From Freezing Glaciers to Steaming Cloudforests: El Chorro Trek

Bolivia has about 736,000 square miles (roughly the size of the U.S. states of Alaska and Washington combined), one-third of which is Andean altiplano and two-thirds is Amazon basin. Were it not for losing its Pacific War with Chile (1879-1884), it would have a coastline as well. (In fact, from 1825 to 1935, Bolivia lost half of its territory to neighboring Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay.)  The combination of altiplano and jungle make for a very biodiverse country and one of the best ways to experience that is by hiking the El Chorro Trek, just outside La Paz.

The El Chorro Trek in Bolivia
  After getting acclimatized in La Paz, we made arrangements to do the El Choro trek, a 43 km trek from the snowy tip of the Andes’ Cordillera Real range to the Yungas, the dense, steamy cloudforest that separates Bolivia’s altiplano from its Amazon basin. The trek starts out at La Cumbre, atop the Cordillera Real, the easternmost border of Bolivia’s altiplano, and goes to Chairo, before a jeep takes you to the relaxing tourist town of Coroico.

The first day we drove straight up out of La Paz, the Bolivian capital which sits in a densely-populated bowl in the altiplano. We headed straight up for an hour until we reached La Cumbre (“The Summit”) at 15,502 feet. The driver dropped the eight of us off (our family of 4 plus our guide, cook, and two porters) amid alpine lakes, glaciers and rocky peaks. We hiked strenuously upward for a half hour until we reached our highest point, Abra Chucura (15,941 ft). From here, it was all downhill on paved Inca stones, past crumbling piles of flat pizara (slate), roaming packs of llamas, and the occasional donkey train transporting goods from the Yungas to La Paz. After an hour we passed pre-Inca, guesthouse ruins, where travelers long before us broke their journey. Over one mountain pass from us was Bolivia’s infamous “World’s Most Dangerous Road”, where an average of 26 vehicles a year disappear over the edges of the road from La Cumbre to Coroico. The road gots its nickname from a recent Inter-America Development Bank report and is a magnet for adrenaline junkies on downhill mountain bikes. Later than afternoon we passed beautifully paved pre-inca stone roads and finished our day at Challapampa (9,268 ft). For dinner our cook served us a delicious quinoa and vegetable soup while we were entertained by a young boy scrambling on the grassy camping area on all fours. The next morning, we brushed our teeth and all visited Challapampa’s village toilet; a makeshift wood platform about 10 feet above a large pit next to the river. This image alone will convince our kids to never drink alpine river water without it being treated.

Day two was a delightful downward stroll through cloudforest dotted with orchids, bromeliads and butterflies. We passed a shack selling Oreo cookies and softdrinks and bought a pack of Oreos. Not far before we reached the next shack selling drinks, we saw about a hundred empty plastic bottles dumped down the cliff next to the trail. For the rest of the hike I intermittently thought about the tourist's responsibilty for such an unsustainable practice. We continued to cross makeshift bridges and small waterfalls and finished the day at the village of San Francisco -- a couple of huts in a level space carved into the trail, surrounded by banana trees.

We started out Day three with sore legs and very quickly descended into a dense jungle area with hundreds of beautiful Amaryllis plants. I recalled working for the Gardener’s Eden catalog over ten years ago where we sold “forcing kits” of Amarylis bulbs with smooth rocks and a glass pot for $30. I mentioned this to my wife and she picked one and put it in her hat. For lunch we stopped and ate at Casa Sandillani (6,725 ft) and spoke with the village patriarch, Tamiji Hanamura. Mr. Hanamura was a 80-year old Japanese man, who had traveled widely for many years and once he reached Casa Sandillana, stopped travelling and never left. He’s been there for 40 years. He showed us his collection of postcards from the United States and we promised to send him a postcard from some exotic place. That afternoon we continued steadily downhill towards the town of Chairo. About an hour before getting there we saw parrots noisily chirping in a tree. We finally reached Chairo, sweaty and exhausted, and jumped in a jeep for Coroico. We reached Coroico and immediately took showers at our hotel. The view from our room revealed densely-covered cloudforest, extending out towards the Amazon basin. The first day of walking by glaciers seemed worlds away.


Bolivian Biodiversity

The Bolivian "88" butterfly
Whether you are sailing along on Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet, tramping through the Yungas (steamy cloud forest), walking through glaciers along the altiplano, paddling a dugout canoe through the Bolivian Amazon or taking in the bizarre Salar de Uyuni salt sea, Bolivia has something for everyone. Its biodiversity is staggering. 

Bolivia is one of four countries with the highest abundance of butterflies and one of eight countries with the highest abundance of bird species. In belongs to the Tropical Andes, according to, is the richest and most diverse region on Earth, with about a sixth of all plant life in less than 1 percent of the world’s land area.

Bolivia has 4 biomes, 14 ecoregions and 199 ecosystems. The main biomes are jungle, forest, savannah, tundra, steppe, desert and wetlands. At the moment, more than 14,000 higher plant species, 325 mammals, 186 amphibians, 260 reptiles, 550 fish species and 1,379 birds are inventoried.

Don't like what you see in Bolivia? Jump on a bus and you'll be in a completely different ecosystem very quickly.


Sleeping On Salt: Bolivia's Salt Hotel

Our room at the Salt Hotel
 On the third night of our Lipez-Uyuni tour we arrived at our salt hotel, an inn made primarily of salt on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.  The hotel was basic with walls of salt, beds made of blocks of salt, tables of salt and chairs of salt.  When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls to verify that they were indeed made of salt. 

The lodge, the Atulcha, had basic rooms with shared bathrooms and salt tables lined up in the communal area for the set course dinner that all guests would share.

Outside, it was cold with stong winds blowing off the Salar -- a flat cold area 19 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah -- such that we had to turn our back to the Salar and look at the run down small village that is supported by tourists staying at the salt lodge.

Dinner that night was quinoa soup, roast llama and potatoes.  We shared our meal with a retired Geman man who was riding his bike around the Salar, stopping at various salt hotels (I believe that there are 7 or 8 of them).  After dinner we took hot showers before all the lights went out at 8:00 pm.  Nestled into our fairly comfortable beds atop salt blocks, I read my book with my miner's headlamp then drifted off to sleep. 

