July 11, 2018
Our group returned from trekking and Machu Picchu exhausted but happy. We’d explored one of the seven wonders of the world! We took a scenic train ride from Aguas Caliente through the Andean mountain, playing card games and joking around to pass the time. Our train left us in Ollantayambo, which is just a short van ride from Cusco. When we arrived we unanimously agreed on a hearty dinner at a Cuscan smokehouse to refuel our energy. We ended our incredible day with a final Moonup in the Los Angeles Hotel, the place we had spent time in between each phase of our trip, recharging and catching glimpses of World Cup games. Our amazing LODs, Robert and Shelby asked our group two questions that night instead of one. The first question’s answers had Caroline falling over with laughter from her position on the floor. Caroline, I already miss the sound of your genuine and boisterous laugh! Robert and Shelby then turned the conversation more serious by asking what lesson each of us would take back with us to the U.S. Will shared that the close friendships he developed here made him feel more confident in his ability to make new friends. Araminta told us that she felt like she’d grown a lot over the two weeks and was excited to continue to challenge herself by trying new things. Eliza got to the heart of Moondance when she spoke about unplugging from technology back home and instead focusing on being intentional and remaining present in her interactions with others.
We spent our final day together exploring Cusco’s colorful shops, cobbled streets, and hidden alleys. This town had served as our beloved home base during the last two weeks and I don’t think anyone was ready to say goodbye. We wandered, bopping from place to place, jittery with excitement. The awareness that this was our last time roaming these streets packed with locals selling paintings and jewelry, and tourists wearing matching sweaters was felt by all of us, but no one acknowledged this fact out loud. Instead, we tried on hats that looked like llamas, helped each other pick out last minute gifts for family and friends, and searched through the many stalls and stands in the San Pedro market for what Robert claimed was the best donut in the world. We met up with a woman named May, who coincidentally happened to be in Cusco and had led this Moondance trip 6 years ago! It was very special to get to walk around with her as we shopped and hear how connected she still felt to Moondance and the relationships she’d formed through her trips years ago. Lily eagerly searched different shops on the hunt for authentic Peruvian coffee and found it in a quaint chocolate shop with delicious truffles of all flavors. Hugo’s big purchase of the day made everyone laugh because while Eliza had been bargaining with a woman selling colorful bags, he had bought a 2L bottle of Inca Kola at Cusco’s local grocery store. He smiled and said he just wanted to make sure his family was able to experience the amazingness of the Peruvian soft drink. Our last stop before banquet was to Starbucks where we hoped to find directions to the restaurant we had chosen. Instead an excited Bella ran up to me declaring “we found the Australians, they’re here!” Our group, Bella in particular, had befriended an older Australian couple while at dinner several nights before. Since then we had run into them over and over, making them our unicorns for the trip. Bella proudly posed for a photo with them before we said goodbye for the last time, for real this time.
After shopping we looked for the restaurant where we would eat banquet, our last real meal together as a family. On our way we ran into two women with baby llamas and asked them if we could pose for a photo with them. Grace excitedly lifted the white baby llama named Stewart into her arms and cuddled him close for a picture. The picture was all the more perfect because Grace had on her Cuscan alpaca sweater. Down a popular street lined with Incan walls and shops filled with bright scarves and ponchos we found our lunch spot. Our group of 15 took up the entire downstairs of the small restaurant. The servers lined up the tables in a long row, so we ate in true banquet fashion. Shelby started us off with a moving toast that reflected her warm and kind spirit. She talked about how amazing our group had been and how much she would miss each of us. Wyatt went next and his maturity and wise words belied his years. Robert delighted our group with a speech that started out funny and turned heartfelt when he shared that these two weeks had been the best of his life.
After banquet our group hustled one last time down the windy streets of Cusco, through the Central Park where Peruvian red and white flags and Cuscan rainbow flags whipped in the wind around a stone fountain. We quickly grabbed our overstuffed duffels from our hotel and hopped on the waiting van that would take us to the airport.
