Hi! My name is Emma Stevenson, and in 2019 I travelled to Peru with Challenges Abroad. When people ask why I chose the educational volunteer opportunity in Peru, I honestly can’t give an answer other than ‘why the hell not?!’ I had no aspirations of becoming a teacher, but I just knew that I wanted to experience a different culture and help those less fortunate than me, seeing as I’d grown up in such a privileged, safe country like Australia. My family and friends tried to talk me out of it, telling me that Peru was not safe enough and that I should just choose to go on a relaxing holiday instead. But I’m so glad I didn’t listen and instead spent an entire month making a difference and forging friendships that would last a lifetime!
Initially, I actually missed out on a spot on the UQ Machu Picchu Challenge! I had begged my family for so long to let me go that by the time they came around to the idea the trip was entirely booked out. But luckily for me, due to popular demand, Challenges Abroad extended the trip, so when asked again, I said yes without question!
I missed out on a couple of the pre-departure meetings due to university commitments, but eventually made it to the final meeting before we left for Peru a month later. I had a whole page full of questions, and all were answered once we had been introduced via Skype to our trip coordinator in Peru, Antonio. I got to meet the people who I would be volunteering with, and I was immediately at ease; it didn’t seem as daunting as before!
I had signed up for the Machu Picchu Challenge alone, so alone I travelled to meet up with the rest of the group in Cusco. To say it was scary travelling thousands of kilometres all by myself and staying alone the first night before the start of the trip in a foreign, unfamiliar country would be an understatement! I met with a couple of others for dinner that first night, as organised by Antonio, and was comforted to find that we were all just as altitude sick as each other! It was a rough introduction to the trip, but even after the stress of travelling and having to find my way home that night in the dark, I was still super optimistic that I was about to embark on an exciting adventure!
Everyone on our trip met in Plaza de Armas the next morning, and we hopped on our bus that took us to where we would be staying the next two weeks; Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a picturesque, small town located in the heart of the Sacred Valley, and as our group were the first to volunteer there, the community were very excited for us arrive.
We spent our first day exploring the town, site-seeing at the famous Incan ruins, and recovering from altitude sickness! By the second day, we were ready to begin teaching at the local primary school. Our team were teaching Years 1-3 in English and Maths, and I was assigned to Year 1 English class.
It was very daunting that first day of teaching, but as the two weeks progressed and my team learned how best to interact with the children (in a mix of Spanish and English), communicate with each other and sort out lesson plans, we got more and more comfortable, and were eventually able to run a class with much less difficulty. Teaching is super hard, and the biggest barrier was definitely language; the children would always want to have a proper conversation with us as we were helping them through their worksheets or activities, but we could only understand so much with our basic conversational Spanish!
Almost every day after finishing school in the early afternoon we would go on excursions. Our team organised for us to go see significant tourist destinations like Moray and Chinchero, go to a brewery, local potato farm, salt mines, cooking classes and explore some of the local hangouts. We even got to go into a traditional house where people keep dozens of guinea pigs inside, running around on the floor. A couple of my team mates actually tried guinea pig when we visited the local potato farm, but as I had guinea pigs for pets in the past, it wasn’t my cup of tea! These excursions furthered our understanding of the local culture in a way we wouldn’t have been able to experience if we had just visited as tourists, as the locals were much more inclined to show us the good spots to go.
We also enjoyed quiet time back at our backpacker’s hostel, and some of my favourite memories are from playing cards and having a great time late into the night (even if we did have to get up early the next morning!)
One of the highlights of the entire trip was our trip to Rainbow Mountain in between weeks 1 and 2 of teaching. It is a grueling, extremely challenging hike to over 5,000m above sea level; we all struggled to acclimatise to the limited oxygen capacity and steep incline, but the view from the top was definitely worth it. I’ve never been prouder of myself than when I got to the top of that mountain with my amazing friends by my side.