The dining area


Bolivia's Stone Tree: Sandblasting As An Art Form

The Stone Tree in Southwestern Bolivia
We gotten up early to get a head start on reaching the Salar de Uyuni that night, only to get a flat tire on our Land Cruiser within 45 minutes.  The wind blew unrelentlessly across the southwestern Bolivian aliplano and we all got out of the vehicle while our driver changed out the tire.  I braved the strong wind and took a short walk to find a place to urinate.  With winds this strong, a few calculations were required to ensure that I stayed dry during my nature call.

After a successful bathroom break I returned and our driver had finished changing the tire, so we all piled into the car and resumed driving.  Within an hour we arrived near some windswept stone sculptures on the edge of the desert.  We slowed down and plowed through deeper sand and stopped near a lone tent and two bicycles leaning against a large rock.  I guessed that whoever this was had tried a few different spots to avoid the wind until they finally settled on this one.  A French couple bounded out and greeted us.

We chatted with them for a bit and asked about their trip.  He was going from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska and she was visiting him for a few months and they'd been slogging through the desert sand for the last month.  We gave them some of our candy bars and the man wrote a message and email address on paper and asked that I email it to his friend, which I did two days later.

We wished them well and started driving and within a minute saw an immense stone structure and our driver said "Arbol de Piedra -- Stone Tree."  We got out an marveled at its size, its dimensions and the apparent nature of how it was formed: natural sandblasting.  It sat in the open where winds could shape it from all directions.  It was about 30 feet high and made of solid rock.  I wondered why it was so top-heavy; surely it would have been just as easy to sandblast a bottom-heavy pyramid type structure? 

We stopped for a few pictures and continued our journey.  While there were plenty of interesting sights along the way, we wanted to reach the Salar by sunset.


Swimming With Blind Pink River Dolphins

Jumping in with blind pink river dolphins
Deep within the Bolivian Amazon, the four of us peered over the sides of our dugout canoe, trying to decide if we should take the leap into the deep brown waters of the Yacuma River.  We wanted to swim with river dolphins but the piranha-filled, zero visibility water and the 10-foot long caimans eyeing us from the nearby shore kept us from jumping in.  “It’s Okay,” said our guide Wilber, sensing our reticence, “the piranha are too small to hurt you and the caimans are scared of the dolphins.”  Our kids weren’t going in unless Mom and Dad went first but we were clearly unsure ourselves.  We’d been to a few swimming spots along the river but each time we found a reason not to get in and this would probably be our last opportunity.

Wilber rhythmically banged his open palm on the outside hull of the canoe to attract more dolphins.  We had seen their pointy, toothy snouts rise out of the water as they surfaced high enough to expel water from their blow holes.  The chance to swim with dolphins in the wild and not in some over-sized Florida swimming pool kept us from backing out.  “Well,” said my wife, “We’re either going to do this or were not,” and she jumped in and disappeared into the muddy brown water.  My son followed his mother and in a few seconds both were floating and grinning, relieved to not be feeling any nibbles from hungry piranha. The curious dolphins swam circles around them and nudged a basketball to my son. After taking a few photographs of them I jumped in.  When I surfaced I was relieved to count the same number of caimans on the opposite river bank.  Our daughter was still in the boat.  She loves dolphins but she hates swimming in water where she can’t see the bottom.  After about five minutes of reassurance and cajoling, she reluctantly eased into the water.  While our son threw the basketball for the dolphins to retrieve, my daughter and I hung on the sides of the boat.  I felt a nibble around my armpit but did my best to keep this information from her.  Just as we were getting confident, there was a splash from a big tail and she screamed “What was that!” and quickly threw her arms around me.  One of the dolphins, apparently in a playful mood, had made a big splash with its tail and extinguished her budding confidence.  It was as if this river dolphin, with a brain 40% larger than a human’s, sensed her anxiety and was singling her out for teasing.

Flipper of the Amazon
For kids missing a lot of school, ours were getting quite an education on the flora and fauna of the Amazon basin.  The stars of our afternoon outing, the river dolphins, were the science lesson of the day.  These creatures were relatives of ocean-going dolphins but these river dwellers were very different.  Fifteen million years ago sea levels retreated and sealed them off from the ocean and they were forced to adapt to their new environment or face extinction.

Like us, they were faced with adjusting to a new environment here in South America.  As they evolved, they gained some things necessary for survival and they lost some things that weren’t essential.  They gained long, pointed snouts to reach through branches to find river crabs and they developed unfused vertebrae to allow them to make sharper turns through underwater tree roots.  They lost their dorsal fins to make navigating tight spots easier, they lost their eyesight because it was useless in the muddy water and their complexion turned pink due to a lack of sunlight penetrating the dark water.

Chasing the basketball
After about 10 minutes, the dolphins were suddenly gone and we climbed back in the boat.  Wilber fired up the outboard motor and we sped back to our lodge, savoring both the breeze from the boat and another great day along Bolivia's Yacuma River.


Attack Of The Bolivian Squirrel Monkeys

Bolivian Squirrel Monkey
We sped through the chocolaty brown waters of Bolivia’s Yacuma River, the breeze giving us respite from the moist and muggy Amazon air.  We’d seen a lot in one morning – capybaras, caimans, river turtles, river dolphins – and we settled in for a 45 minute ride back to our lodge for some lunch and a nap in a hammock.  Wilbur steered us swiftly in the 20-foot long dugout canoe and then slowed us down, killed the engine and we slowly drifted towards the far bank.  We were tiny white specks in a tri-color landscape of green trees, blue sky and brown water in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon.

With no breeze we started sweating and we wondered what Wilbur was up to.  Suddenly, the branches of the largest tree from the approaching bank started moving and shaking.  A closer look revealed that the tree was filled with about two dozen small Bolivian squirrel monkeys and they were coming our way as our boat now drifted under the branches.  The monkeys let their weight bring the branches down to the boat and one boarded near the bow.

