They told me oxygen would be scarcer, but they didn’t tell me it was the mountains that would take my breath away. I was deep in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, in a small village called Ollantaytambo. It’s an old community that rests in the valley between the huge mountains, complete with Incan ruins that cause a constant outpour of tourists to flood in daily and leave by night after they had their fill of the landscape. We were not one of these tourists.
My friend Gabi and I were visiting Peru for ten days with her dad. We’re both seventeen years old, fresh out of junior year of high school. We earned all the money for our trip ourselves, which by our calculations, was about 190 hours of working the summer before. After scouring the internet for study abroad options, we found a home stay program with Awamaki that sets you up with a family for $16 a night.
Our family was a wonderfully generous, multi-generational household complete with everyone from great-grandma to the youngest grandchild of ten months. The head of the house was an inspirational, hardworking 61-year-old woman named Ana Maria. Our first adventure began when we learned no one in the house spoke English, something we had anticipated but hadn’t fully realized the challenge of until it happened. Every time we spoke, we had to plan out the sentence in our heads. It was mentally exhausting by the end of each day, but the most tiring part was the countless hours we spent exploring.
Right outside our host family’s door was a picture perfect view of the snow-capped peak of Mt. Veronica stretching her way up to 18,000ft. On either side, more mountains rose and cut out the valley like a frame displaying the soft local farms, or chakras, that spread on the ground like a beautiful green juxtaposition to the unwavering russet backdrop.
Gabi pointed to the top of a ridge with visible switchbacks climbing to its peak and said lightheartedly, “I want to hike to that.”
But on our last day in Peru, we did.
We saw many other beautiful places such as the infamous Machu Picchu which, don’t get me wrong, was breathtaking. However, this last hike we did was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. After learning so many new things about the culture and tradition of the Peruvian people, I felt like I had learned to live simpler and happier. Our host family, especially Ana Maria, taught me strength and kindness in a new way when we could barely even speak the same language. That last hike was a symbol of the newfound spirit we had gained from our travels. It was a turning point when we realized after independently traveling the world, working hard, and learning so much, that we could accomplish anything.
We started the hike at about 8am and reached the peak five grueling hours later. At the end, atop this giant mountain, lay a small Inca ruin called Intipunku, or Sungate. The Incans created it hundreds of years ago to catch the light from the summer solstice. That day from that spot, we felt the ancient stillness that sat at the top of those mountains. We looked over the whole valley in wonder and saw what the Inca had seen before us. They had seen the towering mountains and the deep crevice of the valley; we were far from the touch of modern man. After the hardest hike I’d ever endured, we looked upon the open world with triumph and new eyes.
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