We settled into a section of open seats at our gate in the Cusco airport and filled the time with funny pictures and games. During the flight Wyatt, Robert, Sam, and I sat near each other and ended up deciphering crossword puzzle hints the whole way to Lima. After landing, we headed to baggage claim where Caroline and Shelby entertained us with a silly cheerleading routine they made to get everyone “fired up” to grab their bags quickly so we could eat. Owen manned the largest of our baggage carts piled high with duffels. He helped guide our other cart pushers one by one onto the elevator so that we could settle as a group in the food court during our layover. We entered the food court in what onlookers would probably have described as a stampede of kids and duffel bags. After claiming our spot the kids excitedly hurried to the different restaurants for their reunion with American food. For the next several hours we ate, laughed, played games and sang; soaking our last few hours together.
When the delta counter opened up we made our way back downstairs eager to be rid of our duffel bags. After we checked in the whole group requested one more Moonup as a family. So, there in the Lima airport next to the delta counter at 11 pm all 15 of us sat cross legged in a circle for one last Moonup. People walked by and looking at our group with confused expressions, but we conducted our Moonup full out nonetheless. Sam and I had been picked as LODs the night before, and we selected a quote from the quote book just like any other night, asked waiting strangers if they’d seen the nug jug, and named Hillary LOD of the flight. We asked everyone what their favorite memory of the trip had been and listened intently as each person shared, sometimes taking a minute to laugh at a funny memory. We closed with a musical performance, singing with a lot of heart but not exactly on key Natasha Beddingsfield’s Unwritten, for which got a few laughs. It was the perfect way to end an incredible trip. As I hugged everyone goodbye before they went through security and fought back tears, I couldn’t stop smiling because that off the cuff Moonup had become my favorite memory.
You are all back home now and I am in Cusco missing you each terribly. It was truly an honor for Sam and I to be your leaders. You are strong, intelligent, and kind people who have each stolen a piece of our hearts. It was a joy for Sam and me to watch y’all form friendships, conquer fears, try new things, and laugh. Love you all so much!
Gaby and Sam
July 9, 2018
Our day started before sunrise; most of us slept in the van, but not for long. There was a healthy dose of nerves in the group, which was almost completely dwarfed by excitement. It was our “summit” day – more specifically the day we would cross the Salkantay Pass at 15,500ft. In sum we would hike over 11 miles, gaining 3,500ft before the pass and then descend to a more comfortable altitude to camp.
We were mostly acclimatized, but it was the first time we really exerted ourselves and it took some adjusting. Our LODs Robert and Lily were tasked with keeping the morale high and the group self aware – meaning constant water breaks and checking for possible blisters. They worked well together, with Robert giving a classic game-day style pep talk and Lily helping us leaders to monitor the group.
We pressed on for around four and a half hours before reaching the pass. On our journey we walked along a babbling mountain stream, llama spotted pastures stretching to the mountaintops, and a few native folks who live along the trail. Truly, it is difficult to describe the feeling of walking alongside scenery this beautiful and mountains of this scale to someone who hasn’t had this experience before. It inspires song-writers and painters alike, who attempt to capture the primal itch scratched for us all when we are reminded of the wonders in this world. As a group we will attempt to share this feeling with you through the many pictures we took, but we know that the true beauty of this experience lies in the collective memories of our members and the many laughs and a lot of sweat we left in the Andes that day.
Hugo, Will, and Owen reached the pass first with our guide Diego. On the trail we could hear their triumphant cries and were spurred to action so we could join in celebrating the accomplishment. By the time the rest of group reached these first three, they had thoroughly explored the area and located the perfect rock for group photos. It was there that we all gathered, beaming yet tired, satisfied and proud with the great Salkantay mountain as a backdrop.
It was our most difficult task and everyone succeeded; Gaby and I are so proud. The group showed its true grit that morning and earned the easier downhill section in the afternoon. Camp that night was quieter than ever. We pulled off the trail at a spot high above a river, yet at the base of two converging peaks. It was a lush, two-tiered valley sitting above the clouds and our home for the night. Our cooks prepared a hearty meal of chicken in and Asian sauce, rice, and steamed vegetables. Exhausted, everyone went to bed soon after eating and slept late.