Squirrel monkeys live in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America in the canopy layer.  They have short fur, olive colored shoulders and yellowish-orange coloring on their backs and extremities.  The grow to about 25 to 35 centimeters and their brain mass to body mass ratio is a remarkable 1:17, the largest brain, proportionately, of all the primates.  To put this in perspective, you have about a 1:35 ratio.

Our kids were by now anxious and I calmly told them “Don’t move.  All they want are the oranges.” My voice was fatherly and authoritarian, laced with a hint of nervousness.  I envisioned a worst case scenario of the kids being bitten by the monkeys and having to make the long 5 hour trek back to the closest town.   By now, eight of them were on our boat looking for food.  My wife was snapping photos and videos and one jumped in her lap.  My son moved to the edge of his seat and another monkey jumped on the spot he vacated.

They quickly grabbed the oranges and peels from the bottom of the canoe and started leaving and we were relieved that everyone was safe and no one had been bitten.  While I had sweated and worried about the kids safety, I felt that my wife -- who had filmed almost the entire episode -- was more concerned about missing any footage of the event.
Searching for our oranges


Bolivian Coco Leaf: The Red Bull Of The Andes

Hoja Sagrada (Holy Leaf)
We’d decided to take the overnight sleeper bus from La Paz to Sucre, given our somewhat rushed itinerary and desire to save time and the expense of a hotel room. We nestled into our reclining seats and went through our overnight bus checklist. Bag locked and secured to the overhead rack…check. Bottled water and toilet paper handy…check. Earplugs secured and bandana fastened over eyes…check. We settled in for a 12 hour bus ride along the Bolivian cordillera.

Overnight bus trips in the Andes always make me a little nervous. The amount of bus crashes in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador that share a disproportionate amount of headlines in the South American International Herald Tribune’s website, caused us to jokingly refer to that site as “Andean Bus Crash dot com.”

We all snoozed as we made our way southward. Every time the driver pumped the brakes to slow down, a part of my brain -- while still asleep -- registered the motion, ready for anything that might follow.

After a somewhat fitful night of semi-sleep, we arrived at 8:30 a.m. in Sucre. We collected our belongings and drowsily made our way out of the front of the bus. Before I turned right and down out of the bus, I looked over to the driver’s area. Below his empty seat were dozens of broken bits of coco leaves scattered over the floor. Now that we’d achieved safe passage to Sucre, I knew that my well-being had been insured by the hoja sagrada, the sacred leaf that has been used for medicinal, cultural and religious purposes in the Andes continuously for thousands of years. It’s been used as a protection against altitude, hunger and cold and in our case, it was a stimulant to keep our driver awake and us alive.  Thank goodness for the Red Bull of the Andes.
The Red Bull of the Andes


The La Paz Witches' Market

Llama fetuses outside a shop in the Witches Market
As I glanced through my Lonely Planet guidebook to Bolivia, I scanned the sights for something that looked interesting until I came to the following: El Mercado de Las Brujas…the La Paz Witches’ Market.  Out of all the sights in the world’s highest capital city, the Witches Market instantly soared to number one on our list.

We walked down the main thoroughfare and followed our map, which was unclear and not helped by the location description in the text.  After a few false alarms, we found Calle Jiminez and Calle Linares and knew we were in the right place when we saw lots of dried llama fetuses handing from shop windows.

We stopped at one shop and a middle-aged woman looked at us as if sizing us up.  I wasn’t sure if she was gauging our interest in buying or surreptitiously seeking signs of good or bad fortune.  She sat behind a table that displayed toad talismans, coco leaves, amulets, soaps, many different types of plants, owl feathers, totems, candles and dried snakes.  I wondered if her business from people who felt they really needed her products were now outweighed by people like me, who just want a souvenir to show someone back home. 

Inside the store, was a colorful collection of boxes that addressed many illnesses and health problems.  Usually looking at the cover of the box told you what it was for: a vigorous soccer player suggested more energy, a sultry woman advertised erectile enhancement, a picture of two kidneys targeted renal help and a full head of black hair unmistakably offered a solution to baldness.

The cure for what ails you
We walked from shop to shop but they all seemed to have the same merchandise.  I wanted to get some pictures so I awkwardly snapped some pictures while pretending not to.  I was careful to hold the camera to my waist which is why the photos here are cropped so poorly.  The last thing I wanted was an angry witch casting a spell on me.


Surreality In Bolivia

The Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia
The area around the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, is an other-worldly landscape of hallucinogenic visions and poses some difficult questions. For example: How did 10 billion tons of salt get here? Why is that lake green? Why are there thousands of pink flamingos living more than two miles above sea level? Why am I looking at steaming geysers and bubbling mudpots while freezing my butt off? Why is that lake red? But the question that I’m struggling with the most is: How is it that I am navigating an island of petrified coral, covered in cactus, in the middle of a sea of salt…at 12,000 feet above sea level?

The Salar de Uyuni is the remains of prehistoric Lake Minchin, which lost all its water via absorption and evaporation over 40,000 years ago. As the water disappeared, it left a perfectly-flat layer of salt covering 4.085 square miles, roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah. As the Andean altiplano was pushed up by the forces of plate tectonics, the Salar reached its present-day elevation.

Laguna Verde
We took a 4-day jeep safari starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni, the town that shares its name with the Salar. The first day was spent riding through the Lipez, a desert-like area in the farthest southwest corner of Bolivia, that resembles many areas of the U.S. southwest. We passed silver, gold, tin and antimony mines amidst thousands of roaming llamas, alpacas and vicunas (and one Andean ostrich). We also saw an odd animal called a viscacha, a rabbit-like creature with a long curly tail. The second day we passed hundreds of pink flamingos traipsing through lakes of swampy ice and borax. Three types of flamingos are indigenous to the swamps and marshes of the altiplano: the Chilean, the James and the Andean flamingos. By late morning, we arrived at Laguna Verde, a lake sitting in the shadow of a volcano, which keeps it’s green appearance due to the high arsenic content of its waters. After lunch and a dip in some thermal hot springs, we passed more volcanoes and flamingos and arrived at Sol de Mañana, an area of intense geothermic activity with steaming geysers and bubbling holes of mud. We carefully walked around the perimeter of the area but had to quickly retreat to the jeep due to the intense wind and cold. We spent that night on the shore of Laguna Colorada, a large lake that gets its red color from the profusion of algae blooms in the water. The third day we traveled past more snow-capped volcanoes and stopped at the Stone Tree, an eroded volcanic rock in the shape of a tree 25 feet high. We spent that night in a salt hotel, an inn made primarily of blocks of salt. Our beds were platforms of salt and the dining area boasted dining tables and block seats made from salt. When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls of our room to verify their saline content (trying not to think about how many previous guests had done the same).

