Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

New Year, New Projects

When I signed up for Peace Corps and started asking returning volunteers about their experience, two themes came out: first, the unofficial motto of Peace Corps, “It Depends”, and second “the second year’s the best year.” Well, I’ve spent the better portion of 2017, all of 2018, and now 2019 here in Ecuador. But my second full year living in Ecuador is so far proving to be the best one yet. My Spanish skills have improved substantially since I first arrived. But considering the only phrase I knew upon arrival was “como te fue tu fin de semana? (how was your weekend?)”, I had nowhere to go but up. I feel confident managing groups, and well-versed in the local culture. I could go on and on about how much I love each of the groups I’m working with, but I’m going to focus this blog post in on my youth groups. The next blog post will be all about FUPEC, Families United for Cancer Patients, and the interesting projects we’re working on this year.

First, my migrant youth group, comprised of young people from Venezuelan, Colombian and indigenous communities. Each has been brought by economic and political forces out of their control to live in the city of Cuenca, and are learning to adapt to a radically new environment. As a Cuencan transplant myself, I can empathize with their experience, even though I know I’ll never understand completely.

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A few of the teenagers that come every Saturday for our youth group


Last week, I started a new project with them called PhotoVoice. When I was a high schooler the Bystander Intervention group faced on tackling bullying did a small project using the PhotoVoice curriculum. Many of the students in this group also face bullying at school due to their marginalized communities. Using PhotoVoice, I aim to encourage them to tell their personal stories without fear, and feel confident in their identities. We’ll be taking photos and writing stories where they can take ownership over their identities and freely share it with the Cuenca community.

Here’s a three of my favorite photos they took during our first photography session:


The next week, we print out each of the photos from this session and leave space for them to write a story caption beneath. One of the students told me I could share his story anonymously. I’ve translated it to English and left the original Spanish beneath:

I was born in Cali, Colombia; I lived ten years in Venezuela and two years in Ecuador. I am thirteen years old and have a father, mother, and sister. My family isn’t normal – my family is crazy. Why? A sane family would move all across the world. I’m not saying that I don’t like it, but it’s uncomfortable to go from one city to another city – you lose all of your friends and isolate yourself from your family. People ask me where I’m from. I don’t know if it’s crazy, but I think I’m from Gran Colombia. [Gran Colombia was a country from 1819 to 1831 that encompassed the land that is now Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.] I am Gran Colombian because I have lived in all of these countries. I am not Colombian, nor Venezuelan, nor Ecuadorian, I am from Gran Colombia.

Soy de Cali, Colombia y estuve 10 años en Venezuela y 2 años en Ecuador. Mi edad actual es 13 años y tengo papa, mama, y hermana. Mi familia no es normal – mi familia esta loca. Porque? Alguien en sano juicio no estaría viajando por todo el mundo. No digo que no me gusta, pero es incomodo estar de una ciudad a otra perder todos tus amigos y alejarse de tus familiares. A mi preguntar de dónde soy. Pero no se es algo loco, yo creo que soy de la Gran Colombia. Yo soy de la Gran Colombia porque estado en todos estos países. No soy ni de Colombia ni de Venezuela ni de Ecuador, yo soy de la Gran Colombia.

2. My school classes. At one school, I’m tasked with taking on the most at-risk students; or rather, at-promise youth – I was listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast, and on the show “Hidden Potential” they discussed “recognizing the potential in people even when they can’t picture it in themselves”. The school’s student psychologist and I use Peace Corps curriculums like “Rainbow Days” and “Girls Leading our World” to help our students realize their potential through weekly interactive activities. The podcast explains really well the same mentality and perspective I aim bring in to the classroom…or hallway, courtyard, cupboard under the stairs – due to limited resources and space at the school, I have to be creative with where I work with students.

Here’s a quote from the podcast:

RIOS: Yeah. So in many places in our society, when we deal with kids who are in trouble, we still use language that is deficit-based. So for example, you know at-risk kids – at-risk youth is one example. But labels are important. So if you label me a risk, your solutions for me are going to be risk-based. And I’ve been with kids in juvenile facilities. I’ve been with kids in detention rooms. I’ve been with kids on the streets. And I’ve told them, hey, you’re not at risk. You’re at promise. And when I tell them that, you know, they light up. They feel like, wow, really? You think that about me? And I say, yeah, I believe that about you.

