By Gretchen Richter de Medeiros
Peru: land of misty mountains and pan pipes, ancient ruins, gorgeous textiles and world-class food. Our first stop, it was one of our best-planned itineraries. We spent just a few days in Lima getting acclimatized to being on the road. Despite a minor challenge with checking in to our rental apartment, and the kids being sick for the first few days, we enjoyed eating Peruvian specialties at neighborhood restaurants, a bike tour of the city, and a visit to the chocolate museum.
We then went on to the Sacred Valley. Wanting to meet other travelers, we’d decided to stay at a backpacker’s lodge in the town of Ollantaytambo. It was perfect! There was coca-leaf tea available all day long in the lobby (it helped with the altitude sickness), hammocks to relax in after our daily hikes, and plentiful, healthy breakfasts. And sure enough, we had lots of helpful travel conversations with other guests.
Since ancient history is a keystone of our road-schooling curriculum, we hired a guide to drive us to Inka and pre-Inka ruins. He shared many different archeological theories about the architecture, agriculture and culture of the people whose sites we visited, along with his own opinion about which ones were most plausible. We all came to love his calm nature and insights.
Meanwhile, we started in on the kids’ “traditional” curriculum, 3 classes-worth of online lessons for Isabella and book-based Math learning for Marco. We quickly realized that in South America we could not count on the ubiquitous internet access we have become accustomed to in the US. For Isabella to keep up, we have to study whenever the connection is good!
No trip to Peru is complete without visiting Machu Picchu. We stumbled out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:15, picked up the sack-breakfasts made for us by the lodge’s cooks, and walked 25 minutes to the train station for our 5:30 AM departure. The site took our breath away – literally and figuratively. Postcards simply cannot capture the majesty of this incredible place.
When people ask about our itinerary, we often answer with short descriptions of things we plan to do. “We’re going on Safari in South Africa”. “We’re looking for a language-immersion school in France”. In the case of Chile, our standard comment “We’re going to drink wine and sit on the beach” ended up being the perfect summary. After a short stay in Santiago, we rented a car and toured the Colchagua Valley. The kids settled in with books, music and hand-held games while the adults took turns being designated drivers. We tasted Carmenere, a grape that got "lost" during the early days of Chilean winemaking (often confused with Merlot) and rediscovered in the 90s… thank goodness it was "found"! Mid-month we settled in for two weeks at a simple beach house in the summer vacation town of Las Cruces. We studied, cooked, edited photos and videos, walked on the beach, swam in the still-chilly-pool, and visited nearby wineries in the Casablanca Valley. We chatted with Juanito, the caretaker, played games, and read about Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda, whose seaside home was just a few miles away.
It has been easy to find and pay for homes through VRBO.com and Airbnb; having space to unpack and time to find a routine really helps us recharge. We also find that rentals fit our budget better than hotels and allow us to immerse ourselves in to the communities we visit.
Planning for Argentina started with a guidebook and a romantic notion of Argentine gauchos. Reading about the wildlife of the Peninsula Valdes sparked a desire to see penguins in their natural habitat. Rodrigo wanted to taste wine in Mendoza and Heather dreamed of seeing the fossils of Argentinosaurus in Neuquen. With that, a road trip began to take shape.
We dug into online resources, booked lodging at an Estancia, hostels and Bed-n-Breakfasts, and found a medium sized car that we hoped would have a trunk big enough for all our luggage. We’re packing light, but 5 people does translate to 11 bags (one large and one small backpack per person, plus Rodrigo’s camera gear)!
First stop: Buenos Aires. The architecture, food, art, urban-design and lifestyle habits reflect the melting-pot nature of this city of immigrants. Lazy mornings at "home" combined with afternoon sightseeing was just right for our 9 days in the city. We loved the Argentine ice-cream (better than gelato!) and ubiquitous fruit and vegetable stands. We made friends with the ladies at the bakery where we bought breakfast bread daily. More informative than macabre we visited the Recoleta cemetery, with its world-reknown collection of funerary art and famous dead people. Of course, we also went to a Tango show filled with amazing feats of athletic grace and dazzling costumes.
Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world. If you ask the kids, they'll tell you we drove through it all in just two weeks. We went old-school, using paper maps and getting directions from our hostel owners and gas-station attendants. (We're traveling with an emergency-use-only cellphone that does not have a data plan. An international plan for 1 year was exorbitantly expensive!) Navigating mostly-good roads, we saw a variety of topography: the Sierra Madre, the Andes, canyons, pampas, vast plains of oil-rich/dino-rich desert, and rugged coastlines. Two experiences stand out: the Estancia and the Peninsula Valdes. Staying at the Estancia - an Argentine ranch - was a big splurge. We went horseback riding, took long walks around the property, and were treated to feats of daring-on-horseback. One of the highlights was the food! Meals were an amazing combination of Argentine grilled meat, house wines, salads and dessert. Afterwards, the gauchos played songs, showed some traditional dances, and encouraged the guests to join in.
The road-trip ended with four days at the Peninsula Valdes, where we stayed in the tiny town of Puerto Piramides (pop 450). One day we donned bright orange life vests to take a boat excursion to see Southern Right Whales. The biologist on board “guaranteed” that we’d see whales that day, and sure enough, we saw a half-dozen mother-baby pairs. The next day we drove the 4 hour loop of the peninsula. We giddily took selfies with the Magellanic Penquins, marveled at the Sea Elephants sunning themselves on the rocks, and hoped-beyond-hope we’d catch a glimpse of the famous southern Orcas who hunt by beaching themselves on the shore (sadly, we didn’t).
Our last excursion was a kayak tour to a Sea Lion colony. After just an hour of paddling, we rounded a corner to see rocks and caves covered with these curious, playful creatures. The young ones slipped and slid off their perches to swim and spyglass around us. Their gorgeous brown eyes reflected the blue of the sea and their vocalizations made us laugh. Perhaps the best part was that our daughter, not a fan of nature, admitted that this was her favorite experience of the trip so far.