After volunteering for her first time ever in Cusco, Peru, Nicole writes an amazing firsthand account of her travels. Although she was only there for one week, she sure made the most of it. Read her story below. Thanks for sharing Nicole!


I make it a conscious habit NOT to Google image search the next location I’ll be traveling to. As you can imagine, this is pretty difficult, especially when you have a curiosity the size of mine and a sense of restlessness that can’t seem to be fulfilled. That being said, I didn’t completely go against my plan. I had a somewhat clear vision of what I expected Cusco, Peru to look like. In all honesty, I pictured many of the streets that I had walked through during family vacations in Mexico. This was a somewhat vague imagine; for one reason being that I was about 15 years younger and I’m positive the memories I have became at least somewhat clouded. For a second reason, I was generalizing what I’ve seen to a place that I had only hoped I would visit one day.

My Volunteering History – or Lack There of

I grew up in a household where family vacation meant “vacation” in the sense that we had everything at our disposal. While I’m not complaining by any means, I had a somewhat one-sided view of what travel could actually mean. All-inclusive resorts followed by tourist attraction after tourist attraction is something I will always be grateful for.  Yet, between the palm tree lined streets and white cotton covered perfectly made beds, something was missing. To sum it up in one word: a real cultural experience.

Arriving in Cusco

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We were welcomed by our “mom and dad” for the week, Nora and Emerico, at our homestay with tea. Coca tea to be exact, whose leaves were the Peruvian solution for adjusting to the altitude change, and whose leaves I instantly grew pretty attached to at every single breakfast and dinner. This volunteer group abroad meant placing yourself in an environment with six other people whom you’ve never met before. The only thing you initially knew was that these six friends you were about to make shared the same love for volunteering and travel that you had. You quickly learned about one another as you tried guinea pig (a delicacy in Peru) and contemplated whether or not you actually liked it. You learned to quickly trust one another, as you relied on their support as you hiked what felt like a thousand stairs up a mountain. You also quickly learned what each person brought to the table. Whether that was optimism, sarcastic humor towards your “futbol” (soccer) playing abilities during a mid-day game in the Peruvian fields, or the friend that seemed to have an internal GPS system, we grew as a solid unit over the course of the week.

An Amazing Volunteering Experience

Day one of volunteering. Alarm screams at 6:00 am. My initial plan was actually to take a short nap in the car on our way to the volunteer site. This was made impossible as I stared out my window at the streets lined with food carts fully stocked with fresh pineapple juice, the bus next to us that was over capacity by at least 15 people staring back at me with the same curious eyes that I had, and the sun creeping up over the mountains just in time to illuminate our job site that we would be working on for the next 4 mornings. Our role wasn’t to “fix” what had already been home to the locals based on our own assumptions of what was needed. Our role was to recognize what their needs were, and to respect the process in which these needs were fulfilled.

While I initially thought to myself, “this framework column could have been built in half the amount of time using tools and machines that I see daily in the urbanized land of Chicago,” it took a mere hour on the job site to realize the beauty in NOT taking the easy route. There was something far more rewarding about using wire that was attached to the column framework with a crowbar and our very-willing-to-learn fingertips. There was a patience that was appreciated and required to pour bucket after of bucket of thick concrete into the column with the realization that at least 1/4 of it may very well end up on your clothes and arms. There was a humility that was needed when our only two hammers broke and were mended through welding, versus simply purchasing new ones. There was genuineness and understanding that was at the foundation of working with our construction leader, Marco, who laughed at my “Spanglish” with authenticity and had the willingness to help me learn. Side note: learning how to construct a column with construction materials you’ve never heard of and with tools that your hands initially refused to work properly with, and in a language you’re far from fluent in… is a combination of frustrating and entertaining all at the same time.