RAZ: Just take a small tweak like that, like just changing at-risk to at-promise and really kind of recalibrating the way we talk about certain kids can actually change not only how we think of them but the way they think of themselves.

RIOS: Yes. And it’s important to help to change the way young people think of themselves because many times, you know, they’re in a vulnerable stage in their development. They’re adolescents. They’re already in turmoil. And then you add poverty. You add being labeled as a troublemaker to the equation. And so they are very much on the edge. And you bring them back in by making them feel like, hey, you have potential. You have promise. You’re a leader. Let’s bring it out. Where’s your hidden genius? How can we bring that out in school and in society?

Breaking our goals down into actionable steps in our outdoor “classroom”

This week, all of the of students are on February vacation to relax between semesters. To celebrate, I’m heading out with my migrant youth group to Yungilla, a nearby small town, for a weekend retreat. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to build deeper connections with my students and spend more time together. I’ll keep you all updated here!

Holidays · Travel · Uncategorized

Home for the Holidays

After spending last year’s Christmas and New Year’s in Ecuador with my closest Ecuadorian friend’s family in Ambato, I was really excited to go home for the holidays this year. It had been a cool opportunity to get to know Jenni’s family better and learn about a traditional Ecuadorian Christmas, but I spent a lot of the time missing my own family and our traditions. It was my second – and last – trip to the United States after starting my Peace Corps service nearly two years ago; only six more months of service left! Where did the time go?

It took me over 24 hours to get from Cuenca to San Francisco, the first of several homes I visited during my trip. By the time I arrived, I quickly headed out to meet a group of my college sorority sisters for a big reunion lunch. By the time I got back from lunch, it was basically time to turn around and meet up with two other college friends for a double date with Matt. Before I knew it, I was getting up early the next morning and flying to Seattle to reunite with my family and study for the GRE I was taking just two days later. Between all that craziness, I didn’t manage to take any photos in California, so you’ll have to imagine just how nice it felt for me to be surrounded by old friends for the day we had together.

Even though so much time had passed since graduation, and since we’d all lived in the same country together, I felt just as if I’d never left. I’ll be moving back to San Francisco in July, so I’m looking forward to diving back into those friendships soon.

Wrapping Christmas Presents with our family cat, Georgie
Annie’s pregnant! She just had her beautiful son, Watson, last week – about a month after I left Seattle
Matt and I went to Zoolights in downtown Seattle with our friend Shaber, and caught up with him about his recent adventures as a tour guide in France

The holidays were just as I’d hoped. It was so nice to spend time with loved ones – especially since my cousin, Annie, was eight months pregnant while I was home! We spent time getting ready for the first baby arrival of my generation of cousins, and hoping that he’d be delivered a few months early as a Christmas baby. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet him while I was home, because he was just born last week. Watson is a beautiful, healthy baby boy, and doing great settling in at home.

I insisted we drive up to Snoqualmie Pass for Matt to join in family sledding and snowball fights
Look how tall the snow is! This stop sign has been completely taken over
Dad and I
Noah, Mom and I – Luke was stuck at home writing a paper for school

For my last full day in Seattle, I convinced my family to drive up to Snoqualmie Pass to see the snow. Some years, we get lucky and have a white Christmas in Seattle, but this year was just dreary and rainy. The pass is about 45 minutes away from my house, but it might as well have been in Canada. The snow reached up to the stop signs – much to the shock of my Ecuadorian friends – and the Pacific Coast Trailhead perfectly doubled as a sledding route.

That night, Matt and I hopped on a redeye to Naples, Florida, for a complete 360 in weather. Florida was sunny and beautiful, so we spent several days out on the beach or in the ocean. The highlight was when Matt’s family brought us out on their boat, and on our way back from a hidden beach we encountered a pod of dolphins, and for 15 minutes they jumped and swam around our boat, showing off.

My first escape room! We didn’t make it out, but it was fun playing with Matt’s family
Kayaking in the Mangroves in Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo

Matt and I decided to do a last-minute adventure down to the Florida Keys on my last day in Florida. We visited Pennekamp National Park, where he’d been working on and off for a month total the past year, and we kayaked through the mangrove forest, chatted with the staff, and relaxed on their beach. It was my first time in the Florida Keys, but we promised ourselves we’d be back for a road trip down to the very end one day.

