May the Inca Be With You

A New York family makes an enlightening pilgrimage to the Sacred Valley of Peru.

We boarded the Continental flight from New York to Lima with ten bags (light by our standards); 61 volumes of Goosebumps for my eight-year-old son, Issey (the only time in my life I've longed for an e-book); his violin; my Contax 645, Contax Tvs III point-and-shoot, and a Sony palm-sized Digital Handycam; a Game Boy Advance loaded with SpongeBob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman; an iPod downloaded up to the gigabyte with Eminem's 8 Mile for Issey, the soundtrack from Chicago for my 11-year-old daughter, Nikeyu, Norah Jones for me, and Sidha Yoga chants for my wife, Yukine; dozens of Young's Essential Oils, the tools of Yukine's aromatherapy practice, which I am convinced warded off "the ague, the plague, and the crud." Just in case, I also brought Diamox for the altitude (between 6,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level); Purell hand sanitizer (jumbo family size); Imodium for Atahualpa's Revenge; vast quantities of bottled water; and travel journals for all from Kate's Paperie.

Our family was going to Peru for the first time—three days and nights exploring the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco, and then a five-day pilgrimage to the mysterious Machu Picchu. I had always thought of travel pretty much as a means of escape, a way to avoid the rigors of work and the everyday sensory assault of New York. This trip would end up changing that outlook forever. We found ourselves journeying into the heart of an Incan culture and spirit that lives on 500 years after its zenith: in the monumental stonework ruins of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu; in the Quechua language still spoken by Andean shepherds and weavers; and above all in the warm hearts of a gentle people.

We spent weeks getting into the right frame of mind and body: There was Peter Frost's Exploring Cusco and photographer Edward Ranney's Monuments of the Incas. Dr. Marvin Cooper, our travel-medicine specialist in New York, vaccinated us against hepatitis A, meningococcus, tetanus, typhoid, and flu. We spent an afternoon at Paragon Sports, finding just the right hiking shoes (Mephisto Air-Relax Slackers) and boots (Ecco, which disintegrated before trip's end), rain gear, and a Swiss Army backpack and wrap-around Oakley sunglasses for Issey. We got in shape by treadmilling, biking, and down-face dogging. I can't remember more preparation since the birth of our daughter, 11 years ago. She was now on the cusp of adolescence, and if we waited any longer we'd be tagging along with her on a honeymoon.

Family Outing

Over the past five years, the family vacation has undergone radical transformation. Even the most far-flung or formerly child-free destinations—from trekking in the Himalayas to Round Hill in Jamaica—are teeming with kids these days. As time becomes the ultimate luxury, more and more parents insist that the children accompany them—and not just to the cosseted confines of their $2,000-a-night Caribbean thatched-roof cottages but to the far corners of the world.

Butterfield & Robinson, the venerable Canadian tour operator best known, especially in its early years, for its classy bicycle rides throughout France, has recently introduced a service called Bespoke that, as the name and elegant little blue book of services and destinations imply, custom-designs trips in much the same way as a couturier tailors the suit to fit the man.

From Bali to Bhutan, Burgundy to Botswana, Prague to Patagonia, the Veneto to Vietnam: B&R will give you a transporting and transcendent experience. George Butterfield, who founded B&R in 1966 with his wife, Martha Robinson, says, "We have changed a lot in thirty-seven years, but our vision of slowing down in a fast-paced world has been our North Star." Every B&R trip "is written and directed like a stage production," says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management and a longtime client. "It unfolds as a carefully orchestrated sequence of small details that add up to a beautifully told story." Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha and another Butterfield & Robinson devotee, says, "As a traveler, you are often out of your element, but B&R offers a depth of knowledge that can change the landscape completely."

B&R created the Bespoke approach for people like me: people who have always rebelled against the idea of travel en masse, against organized collective experience in general. If you prefer discovery over agendas (but want the minutiae taken care of); if you like to straggle and linger (but are short on time); if you seek cultural immersion (without deprivation); and if you want to return feeling reborn, Bespoke travel is just the ticket. The latest fashion in this novel custom tailoring is the family vacation.

Behind the Scenes

For weeks before we touched down, the last details of our journey were quietly being fine-tuned by a crew of young men and women in their 20s and 30s—outgoing, intellectually curious, and coolheaded—who have wanderlust coursing through their veins. They are the linchpins of Butterfield & Robinson. Martha Robinson calls them "truffle pigs, who sort through all the dirt to find the rare delicacy."

