It was almost pitch black as I began to edge across the slowly swaying bridge that would lead to our campsite. The river roared beneath my feet, frothing whitewater barely visible in the faint moonlight. As I inched across the wooden boards, I was taking the first steps of my hike through the Andes Mountains in Peru.
Actually, I had taken the first step to planning my adventure almost six months earlier when I applied for a trip to Machu Picchu through the Girl Scout “Destinations” program. Our ten-day expedition was coordinated by the nonprofit travel organization Global Explorers. The 18 high school Girl Scouts chosen for the trip had met for the first time in the Miami airport, where we boarded a midnight plane for Lima, then another for Cusco .
Our first stop in Peru was to eat breakfast in a small cafÃ© overlooking the main plaza of the city. It was there that I had my first taste of coca tea—a beverage that would be my constant companion throughout the remainder of the trip. Made of coca leaves, it helps travelers adjust to the altitude—Cusco is 8,000 feet above sea level, more than a 7,500 ft change from the elevation of my hometown, Austin, Texas!
A tour of the city followed breakfast. We explored the Incan ruins of Saqsayhuaman, Tambomachay, and Pukapukara. As incredible as these sites were, it was difficult for me to enjoy them—by the time we reached our campsite at Piscachuco that night, I had been awake for over 36 hours!
The next morning, I awoke refreshed to a cheerful call of “Buenos dias!” As I unzipped the tent flap to accept a cup of steaming coca tea from the porter waiting outside, I was awestruck by the view. The Andes Mountains, which had been impossible to see in the dark, towered over our campsite, their snow-capped peaks ringed in clouds against the bright blue sky.
Although I had prepared for a tough trek, I still wasn’t ready for the four days we spent on the trail. Uphill almost the entire way, we hiked up one slope just to find another steeper one after it. We chatted in the mornings, but by afternoon we were nearly silent as we gasped for oxygen in the thin mountain air. We stared in disbelief at the cooks and porters as they jogged past us on the trail, hardly out of breath and not at all bothered by the elevation.
Finally, we reached our destination, the sacred Incan city of Machu Picchu. The early morning clouds obscured the ruins at first, but later the mist lifted to reveal the famous view that I had seen on countless postcards and in history books. It was a magical moment. We explored the city, astonished at how the stone blocks fit together so tightly that the structures still stand almost 600 years later.
But for all the accomplishment I felt after climbing 7,000 feet in the Andes mountains, the day I best remember was when our group painted classrooms at a Peruvian elementary school. During a break, I sat in a lopsided circle on the ground, laughing as the kindergarteners flung a ball to the person next to them in a passionate game of hot potato. The playful shoving and mischievous grins were no different from those of the children I babysit back home. As I thought about it, I realized it’s not the differences in our cultures that matter—it’s how we’re all the same at heart.
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