New Year’s Eve cuddles with their dog, Luna
Perfect sunshine in Key Largo

So those were my holidays! It was wonderful being home for Christmas and spending it with both Matt’s family and my own, but I’m back in Ecuador now and determined to make the most of my last six months of service. I have some cool projects planned and in progress, so I’ll dedicate my next blog post to those.



Holidays · Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

A Summertime Christmas

The word Ecuador means “equator” in Spanish, and the country is aptly named – the equator runs straight through the country, just north of the capitol, Quito. At my old site, I was less than 30 miles away from the equatorial line, so the typical generalization of Southern Hemisphere = summer in December, and Northern Hemisphere = winter in December doesn’t really apply. Thus, I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from Cuencanos about when “winter” and “summer” will be. They even disagree on the rainy and sunny months of the year. Weather apps aren’t any help here, so I’ve resigned myself to leaving the house each day in a tank top, light jacket and jeans, hoping that the afternoon rain blows over before I have to walk 30 minutes home from work. But if you asked the bright-red sunburn on my back from three hours of playing ultimate frisbee last Sunday with a mix of expats, Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, it’s definitely summertime right now.

All of that is just a long-winded way of saying that the Christmastime weather in Cuenca isn’t what I’m used to. That doesn’t mean that the holiday spirit isn’t alive in the Southern Hemisphere – I was pleasantly surprised by how all-out Cuenca went for Christmas decorations. The city is known for the river that runs along the Centro Historico, and during Christmas, it’s filled with colorful lights and decorations spanning the entire city center. The cathedral in the main square has a truly enviable nativity scene – the largest in Latin America – going from one entrance to the other, complete with moving figures and a bustling waterfall. The scene “covers 280 square meters (3014 square feet) and has 1,400 pieces, 600 of them in motion”. But if that isn’t enough nativity action for you, each family has their own personal set-up at home, akin to the North American Christmas tree. Overall, the holiday season is much less commercialized than the American counterpart I’m used to.

The entrance to the nativity scene in the cathedral
A small portion of the nativity scene
Homemade outfit choices for the baby Jesus in your nativity scene for sale
Christmas lights over the river near Parque de la Madre

Besides my usual youth groups in the high schools and non-profits, my first few weeks of December were filled with Christmas parties! In the classes I taught, I had each of the students think about how they could “be Santa Claus” this Christmas. We drew out Christmas trees, and on the inside of the tree, made a list of 3-5 ways that we could help others this holiday season. The students’ responses ranged from helping their moms cook dinner to feeding leftovers to the stray dogs that roam their neighborhood’s streets.

For work, I had the opportunity to attend two different Christmas lunches. The first was at the Centro de Apoyo, the clinic and housing for cancer patients and their family members coming into Cuenca for treatment. During the event, we listened to live music, enjoyed a meal together, and crowned one of the patients our “Christmas Princess”. Later that week, all of the volunteers at FUPEC (there’s about 30 college students that work at FUPEC during the week to fulfill their psychology practice hours) gathered together to share turkey, rice, potatoes and veggies, the traditional Ecuadorian Christmas meal.

One of my student’s Christmas do-good list
Festival of the Lights
Can you tell what this is? The Virgin Mary’s crown, of course!
Celebrating one of FUPEC’s patient’s 5th birthday
FUPEC Christmas party at the Centro de Apoyo with patients and family members

One of my favorite Cuencan traditions was the luminaries that filled Santo Domingo plaza for the Festival of Lights. Over 7,000 lanterns were lit, and the evening was filled with musical and dance performances to enjoy as we walked through the light displays.

I didn’t get to experience all of what a Cuencan Christmas had to offer, because I flew home halfway through the month to spend the holiday season with my family! After being away for Christmas last year, it was so nice to be home again. I’ll share some photos and stories about the trip in the next post!

