its various activities as listed with every trip online, a love for travel, and an interest in meeting new people.
The first group meet-up was awkward for everyone because no one knew each other. It was led by our tour guide, Luis, and covered information about the company, the destination, and the culture, as well as our itinerary.
But once we got going, with a walking tour in Lima, our group quickly warmed up to each other. The ages ranged from 30 to 70, with people from diverse professional backgrounds and different parts of the world (Australia, Britain, and the U.S.). We got along so well, so quickly that they all agreed to pose for this photo for this post on that very first outing together.
And even though we’ve all gone our separate ways, we continue to share our travel photos, plans, and even reunion photos on WhatsApp.
I would be tempted to say that I just got lucky with my first tour group experience, except that they continued to have positive experiences in their next trips and at one point in our own travels, I saw another Intrepid group saying their goodbyes at the train station with hugs and tears in their eyes.
PERU WITH A LOCAL PERSPECTIVE
I have been following Intrepid Travel for a few years now and been witness to the ways in which they have evolved. I have been critical in the past for a lack of representation and diversity in the selection of influencers they have partnered with and in diversity conversations they have participated in, in which actual representation felt short, something which I have expressed both directly and indirectly with them.
I say this upfront because this context matters to me and because even though I have read information about their purpose-driven, responsible travel initiatives (I will share more on this in another post), I really wanted to see these practices in action outside of a press-trip environment.
When we met up with Luis he went through all the technicalities with us, but it was not just the fact that he himself is Peruvian of Quechua heritage and could speak from a very personal and knowledgeable perspective, it was also that he commanded respect for his culture, his country, and his people unapologetically and clearly and that the company that he works for, Intrepid Travel, encouraged him in doing so. Now, of course, he did so brilliantly and professionally, but it was empowering and I couldn’t help but smile.
As someone from a country that depends so much on tourism dollars, I have seen the islands of my family, both Puerto Rico (a U.S. colony) and the Dominican Republic trampled upon by foreigners. I have witnessed tourists abuse our women through their support of sex tourism and farmers lose their lands through the government’s flexibility to foreign investors and land grabbers. I have heard derogatory comments about my people and watched tourists treat the service staff as less than human. I have seen in my travels how the power of the tourist dollars often sells out the people whose homeland is being visited. I have also sat through tours where guides significantly whitewash and erase history in order to secure their jobs and their tips.
And Luis was not about that life. But more so, he made it clear that the company he works for was not about it either. He encouraged us to learn a few words in Quechan so that we could show our gratitude and respect towards our homestead hosts later in the trip.
Luis Gonzales, our Classic Peru tour guide
Luis made it clear we would be expected to help out our hosts at the homestead, and help we did. I will confess it wasn’t something I was super eager to do at first, but I completely appreciated the task and the responsibility to give back to a community giving so much more of themselves for our experiences.
He encouraged us to spend our money buying gifts from the Uro tribe we would be visiting to help support them as they opened their once secluded lives to us, even though it would cost more than at the city gift shops.
Uro Indigenous family who live on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca
He spoke about ways in which we could help reduce waste during our travels and encouraged us to contribute to purchase large containers of water for our refillable bottles in order to reduce the use of plastics. He told us how to respectfully greet and interact with locals, reminded us that we were not in a zoo and to refrain from photographing strangers without their direct consent.
I sat through this hour-long presentation in awe of it all. It was everything to me and set the tone for the rest of my trip.
I ventured into Peru on a plane full of white missionaries talking about how they were going to be spending 10 days convincing an indigenous community to abandon their beliefs in order to follow what they consider the one true path – theirs. It broke my heart and made me angry. Then I arrived in Peru, led on tour by a proud Peruvian man, who made space so that his culture and his people would be considered and respected the whole way.
And of course, we had fun and still traveled as guided tourists do. We got great photos and hiked Machu Picchu, and some even made it to Rainbow Mountain.
But we also learned so much about Peru, its complexity and beauty, its people and culture. I feel like I went to Peru, not just skated through it. It was beautiful and enriching. That Luis has the support that he has from Intrepid to own his voice and most importantly, his narrative mattered so much to me. He was open to all of my questions and yes, the fact that we both shared Spanish as a common language was nice too.
We met with a group of entrepreneurial Inca women who formed a cooperative to sell their textiles. With the support of Intrepid Travel, they organize visits with tourists to teach them about their craft and culture, serve them lunch, and sell their products. This initiative is controlled and led by the women and the financial flexibility has empowered them.
About Peru itself, I can only say that I loved it. This is a country with a very fragile government – like many of our countries are these days – and a history of colonialism that continues to impact it today. And yet, Lima was full of history and treasures and in Cusco and the more rural towns, you can feel the energy of its indigenous spirit everywhere.
Lima at sunset
To know the history of Peru, which Luis shared so well with us, is to understand how powerful it is. This is a culture that to this day people travel to try to erase and yet it won’t allow for it. Where even the Spaniards couldn’t build without the foundation of the Incas to support it.
Many buildings in Cusco have the stone foundations developed by the Incas to sustain earthquakes and time. The Spaniards built their structures over them.
Locals told me of a new generation growing with a purpose to reclaim its past and its traditions, and if you pay attention close attention you will find it very exciting.
But even if you are just there to travel and have fun, it is that too. There are so many activities to take part in – like hiking the Inca Trail (a different, more challenging tour also lead by Intrepid Travel) or doing a walking tour of Cusco which you can book as an added excursion through Intrepid Travel on the free day(s) they allot for in your itinerary.
As my first South American country, I found it to be a great introduction. As my first group tour, I feel lucky to have met such amazing people and am excited to help support a company that is putting in the work to do what they say they believe in while empowering locals to lead the charge.