The next day our LODs Araminta and Owen led us down to our lunch spot (about 6 miles total). Over the course of the morning our group traveled from the high Andean tundra to the Peruvian jungle. The rocky scenery we were accustomed to quickly changed to dense forest. It became humid, but wasn’t too hot to be uncomfortable. Along the trail we now saw bright flowers and a few colorful birds. Our trail-talk distracted us from this new world, but only because we were now closer than ever. Gaby, Shelby and I shared stories about our families and favorite travel destinations. Shelby is so bright and well-spoken and it was a real treat. As well, I personally had the chance to discuss music with Lily. She shared that if she were a musician she would be a DJ, mixing the many genres that she likes. The last few trekking days brought about many great conversations, about anything and everything you can think of. Lunch was a surprise from our cooks: beef and chicken tacos served with a massive bowl of guacamole! The group could now relax after reaching this lunch spot – we had finished the majority of the trekking for the trip.
A short bus ride after a few lazy hours brought us down to the home we would stay at for the next two nights. After dinner Eliza introduced “Spit,” a card game that we would play the rest of the trip. The game’s speed matches Eliza’s quick-wit and became an instant favorite. Though it is only for two players, we have accumulated enough decks of cards for the entire group to play separate games all at once. The light competition has been healthy, with Wyatt learning fast and becoming the best player after a few rounds. He claims his speed comes from his years as a “face-off man” in lacrosse.
On the third day we visited a hot spring. Our sore bodies soaked that morning and early afternoon, healing any small pains earned on the trail. Bella and Hugo were our LODs. Bella has become a beacon of positivity in our group and often boosts morale whether she is LOD or not. Our group has really enjoyed her unwavering good attitude and bright smile. Hugo, a decisive leader, has proven himself as someone we can rely on for most any task we present him with. He is gifted with a steady mind and the ability to learn and adjust quickly – qualities that will help him go far in life.
After our day of relaxation we returned to camp. This site had a set of large speakers leading to many a singalongs and a dance party or two. We played cards and chatted into the night and made a point to appreciate the southern stars shining above our Moonup that evening. The next day we would finish our trek along a section of the authentic Incan trail eventually leading to Machu Picchu.
We set out early to beat the heat with Caroline and Wyatt as our LODs. Our trek was flat and covered a little over six miles with Caroline at the front the entire time. She never shies from her duties as LOD and easily slips into the role. She showed that she really cares for each person in the group, always asking how someone else is doing and making sure people are enjoying themselves. As her leaders, we’ve appreciated all the help she has offered throughout this trip. Wyatt, as an alumni and a natural leader, continues to not only lead but also entertain the group. He is hilarious, and the combination of him and Robert has kept the whole group in stitches. As well, he shared a few tricky riddles that kept us occupied as we hiked.
Eventually, a town materialized as we came around the final bend of our trek. This town stands as the gateway to the ancient Incan city. There is a buzz of anticipation shared by all, as we prepare for our earliest wake up yet to beat the crowd queuing for the only buses that travel to the ruins’ entrance.
Grace maintained her high energy and positive attitude throughout the morning setting a great tone for everyone as we explored that day. We are one of the first groups to enter and collectively are in awe of the natural and man-made wonders in this area. A river splits the lower mountain that serves as the city’s foundation from the surrounding peaks. The combination of the valley completely encircled by a high ridge-line with a singular peak rising in the center reminds me of dropping a rock in a steady pond, sending out high ripples in all directions. The city is built at the apex of the water’s central response to the rock’s disturbance.
It is shaded for a while after the sun has risen. We are a fortunate group, because we have entered the city before the sun crests the mountain and get to watch as he first beams of light slice across the valley. The western ridge-line is the first to feel the suns warmth. Then, slowly the beams of light slide lower and lower until they reach the tip of the tallest point in the city – the famous mountain you’ll notice in the background of many of our pictures.
