Jenss Family Travels: Exploring Peru
Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
“Welcome back” were not the words we wanted to hear with six weeks left on our year-long journey, but there was no avoiding it unless we didn’t tell anyone about the forty-hour layover we had in New York before flying on to Peru. “We’re not finished yet,” we had to say again and again. Carol and I were actually quite apprehensive at the thought of breaking up the flow of our trip to spend two nights back where we started last July. The benefits of doing this, besides seeing some family and friends, were that the boys could play with their long-lost buddies while Carol and I seriously downsized our luggage for the trip’s final leg that would be spent mostly in tropical climates.
As far as how it felt to be home for the first time in ten months, it was actually quite revealing. If there’s one thing I’ve realized throughout all my travels, it’s that your senses are elevated. Food, fashion, architecture, language, landscapes, wildlife, smells–you are much more aware of everyday details whenever you leave the familiar surroundings of home. Since I’ve been in this heightened state of awareness for almost a year, it didn’t go away when we landed in the U.S. Just the opposite. I seemed to walk around in an “all that’s old is new again” frame of mind.
Meanwhile, our trip to Peru would also be a sort of homecoming, for we were joining up with the winners of the National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Challenge, which would reunite me with fellow staff members and other colleagues from The Society. It also meant that Tyler and Stefan would have plenty of peers to share the experience with, a huge bonus for two boys who only had sporadic interaction with other kids their age in the last year.
Besides joining up with old acquaintances, we’d have a chance to meet new ones as well. The fifteen kids who won this trip from the thousands who entered were each able to bring one parent along as a chaperone. This meant that a group of relative strangers from all parts of the country would be brought together to share in an experience that would profoundly change their children’s lives, if not their own. This wasn’t simply a vacation to Peru, it was a celebration of a common love for exploration and adventure that proved to be anything but lost in our young people today–something all the accompanying moms and dads should be very proud of.
This intrepid spirit would immediately be put to the test because of the formidable elevation of the Sacred Valley and Cusco.
Fortunately, no one in the Jenss family required oxygen or a visit to a clinic with symptoms of altitude sickness. We did find ourselves quite winded after some pretty steep climbs during excursions to various Incan ruins, but that was to be expected. After about three days, everyone was finally fully acclimated, and just in time for Machu Picchu.
Having spent a good deal of the last ten-plus months visiting several “places to see before you die,” I’ve learned that not every legendary landmark always lives up to the hype. There’s a lot to be said about sustainable tourism and how many of the world’s unique places have been overrun by tourists. My expectations were high for Machu Picchu, but I was worried that the experience might fall short because we weren’t doing it in the most “authentic way.” If I had my choice, we would have arrived to the site at sunrise (before the tour buses) after hiking the Inca Trail for three or four days.
Instead, we were taking the 90-minute train ride from Ollantaytambo. But much to my delight, this option was anything but over-commercialized (the views were spectacular) and despite the usual archetypal souvenirs shops, the town of Aquas Calientes proved quite charming, thanks to the way it’s nestled into the heart of the Andes Mountains. To most people’s surprise, Machu Picchu is surrounded by a cloud forest that hosts some rather diverse and intriguing wildlife and vegetation, the perfect backdrop for such a mystical place.
The guides who took care of us in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu were fantastic with all the kids, so I forgave them for not mentioning that Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition that located Machu Picchu was actually funded by the National Geographic Society. Besides providing us with all the historical and cultural background, they made special arrangements for the kids to visit a nearby school, take part in local customs like weaving and sling-shot shooting (what kid wouldn’t love that?), and participate in traditional Peruvian dancing (in customary costume no less).
What gave this trip an authentic “National Geographic” feel was its ruggedness and unpredictability. The last four days were spent in the Amazon basin along the Tambopata River at a jungle camp that offered rustic accommodations, including rooms that looked out into the forest through no walls or screening of any kind. There was also no electricity or hot water, so no pampered tourists found here. As often happens with “expeditions” into the wild, the weather played a factor.
Few were prepared for the rare cold front that blanketed the area during our stay, but all were still in high spirits tramping through the mud trails of the rain forest floor in knee-high “Wellies.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
With the many familiar faces and fellow Americans in the group, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the place I left behind when this trip began. The cross section of people from places like Maine, California, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, South Dakota, Washington, Kansas, Georgia, and even Hawaii, were as diverse as the country itself.
Somehow, this reminded me of what makes the U.S. so special, a good precursor to my pending re-entry.
Photos: Rainer Jenss