I made Christmas cookies for my coworkers
Enjoying the view of Cuenca from the new Parque de la Libertad before going Christmas shopping
All of this homemade ceramic pottery is so cheap! I had to stop myself from buying it for Christmas presents, because I knew it would never survive the flight
Working on the easiest budget Christmas present – homemade watercolor paintings for my friends at my apartment
Christmas present to myself – a hammock for my kitchen!
Peace Corps · site · Travel · Uncategorized

November in a Nutshell

Once again, I managed to neglect this blog – I had only just caught up on my Peru trip, and now I’m already back in Cuenca after a different vacation. It was a whirlwind holiday trip across the US that brought me from San Francisco with all my college friends, to six feet of snow in Snoqualmie Pass while spending Christmas with my family in Seattle, and finally boating alongside a pod of dolphins in Florida after a lazy afternoon reading on the beach.

But before I tell you all about how my trip home went, I want to share some highlights of different holiday celebrations I’ve spent here in Ecuador. In the past two months, I’ve shared American traditions like Thanksgiving, Santa Claus, and New Year’s Resolutions with my youth groups, and attended Ecuadorian traditions like the Festival of Cuenca, giant nativity scenes, Christmas meals, birthday parties, giant luminary candle displays, and the Day of the Innocents, an April-Fool’s-like take on Three King’s Day. There’s been so much going on, for this post I’ll have to focus just on the month of November. Bit by bit, I’ll catch up to the present (likely only to be behind again).

In Cuenca, locals say that you can’t start celebrating Christmas until the Fiestas de Cuenca are over. The festivals of Cuenca are held each year on the first weekend of November to celebrate the founding of the city. This year, Wednesday night – also known as Halloween to the Americans – was the first night of vacation. A local RPCV, known as Jungle Dave, who lives out in the Amazon, where he owns a sustainable cattle ranch, but comes into Cuenca regularly to sell the meat, went all in on an escaped-animals theme.

Besides the nightlife, a big part of the Fiestas de Cuenca is a huge artesanal fair. Artists from across Cuenca, and even the country and internationally, set up tents that go a mile long around the river, showcasing the traditional styles and handicrafts of their communities. When I found a Cuencana feminist artist, who made ceramics filled with smiling women and phrases like “Future is written with the F of Feminism”, I knew I had to splurge on some of her work. I ended up picking up both a mug and large tray, both of which I’ve been using to house my own art supplies.

Enjoying “The Fishermen” at the beach
Ferry ride through the mangroves

The next week was filled with travel. First, I headed south to Machala for the semi-annual Peace Corps cluster meeting, where all PCVs who live within ~3-5 hour radius of one another come together to chat with the PC doctors, staff, and get updated on the newest developments in the Peace Corps world. My sitemates Beth, Mike, Meg, and I took advantage of the opportunity to visit a new part of Ecuador. We headed to Machala a bit early, and headed to Isla Jambeli. It’s a small island located about 45 minutes out into the mangrove forest of Machala, a region known for producing a large portion of the world’s bananas (When I went home recently, these were the bananas that my parents had recently purchased from Costco).

Early morning views in the cloud forest from our overnight bus ride

Once our cluster meeting was over, Meg and I headed up to Quito for the weekend. We managed to score the best (and sometimes scariest) seats on our overnight, 11 hour bus ride from Machala to the capitol, the second-floor first-row. We spent the weekend at a volunteer resource group retreat with about two dozen of our fellow PCVs. I also had the chance to catch up with a Fulbright friend living in Quito, who will soon be moving to the Galapagos to teach at a university campus there! If all goes well, I’ll be able to stay with her for a bit on San Cristobal later this spring.

Treating ourselves to a fancy brunch in the artsy La Floresta neighborhood of Quito

When I got back to Cuenca, it was time the first big event I had planned with FUPEC: a life-coaching session for local entrepreneurs to help empower them as leaders in their companies. One of my fellow PCVs, Ana Maria, was a major help as a translator for our Canadian life-coach host. If you want to learn more about her, check out her Facebook page at “All Ways Inspired.” The 25 small business owners and college students who attended all walked away inspired to breathe more life into their work.

All the participants in our first life-coaching workshop
Our inspiring life coach, Verna, and I

I started off the American holiday season with my friend Lawrance the weekend before Thanksgiving, and we spent the afternoon decorating sugar cookies and his apartment to prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, when he’d be hosting a group of Americans, Ecuadorians, and even Peruvians and Europeans at his place to share a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Afterwards, I brought some of the sugar cookies to my favorite tienda shopkeeper, Sandra, and my landlord’s family for them all to try.