After many photos at various vantage points, our group is ready to explore, so Diego leads us to the Inka Bridge – once an escape route for kings wishing to flee when the city was under attack. Shelby is proud to report that she too crept along the cliff side trail leading to the bridge – she even made sure to take some GoPro footage to bring home for proof! Next we ventured through the ruins, stopping periodically as Diego pointed out interesting facts about the stone structures and culture that built them. We learned about Incan building techniques and the significance of the terracing carved right into the mountain.
Our tour ended with a moment of reflection. Everyone sat on a western facing terrace, with an unfathomable view. We sat in silence. We “un-plugged” from each other for a moment, tasked with appreciating where we are in our lives and the incredible place where we found ourselves in that moment.
Upon opening our eyes we shared our thoughts. Some shared the struggle of remembering all the intricate details of the scene before us, whether their focus was on the pair of black birds with shimmering blues backs that wound themselves through the air in the foreground or the endless ridge stretching to dizzying heights in the background that anchors the sky to the earth. Others shared that they had heavy hearts and couldn’t believe the trip was almost over and how sad they would be to wake up in a few days and not be surrounded by their new friends. Everyone shared that they appreciated the opportunity to experience this magical place. Everyone is grateful for the people back home that made this possible. And then we departed that magical place, a little wiser and, if possible, closer to one another and nature.
We are bonded forever by this trip and our shared memories. Your kids have now joined the small percentage of this world fortunate enough to experience one of man’s greatest marvels, and Gaby and I are so lucky to have led them on this adventure. Thank you all for sharing these amazing young people with us for the past two weeks.
Sam and Gaby
July 4, 2018
As we winded through Cusco we gained altitude and a new perspective when passing through the outskirts or less fortunate areas on our way to Ccorca (our service destination). Slowly the buildings spread farther and farther apart and the then the landscape opened to rolling hills. The countryside is beautiful here, reminiscent of the western plains in its vegetation, however the “hills” stand taller than some mountains back home.
We arrived at the home we stayed at for two nights and three days early the first morning. The home’s red-tile roof was familiar to our group, but the building was plastered smooth with white stucco. It was quaint and comfortable. The small property played host to chickens and the owner’s dogs whom roamed about the many courtyards. The town soccer field was just down the road – a place where many games of ultimate frisbee, salsa lessons leading to dance parties, and of course soccer would be played. But first and foremost we were there to serve in this small community, so we dropped our bags and walked down to the community center to begin our service project.
Before jumping into the project, Gaby led the group through an exercise highlighting our roles as outsiders coming into this community for so short a time and the impacts we could have. We discussed how Moondance groups complete a project over multiple sessions and that we should be proud of what our group will contribute to this project, but our end goal is for students to return with a heart for service and a realization that they could have an impact not only abroad but at home too. Each of your students shared a service experience from their past and then described what service means to them. It was a powerful moment that energized our group before getting to work.
Our LODs Bella and Owen led the charge, helping to organize the group as we began cleaning the community center and repairing the walls before we could apply a fresh coat of paint. The group moved quickly through their given tasks, with some folks focusing on the repairs and others priming the newly smoothed wall. Hugo and Wyatt proved handy with the wall repairs and with the help of Grace and Will, had the walls sanded in no time. We worked diligently until lunch, when it was time to hike back to our lodging. Lunch was ready when we arrived and it was a bountiful spread of sautéed chicken and vegetables, fresh tomatoes from the garden, and locally made cheeses. It was the perfect re-fuel for our afternoon activity.
Marco, out outfitter, had organized an ancient Incan prosperity ritual to be performed on a mountaintop by another guide. We left the small town of Ccorca behind and ventured deep into the Andean hills to reach our ritual spot. Along the way we passed llamas and alpacas grazing in the hills, which were later seen being shepherded back to their farms. Caroline was especially excited to see the alpacas! She squealed and asked that we snapped more pictures of the wild and furry creatures.
