This summer I took a trip to Peru with my daughter's seventh-grade class. I had never been on an organized tour before and wondered if I would like it. While I did not always love being herded around and taking meals in a group of three dozen, it was quite luxurious not to have to study and plan in advance, knowing that experts at EF Educational Tours had done that for me.
Though in all my years of travel I have never ponied up for a tour guide at a major attraction, this trip opened my eyes. I got much more out of the sights we visited and found I had a longer attention span than when wandering around with a guidebook.
Here's our itinerary, which you could do without the chaperones and the crowd.
DAYS 1-2: Lima
It takes most of a day to get to Peru, so your first day is spent en route. Book a hotel in the Miraflores neighborhood, a pleasant, tourist-friendly part of this city of 10 million. In his excellent travel memoir, "Turn Right at Machu Picchu," Mark Adams says what I was thinking: "Lima is a lot like Los Angeles: valet parking, beaches, smog alerts."
Miraflores is not Venice Beach, but it does have a boardwalk. It runs along the cliffs over the Pacific and offers terrific views. A curvy stone staircase takes you down to the rocky surfing beach. The indoor/outdoor Larcomar shopping mall features joints where you can eat over the water; Cafe Cafe makes a good Pisco Sour, a cocktail originated here. Next door, the romantic Parque del Amor was inspired by Gaudi's creations in Barcelona.
We took a guided bus tour of the city and made two stops: the Plaza Mayor, where Lima was founded by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535; around it are key palaces and cathedrals. The other stop was at the galleries of pre-Columbian art at the flower-draped Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, famous for X-rated pottery. Our seventh-grade tour omitted this; surely you'll want to see everything. The museum offers guided tours for about $5.
DAY 3: Cusco
Take an early flight to Cusco, which is more Santa Fe than L.A. in style. The city is 11,200 feet above sea level, so as soon as you get there, start imbibing the local remedy for altitude sickness -- coca tea, offered free in most hotels. Also note that Cusco can be very cold; it rarely gets warmer than the high 60s. Our hotel was unheated, and if I went again I would stay somewhere with heat near the Plaza de Armas, the main square. This contains the city's main attraction, the Cusco Cathedral, built atop an Incan palace by the Spaniards. The mash-up of European and indigenous cultures is nowhere more evident than in Marcos Zapata's rendition of "The Last Supper" -- on the platter in front of the disciples is the local specialty, a roasted guinea pig, paws up. You'll see it in restaurants, too, so get used to it.
Saqsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman" to the delight of seventh-graders) is an impressive Incan site just outside town. You can hire a guide at the gate for a two-hour tour -- it should cost no more than $20. Like Stonehenge, this place features the 200-ton rocks that ancient people so loved dragging around. And what's left is less than a quarter of what was once here -- the Spaniards toted the rest off to various building projects.
What to eat in Cusco? My favorite thing was the plate of rice with fried egg, French fries, chopped tomato and onion purchased from a vendor outside the Mercado Central de San Pedro for $1. Which is also the price of a nice pair of earrings inside this vibrant market.
DAYS 4-5: Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu
We took Perurail's Vistadome train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town outside Machu Picchu. It's a pedestrian-only enclave of hotels and restaurants on a hillside -- at 6,700 feet, much warmer than Cusco. It is named for hot springs that I didn't visit because my son, a Peru tourism veteran, texted me three times not to bother. Some people from our group did go and said they were "not that hot," in both senses of the word.
You can take a bus from the center of town up the Hiram Bingham Trail to Machu Picchu. (Read the Mark Adams book before you go for a narrative of hiking in -- that way you don't miss anything.)
Machu Picchu was abandoned by the Incas when the Spanish showed up, and the invaders never found it. It remained unknown to the outside world until its rediscovery in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham and has since become the centerpiece of the growing Peruvian tourist industry. Kate Berseth, executive vice president of EF Tours, reports that educational trips like mine have increased by 70 percent since 2007.
Machu Picchu was intended to be a royal residence -- we can tell which house was to be the king's by the location of the single indoor toilet. I am sure I would not have learned this without our charming guide, who led us through the maze of gates, chambers, plazas, towers, tombs and temples, offering quirky details at every turn.
The dozens of llamas that wander the verdant grounds are natural lawn mowers, he told us. The Spanish, he said darkly, have never stopped their depredations -- The Temple of the Sun was permanently closed due to graffiti by tourists from Spain, and a key obelisk was removed to accommodate the helicopter of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia in the 1980s.
DAY 6: Sacred Valley
On the way back to Cusco from Machu Picchu, we took a bus tour of the Sacred Valley, also called the Urubamba Valley, encompassing the heartland of the Incan empire. The town of Maras is known for its shimmering Salineras, or "salt pans," where the Inca harvested salt in terraced holding ponds. Our group walked along the stream that fed the ponds as a guide explained the ancient process. We visited a weavers' collective in Chinchero and a little roadside stop called El Descanso in Yanahuara, where we learned how chicha, a fermented corn drink, is made. This spot has a rooftop with a panorama of the valley and offers sapo, a kind of coin-pitch game. You could book a similar tour through your hotel.
If you add to these school-tour basics the delights of individual travel -- impulsive decisions, spontaneous interactions with locals and natives, the ability to move about without a phalanx of compadres and, perhaps dearest to my heart, to eat dinner wherever you want -- you should have a pretty fine week in the Land of the Inca.
IF YOU GO
EF Tours With headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., and offices in 50 countries, EF offers all-inclusive trips through schools, usually organized by teachers. 800-637-8222, eftours.com
Airfare If you fly to Lima from LaGuardia in September, round-trip flights start at $778 on United. Similarly priced are flights on American and Delta and others. Round-trip flights from Lima to Cusco are offered by the Peruvian LAN Airlines and start around $300.
Larcomar Miraflores's open-air shopping mall overlooking the Pacific is popular with tourists and locals. Block 6 of Malecon de la Reserva, larcomar.com
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia del Peru
The largest and oldest museum in Peru, housing more than 100,000 artifacts, including a scale model of Machu Picchu. Plaza Bolivar, closed Mondays, guided tours about $5
Built on the foundations of an Incan temple, this Roman Catholic cathedral is a repository for the colonial art of the region. Admission $10, open daily 10.a.m.-6 p.m.
Entrance tickets must be purchased at least a month in advance at machupicchu.gob.pe