Updated: Aug 31, 2020
I love history! Studying different cultures and ancient civilizations was my absolute favorite part of my middle and high school curriculum. Learning about distant places and people from around the world has always been deeply fascinating to me, and during my junior year of high school, I decided that just learning about it wasn’t enough. Mystical Machu Picchu and the alluring Incan empire intrigued me the most, and I made it my mission to find a way there as soon as I could. (Not to mention, The Emperor’s New Groove is one of my all time favorite movies.)
Summer of 2016, I was 17 years old. Bright-eyed and with butterflies in my stomach, I said goodbye to my dad at LAX and headed off to the international terminal for the first time. Alone. I was on my way to Cusco, Peru for what turned out to be an incredible, life-changing experience that I will never forget.
I was there on a volunteer trip with Projects Abroad for Archaeology and Cultural Preservation. There were 13 of us from all over the world. Norway. Japan. France. Spain. South Korea. England. The United States. We spent two weeks together in the most beautiful country.
Each of us were placed with host families that all lived in the same neighborhood. When I arrived, after what at that point was the longest flight I’d ever been on, someone from the Projects Abroad office picked me up from the airport and took me to my house.
My host mom, Danitza, was an accountant. Her and her husband had a beautiful home with three children, and graciously hosted four of us volunteers. She made us breakfast every morning, omelets with chicken and fresh squeezed juice, and packed us lunches for our daytime adventures. She spoke little English, but was eager to learn more. I had just finished my third year of Spanish class in high school, and while I was nowhere near fluent, it was enough to be able to communicate and laugh with Danitza, as well as act as a translator for the other volunteers.
Cusco has an elevation of over two miles (11,200 ft), and you get winded just walking around on flat ground for a minute if you’re not used to it. Danitza made us special coco tea everyday to help us with altitude sickness.
We lived on a dirt road adjacent to a big hill that was a trek to climb up everyday. While the street outside was unpaved and littered with stray dogs, the inside of the house was gorgeous. It was a beautifully furnished five story house, and we each got our own large bedroom.
My room was at the end of the hall on the second floor, overlooking their backyard. The bottom floor had the kitchen, dining room, one bedroom, and the living room area with a flat screen TV and a keyboard.
Young and naive, this surprised me. School, and especially the media, paint a picture in our heads of what a poverty stricken “third world” country looks like. I expected the dirt roads and stray animals, but I did not expect the beautiful modernity of the inside of buildings. It wasn’t just their house, but all of the museums, restaurants and stores. The media makes cities like Cusco seem much worse off than they actually are.
The Projects Abroad office was at the very top of the hill. There, we met Dan, our Scottish tour guide who had come to Peru on a volunteer trip years earlier and never left. He had a thick beard, gages in his ears, and a bridge piercing between his eyes. Dan was kind and always made us laugh. He was extremely experienced in the Peruvian wilderness, and I truly could not imagine a better guide. He led the program with his wife, a native Peruvian woman who helped me improve my Spanish skills throughout my two weeks there.
Every weekday, we woke up early in the morning, ate breakfast with Danitza, and made the hike to the top of the hill. Each day was a new adventure to a different archaeological park full of ancient ruins for us to document and excavate.
The first day, we went to Pikillaqta, where we learned more about the history of Cusco and its indigenous Quechua language. We walked along never ending clay walls, expanding as far as you could see over the rolling hills in the horizon. We helped the groundskeepers clear weeds and dry sticks from the ruins and rebuilt walls that had crumbled.
Other days we climbed uncharted mountains to see what ruins we would find on top. There were no hiking trails or paths, no maps or signs. Dan always carried a machete to cut our way up the hillsides when the wilderness was in our way. Somehow, he always knew where he was going even though he hadn’t been there before.
We found beautiful structures of what appeared to be ancient houses, still very intact. We took pictures, measured stones, and sketched the buildings with care, to document for the government’s Department of Archaeology. Sometimes, the hikes were flat. Other times, we had to scale treacherous mountain sides. While difficult, the magnificent views at the top were always worth it, constantly leaving me with my jaw dropped in awe and wonder. No pictures can do justice to the beauty of the Peruvian countryside.
One of the most memorable day trips was to Tongobamba. There, we found caves carved into the tops of mountains, filled with remains of the Incas. There were scattered bones and fragments of skulls from people who lived over 500 years ago. It was a chilling and indescribable experience. As usual, we documented what we found, careful to measure and take photos without touching our findings, as to preserve the history.