The following week was Thanksgiving, and it was a surprisingly busy one considering I was living in a country that didn’t celebrate the holiday. Last year, my first Thanksgiving abroad, I attended two Friendsgiving dinners – one with all of the PCVs in my cohort on Thursday, and then a Peace-Corps-wide party in Ibarra the following Saturday. This year, I managed to up that record to three Thanksgiving dinners – a marathon that went on from Thursday to Saturday. I started out the holiday with one of my weekly youth groups, a 10th grade PE class that I take over once a week to discuss self-esteem, healthy relationships, sexual education and other pertinent issues for teenagers. But since it was a holiday, we took the day to do something fun. It was the the same activity I had previously done in my own high school Spanish class – draw a hand turkey, and on each of the finger “feathers”, write down something you’re grateful for. After we finished, I hurried over to my first Thanksgiving dinner, which was shared with the group of friends that I play soccer with each Thursday evening. Once we finished gorging ourselves on the delicious food and wine, instead of my customary post-Thanksgiving nap, we all headed out to the soccer field to play an energetic game of pick-up soccer.

My students and I showing off our hand turkeys
Hard at work thinking about what they’re grateful for this year
A popular meme that went around WhatsApp “Respectful Ecuadorians eat guinea pig on Thanksgiving. Happy Cuy(Guinea Pig)-giving
Our feast for PCVs and Ecuadorian friends alike at fellow PCV Laurel’s apartment in Azogues

Finally, the last weekend of November was spent in a literal big way. FUPEC had partnered with the local culinary school to attempt a world record: the largest mote sucio in the world. Mote sucio is a traditional Cuencan dish made with homily (mote), queso fresco, and fritatada (fried pieces of pork), lard, cilantro, onions and garlic. It’s traditionally served as an easy, economical breakfast for the entire family. Since it’s only served in such a small region of the world, I don’t know what kind of Guinness World Records are being kept on its production, but we served over 2,000 people that day so I imagine it really was the largest-ever event.

That’s it! Coming up next, December in a nutshell for a reflection on my second and final Christmas season here in Ecuador.

Travel · Uncategorized

Finding the City of the Incas

No, that header photo above is not a stock image.

When I travel, I usually scour travel blogs and review sites online to learn as much as I can about a given destination before I arrive. The planning is half of the fun. Sometimes, seeing things in person can be disappointing compared to the fantasy you’ve created for yourself after years of movies, newspaper articles, and hearing stories about a certain “bucket list” destination. Like, what do you mean, the Mona Lisa is that small? I can’t even see if she’s smiling or not over the hoard of tourists! But.

But the views of Machu Picchu were absolutely not like that. That iconic shot you see above? It’s even more beautiful when you see the jungled mountain ridges surrounding it from every angle, like this –


Matt and I decided to climb the 1,000+ steps to the ridge overlooking the citadel. This experience is where my expectation – wiping the sweat off my brow after being one of the first to arrive at the famed ruins, smiling as I took in the sunrise views – began to diverge from reality. In reality, I had spent the past two nights collapsing immediately in bed following our hikes, skipping dinner due to the overwhelming nausea and migraines I was experiencing, and nearly passing out when I attempted a shower.

Yet, I woke up at 3:30AM, strapped on my hiking boots, and insisted on finishing out the hike. We were one of the first people in line at the entrance (doors open at 5AM, and we got there early to hopefully be one of the first to ascend). So when I thought I would vomit, faint, and have my legs collapse all at once during each of those 1,000 steps, it felt like the entire population of Peruvian backpackers were passing us along the way. Matt should win an Oscar for his “I’m-not-annoyed” face when I asked to sit down and take a break approximately every other switchback.

I persisted. When we arrived at the top, we were the last ones to summit, and our guide looked surprised to see me on the stairs. No wonder – Matt had spent the night before attending the planning meeting on his own, and running all across Aguas Calientes in the rain to secure a morning bus ticket for me, just in case.