My legs form a very long shadow at sunrise
We woke at 6:00 am on the fourth day and drove out to the middle of the Salar to watch the sunrise. The kids and I took pictures of our extremely long shadows, which stretched hundreds of feet to the west. We ate breakfast on the “shore” of Isla Inca Huasi, also known as Fish Island for its fish-like shape. Inca Huasi is an island covered with petrified coral and cactus that was once in the middle of ancient Lake Minchin and now sits in the middle of the Salar. The cacti are relatively new; we’d heard that they grow about 2 centimeters a year, so none could be much more than 1,000 years old. We climbed to the top of the island to see white salt and blue sky in all directions.

Any land of coexisting extremes like this one -- hot, dry, swampy, steamy, salty, windy, cold -- is bound to raise questions. Our 4-day jeep safari through the Salar answered some of them for us.


Lunch In Uyuni, Bolivia

Humorous signs are everywhere in South America and this one is from Uyuni, Bolivia, where we sat down for lunch after completing our 4-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni.

We wondered if the restaurant only catered to men upon reading "We Offer Him the Specialty of the House."  We did not try the second item, called "Pasture," so we still have no idea what that was.  The heading after the second row of items, "Plates National Meat of He/She Calls or Head" was quite puzzling and looking at the first two plates listed below it confused us more: "Chop Male" and "Mounted Loin."

We decided to go with pizza, figuring that there could be no miscommunication about such a widely known dish and although the taste was not the best, we knew what we were eating.


Travel And Kids: No School For A Year

Pondering the Temple of Artemis in Turkey
Both our kids have missed an entire school year and our daughter studied under the auspices of the district’s independent study program the previous spring. The three most common questions that we’ve heard from friends and acquaintances were “Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year?”, “Won’t they get behind in school?” and “How do you know what to teach?” As we started to tell our family and friends about our plans, these three questions cropped up more than any others. (One of the more amusing questions we heard was from an administrator at the kids’ school: “How will you carry all those textbooks?” Answer: “We won’t.”)

The first question is an interesting one: "Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year?" All school districts are different, but we had surprisingly little interest or concern from our kids’ middle school. No one from the school, the school district or the State of California has stepped forward and said that we couldn’t do what we planned to do. The school was much more concerned about the minutiae of our daughter’s independent study for the final trimester than for missing the entire next year. The independent Study program allows “distance learning” under a teacher’s remote supervision for a period of up to 60 days. Our daughter’s teachers set up an independent study curriculum with scanned pages from her math, science and language arts textbooks, as well as research reports on both the Andean Condor and the Andean ecosystem as well as a research paper on The Beatles.

The second question, “Won’t they get behind in school?” is a fear that many parents share. It helps that both our kids are very good students so there is no “catching up” or learning issues to deal with. Both my wife and I both think that there is not a lot of learning going on in middle school. It is a time when kids are going through drastic physical and emotional changes and middle schools’ resources are overtaxed just to keep kids from falling off the deep end. Additionally, the time required to homeschool two kids ought to be much less than the time required to teach 20 kids in a school classroom. Finally, when we did a 6-month sabbatical through Central America and Spain in 2005, both kids missed the final trimester of that school year and did not miss a beat upon returning in the Fall.

The third question, “How do you know what to teach?” is easy in theory but hard in practice. The California education standards for each grade are listed in detail at the State of California’s web site. The blueprint is right there on the World Wide Web and all you have to do is print it out. In practice, the act of coming up with problems, exercises and projects that will teach the standards has given us a deeper respect for the teaching profession. Last week both our kids finished 500 word persuasive essays on the question: The Monroe Doctrine: Good or Bad for Latin America?” This week they are writing a 750 word dual biography on the twin liberators of South America: Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin.

Most of this blog entry has been about “keeping up”, but there are many things that they are getting from travel that their classmates aren’t. They are already intermediate-level Spanish speakers and they are acutely aware that most of the world is nothing like the privileged place they call home. They have learned that many simple things that they have taken for granted are luxuries in the developing world. They are much more open to new and different people, foods, customs, experiences and points of view. Perhaps most importantly, they will have a broader view of their responsibilities as global citizens when it comes time to choose their careers. It may be a cliché, but it also happens to be true: “Travel is Broadening”.


Lonely Planet's Blogsherpa Program Produces Its First Photo Ebook

HOT OFF THE PRESS: Today (May 3rd, 2011) the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa group launched their first photo e-book.  AlpacaSuitcase is one of the 40 featured Lonely Planet bloggers.  The following is directly from the Lonely Planet website:

In late 2008, Lonely Planet launched its experimental ‘Blogs We Like’ program. We picked our favourite bloggers around the world and featured their content on the Lonely Planet website.
Since then, those bloggers have banded together to form a community of expertise, showcasing the best travel blogging has to offer. We are pleased to feature their ebook, Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers, and to support them on their blogging journey. Here’s what Todd Wassel, the book’s project manager, has to say:

The concept is simple – put 40 experienced travel bloggers together, shake and see what pops out. The result is the first ever Lonely Planet Blogger Photo ebook, which explores our beautiful world from street level through the eyes of travel bloggers.

This eclectic group, whose tales range across voluntourism, family travel, expat life, long term backpacking and more, was born out of Lonely Planet’s effort to broaden its content. Lonely Planet wanted to shine a light on the very best travel writing and photography on the planet.

Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers is the first book produced by Lonely Planet’s ‘Blogs We Like’ program and introduces readers to the world of professional travel blogging. Lonely Planet knows what it takes to produce amazing travel writing and photography, and these bloggers are producing up-to-date live content from around the world while still managing to travel.

We also know that the internet, like the world, is a big place and it can be difficult to sift through the thousands of journal type travel blogs out there. Lonely Planet has done the work for you. From adventure travel with The Planet D, to family travel with Alpaca Suitcase, to the life of an international conflict management specialist at Todd’s Wanderings, there is something for everyone.

The new ebook shares a collection of stunning photos and descriptions that captures the essence of travel. It walks the reader through almost 70 countries and 40 unique ways of experiencing the world. It lets you research your next destination from a variety of perspectives, depending on your own interests and needs.

I could go on and on describing the book, but it’s better to just dive into 88 pages of colour, excitement and passion for travel. So download the book now!

Don’t forget to visit the each author’s travel blog, and check out the other blogsherpa contributions in the ‘Blogs We Like’ section of each destination page.

Happy travels and see you on the road.

To go to the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa page where the book is offered click here.


A Trip To The Supermercado

Supermercado Mega
There are plenty of local abarrotes (corner grocery shops) near us, but just like the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores back home in the United States, the selection is poor and the prices are relatively high. For bulk shopping we head to a supermercado, just as we would back home. Since there are no supermercados near our San Blas apartment, we shop at the Mega on Plaza Tupac Amaru. This location works for us because can walk over while our kids are at their nightly swim practice at the Piscina Municipal.

There’s a large open-air market near our apartment, where we normally buy our fruits and vegetables, but we have yet to purchase any meat there. While the meat monger seems to do a brisk business, there is something about seeing meat lying on a concrete counter while flies hop all over it that makes us cringe. As such, we buy our beef and chicken from the meat counter at the supermercado, where they even have packaged, boneless chicken breasts. Even though I have no idea where they’ve been previously, I am somehow comforted by seeing chicken breasts that have been wrapped in cellophane. It’s either because of the perceived cleanliness or perhaps it is because I know I can quickly grab a package instead of waiting for a woman behind the counter to help me. The women behind the counter seem pretty disinterested and it is sometimes hard to get their attention.

The delicatessen counter, however, is a different story. It is hard to walk by without one of the women touting their bacon, offering a sample of ham or suggesting a local cheese. It makes me wonder if they are on commission. Despite their hard sell, I tend to avoid the deli counter as most of the meat has a curious orange color and I’ve yet to find a cheese I like. We do like the packaged salami and Serrano ham for sandwiches. Beyond these two items, some of our standbys are the fresh-squeezed orange juice, ciabatta bread rolls and the kid’s favorite -- Piqueo Snax -- a spicy mixture of snack foods. In general, the selection of fruits, vegetables and grains is excellent and – this being Peru – I always have a choice of at least 10 types of potatoes.

I sometimes run into trouble with the ladies that weigh the produce. For example, when I buy the bulk peeled garlic, it is usually for a dish I plan to cook, so I’ll only bag 5-6 peeled clove pieces. When I put the bag on the scale, the ladies shake their head and tell me I need to buy more. The first time I was sent back twice until I had the requisite number. When I asked the lady what I should do with all the extra garlic, she just shrugged. I got my revenge a few weeks ago when purchasing cilantro. The cilantro bin was just about empty but I was able to find a small handful, which was exactly how much I needed. I brought it to the scale and the lady shook her head and said I needed more. When I told her that there was no more she marched over to the herb section and searched it thoroughly while I tried to suppress a grin.

The store is a smaller than we are used to. The aisles are very narrow so I find it easier to park my cart in the back of the store and go back and forth for what I need. There’s also a shortage of shopping carts; weekday evenings my cart is often snatched away just as I pull the last item out to place it on the checkout counter. Once the checkout clerk has rung me up, I find that the bill usually comes pretty close to 100 soles ($33 USD), probably because that’s the amount of food that will fit into 4 bags, the maximum that I can carry back to the swimming pool.


A Visit To The Venta De Repuestos

Venta de Repuestos (and guard dog)
Not long after finding spare shoelaces in the local market near our apartment, my wife asked me to fix her rolling backpack. The bag, an Eagle Creek Switchback 25, had a telescoping handle that had decided to stop telescoping. I took it apart and found a small part that had broken inside the pack. I needed a fairly thin nut and bolt to secure it so that it would again function properly. After a few failed attempts at finding the right part at some local ferreterias (hardware shops), I decided to check out the group of shops down the street where I found my spare shoelaces.

I walked down to the corner and walked straight to number 9, the Venta de Repuestos (spare parts shop). The shop was like all the others: rusty, corrugate-tin roof, fading blue paint, hand-painted sign, very cramped and parts strewn everywhere inside. This shop had something the others didn’t: a watchdog. I thought about petting him, but up close he looked scarred and mangy -- signs of aggressiveness and disease – so I gave him a wide berth.

The proprietor greeted me and I showed him the broken bolt and I asked if he had something similar. He started looking around his tiny shop, moving aside fuses, screws, coils of wire, gas canisters, bolts, clamps and nails. The interesting thing about his shop was that there did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to his merchandise assortment.  It was if each of the parts in his shop arrived there via some unique circumstance and not ordered from a parts catalog.  The shop was about 8’ x 4’ and it did not take him long locate a nut and bolt that looked like it fit my needs. I held it up to my broken bolt and it looked like a match. I got home and used the new bolt to fix the telescoping handle. My wife had her backpack fixed and I felt good about using a local resource for the solution.

Searching For Shoelaces In Cusco

The Master of Shoe Repair
About 30 meters from our apartment in Cusco is a local fruit and vegetable market where we bought our produce a few times a week. Next to this semi-covered market on the outskirts of San Blas, is an open-air courtyard with a dozen small shops offering anything from appliance and shoe repair to the sale of spare parts and second-hand goods. The tiny shops blend into the blue walls and terracotta tiles of the courtyard walls and I walked by them for months before I had occasion to stop by and explore.

