Our very first contact with a continent half way around the world came when our dad, Journey Latin America’s Training and Development Manager Antonio Vaquero, brought back a Peruvian flute from his first trip with the company. That was the moment we became hooked on South American trinkets and began eagerly anticipating future trips to collect some of our own. Little did we know we wouldn’t have long to wait...
At eight, our first chance of adventure arrived with a family holiday to Brazil. From the sweeping white beaches of Rio de Janiero – with a greeting from wild parrots on our window sill – to the endless thundering water of the Iguaçu Falls, it was an incredible experience to start off what we hoped would be a lifetime of travel (we’re now 19... so far so good!). The flute from years before was soon accompanied by numerous colourful stone parrots, a preserved piranha from the banks of the Amazon, and other assorted treasures.
We were young and wide-eyed, so while we hungrily drank in the breathtaking sights and sounds, we were equally entertained by the sight of a cheeky coati mundi making off with our Fruit Pastilles, or our sandwich being devoured by piranhas in an almost cartoon frenzy. At eight we had already crossed off one of the seven modern wonders of the world, Christ the Redeemer in Rio, and we were eager for more.
The opportunity came just a year later, with a journey from the hustle and bustle of Latin America’s largest city to the ancient Mayan pyramids at Chichén Itzá, where we would cross off our second world wonder. Perhaps our fondest memory of this holiday in Mexico was snorkelling for the first time in the incredible Xcaret eco-park in Cancún. Swimming among the tropical fish in crystal-clear Caribbean waters was an experience reminiscent of a glossy, photoshopped travel advert.
After a year’s break, we returned to Central America aged 12 for a trip to Guatemala. This proved to be the most untouched part of Latin America we’d set foot on, and we were surprised at first to see many of the locals wearing traditional clothes: different to anything we were used to.
We ventured into the secluded forest of Tikal National Park to find the remains of the Maya civilization. A towering Mayan temple burst through the trees, reminding us of those we saw in Mexico.
Unaware of a surprise in store for us, we headed into the forest with our guide, who was eager to point out the rich biodiversity as well as many interesting facts about its inhabitants. At one point, he suddenly stopped in the middle of the trail and gathered us around a small and insignificant-looking hole in the ground, which we imagined to be the work of a burrowing mammal. He picked up a long stick and proceeded to prod the hole tentatively when suddenly and at unbelievable speed, an enormous, black, hairy tarantula sprang out! It was fascinating to see one in real life, rather than on a wildlife documentary – and to see just how big they really are.
On our return, after waking up in the picturesque colonial town of Antigua to a view of the immense Pacaya volcano, we headed off on a local bus to the heaving markets of Chichicastenango. Here every sense was electrified by the intensity of the sights, sounds and smells, and the atmosphere buzzed with activity. We jostled our way among the busy stalls packed with everything imaginable, from bizarre-looking fruit to beautifully handcrafted jewellery. The air was thick with the smell of incense, and filled with the enthusiastic Spanish of locals furiously bartering away. Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying some more curios to join our growing collection.
Our anticipation for the next adventure had a long time to build, as it was four years before we next travelled to Latin America. The chance finally arose in the summer of year 11 when we were 16, and although we were still only teenagers, our sense of appreciation had dramatically changed. We also had greater expectations about this particular holiday, as we had both read a fair amount about the history and culture of our destination, Peru.
Our first stop after arriving in Lima was Arequipa, where one of the big attractions was the beautiful Santa Catalina monastery. The convent – still home to around 20 nuns – was enormous, and we spent hours walking through its streets and twisting passages, under archways and past the vividly colourful walls with their incredible artwork (our interest heightened since we were doing GCSE art at the time). We discovered a pen of guinea pigs; there was one that looked just like our own pet, Muffin. We were somewhat horrified to discover, while innocently browsing through the lunch menu later on, a little fact that our parents had kept away from us... the guinea pigs in question were not pets at all, but destined to become the nuns’ Sunday roast!
On our way from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon, we came across a small school and stopped to talk to the children and share a few sweets. We were shocked to discover that the children walked many miles each day, barefoot, to reach the school. They clearly wanted the education very badly to make the epic journey, but were still very grateful and happy for what they had. It was a moment that made us stop and think about everything we took for granted back home.