During the ritual each student whispered his or her wishes for the coming year while facing the three tallest mountain peaks in the area. The guide leading the ceremony then passed out small Incan trinkets that symbolized each person’s desire, and though they were handed out at random, many students expressed how well the trinket matched what they had whispered. We were all moved by the ceremony and were lucky Araminta snapped many photos so we can remember the moment. She captured not only the ceremony, but the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
On our ride back to town we all recounted how special it was to be a part of something so ancient and different from our own cultures.
We arrived back at the home stay just before dinner. That night the cooks roasted chicken drumsticks topped with a Peruvian adobo sauce served with rice and roasted vegetables. Robert and Wyatt expressed that the chicken and rice combination was a favorite if theirs and the sauce on top made it all the better. We all agree we are very lucky to have the cooks prepare all of our meals here, as they provide plenty of food to keep us all well-fed. Moonup that night brought about two new LODs, Wyatt and Grace, who would lead our second service day.
Our group began our work early the next day and again pressed-on until lunch. Shelby’s positivity radiated, as she never stopped smiling nor stopped working. She proved that a positive approach to any task makes the time go by much faster. After this second day at the community center wrapped up, our group headed to the soccer field, eager to get in another game.
Will and Hugo, seemingly unaffected by the altitude, ran circles up and down the field. The pair connected often to score in both ultimate frisbee as well as our group soccer game. Lily showed off her soccer skills, rising to the challenge and helping Caroline protect their goal. She played lock down defense and put her years of soccer to great use, proving to be a key player for her team. The group eventually tired of soccer, as the teams were too evenly matched, so we headed back for separate, less active group games that allowed us some rest. Eliza suggested charades and led the girls team to victory. Her quick-wit and depth of movie and music knowledge proved key to their success.
We completed our portion of the Moondance summer project on the third day and headed back to Cusco. We are proud of what we accomplished and can’t wait to see the finished product at the end of the summer. We were sad to leave Ccorca and the beautiful home that fostered many laughable moments and memories that bonded our group that much more. Alas, the group was also ready to experience Cusco.
We spent the afternoon wandering the local markets and soaking in the vibrant culture of the city. Our eventful day ended with a big meal and then it was time to pack for trekking.
It’s hard to believe that we have reached the final major section our trip. Gaby and I are so proud of your students and thankful to get to spend this time with them. We can’t wait to see their triumphant faces as they complete the trekking section.
Sending more love from Peru,
Sam and Gaby
July 1, 2018
After a morning flight from Lima, our group arrived in Cusco and we took our first breath of crisp mountain air. Our outfitter, Marco, met us at the airport with a big smile and welcomed us to this incredible city nestled in the mountains. On the short drive to the hotel we caught our first glimpses of the culture and people whom we would walk alongside for the next two weeks: the buildings here are a dusty orange with roofs of red clay. The streets are dotted by vendors sitting outside their shops crafting the goods sold within. The hotel, which we will return to between each trip section, quickly felt like home. It has cozy atmosphere with a covered courtyard full of light connecting each room. This is where we swap stories, laugh, and grow as a group. It is an unspoken sacred place.
With stomachs full of an authentic Peruvian lunch we returned “home” to ready ourselves for rafting. That evening we would set out for the first of our two river-side campsites. To reach the Apurimac we journeyed through the Andes traveling through small mountain towns and eventually finding ourselves alone in the expansive wild. Robert and Caroline led the group in singing along to most any song we played from our ever-growing group playlist. Soon we realized that this would be a constant role these two lively characters would play in our group and we appreciate their unwavering high spirits and ability to raise the groups energy.
Upon arriving at camp, we unpacked quickly so we could begin our first Moonup. And truly it couldn’t have been more fitting that our small circle was accompanied by a full moon and a clear night. The moon shined so bright that headlamps were rendered useless as we gathered for the first of many times. That night we discussed our goals for this journey, with answers ranging from ‘making lifelong connections’ to ‘living free from the pressures of daily life and away from technology.’ Gaby and I were so impressed at how easily people opened up, and later credited this openness on our first night for bonding our group so quickly. We closed the Moonup by naming the first leaders of the day (LODs) for the next day. Will and Eliza were chosen as they were patient in our travel days and exemplified the Moondance way for the new folks: they had great attitudes, were welcoming to new folks, and showed genuine interest in meeting their peers. Then we all shared a group hug and howled at the moon, and then off to bed!