One of our guides, Cari Gray, had been calling and e-mailing from Toronto for six weeks in advance, picking up subtle clues about our interests and relaying them to lead guide Julie Ritchie, a 36-year-old B&R veteran who was already in Peru working to ensure that the nine-day drama would unfold flawlessly. Knowing that our daughter loves horses, Julie organized a sunset trail ride in the town of Urubamba with an Argentinian horse whisperer. She verified that our rooms at the Hotel Monasterio in Cuzco, a 400-year-old Spanish Colonial seminary recently restored to grand luxe by the Orient-Express group, were superoxygenated, via tiny high-tech devices, to counter the effects of high altitude. She hired Amilcar as our guide not only for his fluency in Quechua but also because he was an accomplished Peruvian musician and could work with Issey and Nikeyu, both accomplished musicians themselves, on learning to play Andean pan pipes and flutes. For our farewell dinner she would arrange a feast at Colcampata, a 17th-century hacienda overlooking Cuzco, with a serenade by Alan Cabrera, a Creole composer and well-known Peruvian singer (she would also, without being asked, call for a car to take Issey back to the hotel when he fell asleep on his plate before the performance even began). Julie and Cari were our hosts, teachers, nannies, mind-readers, troubleshooters, and miracle workers.

Peru Light and Dark

A land of stark contrasts, Peru is part coastal desert, high sierra, mountain plains, cloud forest, and 20,000-foot snowcapped peaks. All of these, plus the rainforest of the Amazon, lie within the space of a few hundred miles—as the condor flies. The mountain light etches furrows and crevices into the great rock faces of the Andes; it casts deep shadows in the valleys between peaks wreathed in mist. The land feels very much like the Rocky Mountains, and is geologically about the same age—give or take a million years.

It is also the third largest country in South America, five times the size of Great Britain. More than half its population of 28 million lives below the poverty line, but the literacy rate is 89 percent. It is a melting pot: 45 percent Indian, 37 percent mestizo (a mix of Indian and white), and 15 percent white, with smaller black, Japanese, and Chinese populations. The country seems to belong to children—they are everywhere you turn—street urchins and vendors in Cuzco, playing games along the highways, tending flocks in the remotest mountain pastures. Work begins at a very tender age, and my children were sobered by the sight of it.

Peru has endured a steady procession of settlers, occupiers, and invaders—no fewer than 19 distinct cultures stretching back 16,000 years can be traced, prior to the arrival of the Incas in A.D. 1200. Under a succession of 12 rulers over the next 300 years, culminating with Pachacuti, the Alexander the Great of the Incas, this austere mountain tribe grew into an expansionist empire that spanned 2,500 miles, from what is now central Chile to Ecuador and Colombia. Its capital was the mountain city of Cuzco, still a teeming mestizo of Spanish and Incan influence, with a magnificent 20,000-mile network of roads radiating out in all directions, à la Rome. This is where our trip began. In 1948 Christopher Isherwood wrote of Cuzco's demise as a world capital: "What remains with you is the sense of a great outrage. Magnificent but unforgivable. The Spaniards tore down the Inca temples and grafted splendid churches and mansions onto their foundations. This is one of the most beautiful monuments to bigotry and sheer stupid brutality in the whole world."

The Art of Travel

On a bespoke Butterfield & Robinson trip, if all you did was sleep it would still be memorable. Each night was special: from the loggia of our suites at the Monasterio in Cuzco we looked out onto a cloistered garden echoing with evensong; the 29 rooms of Sanctuary Lodge (also owned by Orient-Express) each have a private garden, many of them overlooking the peaks and ruins of Machu Picchu. In Urubamba, the Sol y Luna, an Edenic compound of Provençal cottages, was for three days our base for forays into the Andes.

B&R believes that travelers mustn't just pass through, that we must slow down, learn, interact—and give back in some way. Deep in the mountains, above the tiny town of Patacancha, where Incan culture and language (Quechua is their native tongue) have survived intact for centuries, we were greeted with songs and curiosity at the local elementary school by students who work in the fields from dawn with their shepherd and farmer fathers, and walk for up to three hours to attend school in the afternoon. Their mothers sell their exquisitely stylish traditional weavings in the school playing fields. Julie gave soccer balls, notebooks, and pencils for each of the 50 students.