The first occasion was to stop by for a pair of shoelaces at the shoe repair place. I stopped by number four, named “Shoe Repair – The Master,” and greeted the 50-year old man working on an antique sewing machine while his adult son hammered tiny nails into the soles of shoe. In front of the shop was a hodgepodge of chairs, spare parts, a metal workbench and a large vice. The roofing was terracotta tile extended by haphazardly-placed metal corrugate sheets. Fortunately it was not raining as the downspout – which looked ready to fall at any moment – was aimed directly at where I stood. Inside, shoes were shelved on the wall, strips of leather, wooden heels were stacked and there were a few dozen plastic containers full of nails, tools and parts essential to shoe repair.

After exchanging greetings, the owner, who peered at me through rheumy eyes, politely asked me what I was looking for: “Senor, que busca?” I held up some shoelaces that were dirty and ready to fall apart and asked if he carried any spares. As he told me that he doesn’t normally carry shoelaces, he started looking under piles of leather squares and in the many bins placed beneath the counter. He kept looking, while explaining that the money was in the service of repairing shoes not in selling spare shoelaces. He kept looking and repeated this to me as if to reinforce that he was losing money just by helping me. Just as I thought he was going to reiterate this idea again, he found a pair of laces that looked to be about the same size. While they were just as dirty as mine, they were in good shape so I said I’d take them. I paid him the equivalent of a dollar. Yes, it was too much for pair of dirty shoelaces in the Andes, but I figured I’d paid for the right not to hear him complain again.


Miguel Angel's Choice

Wood carving detail on my chair
In some ways, Miguel Angel is much like the city in which he was born. The 28 year old Cusqueño with a cheerful countenance and easy manner seems torn between the same two worlds that divide Cusco: the world of the traditional and world of the tourist.

Miguel Angel was named after his father, the Italian translation of which echoes the name of one of the world’s greatest sculptors: Michelangelo. Miguel Angel’s father is a well-known wood carver and sculptor who makes pieces of wood come alive with intricate and detailed workmanship. The father makes altarpieces, armoires, picture frames, headboards, doors and all types of furniture (see photo). As I write this I am sitting in one of his chairs, a beautifully carved, high-back dining chair. He is particularly well-known for his altarpieces which adorn many churches in Cusco and one of his best sits in a museum in Denver, Colorado in the United States. The father has been able to support a large family through his work and they live very comfortably by Cusco standards. He’s done well enough to build 3 floors above his house to rent out: we live on the third floor. I’m guessing that there is some degree of pressure on his sons to follow in his footsteps: Miguel Angel carries on the Michelangelo name and his older brother is named David, after one of Michelangelo’s greatest works. I occasionally see Miguel Angel working on small pieces, just like his father; the other day he was gold-leafing a small carved picture frame downstairs. He’s also shown me a large painting that he’s done that is pretty good.

Like Cusco, I think it’s been hard for Miguel Angel to resist the allure of tourism and the money it brings in. One of the University of Cusco’s most popular degree programs is tourism, which combines history, language (English), cultural anthropology, archeology and business. The number of travel agencies in Cusco and the number of Cusqueños who speak some English has increased greatly since I was last here 23 years ago. Whenever I talk to someone working in a travel agency and ask them where they learned their English, they usually reply “in university.” Miguel Angel and his cousin have had plans to start a travel agency for some time now, but it has been slow getting off the ground. They have an office space downstairs with desks, phones, printed literature and some large posters of the various sites in and around Cusco. With his personal charm, good looks and ease around people, I think he would be very successful.

One of the pre-requisites of running a successful travel agency is being able to speak English. Miguel Angel was studying at a language school for a while but had to postpone his lessons in order to help his father build out the apartments upstairs. When I asked him about this, he smiled quickly, shrugged and said “My father needs my help.” Now that the apartments are finished and rented out, it will be interesting to see which direction he takes: the world of the traditional or the world of the tourist.

The Best And The Worst Haircut

Peruvian barber shop
One of the things that I did not have time to do prior to leaving for South America was get a haircut; there were just too many things to do, plus I figured that I could always get a cheap one in Peru. Right about the time we arrived in Peru in late April, I noticed a brand-new hair salon two doors down from our Spanish school. It had 3 barber chairs, a full accompaniment of hair paraphernalia and a large poster with Brad Pitt and Megan Fox grinning and showing off their well-coifed hair. The proprietor was a woman in her late 20’s and when she wasn’t standing in front of the door waiting for customers, she was in the back room taking care of two small kids. I’d walked by each day for a week before impulsively deciding to go for it. I plopped down in the chair and said “Quiero aparacer como Brad Pitt.” (I want to look like Brad Pitt)

Sometimes an impulsive decision in Cusco turns out to be a great story: a chance visit to a non-descript panaderia reveals their awesome onion bread rolls or extreme thirst makes me enter a “hole in the wall” restaurant that serves outstanding chicha morada. This was not going to be one of those stories. She nervously started cutting one side of my head and I could feel her hands shaking while my daughter was documenting the experience with her new camera. I started to wonder whether she had ever given a haircut before. Once the ordeal was over, I surveyed the damage in the mirror: on the left side of my head the hair stood straight up and only copious amounts of water would make it lay down. I left thinking that it was the worst haircut I’ve ever received.

Usually my hair grows back pretty quickly and I often make the following joke “What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? About 2-3 weeks.” Well, three weeks and then four weeks went by and it still looked bad. After about 6 weeks I stopped thinking about it. A few months later we returned from our vacation in Bolivia and it was time for another haircut. My son accompanied me to a busy barber shop a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas and as we walked in the next available barber motioned me over. Romulo was one of 10 barbers working in the shop and he sat me in his chair and started snipping at my hair. The first things I noticed about him were his severe limp and his forceful way of positioning my head while cutting hair. He grabbed my chin and moved my head to the right while snipping away with dull scissors. The scissors pulled on my hair a bit and I had flashbacks to my earlier experience, but as I watched him at work, I gradually began to realize that he really knew what he was doing. He was very thorough and the haircut took almost 30 minutes. My son was so impressed that he decided to get a haircut as well. I gave Romulo a big tip and my son and I left thinking that we’d just had our best haircuts ever. I found it amusing that both my best and worst haircuts were both here in Cusco. It was no surprise to me that the hair salon run by the woman who butchered my hair was no longer in business.

