Monday, May 10, 2010

The Peru Diaries: The Pro’s and Con’s of Group Travel, Part I

My husband, Rick, and I have been traveling together for 30 years. We’ve developed our own style and at this stage in our lives it’s hard to learn new tricks. Group travel requires adaptability and I’m afraid that’s not us.
What follows is an attempt to give a fair account of the pro’s and con’s of group travel. My apologies if I sound like an old curmudgeon.

Whether its group travel or individual travel, traveling is getting harder. And it’s not just a matter of flight delays, long lines at security, ever shrinking seats and disappearing amenities. Taking a mid day flight to Miami with a long lay-over before a midnight flight to Lima is just too much for our sixty something bodies. Access to business class lounges made it tolerable—but just barely.

Our tour group, although it offers relatively low budget tours, manages to get surprisingly inexpensive upgrades to business class. Always ask your group-- you might get a pleasant surprise.

The downside to our business class upgrade—it’s going to be really hard to take a long international trip in coach next time around.

When we arrived at Lima airport, the pro’s and con’s of group travel became immediately apparent. First the pros: when you are dead tired, it is really nice to have everything all taken care of. The tour company met us at the airport with bottled water and we were soon in a van en route to the hotel. The tour guide gave us all sorts of useful information such as the need to carry around small denominations. Small coins are critical if you want to use public restrooms in Peru. (Access to a restroom is really important to me!) He said he was bringing someone to the hotel to change money for us later in the day—now that’s a real service.

The con’s were just what we expected. The other people on the tour were very nice and a very upbeat group but their non-stop chatter during the ride from the airport gave me a headache. When you’re exhausted and in a not particularly good mood, all this hyper-cheeriness can be tough to take. (I know I sound like a grumpy old lady.).

But despite the exhaustion and our longing for quiet rather than non-stop chatter, entering a city you’ve never seen before is always exciting. I didn’t know very much about Lima and didn’t quite know what to expect. The ride from the airport was grim—-but what city has a beautiful ride from the airport?

But then the surprise: we were soon on an ocean road. Lima comes right up to the Pacific Ocean. Of course I knew Lima was on the Pacific but I hadn’t realized that so much of the city proper was right on the ocean.

In a state of absolute and total exhaustion, we stumbled into our hotel. The hotel was pretty much what we expected from a package tour: clean, in a reasonably good location, but lacking in character. Definitely on the minus side is the lack of choice of hotels. Over the years Rick and I got very good at finding charming affordable small hotels in European and Latin American cities. Only the expensive group tours have really charming hotels.

Our hotel was perfectly okay, but it’s not one we would have chosen. I was a little apprehensive after reading some very negative reviews on Trip Advisor, but the breakfasts were good and there was an attractive bar which turned out to be a good place to hang out at night.

The restaurants included with the package tour were also on the minus side of the ledger. Rick is a real foodie and one reason we travel is to explore different culinary traditions. We search out small restaurants which serve interesting food and good wine at reasonable prices. Tour group restaurants (with the exception of high end or food-themed tours) are generally mediocre at best. So we seized the opportunity whenever we could to go out on our own and make our own restaurant discoveries.

We generally do rather well as Rick and I put a lot of effort into restaurant research. We always spend more on food than on lodging when we travel and this time we figured since we opted for a relatively low-cost tour we could splurge on a few high-end restaurants.

We sure can’t afford to go to the best restaurants in town in London and Paris, but we can manage this in major Latin American cities. So here are restaurant recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Lima:

Astrid y Gaston: the guidebooks call it the best restaurant in Lima. I‘ve only been to three restaurants in Lima so can’t comment on that, but can say this was seriously good and by American standards very affordable. It serves Peruvian cuisine—they call it novoandino

La Rosa Nautica: Seriously good seafood in a beautiful if touristy restaurant overlooking the Pacific. The portions were gargantuan. My husband, who usually has a very healthy appetite, could not handle La Rosa’s gigantic dishes.

To be continued


  1. You don't sound curmudgeonly to me at all - you sound realistic. You know what you find acceptable and what doesn't make the cut. My husband and I have never done a group tour and I doubt we will. If there's plenty of independent time we'd do okay, but my big fear is that there would be obnoxious members of the group who'd try to dazzle everyone with their knowledge or previous that's curmudgeonly! I've had that experience with a couple of small group trips where you really were there to be part of a group (like service retreats), and my enjoyment was diminished because of yammering folks. Of course my yammering is fascinating!

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Thanks, Leslie.

    When you've been traveling one way for so many years, it's not so easy to change.

    But Machu Picchu was worth it!

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