Grand gourmandise is also essential to the B&R experience. At the Sol y Luna we were treated to a pachamaka (a Peruvian deep-pit barbecue of potatoes, corn, fava beans, sweet potatoes, yucca, lamb, chicken, and pork, garnished with aromatic herbs) prepared by the hotel's Swiss owners. A five-course feast in Ollantaytambo at the 19th-century ancestral hacienda of the first governor of Cuzco included roast guinea pig. Issey and Nikeyu (and I) were speechless to learn that in Peru, your household pet one day might be your dinner the next, and passed the serving dish. The next night the chefs of the Sol y Luna taught our children not only how much fun it can be to cook brick-oven pizza, but how to feel empowered and creative in so doing.

On day four of our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, B&R pulled off an astonishing gastronomic feat. Julie had taken our children on the Inca Train to the town of Aguas Calientes, then by bus up the dizzying road to Machu Picchu. My wife and I were to join them that night after a daylong, 7.5-mile ascent on foot along the Inca Trail. Our guide was Roger Valencia, a Peruvian adventurer-scholar and the chosen guide of Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo when receiving foreign dignitaries. Roger's chiseled features, eagle eyes, and aquiline nose seemed as carved as the stone Incan ruins we passed en route. Ask a question on any imaginable subject and Roger will give an impassioned answer of a minute, an hour, or a day. We trekked as Roger mused on Incan cosmology, Peruvian presidential politics, rare Andean orchids, architecture, a brief history of the Conquistadors, and more.

The Inca Train, elegant in navy blue accented with twin yellow stripes, dropped us at our starting point beside the roaring Urubamba River. After a steady three-hour climb from the cactus- and agave-covered valley floor through Andean dwarf forest, stream beds, and onto steep puna grassland slopes, we stopped at a small hut overlooking the cloud forest. Here land, sky, and water seem to become one. Roger said lunch awaited us on the terraced ruins of Huiñay Huayna ("Forever Young") just across the valley. It seemed very far away, drenched and depleted as we were by the heat of the late-spring sun and the 1,500-foot climb.

Stepping into a small, blissfully cool glen shaded with tree ferns, we rounded the bend of a hairpin path to behold what seemed like a mirage: At the base of a cascading waterfall 200 feet high stood two men in immaculate chef's uniforms with a beautifully laid out lunch. We were escorted to a table replete with silver, linens, and glassware, looking out over the stream and the cloud forest below. The first course, of ceviche, was so fresh it seemed that the fish had been pulled from the pool at our feet. Next came alpaca tartare and saltero fava salad with Peruvian mashed potatoes. The cape gooseberry mousse for dessert was a perfect amuse-bouche. Traditional coca-leaf tea and a selection of passionfruit, guava, papaya, and mango juices restored our energy for the remaining climb.

I am still stumped as to how this masterpiece of culinary logistics was pulled off. I have since learned that surprises like this are the hallmark of every B&R Bespoke expedition. "We like to inject a bit of theater into every trip," George Butterfield says. After a plunge in the icy pool, and our gourmet picnic in paradise, I entered a trancelike euphoria, swearing that I would never again go anywhere without B&R.

Children of the Sun

Off in the far distance, near the peak of the highest mountains shrouded in mist, Roger pointed to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu. A soft rain began to fall; from that point onward, as we climbed Huiñay Huayna, inhabited only by butterflies and mountain forests fragrant with orchids, it seemed that we were climbing the stairway to heaven. As twilight fell we passed through the Sun Gate to behold the full glory of the vast ruined palaces of the lost city of Machu Picchu. It lay below us, hovering in a sea of clouds, anchored by the sheer peak of Huayna Picchu behind it, with the snowcapped Vilcabamba range in the distance and the roaring Urubamba miles below.

We had achieved the summit the old-fashioned way, and I am convinced that, to fully appreciate its beauty and spiritual power, Machu Picchu must be approached on foot, if not on your knees—it is indeed sacred earth. Like a ruined cathedral, it is a literal and symbolic expression of mankind's unfulfilled aspirations to touch the divine realm.