In the weekday evenings, there was usually a fun activity or outing planned for us. We took salsa dancing lessons, Spanish classes, as well as a cooking class where we learned how to make Lomo Saltado, a signature Peruvian dish. We went to a history museum, the main town square, a bar, and even a large mall where we all battled each other in Guitar Hero in the arcade.
On the weekend, we went to Machu Picchu. I was finally going to be there! While the journey from Cusco only takes about three and a half hours, we took our time, stopping at other beautiful and historic sites along the way.
First was Pisaq, another marvelous site of Incan ruins. Here, the Incas built agricultural terraces into the hillside. Next was Ollantaytambo, a charming town that sits between soaring mountains. In the evening, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the city where Machu Picchu is.
Due to its popularity, this part of Peru was significantly more touristy than Cusco. We stayed in a small resort hotel with three volunteers to a room and turned in for an early night.
At 4 o’clock the next morning, we groggily got out of bed and put on clothes to make our way to the bus to take us to the top of Machu Picchu. It was a long and winding road up the mountainside, with the buses barely making it by each other when going opposite directions. While it felt like at any second we could topple off the edge of the cliff, we knew the drivers were experts. Plus, the exhaustion and excitement were stronger than the fear.
Finally, we made it, just in time for sunrise. I’d studied Machu Picchu, read books, watched documentaries, and seen numerous pictures, but none of that prepared me for how absolutely breathtaking it would be to see with my own two eyes. The sun peaking over the Andes and illuminating the ancient city below was absolutely spectacular and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There is a beautiful type of adrenaline that I felt for the first time atop those mountains, experiencing history in person in its great magnificence. It is the most wonderful feeling, that I have only been able to recreate through other travels and adventures.
We spent time hiking and exploring with a tour guide who helped to explain the history and significance of Machu Picchu. After a few hours, a few of us stopped to rest. We laid down in a grass field overlooking the ancient city and soaked up some sun. There were wild llamas running around a few hundred feet away. I’d never felt so content and at peace. On one of our phones, we listened to “Budapest” by George Ezra. To this day, that is one of my favorite songs as it always brings me back to that tranquil moment.
As this unbelievable weekend came to an end, we returned to our host families in Cusco in need of a good night's sleep. The rest of the week, we continued our daily adventures scouring through the Andes for remnants of life long ago.
Thursday was the last day we spent together. We had a ceramic archaeology workshop at the Projects Abroad office, a final presentation, and program wrap up. The two weeks had gone by too quickly, and none of us were ready to say goodbye.
As a final celebration that night, we went out to a lovely dinner together at a Peruvian buffet. There were staples like rice and veggies as well as an array of unfamiliar meats. Notably, two of many new foods I tried that night included cow heart, which tasted like a lean cut of steak, and alpaca, which was a bit more gamey like lamb.
However, those foods did not compare to eating guinea pig for the first time. No, not a cute household pet type of guinea pig, but a large wild rodent. They are a delicacy in Peru. We were told that they are hit on the head with a rock, and then deep fried in oil; fur, claws, eyes and all. They literally serve the entire animal on the plate, full of bones and organs and even its teeth still protruding out of its mouth.
The body meat was good. It tasted a bit like the dark meat part of chicken. We were all a bit skeptical to eat any of the rest of it, though. Dan was telling us how his four year old daughter’s favorite part to eat was the brain, which supposedly is the most delectable part of it all.
I never shy away from trying new foods, so I thought, if a four year old can eat and enjoy it, so can I. Everyone else, not willing to taste it, watched as I dug the guinea pig brain out of its skull and put it on my fork. It looked exactly how you’d picture a brain to look. I slowly and regretfully brought the fork up to my mouth to take a bite. Let’s just say it did not get swallowed. Everyone laughed while I washed out my mouth.
Besides that unfortunate bite of food, it was a lovely evening and a perfect way to end our journey together. The restaurant had live music and dancing. We were all able to put our newly learned salsa skills to the test, dancing with locals, and laughing the night away.
We returned home to pack up our things with a heaviness in our hearts. I did not want to leave. How do you go back to normal life after something so amazing? How do you say goodbye to people you’ve grown so close to when you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again? I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll that comes with going home.
To me, the joy of traveling is unparalleled. Seeing the world and experiencing different cultures firsthand is incredible. Not only do you get to learn so much about other people and places, but you learn more about yourself. This journey was the first of many experiences abroad, and is a big part of who I am. I will never forget my experience in Cusco and all of the amazing people I met along the way. Cusco ignited a growing passion in me for travel and adventure, one that will guide me the rest of my life.
Where did you go your first time abroad? Tell me about your experience in the comments!