Triumphant outside our favorite shady hideaway

Once we made it to the top, I had a second wind from the exhilaration of finally making it to the beautiful site, after all that hiking and dreaming for years past. We soaked it in and took photos of ourselves, sweaty, tired, and messy-haired from hiking after an early wake-up call. Not the Instagram-perfect photos I’d seen on social media before, but nonetheless perfectly representing the moment. After our guide gave us a rundown on the site and left us to explore on our own, Matt and I decided to split up. He went to explore the Sun Gate with a few other travelers from our group, I went to find a shady place for a quick nap, since I could feel my illness coming back on.

I woke up in the blazing sun of early morning, feeling dehydrated and weak. I slowly made my way back to the entrance – regretting every stair I descended, knowing I’d have to head back afterwards – in search of a water bottle. Unfortunately, my water-bottle excursion (which took nearly 45 minutes at my sick snail’s pace) coincided with Matt’s return to our rendezvous point. We eventually found one another, just as I was reaching a point of desperation. In my heightened state, that hour and a half of separation felt longer than the six months we had just spent apart.

We still had three hours left on our ticket after that, so we spent the rest of the time exploring the ruins at our own pace, happy to be reunited and exploring the ruins together. We eventually ran into and met up with our larger trekking group, who helped sneak us to the front of the bus line back down the mountain. To say goodbye to our Peruvian adventures, we shared huge pizzas and pisco sours at an extra-touristy restaurant. We managed to make it off the mountain just as the formerly cloudless sky erupted into a sudden rainforest downpour, covering everything in site with a thick fog. Despite my exhaustion that morning, if we had arrived any later, we likely wouldn’t have seen anything at all.

The rest of the photos speak for themselves, so I’ll share them below:

Last looks before heading back to the bus
Matt and our new Italian trekking buddy
It looked so beautiful from every angle
Aguas Calientes is somewhere down there
Reconstructed homes – about 750 people once lived here
Heading up to the Temple of the Sun
Huayna Picchu
Walking into the city itself

I hope you enjoyed my vacation photos and stories! I won’t be heading outside of Ecuador/the United States again until at least May, so until then, expect updates from my different projects here in Cuenca!


Berkeley · Peace Corps · site · Social Issues · Uncategorized

Help Make College a Reality!

I’m taking a quick break from my vacation recap posts to share a project that I’m currently working on and very excited about. You can find the Go Fund Me Page here.

As many of you know, being a campus ambassador was the highlight of my time as an undergraduate. I loved showing prospective students around UC Berkeley – inspiring hope that they, too, could attend the #1 public university in the world. Growing up in a rural area, as a high schooler I felt that Berkeley was out of reach, but thanks to amazing mentors like my AP English teacher, Ms. Frediani, I made it to Cal. Once I became an undergraduate, I shared that same enthusiasm and courage with those I encountered on my tours.

At my first site in Ecuador, I lived in El Chaco, a rural community in the Amazon that relied on cattle-farming, small businesses and a Chinese-controlled hydroelectric plant to get by. I worked regularly with high schoolers who were enthusiastic about attending university. But for the majority, they didn’t have college-graduate family members or role models to guide them through the expensive-sounding, scary process of living away from home for the first time in a culture that highly values family unity. Thus, they stayed home and started a family of their own at young ages, stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Now that I live in Cuenca, a major city with some of the best universities in the country, I have the opportunity to give 58 students from RPCV Dave Goucher’s former site and current home the opportunity teenagers in El Chaco didn’t have. We will visit four universities in my site. College visits aren’t the norm here – it’s not like Berkeley, where someone could call me or another Campus Ambassador up at the Visitor Center, and I would book their senior class for a visit – we had to go through rounds of paperwork, meetings with the university deans, and more just to make this possible.

For these 58 students, many of them will be leaving the jungle for the first time…despite Cuenca being only four hours away. The average family in San Juan Bosco lives on just $200/month, or less than $7 a day for a family of four. To put that in perspective, I make 2.5x that amount as a “poor” Peace Corps volunteer that provides only for herself.

Please help me share the life-changing opportunity – one that we took for granted at Berkeley, and in the United States – of discovering that college can be a reality for these students. Just $10 provides enough funds for a night in a hotel and breakfast the following day. To donate, you can find the Go Fund Me Page here.

