Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Peru: Volunteering at Chachabamba and Being Forgotten By the Train

Welcome to Peru Week on Pro-Soup Propaganda! In case you missed it, this week I'm talking about my recent volunteer vacation to Peru with Conservation VIP and REI!

After having such a great time exploring with our group I was so excited to start volunteering! We spent two days volunteering at Chachabamba, which I believe was an ancient Inca religious site. Our first day we got there on the train from Machu Picchu early in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We didn't know what was in store for us to do. We got told we would be scraping moss off the ruins with sharpened sticks and then later helping clear brush from part of the plant nursery area.

Spending the morning scraping moss was not as boring as it sounds, to be honest. The moss and lichen that grows on the ruins must be taken off because it eats away at the rock and mortar and without someone removing it the rocks would eventually degrade and the ruins would fall. After seeing this beautiful place and knowing how easy it was to help, I would hope more people would step up to the challenge and help out!

Scraping was kind of like a zen meditation. Scrape scrape scrape scrape, a little brushing here and there to move away all the moss and plants you just scraped off, scrape scrape scrape. Stop to admire the beautiful view and feel totally thankful you are in such an amazing place and being able to help. Scrape scrape scrape.

We cleaned the ruins for the first part of the day and then ate lunch. Our second part of the day was to help clear brush away from the nursery and to not lop down any of the orchid plants. This part, to be honest, was not my favorite. There were giant ants and spiders and I kept having to make sure I was not standing in an ant nest. That being said, it was a small aggravation in the big scheme of things, so I pulled up my big girl pants and dealt with it and didn't let it bother me (too much)! Knowing we were making such a difference made me not sweat it and it was a temporary, short aspect to a much bigger positive day!

As we left that day to head to wait for the train to pick us up we all day such big smiles. It was a hard day, but we felt good about the amount of moss we had scraped and the giant brush pile of weeds and invasive plants that we'd helped create. We walked back to the train tracks and began our wait.

We waited.

And we waited.

We watched a train go by heading back to Ollantaytambo.

Then we waited a little bit more. It was beginning to get dark. (Remember, it's winter there now!)

FINALLY we heard a train coming our way and it was going the right direction so we hurriedly put our packs on and stood by the tracks in anticipation. We saw the train coming around the bend and...




The train hauled ass by us, whistle blowing and lights flashing, all the people inside lazily dreaming about arriving at Machu Picchu.


After the train passed us we were all in a state of shock. What, what, WHAT? The train didn't stop for us! There must be another train, but no! Think, THINK. Is there another train coming by? Could that have somehow NOT been our train? No, THAT WAS OUR TRAIN.

It kind of all clicked to us at the same time that we were going to have to walk back to Machu Picchu along the train the dark.

And that's what we did.

There were ten of us with four flashlights between us, one of which failed after the first twenty minutes or so. Thankfully, the weather was lovely and warm. The stars were out. The moon came out. We began to walk.

We walked single-file along the tracks. The first person would say, "Rock on the left!" if there was a rock that the rest of us should look out for. We chitchatted a bit while we walked, but mostly we were silent. It was a beautiful evening and we were mostly just in our own heads. I did get to see lightning bugs for the first time! Seeing the constellations was pretty amazing, too, and I'm happy that I have now seen the Southern Cross to many times.

As we walked other trains leaving from Machu Picchu passed by us. As the first couple passed everyone stood far back from the trains. By the fourth train we just stopped being spooked by them. (Not like we were unsafe but at some point we knew where the trains were and they weren't going to "get" us!)

It took us almost exactly two hours to do the 6km walk, 3.7 miles, in the dark. When we started seeing the lights of Machu Picchu getting closer, the trail alongside the tracks getting wider and wider, and more residences closer together we began to feel so relieved because we were almost there!

Finally we made it and that, my friends, felt so good. We all made it safely and no one got hurt in the dark. (I had fears of a sprained ankle or someone tripping.) As we stumbled back through town we were all pretty much excited to eat and go to bed. Once that happened and I was tucked in, waiting to fall asleep, I realized that night was amazing and our group was so awesome. No one complained about having to do our night walk, everyone just realized that, yup, that's what was going to have to happen so let's do it. When we got to MP everyone was happy and excited and cheerful still. Everyone was nice to each other and no one was hangry. ;o) The memory of walking back to the city is still my absolute favorite of the trip and I will cherish it as a great adventure!

But that still didn't mean that we didn't have to get up early the next morning so we could go back to Chachabamba and do more volunteering. We all met up, ate, and packed lunches, perhaps a little slower than usual. We had people in the background figuring out what the heck happened and who dropped the ball in picking us up. But we were still all smiles as we got off the train in Chachabamba again. This day, thankfully, we got to scrape moss and lichen all day. We were all pretty tired and the thought of having to haul armloads of plants, well, let's just say I was pretty happy for the scraping!

In the afternoon we did take a short field trip to a creek near the site. It felt so nice to splash around in the water a bit, which was surprisingly warm. And there was real sand in parts of the creek! Standing in the water with soft sand under my feet, warm sunshine on my face, listening to my new friends laugh amongst each other was such a treat and definitely something I'll always remember.

As we got back to the site we had a little bit of time with the SERNANP workers before we had to leave. We took a few group shots as the sun began to set behind the mountains. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the Peruvian workers made my heart sing. They were so thankful to have a group of volunteers come take part of a site that's important to their national heritage. You don't have to speak the same language to feel like you're part of something big. I was grateful for everything I learned from them, as well. It was just such an amazing experience and I just glowed with happiness!

To our delight, we were not only picked up by the train that night, but had two bottles of champagne and a handwritten note waiting for us, only to find out we were also going to be treated to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town, InkaTerra! Having this happen was a great end to a great two days in Chachabamba!

Urubamba River

All smiles first thing in the morning!

The amazing ruins

This water felt so good!

Hi, John!

Genie's quiet moment on the bridge

Tourists, ha!

John ponders the fountains

Beebee air plant

Me and my trusty stick!
(You can tell the area I was too short to clean on the wall, ha ha!)

The amount of care for this one tiny sapling made me smile!

Last little bit of relaxing before we had to go

Dr. Bill waits for the train...which DID pick us up that night!

Past posts:
Monday: Exploring Cusco and Sacsaywaman
Tuesday: Exploring Machu Picchu

Check out the rest of my photos from my trip here!

Love reading about my adventures? Consider donating to my Smarty Pig fund! I'm saving up for a six week trip to Antarctica, Patagonia, Argentina, and Chile in January and February, 2014. Your donation can help me continue these adventures!


  1. I was waiting for the train story ... what an adventure! I would probably be freaked out (I'm so scared of the dark). I love the photo of the wall where you couldn't reach. Hooray for us shorties! :) Fun, fun, fun!

    1. The train story is pretty much my favorite part of the trip, even though it was a *little* frustrating at the time, but only for a few minutes.

      And yaaaayyy for us shorties!! I just thought the contrast was so funny!