IMG_0437 (1)Clinging to the Andes, and resting between the Amazon rainforest and South America’s eastern coastline, Peru has so much culture, adventure, and a 5,000 year history – the trick is figuring out how much of the three elements will strike the ideal balance for each traveler.

For our family’s recent visit, and knowing the travel tendencies of our kids, Emily, 16, and Simon, 11 (read: they don’t love sightseeing), I worked hard to create just the right, varied mixture.

As most people suggest, we began our trip with a two-day stay inCusco in an effort to acclimate to the high altitude (11,200 feet). We arrived at the historic Hotel Monasterio, a 16th century monasterylocated a couple of blocks from Cusco’s main square. The heart of the hotel is its picturesque courtyard with a fountain and a 300-year old cedar treeIMG_0434surrounded by gardens and stone cloisters. Not a bad place to have a meal. We drank a ton of water, requested rooms that pump some extra oxygen (this comes with an additional fee) and hoped the altitude would not get in our way.

Our fantastic guide, Freddy Meza, took us on a walking tour through central Cusco, once the imperial city of the Incas, where we spent time in the Plaza de Armas, and in the baroque cathedral which houses a collection of colonial art. I also ducked into the charming La Casona hotel across the small Plaza Las Nazarenas from our hotel. An historic colonial manor house, La Casona has 11 suites and its common spaces have a cozy, beautifully preserved feel.

Based in Cusco for those couple of days, we ventured to the Incan IMG_0419 (1)hydrological complex in Tipon, where we learned about the Inca’s amazing engineering and precision related to building, irrigation and
farming. There, we came across our first alpaca, which rightfully spit at my son! Along the way, we learned that the Incas domesticated 130 types of corn, 13 types of fava beans and 5 types/colors of quinoa.

Fortunately, we got to taste some of these local ingredients at restaurants like Chicha, Ciocciolina, and the glass-enclosed MAP Café. We loved drinking the chicha morada, a dark purple beverage made of purple corn boiled with pineapple, passion fruit, membrillo, cinnamon andcloves. We tasted some local Peruvian wines – the Petit Verdot was not bad – but understand why most of the lists are heavy on wines from Chile and Argentina.

On our way out of Cusco and into the Sacred Valley , we made a stop at the Awana Kancha alpaca farm, where we fed many alpacas, big and small, and saw how the weavers dye and utilize the wool. We stopped to see the ruins of Sacsaywaman (as in “sexy woman”), then headed to Pisac, a village in the Sacred Valley on the Urubamba River. We hiked IMG_0452the Inca ruins and vast terraces at Pisac and then stopped at the bustling Pisac market, which operates every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. For a couple of dollars, the kids got to hold a week-old baby lamb, and we then walked through the market, buying alpaca wool socks and other souvenirs.

Tired from the hikes and altitude, we were especially happy to return each afternoon to the hotel Tambo del Inka in the Sacred Valley town of Urubamba. In 2011, the Tambo del Inka became the first LEED-certified hotel in Peru and practices strict green policies. Situated along the banks of the Urubamba river (urubamba means “sacred river” in Quechua, the native South American dialect), the hotel boasts a spa, a pool that is half outside, half inside, and a high-ceilinged lobby and dining room decorated with colorful, locally made weavings

and crafts.

Inspired by a Paso horse show at the Wayra Ranch at another nearby (and lovely) hotel, Sol Y Luna, we booked our own horseback riding adventure. The Tambo del Inka has its own tourism office, T’ikariy, which arranges a wide array of touring and activities. Through their office, we went horseback riding on our own Paso horses at

theHacienda Huayoccari (the wrangler didn’t speak English, but somehow our horses knew what to do), and considered going white-water rafting or mountain biking, but ended up on a fantastic via ferrata adventure that also including some rappelling.

Just a ten minute drive from our hotel, our guides from Natura Vive equipped us with helmets and harnesses for our adventure. Using iron IMG_0582ladders mounted into the granite rock and always hooked to a cable, we climbed approximately 1,000 feet, hiked a bit, and then stopped to picnic with the breathtaking scenery of the Urubamba river and valley below. Once at the top, it was time to zipline down. Different then ziplining between trees, here we were going from rock to rock, on six different lines, with a final rappel to the bottom floor.

For some local flavor one evening, we walked into the nearby village for dinner at a restaurant called El Huacatay. Down a couple of sleepy side streets and behind a creeky door, we entered onto a candle lit path that led us into a small dining room. We ate quinoa soup withIMG_0525 quail egg, and vegetable green curry with bananas.

One afternoon, we visited the pottery workshop of Seminario, where one of the young apprentices gave us an informal tour. He explained that only the men shape the clay and add the ancient Peruvian patterns they use in their ceramics. In a room upstairs, however, we found four women presiding over many bowls of paint in a rainbow of colors. The women, we were told, are the only ones who paint the pottery, and therefore they choose the colors that will be used.

Peruvian women are hard workers, and a trip to Chinchero and its women’s weaving cooperative gave us a detailed view into the process of their craft. Ranging in age from about 8 to 60, they demonstrated how they spin the alpaca wool, and the process of using natural elements, such as fruit, nuts, and insects to IMG_0513dye the wool into a various colors.

Our last taste of the area came with a visit to the famous salt ponds of Maras. Here, local people have been harvesting and processing salt for more than 1,000 years. And again, it is the Incas who created these ponds that are still functioning today.

The trip continued with a hike on the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu and a visit to Lima. Stay tuned for those details in Peru part 2…