By the end of the second week of teaching, we were all extremely tired but satisfied. We felt like we’d made some real progress, and after spending lunch times playing with the children and really bonding with them, it was tough to say goodbye. We had also managed to paint a mural at the school to show our international friendship, and planted some avocado trees to encourage sustainability. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the children’s reactions to our finished mural, but I’m happy to say I’ve left a piece of me at that school that will outlast my immediate impact on the community.
Our third week in Peru was very different to our first two weeks; we trekked 75km in four days as part of the Salkantay trek. The first day was challenging, as we were not used to the hours of walking, especially up such steep inclines. But we got to see Lake Humantay, which is nestled into the snow-capped mountains and is one of the most beautiful blue colours I’ve ever seen! We trekked back to our accommodation, which was small glass huts and sleeping bags, and enjoyed a feast cooked up by the amazing cooks who travelled with us.
The second day of hiking was, in pleasant terms, pure torture. It was the longest, most intense day of trekking, as we hiked to the highest point on the trek, over 4,000m above sea level. As beautiful as the view was from the top of the Andean mountains, it was pretty tough plodding through torrential rain and thick mud on the other side of the mountain! We were all very relieved that second night when we made it to camp, laid all our clothes out to dry, then crashed in our tents.
The third day was a lot more fun; we only hiked a bit over 10km before getting to camp and visiting some local hot springs! We then got to party all night at our camp with another tour group from Europe, and recovered enough to prepare for the final day of hiking.
Day four we trekked along train lines for most of the day until we got to Aguas Calientes, the ‘Machu Picchu Town’. It is at the base of Machu Picchu, and we got to relax for the rest of the day, pick up some souvenirs, and enjoy some very unhealthy snacks! The next morning, we left on the bus at around 5am, and arrived at Machu Picchu in time to see the sunrise, with limited numbers of tourists at the site yet. I can’t describe the feeling of accomplishment I felt standing on top of Machu Picchu, reflecting on the past couple of days and realising I was strong enough to do anything I put my mind to! Of course, I could not have done it without the amazing friends I had made on this trip, for without their constant cheering and pep talks I may not have overcome my physical barriers and achieved such a monumental feat.
Unfortunately, after three weeks, I said farewell to most of the people from my group, who were all headed back to Brisbane. I, along with about four others from my group, then left on another bus to join with people from another Challenges Abroad trip to head to the Amazon rainforest for an extension trip.
Although it took about six hours of travel to reach the research facility we were staying at, it was well and truly worth it. Our group spent the next week taking small hikes through the rainforest to explore, and were educated by researchers and locals about the native flora and fauna, especially medicinal plants, traditional medicine that is still used today.
It was so incredible to get a sneak-peek into the research that is being done, and to experience some fun activities like going on a canopy walk, zip lining in a little wooden box over a river, canoeing and swimming in a natural waterfall. My favourite memory from the Amazon was definitely our mini Christmas party that we had on our final night, where we all gave Secret Santa presents to our assigned friend, which had to be made from sustainable material. I have still kept the little rocks with smiley faces on them that my friend gave to me, and they remind me of all the laughs and amazing memories I made.
To cut an extremely long story short, I can honestly say that my four weeks in Peru were some of the best I’ve ever lived. I made so many memories full of love and laughter, and found friendships that will last a lifetime. I accomplished so much, not just in teaching at the local school, but also by pushing myself physically and mentally on the many treks we completed. By travelling alone, I learned so much about myself, and Challenges Abroad has helped me see all the different things I can achieve if I put my mind to it. I urge anyone who has been ‘just thinking about it’ to just DO IT! You never know what adventure you will have unless you put yourself out there and try something new and exciting!
Right now we are unable to travel. But if you’re passionate about making a difference in this world, you can join our virtual internship program where you can make a difference from home. Alternatively, secure your spot in a program for 2022 today with a SMALL deposit. Head to any of our programs and enquire today!