I think many travellers are divided on the issue of group tours.  There seems to be a wide variance on the types of tours you can take, and along with that the types of people that tend to take these tours.  Many travelers shudder at the thought of taking a group tour, imagining them to be like your grandma taking a bus to Branson, Missouri, or a huge group of Japanese tourists checking out the Path in downtown Toronto.  As a  teenager, I took an EF tour with my highschool to Italy and Greece.  As a 14 year old, a group tour really is the ONLY way to go, and for me, it was a wonderful introduction into the world of travel.  As adults, Mike and I have done lots of travelling, but have never particpated in a group tour – save for a bus jaunt to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam (if you can count an overnight  boat tour as a group tour).

The worries  that travelers have about group travel are many:

1) Will we have time to do what we want to do, away from the group?

2) Will we be annoyed with the other people in the group, and unable to escape?

3) Will we miss out on the “real” experience of travelling by going from chain hotel to chain hotel on an airconditioned bus?

4) Will we not see how “real” people live, and eat local cuisine?

On the other hand, there are unquestionably lots of great advantages to travelling in a group:

1) Travel arrangements are made for you, and the hotels and attractions are usually vetted and pre-paid

2) You have the chance to learn alot more about the place you are visiting by having a good guide – much more interactive than reading it out of a book

3) There is safety in numbers

4) If you have an issue, the organization will have a back-up plan

Because Peru is such a large country with a wide variety of must-see sites, we knew it would take at least 2 domestic flights, and a great deal of inner-country travel to see everything we wanted to see – and that is a heck of a lot of planning.  Also, we only have 2 weeks.  And to hike the Inca Trail, you are obligated by law to have a guide.  We decided that an experienced tour company would have figured out the most efficient way of seeing all the highlights with the minimum amount of wasted time.  We spent a lot of time investigating different companies, and reading up on the experience of fellow travellers.  GAP Adventures is without a doubt one of the most well-respected tour companies in the world.  They are also a Canadian company, and head office is conveniently located a 10 minute walk from my house.  They have a HUGE variety of tours to choose from, so if you are into active adventures, have kids, want to volunteer, or  take in a cultural festival around the world, GAP seems to have everything covered.

We decided on a trip called Quest of the Gods, which will start us off in Lima, then off to the Amazon Rainforest (COOL!).  Then onto Cuzco, and from there a 4 day hike to see the legendary Machu Picchu.  We will also get a chance to go to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world.  Altogether a whirlwind 14 day tour.  Exciting!!!!

We flew to Bali on ValuAir. It was such a value that they didn’t even have printers! Our boarding passes were HAND WRITTEN. That has GOT to be some kind of security violation! Our luggage tags…also hand written. Our flight cost: all in for both of us, $666.00. That has got to be unlucky.

But we arrived n Bali safe and sound a couple of hours later. And so did our bags.

It was about an hour drive to our hotel from the airport, and the infrastructure in the country is less than perfect. Tons of motorbikes, no lights, no barriers, nothing. Bare bones. We asked our driver if there are a lot of accidents, and he replies, “Oh yes, there are more people killed on the road every year than in the Bali bombings of 2002! Haha!”. Uh yah. Great stat. Thanks.

We arrived at our hotel about 11 pm. It was quite dark so we couldn’t see much, but we didn’t fail to notice the INTENSE security to get into the resort. We were stopped, searched by a bomb dog, examined with those mirrors on a stick, and questioned. Felt quite safe. NOT!

But it was all done with the friendliest smiles and saluations, so I guess that’s okay. At least they didn’t check our bags. That was likely due to our innocent appearance. Being born white pays off again!

This past week Mike and I visited Cambodia. I will be writing a few entries on this, because the experience shook me to the core. First a bit about the country: Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy of 13 million people. It has an amazing history, and was the centre of the Khmer Empire, one of the most successful in the history of Asia. They had a complex and sophisticated society from approximately the 1st-14th centuries. As a tour guide explained to us, from the 14th century until the 1990s Cambodia experienced a dark and sad history.

Throughout this time, Cambodia was fought over between the Vietnamese and Thai Empires. Eventually, in the mid 1800s it was “colonized” by the French, who like any Imperialist force, exploited the country’s resources and people until 1953, when Cambodia gained independence. The country began to develop and prosper until the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, who sought to transform society back into its original “pure” agricultural state. The means to this end included emptying the cities and massacring the educated, the professionals, doctors, nurses, and even those who wore glasses. It is estimated that more than 2 million were killed from 1975-9.
Cambodia has only known peace since 1998, and even then the odd armed clash breaks out, most recently in 2000, when 60 people were killed in Phnom Penh. The landmines planted during these conflicts continue to wreak havoc, the resulting in Cambodia having the largest number of amputees per capita, with 1 in every 236 people having lost one or more limbs, not to mention those that didn’t survive. In a country where the government is corrupt and broke and social services are non-existent, NGO’s and donations from foreign countries are the only means in place to help the aged, disabled, and the orphaned in this country. It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it improves every day.
All of that being said, Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and wonderful place, with kind and fantastic people. And to repeat an old cliché, this trip was something we will never forget.
So that is the context. The next few blogs will hopefully provide some details of the experiences we had over 5 short days in this amazing place.