Steamboat Springs Although she didn't want it at first, the hand-knitted blanket that Rachel Van Baak brought home from Peru in February will always make her smile.
"I couldn't tell the lady that (the blanket) was nice, but I didn't want to buy it," the 17-year-old junior at Christian Heritage School in Steamboat Springs said about the trials of shopping in a Spanish-speaking country. "So I ended up buying it. It's going to my brother."
Van Baak said she also had to buy a new piece of luggage to haul the large blanket, making the purchases -- which cost about $40 -- an ongoing joke during the nine-day trip she took with six other Christian Heritage School students, two adult chaperones and Spanish teacher Maria Guadalupe (Lupita) Hathaway.
The group included sophomores Theresa Morrell Cutter, Whitney Ott and Jason Kvols; juniors Lewis Cutter and Nicole Bowes; fifth-grader Stephen Hathaway; and adults Stephen McCann and Lynn Bowes.
"It was the trip of a lifetime," Maria Hathaway said. Before leaving Feb. 17, her students studied Inca culture, history and archaeology as part of their Spanish class.
"We wanted to see it firsthand," she said.
After spending a day in the capital city of Lima, the group traveled to Cuzco -- once the capital of an Incan empire that spanned six South American countries -- and took a four-hour trip by train and bus to the ruins of Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city atop a high saddle between two Andean peaks.
The visit to one of the world's most enigmatic ancient sites left a mark on the students.
"It's a very magical place," Lewis Cutter, 17, said this week.
"You're standing there and you start thinking about how they got up there, and how long it took them to build," Van Baak said about the city constructed largely of stone in the mid-1400s.
Van Baak said the visit to Machu Picchu was her favorite part of the trip. There, the students experienceda full dose of Peruvian culture. The travelers learned about food, music, wildlife such as llamas and lizards, culture -- including a strike by transportation workers, markets selling handmade goods and passionate political campaigning for April elections -- and summertime humidity.
"My roommate and I shut our window, turned the fan on and opened the fridge to try to cool off our room," Lewis Cutter said with a smile. "It sort of worked."
Food -- which was "delicious," Van Baak said -- included a wide variety of raw and cooked seafood, often in lime juice, along with alpaca, rabbit, soups, rice and beans and more.
"I had an alpaca that was seasoned like pork," said Van Baak, who celebrated her birthday with the group by eating dinner in an outdoor mall built into cliffs high above the sea near Cuzco.
As for improving their language skills, Hathaway said the students often surprised themselves.
"They understood a lot more than they thought they knew," she said.
Families paid the airfare for their students, who raised funds through the school for expenses. In 2002, Christian Heritage School students took a mission trip to Mexico, and in 2004, students traveled to Spain. Next year, a trip is planned to London and Paris, Hathaway said.
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