Antiquity, new memories on Disney Machu Picchu tour

By Kate Rice
When a dad gets so choked up talking about a vacation that his wife has to finish his sentence for him, you know he's on a very special trip.

His eyes welled with tears as he described watching his 13-year-old son forge ahead of his parents, up a steep trail winding 1,000 feet above Machu Picchu, itself at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet.

His parents, hobbled by bad backs and bum knees, stayed behind and watched his ascent.

Peru Kids Machu PicchuThe ultimate goal for parents is, after all, raising your kids so they can leave you. Still, watching your child head off to new heights without you — even if it's just for an afternoon — can stop you in your tracks, even as you rejoice, as that dad did, in their ability to do so.

My own 17-year-old blasted up that same steep trail herself, striding ahead with a 20-something. I followed at a much slower pace with my 10-year-old daughter, with whom I stopped to smell the flower blossoms along the trail. Our guide spotted a rare bird hiding in the branches beside the trail and coaxed him into view — and song — by using bird songs he'd recorded on his handheld phone. It was an exquisite moment of quiet and beauty. My 10-year-old loved it. (For a slideshow of photos from the trip, click here or on any of the images.) 

Once we'd all made it to the Sun Gate, a vantage point 1,000 feet above Machu Picchu, we saw scenes of gleeful jubilation. Nothing appeals more to a teenager than sitting on a rocky ledge swinging her, or his, legs over a massive void, which was what my 17-year-old was doing. The 13-year-old boy was essentially dancing on steps above us, and another 17-year-old was posing, legs planted shoulder-width apart and fists planted on her hips, head turned triumphantly toward the sky, atop another rock. The advantage goes to those on high ground, and all the teens in our group were conquering heroes who had made the summit on their own.

Of course, they had made that summit as part of a carefully planned and expertly guided Adventures by Disney trip, Sacred Valleys and Incan Cities.

Its guides know when to hang back and let go and when to give you the inside story at what you're looking at. Doing that successfully when you've got a group ranging in age from 5-year-olds to 60-year-olds might be a challenge for some folks.

But not for Adventures by Disney, which somehow put together a group whose camaraderie broke through age stratifications that can artificially segment us.

They took our group from sea level in Lima to 11,200-foot-high Cuzco, the colonial capital built on Incan foundations that is the gateway to Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and the Amazon.

Every step of the way, we learned far more than we could ever have learned in a book, said my 10-year-old in an essay she wrote about her summer when she returned to school last month.

Peru Textile LadyWhy? Because she could touch the stones and see how seamlessly the building blocks of Machu Picchu fit together. She could see how far the ancient Incas had to move those stones. And she learned from their descendants, still tilling the same terraced fields that the Inca had, and still practicing traditional arts such as weaving, a matriarchal skill as important to a family as animals or land, according to the women weavers at the Center for Traditional Textiles in the village of Chincherro outside Cuzco.

We learned the art of war one day while resting at the 16,000-year-old ruins of Ollantaytambo, which I liked even more than Machu Picchu, because the bustling town at its base is laid out as it was during the days of the Inca.

There, our indefatigable guide Ernesto Ore demonstrated stone hurling to show how Inca stone throwers were faster and deadlier than Spanish soldiers with muskets. (Disney provides each group with two guides, supplementing them with other guides who are experts about specific sites you visit.)

For safety reasons, Ernesto did not throw a stone, but the whistling sound his sling made showed how fast those stones could travel. It was clear why hundreds of Incas with precise aim and piles of stones, backed up by archers, could hold off Spaniards struggling to put powder and bullets into their primitive muskets.

On our whitewater rafting trip down the Urubamba River, our philosopher boatman, Willie Altamirano, made sure we looked behind us to appreciate the beauty of the river valley.

He showed us the Inca granaries still standing on the mountainsides thousands of feet above us, along with the old way stations, the original hotels for messengers and travelers on the 30,000 miles of trails the Inca and pre-Columbian empires had built. The Inca road network surpassed those of ancient Rome and China, our guides said.

Peru Whitewater raftingAltamirano also made us work, commanding us to paddle through the roaring rapids.

"Harder," he'd yell at us, despite his being strong enough that he didn't need us to paddle at all. He wanted us to feel the power of the water, so much so that at the end of our trip, he encouraged us all to jump out and float, feet first, down the river. So we did, and we loved it — we were all smiles on every water-soaked moment of that trip.

But the trip wasn't all action; there was also time to talk.

My 10-year-old engaged in intense discussions about ancient mythology with adults five times her age. Then, on the paths of Machu Picchu, when some younger children's ability to take in more detail on the Incan knowledge of astronomy and engineering waned, my daughter equipped them with the colored pencils and tablets to draw with.

My 17-year-old, meanwhile, had long conversations with two aspiring young filmmakers. And that same 13-year-old boy took a 5-year-old under his wing, entertaining him in a way that a grown-up can't.

Besides hiking and rafting, we spent two days at the Sol & Luna Lodge & Spa, whose cobblestone paths wind through thick growths of brightly colored bougainvillea to individual bungalows. Wooden casement windows framed mountain views so serenely beautiful that I took a photo to use as an antidote to the busy days that consume us all at home.

Peru Sol Luna LodgeAnd one night in the bar at the Sol & Luna, along with a group of other adults, I sat and listened to my 17-year-old talk about great rock 'n' roll and literary classics. Downstairs, my 10-year-old was watching a Disney movie under the stars with younger kids, snuggled next to a 17-year-old girl who temporarily adopted her as the little sister she'd never had.

Travel not only gives you new perspectives on your world, but, when you're traveling with your kids, new perspectives on them. And on our Adventures by Disney trip, with our guides taking care of all of the details, I had time I rarely get to just enjoy what my children had to say.

That day on the Sun Gate, as my 17-year-old, who heads off to college next year, looked at the mountain panorama spreading out before her, she said simply, "I'm coming back."
On her own, of course. And that's a good thing.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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