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Review for Conservation Volunteers International Program, Inc., Orinda, CA, USA

Rating: 5 stars  

Have you ever PAID to volunteer on an International adventure trip at an ecologically protected site? I hadn’t, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel under a variety of circumstances over the last 35 years. Reading the online ConservationVIP trip description made me curious and a little excited. My spouse, the yang to my yin, had questions and doubts.

Hmmm….. Curiosity, excitement, doubt and the unknown. Sounds like the beginning of every great adventure. I decided to enroll in this non-profit 2018 trip to Machu Picchu.

Questions that arose at my house included:
Will food and lodging suffer due to focus on work schedule?
Will I get my money’s worth?
What kind of people take a trip to the sacred site of Machu Picchu in order to work?
Will I have adequate time to hike and explore the ruins and peaks along the Incan trail?
Will I get my money’s worth?
How good are the trip leaders at balancing logistics, group safety and quirky individuals?
How knowledgeable and reliable is the native Peruvian guide?
Will my volunteer time add measurable value to this ecological site?
And oh yeah, will I get my money’s worth?

I’m not an extremely frugal guy, just pragmatic and trying to get the most value from every dollar I’ve managed to save. So I’ll address each of my concerns below and when I’m done you be the judge of the money question.

First, the food was astounding and our ConservationVIP leaders guided us through a daily moveable feast. Excellent cafes and restaurants abound from Cusco – the ancient Incan capital where all volunteers meet - to Aguas Calientes – the park town at the base of the Machu Picchu Ruins. Try the Quinoa soup with any fish, meat or vegetable entrée for a taste bud delight. After eating like Incan royalty, you’ll enjoy the clean and comfortable lodging arranged by trip leaders that comes with a hardy breakfast buffet. The rooms are not frilly but you’ll only be sleeping and showering in them. They offer secure and ample space, clean bed linens and a good Wi-Fi connection. Bring ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper to offset occasional street noise or your favorite snoring roommate.

I know each trip will be populated by its own unique troop of volunteers, but I was surprised by how our group diversity ranged from business entrepreneurs and cubicle conquerors to work-at-homeys and retirees, both reserved and adventurous, who still ride road bikes and surf along the Pacific Coast highway.

After a warm welcome from our group leaders, we all gelled, regardless of individual backgrounds and life experiences, since we all had a common goal: take a magical 10 day sojourn to Machu Picchu and surrounding areas AND give back the best of ourselves through volunteer efforts by clearing Incan trails of invasive plants and debris strewn by the last flood stage along the Urubamba River.

Upon arrival at Machu Picchu, we took a guided tour that included free time to climb Huayna Picchu, the Sun Gate and the Incan Bridge. Four days were then devoted to the volunteer activities that added value to the countryside and to my life. We worked closely with the park biologist and his crew, safety first, and no volunteer performed trail duty he/she was not comfortable with. We gathered several dump trucks worth of debris and detritus. We stemmed the spread of aggressive plant species that choked native plants throughout the park.
Bring an extra pair of gloves to donate to the crew on the last day. Like any government entity, the Park crew have a tight budget and are grateful for all of our help. There is plenty of time to spend leisure time in the Ruins after work ends each early afternoon. Definitely check your camera batteries and memory card. Not one of us could get enough photos of this sacred site that is filled with colorful native people and docile llamas beside 15th century block walls climbing up Incan terraced mountainsides to misty granite peaks.

And still, this trip would not have succeeded without the unflappable ConservationVIP trip leaders, Janice and Karla along with our Peruvian guide, Santiago. They are so organized, they are so professional, they are so concerned about safely providing an unforgettable experience for the volunteers that it’s easy to take them for granted. The schedule and travel plan runs so smoothly that even when there are minor hiccups like the occasional train delay, it’s solved on the fly in alternative restaurants or on extended cultural tours. Logistics and entry permits for these trips are arranged and secured months in advance by these trip maestros – and it shows. All three should be sainted for performing daily miracles and always practicing the virtue of patience. YOU try entertaining 18 people while herding them down a crowded Cusco street, around the guinea pig vendors and relic shop keepers toward enlightenment at the Sun Cathedral. Janice and Santiago led the way while Karla picked up all the strays!

A special word about Santiago, our Peruvian guide; He secured a university degree as a Professional Tour Guide, meaning he is knowledgeable in every cultural site that we visited, along with the geology, biology, astronomy and gastronomy of every village, ruin, monument, church and native home we visited. He has a sort of mythical charm that may come from his own Quechuan ancestry. He didn’t just answer our questions, he seemed to anticipate them. Never lost, he had friends wherever we went.
I can’t say enough about him.

So go, sign up for your own ConservationVIP experience at Machu Picchu and volunteer a little of your own effort to save this site and its trails for yourself and your fellow travelers. It was a stunning cultural and adventure trip, gift-wrapped with an environmental conscience. You’ll get MORE than your money’s worth. You’ll meet great people. You’ll eat incredible food. You’ll walk in the footsteps of Incan royalty. And you WILL gain more value in your life.

Role:  Volunteer