BOB BONE'S TravelPieces  

Peru -- On Tour

A package tour proves to be a whirlwind of learning, from insights into the breeding habits of llamas to the use of blowguns. It also reminds us that you can't please everybody all the time.

. A resident along the Amazon River
in Peru shows off his pets: an
ocelot kitten, an endangered species,
and a rather unhappy looking sloth.

Text and photos © by Robert W. Bone          

LIMA, Peru -- “Tell me, Mr. Debakey, about these llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. Do they interbreed?”

            We were visiting the ranch of Michael Debakey, about 25 miles outside Lima. The question came from one of our group of 20 members of a Maupintour excursion. We had just had an outdoor lunch at Paso Chico, where the son of the famous Houston heart surgeon was raising a special breed of prancing horses.

          Debakey knows a lot more about horses than he does the compatibility of llamas with their long-necked cousins, the alpacas and vicuñas. One of each of these were recent additions to his ranch.

         “Well, we'll find out soon,” he laughed, while we watched the trio of furry beasts. For the moment, they were chasing the Debakey dogs around the property, apparently much more interested in them than in each other.

          A permanent resident of Peru, and married to a Peruvian, Debakey has been involved in a number of South American enterprises over the years. But perhaps the most interesting are the special Peruvian paso horses, whose offspring bring not less than $8,000 and  sometimes as high as $20,000 on the equestrian market.

          He also owns a local tour company in Lima, which is how he came to invite our group of gringos to have lunch on his lawn. There he proudly demonstrated his high-stepping horses, bred originally for their ability to move quickly and smoothly through high grasslands.

          The lunch also included some traditional Spanish dancing by two children of some of the ranch hands. For most of us, the experience was a welcome respite after a morning of touring museums, trying to absorb some of the details of the pre-Inca society which once peopled the area.

          Our group had perked up at the displays of one ancient society, called the Moche. The Moche did some amazing pottery work, depicting details of every aspect of daily life a millennium ago, including some exaggerated depictions of their erotic interests.

          Travelers who can't get enough of this kind of material may ask their way to the Rafael Larco Museum, which devotes a special room to the more salacious works. When I was a correspondent in South America in the 1960s, this was familiarly known as Lima's ``Hot Pots'' Museum. It was not on the Maupintour itinerary.

          On our tour, the pots were interspersed with occasional exhibits of dried-up mummies accompanied by exhaustive detail on other arts and crafts of a long-dead society.

          All this was only a prelude to the main theme of a two-week guided tour which gathered together a diverse gang from all over the U.S. and tried to give them an itinerary that they all would enjoy.

          In this, the tour was less than successful. Ours was a frequently grumbling group, often more concerned with getting plenty of sleep than in experiencing exotic cultures. Some groused that they couldn't understand people who spoke English with a Spanish accent. A few even thought the lawn lunch was really too primitive for their taste.

          Happily, each facet of the tour also pleased at least some of our number. The ancient center of Lima, which proudly displays Spanish architecture that the conquistador Francisco Pizarro would recognize, was a definite hit. Things were timed so that we could join Peruvians in witnessing a colorful changing of the guard at the presidential palace, the soldiers performing in well-synchronized goose steps.

          Everywhere we were given frequent warnings about robbers and pickpockets, and many wore money belts or little pouches for cash and credit cards that hang under a shirt or blouse. As it turned out, no one had a bad experience over the two weeks, unless you count our guide whose purse was snatched in La Paz. A tough and feisty lady, she managed to snatch it right back.

          The Lima museum and the Debakey ranch day were part of the tour entitled ``The Inca Empire,'' which covered much of the territory once occupied by the Incas in Peru and Bolivia. This version of the trip also included a brief flight and a long boat ride to spend a day and a night in a lodge on the Amazon River.

          There in the jungle the climate was hot and sticky, and the tour's normally luxurious digs were replaced with crude huts without electricity or hot water. We saw lots of unusual plants and birds, some fresh-water dolphins, and even shared some dances with the native peoples of the neighborhood, and were impressed with their target practice using blow guns. The only thing related to the Incas in this tropical neighborhood was the presence of that ubiquitous Peruvian soft drink unabashedly named Inca Cola.

          Inca Cola will never give Coke a run for its money, tasting more like the cream soda we get in the U.S. Most of our group opted for Pisco Sours, instead. It's a Peruvian specialty, made from white grape brandy, and which tastes pretty much like a whisky sour.

          In high-altitude areas of the Andes, we partook of coca leaf tea, a standard prescription for helping folks adjust to the reduced air pressure. (Cuzco is at a heady 11,000 feet; La Paz and Lake Titicaca top out around 13,000 feet. Oxygen bottles were also readily available.)

          Since our tour covered a lot of territory, it included some one-night stands and several trips in planes, trains, boats, and buses, and each gave the grumblers plenty of ammunition. We were frequently up at very early hours in order to catch these various modes of transportation.

          But time and again, it was proven that if we were going to see anything worthwhile, the early wake-up calls were well advised. A case in point was the trip from Cuzco to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. We took the very first train, which meant getting up in the dark. The first happy result was that we reached our destination well ahead of the madding crowds.

          Some of our group then wanted to take a nap at our hotel just outside Machu Picchu for the rest of the morning. But the our guide insisted that we have an initial tour of the ruins for the two hours remaining before lunch. Again, it was the right thing to do. We saw and learned a lot, and then returned for our noon meal just as a dense fog rolled in. The heavy mist continued to hang around, forming a literal wet blanket the rest of the day.

          So there was plenty of opportunity for a nap after all. Some enthusiastic travelers returned to visit the ruins in the afternoon fog. With only a few ghostly figures moving through the ancient walls and stone houses, it proved to be an unusual and genuinely mystical experience.