We left the school at 4pm on Sunday and headed to JFK, departing for Lima with 15 students and 3 leaders just before midnight. Knowing that a long day of travel in Peru awaited us, we tried to sleep for at least part of the 7-8 hour flight. After a comfortable layover in Lima we boarded a smaller plane to Cusco.
Rising above Lima’s winter fog, the beautiful Andes mountains greeted us out the left-hand window of the plane. We followed La Cordillera al the way to Cusco, passing dramatic snowcapped and rocky peaks divided by jagged rivers. After a sharper-than-expected banking turn around one last mountain peak, we landed in Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire. Perched at 11,200 feet (3,400 meters), the views of the surrounding mountains were especially breathtaking. Outside the airport we met our hosts for the week, Pancho & Balbina, Beto, Paulina, as well as our guide, Fernando.
A speaker of Quechua, Spanish, and English, Fernando provided a full picture of the history, demographics, economy, and culture of the Cusco region, both past and present. Students snacked on local bananas and clementines (much more flavorful than those in the USA!) as the bus ascended into the mountains to more than 12,400 feet. On the way up we enjoyed views of the city of Cusco. On the way down we were treated to views of beautifully terraced hillsides as we descended into the Sacred Urubamba Valley.
The group stopped in the village of Pisaq for lunch, dining on sopa de quinoa, pollo a la plancha, papa amarilla, arroz, y ensalada (quinoa soup, grilled chicken, yellow potatoes, rice, and salad). After the meal students sipped té de muña (an herbal tea that helps with digestion).
The group then ascended by bus to El Parque Arqueológico de Pisaq (Pisac Archaeological Park) to views the ruins of an Incan community on the mountainside. Centuries ago master builders transformed these steep inhospitable slopes into terraced plantations of fertile soil, incorporating sophisticated aqueduct systems (still flowing today) and expertly engineered drainage. Precisely carved stones formed the impressive stones structures of the village, a brief glimpse of the vast architectural tour that awaits us at Machu Picchu. Fernando pointed out thousands of holes dug into the opposing mountainside. There, he explained, the Incas placed their deceased on a sun-exposed slope in order to allow for natural mummification. Constant daily cycles of direct afternoon alpine sunlight and frigid nighttime mountain air desiccated the bodies and preserved them for the afterlife. Unfortunately, the tombs were largely destroyed by the Spanish.
With the sun setting, we boarded the bus for the final leg of the journey to Ollantaytambo, passing through numerous small towns on the road that followed the Urubamba River through the Valley. Upon arrival, the bus was not able to enter the main road into the town due to a festival taking place in the town center. For the very last leg of the journey, the students dragged suitcases over ancient cobblestones to Hostal El Tambo, our communal home for the rest of our time in the village. Beto treated us to a dinner of sopa de espinaca (spinach soup) and locro de zapallo (plates of rice and squash). After dinner, Señora Viacava invited the group to “dar una vuelta” (take a stroll) around the town. Those who ventured out did not know that they would soon find themselves in the middle of el Festival del Señor de Choquekillka. A religious and cultural celebration, the festival is a blend of Catholicism and ancestral traditions, providing a simultaneous religious and party experience. The multi-day festival brings the entire community together for music, traditional dancing and costumes, and religious services that start early in the morning and last until late at night. Students joined the singing and dancing with other tourists and locals in the town center, a fitting celebration at the end of a very long day. Rest assured, everyone slept well last night.
Most of the students slept through the festival music and cannon blasts that started around 5 in the morning (today is Tuesday!). Rising around 8, they enjoyed a breakfast of huevos revueltos y pan con matequilla y mermelada de fresa, café, té, y jugo de papaya (eggs and bread with butter, strawberry jam, coffee, tea, and papaya juice). After breakfast the group settled in for orientation with the three leaders and discussed aspirations, expectations, rules, and recommendations for the trip. The students are now off on a scavenger hunt to get acquainted with the village and will enjoy traditional dances at the festival later this afternoon. After one more night at El Tambo, they will join their host families tomorrow.
A different pair of students will be writing each blog post hereafter. With so many activities in the first 48 hours, we couldn’t keep them inside at El Tambo to write a blog! We hope you enjoy!