A city lost for centuries until it was rediscovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 on an archeological expedition from Yale University, it is only now starting to emerge from its shroud of mystery. Was it a royal country retreat for the Inca rulers, a military fortress, a complex of ceremonial shrines and temples, an astronomical observatory, or all of the above? Current scholarship comes down heavily on the side of the first possibility. Inca rulers had established royal estates throughout the empire, but mostly in the Cuzco region. Pachacuti probably started construction of Machu Picchu around 1450, choosing the mountainside site for its religious importance (the mountain gods were second only to the sun god) and relatively warm climate in winter—it's nearly 3,000 feet lower than Cuzco. Upwards of 750 people—the emperor, his nobles, foreign dignitaries, and an army of royals, retainers, soldiers, craftsmen, and cooks—inhabited this astonishingly well engineered complex of public and private buildings, a retreat that has been likened to an Incan Camp David.

Despite its role as an emblem of worldly empire, Machu Picchu seemed to me to belong more to heaven than to the earth, a kind of Grand Central Terminal between this world and the next. One of the great benefits of staying at the Sanctuary Lodge is that one can visit the ruins at the beginning and end of the day, before and after the several thousand tourists who ascend daily from Aguas Calientes. I got up at 5 a.m. and walked up alone in the darkness and then descended into the labyrinth of the ruins. Over the next two hours I watched dawn rise, pouring a curtain of light over the citadel, turning the stonework into a faceted cubist sculpture of light and shadow. Suddenly, through one of the openings in the Temple of the Three Windows, I saw my wife and daughter appear beatifically; through another I glimpsed my son darting after lizards. I lay down on the elegant platform of the intihuatana, the "hitching post of the sun," the highest rock sculpture among the Incan ruins of Peru, and fell asleep in the morning sun.

A Blessing and a Prayer

On our final day, back in Cuzco, Roger Valencia arranged a visit to a meadow above Sacsayhuaman, a vast fortress of Incan ruins in the hills overlooking the city. It was the Incan Wounded Knee, the site in 1536 of the last stand of the Incas, "The Children of the Sun," against the Spanish invaders.

There we received a ritual benediction by Roger's mentor—an aged, kind, and gentle shaman named Nazario who safeguards the 20,945-foot-high Ausangate Mountain, the source of the Urubamba River, which formed the backbone of our trip through the Sacred Valley. He is said to be the guardian of all the mountain creatures, great and small, and to ensure the cycle of water that gives them life.

Nazario placed his hand on each of our heads—me, Yukine, Nikeyu, Issey, Roger, Julie, and Cari. Looking skyward, he expressed gratitude in Quechua to the gods of all the sacred mountains for the gift of existence. He prayed that our lives be filled with joy and peace, and reverence for Inca, the spiritual power that is in all things. He said to my daughter that she was like our creator because she would become a woman who gives life. My son's face brightened as a tiny lizard jumped into his lap.

Suddenly the sky darkened to a heavy gray against the emerald-green foothills of the Andes, silhouetting the once-mighty limestone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman.The clouds opened and the rains poured down on us in a kind of baptism, and I realized there was no better place to be in all the world than here, now, with our children—all of us Children of the Sun, together.


As Butterfield & Robinson says, it all starts with a dream. In designing your Bespoke trip, let your imagination be your guide:

CUZCO AND MACHU PICCHU The best time to visit Peru's Sacred Valley is during the dry season, from June to August. That's winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and the high altitudes can be chilly. May and September can also be nice, and there are far fewer tourists. Summer (December-April) can be very warm and often quite wet.

WHERE ELSE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO? Bike through the hill towns of Provence; add a three-day spelunking excursion to a walking trip in the Dordogne valley; take cooking lessons from Piedmont's top chefs along with a wine-tasting tour; tackle Africa's highest peak, Kilimanjaro, followed by a mellow beach holiday in Zanzibar; sip lotus tea at a seaside French Colonial manor in Vietnam; go trail-riding through a forest of ancient oaks on a San Ysidro ranch while your kids learn how to surf off the Santa Barbara coast. Other destinations include Andalusia, Bali, Botswana, Cuba, Morocco, New Zealand, and Patagonia.

WHAT WILL YOU SEE? Sights that no one else sees: the Taj Mahal at sunrise, before it gets overrun by tourists; after-hours museum tours in Prague; Cycladic cave paintings that are normally off-limits unless you're an anthropologist.

PRICES A Peru trip such as the one designed for the Callaways would cost $6,850 per person. Other B&R trips range from $600 to $1,500 per day.

Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond Street, Toronto, Canada; 800-678-1147;