CUSCO is amazing! I went into this trip expecting to be glad I'd seen it but in full preference of our Galapagos trip as my favorite. However I fell in love with this quaint, beautiful city and just the whole trip experience. We marveled at how safe it felt to walk the streets at night and how uncrowded and open the main plaza felt. The old stone walls were beautiful, as were the balconies lining the plaza and the big, old doors. The air was crisp and I'd definitely bring more layers and warmer walking shoes next time (ie. not flip flops) but I loved it all anyway.

We spent Easter day traveling. Quito -> Lime -> Cusco and experienced only a mild, five minutes of stress when one of our students left their passport after crossing past security. We got to our hotel by 9pm and the had a dinner waiting for us. We "tucked" all our students into their rooms and then spent too much time looking at tattoos on instagram and vocab words in order to unwind from the responsibility of keeping 17 students and their passports together.

The next day we got up in time to get out the door and onto a minibus that took us through the city and out into the countryside. The roads are dusty but the views of rolling, green hills were lush and spectacular. Little colorful pom poms lined many homes and small ceramic bulls and other figurines could be found on the roofs. After an hour-long detour due to our driver not knowing where the final location was, we arrived at our destination: ATVing. Okay, I was not convinced that I wanted to drive an ATV since I don't really enjoy driving. I debated riding on the back of someone's. But I decided I needed to try it once and I couldn't be more glad that I did! It was incredible. We drove along the road just taking in the incredible views and then pulled along a lake to eat our lunches. Then back on our bikes we headed off the main road and into the mud and dirt. I LOVED it! I loved riding with my feet up on front, doing crazy dance moves on my bike with Monique, and blowing past Oliver in a particularly rough patch and leaving mud everywhere in my path. ATVing was too short, filling my lungs with fresh air and my heart with freedom. From there we headed to the salt mines where we walked thru them and then bought souvenirs, while learning how this business provides for 49 families that own the mines. That night at dinner, over huge American-style steak sandwiches, I asked my table what they'd learned about themselves in the past 36 hours of travel. They had great insights. When they returned the question to me, I told them that I've learned that wind in my hair and adventure around me is something that will always bring me joy. That joy is found in being present to the very moment you are actually in and wind and adventure help get me there. Back at the hotel we got students settled and then headed out at 11pm to find an ice cream shop that would work for us for our final celebration night. We again marveled at being able to walk the streets so late and feel so safe. The ice cream place we tried was a bust and we found ourselves laughing over the awful flavor combinations that they'd scraped together in front of us. 

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Day three had us waking up at 4:15am in order to eat breakfast and be at the bus station by 5am. 2-hour bus -> 1.5 hour train ride ->30-minute bus and we were at the base of Machu Picchu with a lovely guide and backpack full of passports. The bus ride was quiet as I opted for head phones and more sleep, but the train was fun and full of laughter as we chatted in four-seaters and enjoyed the views while talking about the five love languages of conflict and who knows what else! Aly and I sat together for that last 30-minute ride and it was such a sweet time of her thanks for our relationship over the course of the semester and talking about her desires for her return home. Machu Picchu was out in full and we did the whole tour. I wish I could gush more but honestly I'm not a big history/museum person. It was incredible and I was happy to see it, but I didn't need 2.5 hours of explanation! As we finished it started to rain and we waited outside in the bus line for 45 minutes (only so many buses allowed on a winding, narrow road) while we had the chance to test out our rain jackets and the waterproof passport pouch. Spirits stayed good though and soon we were in the town of Aguas Calientes for a delicious buffet lunch where we all devoured the cilantro chicken and in general ate way too much for a 3pm lunch! Back on the train, this time for over 2 hours because of rain and delays. I enjoyed a 4-seater with Aly, Rach, and Kyla where we cuddled, banged a cookie for anger release and watched a fashion show of alpaca-wear, courtesy of our train staff and Darius. We started getting worried about missing our bus but the train attendant was kind enough to assure us that they are all part of the same company and the bus would wait. Back on the bus at 7pm, I gave myself full permission to take a break from energetic students and Oliver and I shared music and didn't say a word to each other. We both woke up just as the bus arrived and almost led the students out the wrong door, being still half asleep. We exited the station just as our guide was coming to us and we all watched him get hit by a car and then stand back up. It was a bit surreal and confusing and one of the students started crying so I checked on her back at the hotel while we waited for pizza at 9pm. Post pizza some went to bed and Darius, Oliver, Sara and I did a stretch session in the corridor. It was a long, but successful day and I went to bed grateful for the 9am wake up call the next day.

 

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Our final full day in Cusco was a semi-free day. We met a guide at 10am and did a three-hour walking tour, including a church. Something hadn't sat well with a handful of students so I spent the majority of that first hour finding the bathroom for people. Honestly, totally fine with me. But I loved when we got out into the streets and walked around, learning about the architecture. Students were a little lacksadaisical about this activity and we had to keep their energy up for the guide. We then met at an almuerzo place, where alpaca steaks were on the menu, before sending students off to explore the city and shop.

This group was unique in that usually students want to stick with staff and we end up taking a group around with us. This group all had their own agendas and ideas so Oliver and I set off again to search for a better ice cream option. We sampled delicious Pisco Scour ice cream and declared a winner. On our way to the artisan market I spied the most delicious smelling bread thing and we vowed to buy some after shopping and letting our ice cream settle. We spent a good hour in the artisan market, buying blankets and other souvenirs for other staff back in Quito who had requested them. We found ourselves regretting our commitment to fulfill all their shopping needs but made the best of it, carrying out massive bags of blankets. We also ended up with several students' blankets ... who'd asked for help with colors and negotiating prices and then left us to lug their things around as they adventured on! We went back to the churro place and stopped dead in our tracks when we took our first bites as we walked the city. The BEST churro I've EVER eaten. Hands down! We'd waited to try them and lamented only buying one each. From there we headed to a well-known coffee cart and debriefed some of the semester before heading back to the hotel to get ready for our last dinner. It was an incredibly relaxing afternoon, much to my surprise, and I enjoyed it almost as much as ATVing. One interesting thing about Cusco is that people are really blatant about drug sales. We were offered weed, LSD and magic mushrooms all out in the open. It was curious to have those offers but still feel so much safer than in Quito. We ended the evening at a celebration dinner where we shared BBQ Pork and a Thai Green Curry, lamenting putting any effort into the pork because the curry was so good. I appreciated pre-dinner conversation with Phil, Aly, and Sophia about the daily practices we each desire to implement for growth. Cold legs in dresses with the night chill as we walked to ice cream to top off the night before heading to the hotel for a late night good conversation as I shivered in my thin leggings and used a newly bought alpaca blanket to try to get warm. 

Our final day was another airport haul in which we came close to missing our last flight due to long airport lines. I did appreciate the wait for our first flight, where we asked the students debrief questions about the trip and got to hear their learning and perspectives. For that last flight, Oliver sweated in worry at the front with almost all the students while Phil and I were back a good 50 people in line with a student who'd forgotten her water bottle. Making it on the plane, we were giddy with relief at not figuring out a new travel plan for 20 people on a missed flight and the kind guy offered up his window seat for my middle so that we could sit together in our mutual relief. Of course the best relief comes when all the students and bags are back in their apartments and I get to walk into my own front door at home and kiss my sleeping kids!

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