And this was no last-minute decision. NG Kids began planning the trip over a year in advance, and are already thinking about next year’s group. The itinerary was carefully thought out especially for the kids, and required a great amount of effort and coordination. “It’s extremely generous of Promperu [and Apotur] to give us all of the different components of this trip: the airfare, the hotels, the food, the on-ground transportation,” Dana commented.
For many of the kids, this has been their first international trip, while others are experienced travelers. Whichever the case, they all had an intense curiosity and interest in seeing the world which I sensed in their passion describing their trip to me. In some cases, they even arrived with a particular interest in Peru. McKenna, 14, has wanted to come since she was six years old, when her grandmother returned from a trip and told her stories of the amazing country she had visited.
In addition to the kids, two teachers were also chosen to go on the trip. They were asked to tell NG Kids how they teach their pupils about this part of the world through an original hands-on activity to capture kids’ interest. Coincidentally, one of this year’s winning teachers also happened to be one of the lucky parents joining the trip. In other cases, choosing which parent would get to come wasn’t as simple, and for some it came down to flipping a coin, leaving the decision to pure luck.
And we’re off!
On Saturday May 23rd, the six boys and nine girls, their parents, and the National Geographic staff members, arrived in Lima. During their first day they got to visit the Larco Museum, a handicraft market, and finally, Larcomar. After a night at the Sheraton Hotel, they went to Mamacona to see a Peruvian Paso horse exhibition and some typical dances, and then ended their visit to the capital with a stop at the Circuito Mágico de las Aguas. The kids were thrilled to see the park, which took the whole group by surprise, and they had fun playing in the interactive fountains, where they did their best not to get wet.
The following morning they flew to Cuzco, going straight to the Sacred Valley, where they stayed at Aranwa, a beautiful new hotel and spa that opened last year. The next day, a special treat had been prepared especially for the kids: a treasure hunt activity taking place all over the mystical Sacred Valley. They were divided into teams and competed in categories such as hair braiding, typical Peruvian dancing, and archery aimed at balloons. This all-day event included the participation of local children and the people of the valley, who taught them these different activities and cheered them on.
They then headed back to Cuzco, where they stayed at the Hotel Libertador, and visited Sacsayhuaman. The next day they went to Ollantaytambo and traveled to Aguas Calientes, where they stayed at Inkaterra’s luxurious Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. Finally, the day arrived when they would see Machu Picchu. The kids were fascinated by the legendary citadel and got to explore the extraordinary ruins all day.
After returning to Cuzco for another night, they departed for their final destination: the rainforest of Tambopata in Madre de Dios, which I was lucky enough to accompany them to. During four days, we got to trek through the jungle, seeing all kinds of wildlife, including leaf-cutter ants, huge snails, a few monkeys, and even a couple tarantulas. We also cruised the “Tres Chimbadas Lake,” where we saw a variety of birds, including the captivating yet strange hoatzin, and also got to fish for piranhas from the catamaran. We watched parakeets eating clay from a blind in the jungle and climbed a tower to see the view over the rainforest canopy, where macaws and other birds can be seen flying overhead. By night, we found perfectly camouflaged stick bugs sitting still on leaves, and observed other night insects using a light trap, including huge moths and beetles. We also got to know a bit about the rainforest’s traditions and culture, visiting a native farm and touring an ethno botanical garden with the local community’s chamán, who explained the functions of each medicinal plant. We painted our faces with natural dyes, and learned the trades of the rainforest from the people of the community, who taught us how to weave baskets and make necklaces and bracelets with colorful seeds.
We stayed at Rainforest Expedition’s Posada Amazonas, a lodge located in the middle of the rainforest a couple hours from Puerto Maldonado by boat. Somehow, the lodge manages to find a fine balance between giving its visitors the full jungle experience, with the trees and wildlife only a few meters from the buildings, yet making sure the rooms feel pleasant and comfortable. Electricity is only available at certain hours of the day, which takes some getting used to, but later acquires a charm of its own. As for television and other forms of entertainment, the kids didn’t seem to have missed it at all. “I think it’s a lot better without it,” Rachel, 12, told me. The kids found other ways to have fun, mostly exploring even further, looking at their latest insect and animal discoveries, sometimes playing chess, and their favorite: hammock wars.
Documenting the journey
After seeing these kids’ adventurous spirit, I have no doubt why they were chosen. They were curious, inquisitive, and never stopped exploring. “They absolutely love it. We’ve been keeping them busy from morning ‘til night but no complaint from the kids, they want to make the most out of it,” Dana commented. “The kids soak it all in, they’re pretty fearless!” Not to mention how smart they are! Some of them plan on becoming biologists, zoologists and veterinarians, while others are interested in studying journalism and photography. Though this trip will give each of these kids an extra push in their career paths, the future photographers in the group have gotten a special head start. In addition to the trip, each of the winners also received a Nikon D60 digital SLR camera for them to document their travels in the very best quality. “My dad is so jealous!” Lucy, 11, told me. It was impressive to see these kids treading around in their muddy boots, snapping pictures at everything from turtles to flowers, to fire ants, and now and then, less obvious, yet perceptive shots. While on one of our multiple peque-peque rides, Lijah, 13, was looking around when he suddenly seemed to have a revelation. All of a sudden he got down on the floor of the little boat, with no worry to his already muddy outfit, and photographed the rows of dirty boots.
And for those, like Lijah, wanting to study photography, their dreams could easily come true. Amy Toensing, one of the National Geographic photographers who came on the trip, told me “The kids are doing amazing work. Literally sometimes I’m looking through their pictures and I just gasp!” Bruce Dale, a photographer with 30 years of experience working for National Geographic, agrees. “Many of these kids have the potential to become photographers if that’s what they want to do,” he commented, “Some of them have incredible eyes. It’s something you’re kind of born with I think; the composition, the feeling of balance, the color and the contrast.”
As for their impressions of Peru, they couldn’t have been more positive. The kids were blown away by everything they had experienced, and couldn’t stop talking about all of the exciting things they had done. Highlights included the Sacred Valley treasure hunt, their rainforest adventures and of course, Machu Picchu. For others it was simply impossible to pinpoint a favorite moment.
As soon as I asked about Peruvian food, an enthusiastic “Oooo” went around the room. The kids all agreed that they had loved Peruvian cuisine, and some were particularly enthusiastic, like Laura Beth, 14, who told me “Half the time I was like ‘I have no idea what I’m eating, but it’s good!’ ” Many told me that so far, they hadn’t tried a single thing they didn’t like, and that they looked forward to meals because they knew that whatever they ate would be delicious.
But what they emphasized most was how friendly and hospitable everyone had been to them. From getting across language barriers, to dealing with altitude sickness, the kids and their parents were impressed and appreciative of the warmth Peruvians received them with.
This trip has surely been an incredible opportunity for these kids, one they are unlikely to ever forget. They have gotten to know a whole different culture, made wonderful memories, and created long-lasting friendships. And for me, getting to come along on part of this trip was just as wonderful. Nothing could make me prouder of my country than seeing it through these kids’ eyes. What a gift that opportunities like this come around to remind me the breathtaking country I’m a part of.