About a month later, at a point where I had a 3 week growth of beard, I decided I would go back and get a shave from Romulo. I walked in, sat down and made eye contact with Romulo. He let me know that he’d be with me shortly by holding up one finger so I leaned back in my chair and looked around the barber shop. I looked at each barber in the shop and then my eyes rested on the barber working the chair next to Romulo and…it was the woman who gave me my worst haircut. Not only were my best and worst haircuts given in the same South American town, the barbers were now working 2 feet from one another.


Sweet And Delicious Picarones

One of our family’s Cusco traditions is to go out for picarones, which are deep-fried, donut-shaped treats with molasses drizzled over them. Though not the healthiest snack in the world, they are delicious. A while back, we invited another American expat family to join us at our favorite picaroneria and they loved them as well. Their young daughter, who was falling asleep after a long day, rallied when she took her first bite. We all watched her as extreme fatigue dueled with overpowering sweetness, creating what looked like a 4-year old devouring a picarone while fast asleep.

Picarones, a popular dessert in Peru and other Andean countries, are made from squash and sweet potato, along with flour, eggs, yeast and spices. They are sweetened with miel de chancaca (chancaca honey), a sweet sauce made of raw cane sugar. They are frequently paired with anticuchos (marinated meat on skewers) and are often served during the month of October during the procession of Señor de los Milagros. Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos, which were too expensive to make. People started replacing traditional buñuelos ingredients with squash and sweet potato and the new dessert rapidly increased in popularity throughout the Andes.

Just as the Incas imported their creation myth and religious traditions from Lake Titicaca, this tradition of ours originated there as well. Coming back from our Bolivian vacation, my wife and daughter decided to visit the Titicaca islands of Taquile and Amantani, while my son and I headed straight back to Cusco. They were hiking to the top of Amantani to see the sunset and some Pre-Inca ruins when they saw a stone cottage with “picarones” written on a chalkboard in front. It was cold, windy and getting dark and the fire inside was inviting. They sat down at one of the two tables and ordered the only two things on the menu: picarones and hot chocolate. They watched the lady knead the dough and place it in the cast-iron skillet filled with hot cooking oil. After frying it, she set them on a plate and drizzled molasses on them. When my wife and daughter returned and recounted the highlights of the trip to the islands, picarones were high on the list.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered our favorite picaroneria in Cusco while walking home from work. The shop is on a corner with a large vat of hot cooking oil right near the door. Inside there are five tables and the back wall is dominated by a large photo of a smiling woman with blue eyes and too much make-up biting into a picarone. Three ladies work there: one kneads the dough, one woman fries it and the other takes orders. While close to San Blas and the Plaza de Armas there seems to be many Cusqueños frequenting this place, a Peruvian version of a blue-collar donut shop in the U.S. For me, this comparison was reinforced about a month ago when a policeman walked in and ordered a dozen picarones to go. Some things transcend borders.

Recipe for Picarones:

Ingredients for picarones:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled sweet potatoes
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled buttercup squash
1/2 kg (1 lb) of flour
3 tablespoons of yeast
2 stick cinnamons
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of aniseed
3 tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Vegetable oil

Ingredients for the chancaca honey:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of chancaca
1 cup of brown sugar
4 cloves
2 stick cinnamons
2 pieces of orange peel
4 cups of water


Chancaca honey: Cut the chancaca in pieces, put them in a pot and add sugar, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and water. Boil until it gets a little thick (200º F, 110º C), more or less for 20-25 minutes. Strain.

Picarones: Boil in a pot a lot of water with the cinnamon, cloves and aniseeds for 10 minutes. Strain. In this water, cook the sweet potatoes and the squash. When they’re ready, take them out from the pot and strain. Keep back 2 cups of water and let it cool down.

In a bowl, mix the yeast with this 2 cups of water and the sugar. Go down for 15 minutes.

Mix the sweet potatoes and the squash making a purée. Add the salt, the yeast mix and the eggs, beating and mixing good. Add the flour while you continue beating with energy. You must get a soft and elastic pastry and it mustn’t get stuck to your fingers. Go down for 1 hour or until the preparation doubles its volume.

Heat a lot of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. Moisten your hand in water with salt, take the pastry and let it fall in the hot oil forming a ring. Let them get brown and turn over.

Usually, the portion is 3 picarones topped with miel de chancaca.


A Night At The Cockfights

Squaring Off at the Cusco Cockfights
For our first seven weeks in Peru, my daughter and I lived with the Chavez family in the Santa Monica suburb of Cusco. The family is very well off by Cusco standards; they own a large 3-story house with a maid in the nicest suburb of Cusco and they also own a 35-acre corn farm in the Sacred Valley. Alfredo, the husband, has a large dental practice and drives a SUV, while Zulma, the wife, is from a wealthy family and enjoys having foreign students stay in their home. They have made a concerted effort to include us in all the family activities.

One Sunday morning at breakfast, Alfredo turned to me and said “Vamos a Gallos?” (Do you want to go to the Cockfights?) Even though Alfredo is a professional and a doctor he definitely has a macho streak in him, so I interpreted his question as “Eres Hombre?” (Are you a man?). Not wanting to disappoint, I agreed. He said to be back at the house by 3:00 pm.

Alfredo and his son Alfredito, along with Alfredito’s friend and I left the house at 3:00 pm and started winding through the suburbs of Cusco. We arrived at the “Coliseo de Gallos”, situated in a dusty area behind the airport. We paid the entry fee and entered a courtyard with food stalls, beer vendors, a smelly bathroom and the cockfighting arena itself. There were about 400 people there, 90% of which were male. The entire arena was about 50 feet in diameter and resembled a pit, with the circular, central fighting area ringed by ascending seating rows. The fighting area itself was a sandy surface about 25 feet in diameter surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside the cage were signs on either side, one saying izquierda (left) and one saying derecha (right). Since most roosters look the same, especially when the feathers start to fly, these signs help during the betting process. Prior to each fight when the betting happens, each trainer stands near one of the signs, poking and agitating their roosters (sometimes biting them on their backs) so that they become more aggressive.

