In April I was sent to Cuzco for work to train Walking Tree’s new Country Director in Peru, and I was lucky enough to have some time to explore the area. For years, I had longed to visit Machu Picchu, and now I finally had the chance to visit! This trip was particularly exciting for me because I was able to work together with our newest Country Director and train her personally, something I had never done before.
After a long overnight journey from San José, I arrived to a cold and foggy Cuzco greeted by the first side effects of altitude sickness. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was exciting as it gave me my first glimpse of the city. The cold and dreary weather at 7:00 AM wasn’t exactly the warm welcome I was expecting after going almost 24 hours without sleep, but I didn’t let this get my hopes down. The taxi driver left me at the base of a giant staircase which I had to climb to get to my hotel. After huffing and puffing my way up the stairs, I was greeted at the hotel with a hot cup of tea. This would be my first of many cups of coca tea, which has been used by the Incas for centuries to combat the symptoms of altitude sickness (and is used today to make cocaine).
I made the most out of my first day in Cuzco by grabbing lunch at the mercado central and exploring the city on foot. I had been to plenty of colonial cities in Latin America, but I was so astonished to see the colonial grandeur of centuries past so evident today. Huge plazas, grandiose churches and narrow cobblestone streets transported me to another century. The mix between colonial architecture and Incan construction created a clash of two distinct worlds that I had never seen before. I visited a few museums and was able to learn a lot about the Incas and the important role that Cuzco (the ancient capital of the Inca empire) played in the region.
As part of my job, I visited the three small communities (Chinchero, Ollantaytambo and Huilloc) where Walking Tree send groups of students to do volunteer work and live with host families. Working together with these communities and building relationships with them has always been the favorite aspect of my job. I met many host families who have hosted our students over years past and was able to see which service projects that Walking Tree had completed in the past. We also spoke about which projects could be completed in the coming year. I was able to share a few meals with host families and hear from them first hand what it has been like for them to host American students in the past. I am definitely grateful and proud to be part of an organization that helps empower communities by facilitating cultural exchange.
What is cool about all of these communities is that they are built around ancient Incan ruins, which anyone can visit. I spent several afternoons just traversing ruins and having some solo time to reflect on what it would have been like to live as the Incas did centuries ago. They also offered beautiful views of the Sacred Valley, which is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
One afternoon, I had the chance to visit salt flats which have been in operation since the Incas first discovered a subterranean salt river. Basically, a series of salt flats are laid out at the mouth of this salt river, and over time they have gradually expanded to cover almost the entire canyon. Salt is still cultivated in the same way it was centuries ago – and visitors have the chance to walk among the salt flats to see first hand how the process works. I had never seen anything like this before, nor had I ever tasted water so salty.
The highlight of my trip was the long awaited trop to Machu Picchu. To get to the ruins, I took an hour and a half train ride that followed the Urubamba river to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of the ruins. The train ride was an experience in itself, as I was able to see awesome views of the andes and the raging river just beside us. I woke up bright and early the following morning to make it to the ruins just after sunrise. It was a strange feeling finally visiting the somewhere that had been on my bucket list for such a long time – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but at the same time I knew this would be an unforgettable experience.
To make the most of my trip, I hired a local guide to take me around the ruins and explain to me the historical context of the ruins (totally worth the money). I spent most of the tour asking questions, taking photos and just marveling at how advanced this city was for its time. The mystery of these ruins is what I found most interesting, no matter how much we investigate, we will never know a complete history of Machu Picchu. As always, whenever visiting ruins I like to take some time to myself and just meditate and imagine what this place was really like centuries ago.
Overall, it was a great trip to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley. I spent my last night in Cusco at the Sacsayhuaman ruins, which overlook the entire city of Cuzco. I was treated to an awesome sunset and a breathtaking (literally) hike back to my hotel just below the ruins. Hopefully I’ll find myself back in Cuzco, as there is so much to see and do around the Sacred Valley. I left Peru with a great appreciation for the Incas and filled my bags with quinoa, crema de ají and enough choclo to last for a few weeks.