"How do I say, 'Cuba Libre with no ice'?"
Steve was heading up to the bar, keen to order his favourite Latino cocktail. We'd been told to avoid the local ice in Peru, so he was checking with the Spanish girls to make sure he would get what he wanted.
Maria smiled. "You just say, 'Cuba Libra sin culo.'"
"OK," Steve said, rolling the foreign words around in his mouth. "Cuba Libre sin culo. Got it."
Of course, that's not how you order a Cuba Libre with no ice. That's how you order a Cuba Libre with no arse. (The phrase he was looking for was, "Cuba Libre sin hielo.") Steve wandered up to the bar and placed his order, confusion reigned, a few people smiled, and he came back to the table with a rum and Coke chock full of ice, and the dawning sensation that a prank had been played on him.
It was a pretty low-level gag. No one was hurt, or even particularly embarrassed. It made us all laugh though – mostly at Steve – which was the whole point of the exercise.
Steve sucked at Spanish. His mate Joel also sucked at Spanish. They both kept pronouncing the word for chicken, "pollo", the way you would phonetically in English, rather than the correct "poy-yo". None of us, in fact, had a particularly good grasp of the local language, which was driving the two Spanish girls on our trip – nicknamed the Conquistadors – pretty crazy, and I assume was the motivation for their joke.
There were no hard feelings though. In fact there were no hard feelings for that entire three-week journey from La Paz to Lima, in a budget-grade overland truck with 20 or so travellers, a guide and a driver. There were no hard feelings because there were no problems. Everyone got on like a house on fire. We all had an absolute ball.
Tour guides get asked all the time, "Are we the best group you've ever had?" And they always have to smile and mumble about how they can't pick favourites but this one is definitely up there, blah, blah, blah. But I'm not the tour guide, so I can say this: that La Paz to Lima trip was the best tour group I've ever had. Hands down. No competition.
Everything just fell into place. We had everything you need for the ideal group. We had Steve and his three mates, ocker Aussie blokes who were positive about everything, who loved life and who dragged everyone else along with them for a good time. We had a group of English girls, fun and adventurous. We had the Spanish girls, who'd go on to learn more about Anglo culture in that three-week journey than they would about the Incas or the Moche. We had Matt, one of my oldest friends and travel companions. We had Lizzie, our guide, shaven-headed and sweet. We had Tom the driver, broad Aussie accent, any more laidback he'd be horizontal.
And of course, we had Bolivia and Peru, two of the greatest tourist destinations on the planet, ripe for exploration and enjoyment. We hiked the Inca Trail on that trip. We flew over the Nazca Lines. We camped in someone's yard in Arequipa. We sandboarded in a desert. We cruised Lake Titicaca.
Couples formed; some split. Splinter groups went off and did their own thing. Big nights were had. People ended up in rooms they shouldn't have. We drank a lot. We saw the sights. We made friendships that continue to this day, 12 years later.
Some travellers hate the idea of doing a tour, and I can understand that. You can feel constricted when you're stuck with a group with a set itinerary. You can be forced to do things you hate. You can get lumped with a whole bunch of people you'd really prefer to avoid spending time with.
But sometimes everything comes together on a tour, the stars align, and you realise there's absolutely no better way to travel than this.
I've returned to South America as an independent traveller plenty of times since that first journey and visited all of those same spots in Bolivia and Peru – but I've never had anywhere near as much fun. I've missed having that cast of characters to share the adventure with. I've missed all of the classic tour happenings that supplement what's already a great travel experience.
People who don't do tours miss this side of travel. They miss the intense social experience of being thrown together with a whole group of strangers for weeks on end. I can understand that that might sound hellish to some people, but with the right group of strangers it's the best. It's travel squared. It's turbo travel.
I've been on a lot of tours. I've worked on tours. I've written about tours. I've done tours as a paying punter. My Facebook feed is filled with former tour acquaintances, people I look at and think, "Where did I travel with them?", until I check who our mutual friends are and figure it out. I've met so many amazing, interesting, funny, impressive people on tours.
Most of the tours I've done have been memorable for the right reasons. Some have been boring or frustrating. Some have been really, really good. And then there's that trip through Peru and Bolivia, touring perfection, the best group on the best trip I've ever been on.
Take me back to that bar for a Cuba Libre sin culo.
Have you done many tours? Have you had good groups? Made lifelong friends? Or have you been with groups you'd rather forget?