A True Sense of Accomplishment

When our faces were lined with dirt and our hands were calloused from crowbars and wires, our eyes beamed with wonder and excitement from the work we accomplished for the day. It’s not a quick process, and most certainly not an easy one. It took me four hours to build a single column. And after those four hours, all I can simply say is that I was so proud of myself. I was humbled by the construction process. As I stared at the sturdy concrete column that dried over night, I had the instant awareness of exactly what actually went into the building of it. And that was extremely rewarding. We were a part of the foundation that would hold up the much needed second floor of a children’s health clinic.

Exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley

After our volunteer day ended, we were free to explore Peru as close as what it felt like to being locals. This meant a lot of walking, a lot of testing our ability to withstand a drastic altitude change, and finding appreciation in the moments we were challenged. I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone as I hopped on the seat of an ATV, with the awareness that I may very well be as good at driving an ATV as I am at driving a car (terribly). We drove through village streets filled with pigs and dogs that seemed to make a game out of running past you solely to test your reflexes to quickly brake, and over dirt roads that (at the time) felt slanted at a 45° angle. Any ounce of fear was worth it as I overlooked the Sacred Valley and the salt mines that were a part of it. It looked like an ice capped mountain, but the mines were actually square plots of warm water filled with the freshest salt you’ve ever tasted.

Hiking Machu Picchu

An 11,600 feet, Machu Picchu felt like the most appropriate challenge for our volunteer group. If you’ve seen photos of Machu Picchu, I’ll be honest and say that each one will never do it complete justice. There we were, at the base of the mountain, staring up at a hike that appeared impossible to accomplish. For the first fifty steps, it definitely felt like it too. Let me also preface: the first fifty steps did not even constitute the hike to the entrance of the mountain itself. Despite how much my legs were begging me to stop, my mind was telling me otherwise. If you looked to the left, you saw the vastness of Machu Picchu that urged you to continue climbing. A sea of deep greens hues, ruins that lay some thousand feet below you that appear to now be miniature, and streaks of clouds that seemed to be lightly painted in the sky that swallowed you whole. If you looked to your right, you were face-to-face with the jagged stone “wall” of the mountain that you would desperately hold onto while climbing around a narrow curve.

“Don’t. Look. Down.” I think I repeated this at least ten times out loud and to myself throughout the climb. “Break time?” I also repeated this to myself another ten times. Breathing heavily and legs shaking, I estimated how much longer we would have to go. The thing is: you’ll never know, and it certainly doesn’t matter, until you actually reach the top.

Insignificant. This is the first word that comes to my mind when I describe how I felt at the very top of the mountain. Insignificant because everything surrounding me was so far from it. I never thought something could be so beautiful, until I saw Machu Picchu. My view typically consists of a concrete jungle of skyscrapers competing with one another for who can reach the greatest height. Here I was, at something that was natural and required nothing “external,” and I felt more alive and fulfilled than I’ve ever felt at home.

Our climb down was met with a spontaneous storm that left my clothes drenched, my wet hair sticking to my face that still exonerated a combination of exhaustion and pure happiness, and a sense of appreciation for the weather that none of us could have anticipated. This holds true for an entire volunteer trip, or any sort of travel. Things will most certainly go unplanned. Things will happen that you couldn’t have expected or prepared for. This is where you learn about yourself, and where you find the real joy in exploring a place you’ve never seen before, and experiencing things you couldn’t have possibly planned for.

My Final Thoughts

While I could type out at least twenty other very distinct experiences from my time in Cusco, Peru, I’ll sum up the entire volunteer trip in one word: fulfilling. Fulfilling in the sense that my own capabilities were constantly tested, and any challenges were overcome. Fulfilling in the sense that I contributed to a cause greater than myself. For me personally, one of the most impactful things I experienced was the simplicity that was at the foundation of Cusco. Living in excess is something that feels normal and expected in the U.S. (or at least for me in Chicago). However, there is far more joy found in appreciating what you have, versus constantly asking for more. Now that I’m home, I of course have a restless itch to continue experiencing my next adventure. For right now, I will always have the very vivid memories of my first volunteer trip with Build Abroad and the excitement of knowing I’ll be planning for another next year.