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A young arriero leads a mule across fresh snow in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Benjamin Swift (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist), South America Semester.

La Cordillera Real

It has been four days since we finished our six-day trek of La Cordillera Real, and I am finally regaining my normal energy while enjoying the hospitality of Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca.
Looking back, despite a strong feeling of fatigue, the spirit of the group appeared to be unexpectedly high upon arriving at our final campsite. Everyone was either joking around about our hyper-abundance of zucchini and indulging in the copious amounts of peanut butter left over from the trip, or napping and taking advantage of the glorious, eco-lodge bathroom right next to our tents (Yes, the sight of a toilet after five days of dirt holes was indeed quite divine).
In regards to the hike, the mountain range was treacherously sublime. Even the clouds were inferior to the summits, awesome, treeless peaks penetrating the floor of the sky with a fusion of green, white, and stone. This grandeur was certainly beyond man, naturally supernatural. Houses and campsites on neighboring mountains that appeared just within arm’s reach were actually two or three hours away. Time and distance became obscured, and therefore irrelevant, and it was beautiful.
Nevertheless, such sublimity was deceiving, for we had to pay a price to see this greatness. Sunny days were complemented by a lovely cocktail of rain, snow, and hail (And for many people day packs were not a winter wardrobe). Furthermore, that experience was only external. On the inside, our own bodies whined with burning legs, headaches due to the altitude, and daily specials of gastrointestinal infections, a wonderful plethora of bowel discomfort and stool consistencies to choose from.
The experience was definitely enough environmental and physical chaos to make one question whether such a trek is worth the effort. However, for me, the truth is those pains were exactly the reason why the trek was worthwhile. In the midst of that cold precipitation and physical strain, I observed my friends sharing gear and food, offering words of encouragement to those not feeling well, and lending a helping hand wherever it was needed. Something about this struggle revealed so clearly how we had matured as a group and developed more intimate relationships. In contrast to our prior trek in Amboro, where arguments over simple food distribution and stepped on tent stakes were perpetuated by swarms of mosquitoes and a lack of showering, during this trek, the group instead unconsciously made the choice to use that same discontent as motivation to support each other rather than an excuse to create division and think for ourselves. I admire such mental resiliency.
There is still a lot of critical discussion to be had on group culture and the relevance of these experiences and this program to our lives back home, but with this group development and the incredible Andean landscape in mind, this experience was both discretely and obviously special at the same time. Our struggles did not compare. It was beyond any one person or any one sight we had seen before. It was chaos, but a beautiful chaos nonetheless.