Thank you Joanna for this lovely note about your volunteering experience with the Llama Pack Project!
My 3 month trip to Peru was not for tourism. I didn’t just go to complete checklists of the sites I’ve seen. It was a deeply personal journey and I was blessed to find the right platform to work from. Alejandra and Coqui of the Llama Pack Project in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley were kind enough to invite me into their organization – and very much into their lives.
The first moment I pulled up to the hostel I would be living in, I was awed by the beauty of the surrounding mountains. I secured a bunk in one of the rooms that, when it occurred, I shared with the most wonderful and interesting people (I even made a lovely friend for life in my co-volunteer, Ellie. Who could ask for a better souvenir?). The common room was big and comfortable and was a place to chat with people from all over the world – veterinarians from the States and UK, visitors from Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Peru, students, singles, and couples. The kitchen (important to me as I love to cook) was perfect. Many afternoons, I sat in the sun in the garden or read in the hammock. Some nights there was even a fire to be enjoyed – not too many though as I preferred to get up with the sun so as not to miss a moment of the splendorous nature.
The town was a short walk – 15 minutes down the main road, 35 by back roads – and had everything you could want. Restaurants, stores, cafés, language school, plenty of places to get wifi, etc. The Peruvian people are some of the kindest and sweetest I’ve ever met and I loved just watching how they interacted in the park. I got into a habit I haven’t broken – going to the wonderful open market to buy food that came directly from the farmers. No need for a Whole Foods here!
When I did want to leave town it was easy and inexpensive. 6 soles ($1.60) would take us on a colectivo to Cusco, a city full of character and a place I wanted to move to right away (come to think of it, I just may do that…). There are also all the other fascinating and funky towns up and down the Sacred Valley. Interestingly enough, I never made it to Machu Picchu. Too many other experiences filled my space.
The Llama Pack Project mission states that they work to recover traditional uses and breeding of carrier llamas as a tool for sustainable rural development and conservation of mountain ecosystems in the highlands surrounding the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Basically, they work with Andean Mountain communities, whose standard of living has changed little through the centuries, to breed llamas strong enough to participate in the tourism industry that is passing them by. Earning the trust of the communities was no small task and to see the bonds developed was heartwarming. Their programs branch off into veterinarian training for llama care, llama treks into the mountains, community service and working with schools, and the development of a community training center/Andean Village theme park. My hosts work tirelessly and still are able to dedicate themselves fully to raising the rambunctious Borja, their 4 year old son.
My work was business planning, fundraising, and some marketing. It was really interesting and fun to apply what I do well to something that mattered. What really drove me though was participating in the treks and working with the llamas. Almost every day there was a reason to climb a mountain. During the group treks, I usually took the back of the line position to be with those who took a bit more time. A number of mornings I was able to herd the llamas and bring them down from the top of the mountain so they didn’t drift too far. One of the most physically challenging, visually beautiful, and spiritually powerful experiences was a 3-day hike to visit and interview some of the communities. Eye level to glaciers at 15,000 feet, sleeping in a stall after a 10 hour hike, more beauty than I can list. One of the best and most emotionally moving meals of my life was the potatoes and river trout provided one early morning from a family of 5 that lived in a small mud house.
Over all of this was the development of true understanding of the sacred in the land of the Sacred Valley. The land has a power. I was driven to climb and observe and feel. Seeing mountain tops that went on forever, clouds resting in peaks and sometimes below me, smelling the purest air, and being close to the sun affected body, mind, and soul. Why it took such vastness to go so deep I’m not sure. But I do know that in the heights I was able to reach new spiritual depths.
The whole experience was permanently positively transformative and for that I will always be grateful to my dear friends at the Llama Pack Project.
Joanna Marie Roche