The next morning, we had an early start to the first rafting day. Our guides prepared a breakfast of fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt to fuel us for a full day on the water. After a safety lesson our eager crew was ready to raft! We pushed off from shore with wide eyes and a thirst for adventure. Everyone marveled at the depth of the gorge the Apurimac carved over thousands of years. All day the canyon walls towered over our group, echoing our laughter and cries of triumph as we paddled through each rapid. Owen proved himself a strong paddler and carried each raft he joined. The guides were especially impressed as he never lost momentum even towards the end of the day. By the time we reached camp the group was exhausted and were so thankful to have Bella’s kind smile and optimism to carry us through until dinner. Whether she had just finished a rapid or was helping fill someone’s water bottle, her positive energy never faltered. Araminta impressed us too, with her inquisitive and engaging nature. She is eager to learn as much as she can about her peers and and makes everyone feel heard.
As our first day of rafting came to a close we took a moment to appreciate the night-sky filled with stars. Everyone lined up on the banks and laid back, counting shooting stars and describing constellations that we created ourselves. At Moonup that night
Eliza and Will chose Hugo and Shelby as LODs. Shelby’s tendency to help another person before herself and her ability to lift other students with kind words makes her a natural leader. Hugo leads through solid judgment and analyzing his situation before making a move. He is wise beyond his years, even coming up with a quote to share with the group off the top of his head. Along the banks of this mighty river, everyone slept well and readied themselves for the next day, which would include the highest class rapids.
We awoke to another great breakfast prepared by our guides. (Who would have thought we’d be eating pancakes by the river!) Grace, without hesitation, offered to help the guides clean up before we shipped out – and she did it in Spanish! Grace has been a delight so far, with her quick wit and easy laugh, she often has the entire group rolling with laughter. Coupled with her positive attitude, she’s a real rockstar in our books. And then we were off on the water! I had the pleasure of sitting in a boat with Lily and discussing (among other things) our favorite foods and the river wildlife. She was so kind to lend her camera and took many incredible pictures that I can’t wait to see. She is coming into her own more and more each day, and I can’t wait to learn more about her. I can already tell she will make a great leader.
This final rafting day not only brought the big water but also the chance to jump off a high rock at the deep water’s edge. The entire group knew this was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss, and eagerly scaled the rock face, led by our guide, to get to the perfect spot. In small waves we all swallowed our fear and lept into the chilly waters below. Victory cries rang out as we swam back to the boats. Caroline proclaimed later, “that jump gave me life!” – and she was spot-on. Wyatt couldn’t wait to get back to the boats to tackle the next big rapid. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush and camaraderie that comes forth when working this hard and accomplishing something as a group. On the boat, as well as the night before when he led the group in our efforts to make a fire on the windy riverbank, he showed us his leadership style: calm and collected and ready to move to action for the betterment of the group. Whether he is LOD or not, he is recognized as a leader in this group, and plays his role well.
Coming to the end of our rafting section was bittersweet. We were all proud of what we had accomplished and had grown so much as a group, but were sad to leave the guides who cared for us these past few days and the river that provided an incredible adventure. Alas, with our tired arms and many new stories to tell folks back home, we departed for home base in Cusco.
As leaders, we are so fortunate to have this group of intelligent and kind young people join us in this awe-inspiring place. We have learned so much from your kids and cannot wait to learn more. This group already feels like a family, and we are fortunate to count ourselves as members. Our next section is community service, and we are so excited.
Sending love from Peru,
Sam and Gaby
June 28, 2018
Hi Machu Picchu Families,
All students have safely arrived in Cuzco. We can’t wait to hear more from them!