South America special: Round Peru with an eight-year-old

Taking an eight-year-old on a journey through Peru was always a gamble. But it just made the trip more exciting, says Helen Truszkowski

Rule one of travelling with an eight-year-old: when it comes to sharing travel experiences, count on staying grounded. For every breathtaking view, there's a nose that needs wiping, or a bodily part that requires your attention.

We'd started out on this Andean journey 48 hours earlier, with a stopover in Lima's tangled metropolis. Peru's capital was once the headquarters of the Spanish conquistadors. Today almost a third of Peru's population of 24 million live in Lima, making much of the city overcrowded and noisy.

Scuzziness aside, the city's titanic San Francisco monastery was a hit with George. Over the years, they have buried thousands of people here. A morbid curiosity overtook us as we scoured its eerie catacombs for skulls. In every other sense, though, Lima proved to be a disappointing means to an end. The swanky restaurants and shops of its much-hyped cultural suburb, Miraflores, were overshadowed by the drive back along its traffic-choked Avenida Arequipa.

It took one bumpy flight from Lima to Juliaca and one even lumpier minibus ride to reach the heights of Puno. Set on the fringes of Titicaca, Puno is at the heart of Peru's traditional music and folklore, famed for its exuberant handicrafts, costumes, festivals and legends. There, at least, were some flickers of the integrity of centuries-old Andean culture.

Much of daily life revolved around the marketplace. Tiny, tanned women in shrunken bowler hats, vibrant shawls and voluminous skirts plied their fruit and flowers, handmade panpipes and ponchos - children at their heels.

At 12,350ft above sea level, lack of oxygen takes its toll. The headaches, I was assured, were a result of steady acclimatisation. Restorative coca tea appeared, with obscure dishes of alpaca this and llama that. They did the trick.

The next day, back on Titicaca, our motor launch chugged on towards the floating Uros islands. We faced what must rank among the world's oddest abodes. Balanced improbably upon layers of intricately entwined totora reed stood lopsided shacks and a mammoth lookout post fashioned into a garish, open-mouthed monster. This village was home to a community of Indians.

The Uros began their unusual floating existence centuries ago in an effort to isolate themselves from the Colla and Inca tribes. Eking out an existence from the reeds dictates a humble lifestyle: the ground they live on, the food they eat, their boats and their homes are all reed.

George had hooked up with the local dodger. I spied them ping-ponging their way across the reeds, and up the ladder of the lookout. The boy boarded a reed canoe with George at the stern, and paddled across to an islet. I wasn't sure they were coming back.

The next island, Taquile, had no cars, no bicycles, no pack animals. If you wanted a glimpse of traditional village life, you had to put in the legwork. A schlep up the rocklined stairway led us towards the town square. Coy women peeped out from behind the craggy stone walls dressed in signature gathered skirts, their heads covered with navy shawls trimmed with pompoms. The men donned black pants, white shirts and either a multicoloured hat - married - or a red and white hat - looking for love.

So much more lay ahead of us: a narrow-gauge train ride through exhilarating Altiplano territory; the Urubamba River spilling through narrow gorges; spectacular snow-covered peaks; then, high on a bluff, Machu Picchu's maze of granite passageways. And, to top it off, the trail up to Intipunku from where the Inca city would unfold before our saucer-sized eyes.

Part of Peru's appeal is that nothing works out the way you planned. Reservations get misplaced, the electricity goes out, your mattress has lumps. Yet partly because a trip here falls into the once-in-a-lifetime experience and mostly because kids are natural adventurers, I focus on the fuller picture.

Helen Truszkowski travelled to Peru with Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; walksworldwide.com), which offers a comprehensive 14-night tour that includes flights, rooms, transfers, most meals, riding ponies for the children, plus a guide and tour leader. Adults pay £1,950; children (2-11 years) £1,650; infants (under 12 months) £195

An alternative trek

On a family-friendly trip to Easter Island with Explora (OO 562 206 6060; explora .com) you get the option of free day excursions. Activities include easy trekking, mountain-biking, and viewing the islands' weird ancient sculptures. Seven nights' full board is £1,635, £798 for kids, excluding all flights.

Comments