The next day, surfacing at an ungodly hour from our beds in order to arrive at Colca at sunrise, we were met by breathtaking views of the canyon as we stood in silence at the edge of the precipice. All of a sudden, at half past nine, just as our tour guide had predicted, several enormous black birds soared out over the canyon, their wings sweeping in great circles as they glided above us: the great Andean condors. By now we both had digital cameras, which had started off what was to become a serious (and expensive) hobby. Once the condors had finished their majestic performance and accepted the adulation of the crowd, they left us with a graceful exit – and a mountain of photographs.
Our next stop was Lake Titicaca, where the influence of our tour guide Carlos, a direct descendent of the indigenous Aymara people, helped to bring ancient rites to life. At the ruins of a holy place of worship, Carlos whispered some traditional prayers in his mother tongue, and invited us to all hold hands in a circle as he chanted. It was mesmerising.
That afternoon we headed out by speed boat onto the vast expanse of the lake, which marks the border with Bolivia. Here we were stunned to see the famous floating reed islands that we had read about. We were taken around and shown the huts where the people lived, all built on manmade islands constructed entirely out of the reeds that grow in the lake.
The next day we were back on the road, destination Cusco: the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Meandering around the city’s old cobbled streets was incredible, a real journey through history. Around us, old women in traditional Inca attire sat on street corners beside alpacas.
A few photos later and we were on our way, about to check into one of the finest hotels Latin America has to offer: the Monasterio, with its long passages, sweeping arches and beautifully elaborate gardens and courtyards. There was even the option to have oxygen pumped into your room if you were suffering from the altitude.
In Cusco, the Incas have left their mark almost everywhere. For example, many of the city walls consist of stones cut in odd shapes which perfectly interlock, with no cement used at all. At home a few weeks before we had watched some programmes to prepare for our trip, and it was a strange to see all the places for real. One of our favourites was the Qoricancha (‘Golden Courtyard’), a very old Inca temple built in honour of the Sun God, Inti. The architecture here was extraordinary, resembling quite uncannily the Monasterio hotel we were staying at! Beautiful artwork lined every wall. Our guide spoke about the rich, cultural history of the temple which was fascinating, and really allowed us to engage with the place and imagine what it must have been like all those centuries ago.
That evening we made for our penultimate destination: Aguas Calientes. This could mean only one thing...
At 5am we woke, and after a quick breakfast headed out to catch a train into the mountains. The rails followed a very winding path up, through dense forest areas that blocked our view, but nevertheless there was a very definite sense of anticipation. Once at the top, we met up with our tour guide and the rest of the group. The tension was mounting as we walked around the side of the mountain. Then, as we rounded the corner, there it was – the magnificent Machu Picchu. That moment was definitely the pinnacle of the entire trip: standing above the ruins, the ancient city spread out before us. Seeing it on postcards and on the internet is one thing, but to actually stand there and admire the real thing was just indescribable.
We were told about the history of the city, and were left to wander around the ruins. Just before the sun began to set we climbed up the steep path that rises above the ruins to the Sun Gate – one of the ancient entrances to the ruins from the renowned Inca Trail. From here the views offered were perhaps even more awe-inspiring. With the sun just beginning to set behind the mountain, and the surrounding valley now visible, we were treated to a whole new perspective, the heavy silence emphasising the vastness of the scene and allowing us to fully appreciate the spectacle. We were sad to walk away that evening, though happy in the knowledge that we had seen one of the most incredible views on Earth.
Our trip coming full circle, we travelled back to Lima for our final day, which we spent looking around the old city and some of its beautiful churches. For our final Peruvian lunch, we went to a traditional seafood restaurant for an exquisite last meal to complete the trip.
The holiday had not only been an amazing experience – leaving us with indelible memories and many stories to tell – but had also opened our eyes to a world of culture and ways of life that has made a lasting impact on our appreciation and understanding of places very different from home.
Since then, a new adventure has begun for both of us and we are now studying at university. But we very much hope our shelf of souvenirs is not finished yet, and that soon we’ll wipe away the dust of several years and return for more journeys into the unknown.
By Christian and Antony Vaquero-Stainer, sons of Journey latin America's Antonio Vaquero, Operations.