Travel · Uncategorized


For my ongoing vacation photo journal, I wanted to share some highlights from the Salkantay 4 day trek to Machu Picchu Matt and I did during our time in Cusco. Hiking up to the “lost” Incan city of Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine ever since I first heard that was a possibility – probably in one of the National Geographic Kids magazines we used to read in elementary school.

This is my second to last vacation post – since Machu Picchu was such a major bucket list item for me, as it is for many people, I reserved it a blog post of it’s own – for my ongoing vacation recap, and then it’s back to the real world and hearing about the actual Peace Corps projects I’ve been working on! A few of them are really picking up steam this week, so I’m excited to report back on my results soon.

Preparing to leave for the trek, still feeling confident

I bought the green Machu Picchu baseball camp before I left for the trip as inspiration to help me get through the walk. I wanted to “earn” the cap through my Fitbit-record-breaking-steps (if I owned a FitBit…) so I wore it every day as a reminder of what I was working towards. The trek totaled about 45 miles, which didn’t sound like much when we set out, but we quickly realized how much effort the altitude added on to that mile count.

Behind me is the group of German travelers I would go on to befriend during the long uphill journey to the Salktantay Pass – while Matt enjoyed his easy mule ride up to the top, his reward for chickening out.

Heading towards the Salkantay Pass our second morning
Matt suited up to head out on the trail

This trek was Matt and I’s first backpacking experience. Luckily for us, it wasn’t a “true” backpacking trip, and we had a good amount of creature comforts along the way. We were able to give 5 kilograms of items to be carried by mule to the next destination – our sleeping bags and a small amount of clothing, and little stands like the one behind Matt in this photo sold water every 4-5 hours along the way.

Afternoon trek to Humantay Lake
Humantay Lake beneath us, we witnessed small avalanches off the mountains in the background
Lake Humantay
Matt’s views from the mule up to the Salkantay Pass

The second day of the trek is the hardest day, when we woke up at 4:30AM to prepare ourselves to hike up to the Salkantay Pass. The pass is higher than any mountain in the continental United States at over 15,000 feet high. I had some pre-acclimatization thanks to living in Cuenca at an altitude of 8,400 feet at site. Matt, on the other hand, lives at sea level in San Francisco and struggled with headaches and breathing. He decided to take a mule up to the top, which left me to face the pass on my own.

Triumphant at the peak of the pass

I made it to the top! The enthusiasm of three fit European guys who grew up climbing like mountain goats through the Alps helped me keep up the energy to make it to the summit. In our group of about 15, there were only three other girls to begin with, and I was the only one who managed to hike to the top.

Our full tour group posing at the pass
Once we arrived at the pass, the clouds rolled in and the weather took a turn for the worst
We dodged pack mules all the way down into the cloud forest, where we would sleep that night

After we summited the pass, Matt was full of energy due to taking a break from hiking that morning, and my Alps friends didn’t seem to be able to tire from hiking. The five of us decided to race the pack mules down the other side of the mountain, and arrived at our lunch spot a full two and a half hours before the rest of our group. And we didn’t arrive a second too early – as soon as the lunch tents were in sight, the fog turned into a violent, cold, rainy downpour. We waited for the rest of our group to show up by playing briscola, a traditional Italian card game, and cuarenta, a game I introduced from Ecuador.

A little calico far away from my calico, Mayu, at home in Cuenca
Puppies at the hacienda

When we finally arrived at our second night of camping, we enjoyed beers, puppies and cats with good company. I was able to take the first hot shower of the trip before anyone else, thanks to being the first girl down the mountain. But as soon as I exited the shower, I started to feel violently ill, nauseous and weak, likely due to overexertion. I went to sleep at 4PM and didn’t get out of bed again until our 4:30AM wake-up call the next day.

Cloud forest views on the third day of hiking

The third day was our final day before arriving at Machu Picchu, and it went through the cloud forests at a lower altitude. The sickness had stuck strong from the night before, and I didn’t take many photos this day. I was mostly concentrating on trying not to vomit or faint. Luckily, I somehow managed to complete both those goals. I was determined to stick it out for the entire hike, and when I considered bailing and taking the train for the last portion of the day, we missed the last train by just 5 minutes, and was forced to hike anyways.

Celebratory and ready for the next day at base camp

Machu Picchu pictures are up next! Stay tuned.