As we arrived I bought four large beer bottles and quickly learned how men in Peru share beer. Despite all the news coverage of the swine flu, everyone shares a glass and drinks one bottle at a time. When the beer bottle is passed to you, just hold on to it and wait until the drinking glass is passed to you. Once it’s passed to you, fill up the glass and then keep the chain going by handing the bottle clockwise. When you finish your glass, hand it to the man with the beer bottle

Once the beer protocol was understood, I watched the trainers carefully tie the sharp blade to the rooster’s right leg and then hold them up to the crowd. Suddenly, the arena went crazy with men shouting bets. Alfredo explained to me that the betting process isn’t terribly scientific…just pick the one that looks stronger and shout out your bet to the crowd and wait for a response. The first round I watched Alfredo as he shouted veinte derecha, held up 2 fingers and scanned the crowd. A young man looked up at him from the first row and held up his 2 fingers and shouted veinte izquierda: Alfredo had just bet 20 soles on the rooster on the right side of the cage.

The fighting was now set to start with Alfredo yelling "vamos derecha!" Most of the fights followed the same pattern as this one: the roosters carefully stalked each other for 4-5 minutes until they got close enough to pounce on one another. Then after a about a minute of flying feathers and blood, one of the roosters stood above the other, the loser with its beak resting on the sand floor. Alfredo’s rooster lost this fight and I watched him settled up with the young man in the first row. After observing Alfredo, I tried a few on my own.

Over the course of the evening’s 15 or so fights, I ended up winning about 15 soles ($5). As the night wore on, more and more cerveza was consumed and the men in the crowd became filled with drunken bonhomie. A man near me affectionately babbled indecipherable Spanish to me throughout the night and I occasionally babbled something indecipherable back, to which he laughed loudly. After almost 5 hours of drinking beer, we all stumbled out of the coliseo and went home.
Tying the blade to the rooster's leg


River Rafting The Chuquicahuna

Running the "Chuqui"
Our shuttle picked us on Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and we rolled out of town and headed for a point on the Chuquicahuna River, also known as the “Chuqui,” about an hour and a half to the southeast. Our family’s plan was to spend the afternoon running the lower Chuqui and have a relaxing lunch by the side of the river afterwards.

After we got out of Cusco, we followed the river upstream past stands of Eucalyptus trees and corn fields. Once we arrived, we got into our slightly-mildewy wetsuits and took an abbreviated safety course at the spot where we were about to put in. Then we coasted down the river for about 20 minutes before we started to pick up some speed. The terrain was rocky without a lot of indigenous foliage, save for the eucalyptus trees, themselves imports from Australia.

We bumped our way down the river and I thought about how the Chuqui would flow into the Vilcanote (a.k.a. Urubamba), the river that cuts through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and winds past Machhu Picchu. From there it would head to the jungle and flow into the Ucayali, which would feed into the Amazon, which would then gently course into the Atlantic Ocean over 4,000 miles away. The river during this winter day was fairly gentle with a sprinkling of class II and III rapids and fortunately no one fell into the chilly water. The last time the four of us river rafted, my wife was abruptly dumped into a Panamanian river.

After each successfully negotiated set of rapids, we all put our paddles together, high in the air, to celebrate. Our cameraman, in a kayak, paddled ahead of the rapids and set up in the best locations for photos. Towards the end of our two and a half hour run, our guide, a woman in her 20’s from Panama, instructed our kids to “ride the bull” by climbing on the front of the raft holding the rubber handle between their legs and shouting like a cowboy riding a wild bull.

From this point, we soon pulled into camp at the side of the river, showered and had a meal of chicken, potatoes and quinoa soup. It was an uneventful day on the river – the way a rafting trip should be.


Cusco Characters: Senora Melvyn

Melvyn Douglas: 1940's Hollywood Leading Man
Approximately 60 years ago, a Peruvian couple was anxiously awaiting the birth of their child and in the days leading up to the delivery, they had yet to pick a name. As the due date approached, they went to a Lima movie theater to see a Hollywood movie and to relax. To this day they can’t remember the name of the movie but it starred an enchanting actress who was paired with a well-known Hollywood leading man. They loved the actress’ performance so much they decided right then that if they had a girl, they would name it after the actress. Unfortunately, they left the theater hurriedly and didn’t get the actress’s name and a few days later they gave birth to a baby girl.

When it came time to name the baby girl they had a lasting memory of the actress’ performance but not her name. Under pressure from the doctor who was filling out the birth certificate, they did the next best thing. They named the girl after the film’s well-known leading man: Melvyn Douglas. At that time, Melvyn Douglas was one of America’s finest actors and would finish his career with two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy award. He won best supporting actor awards for “Hud” and “Being There” during an acting career that spanned six decades.

This is how Señora Melvyn got such an interesting name, not to mention a perfect icebreaker at social events and business meetings. Señora Melvyn’s works at the CTTC (Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco) and spends most of her time working on preparations for a textile convention. She is extremely affable and warm and makes friends quickly. She seems to know everyone in town; when we walk across town for a business appointment, we often have to stop multiple times to briefly chat with business acquaintances, extended family members and friends. After every stop I remind her that she should run for Mayor of Cusco.

Melvyn and I became fast friends when we first started sharing an office. We discovered we shared a joint love for the 40’s Cuban bandleader Perez Prado and I offered to make her a CD of his greatest hits from my digital library. She was thrilled and spent an inordinate amount of time making a detailed and intricately decorated CD case for it. Melvyn thrives on details and she will often spend a good part of her day organizing her office belongings, alphabetizing the business cards of her contacts or re-writing meeting notes.

Melvyn thrives on interaction with people and is very good at getting the information she needs in order to push her project forward. I often hear her on the phone setting up appointments and often, after introducing herself on the phone, there's a pause and she launches into an abbreviated version of how she got her first name. From there the conversation becomes animated and she usually gets what she needs from the person she's talking to. Señora Melvyn has made the most out of a very unique name.


Peruvian Fusion: Salsa Dancing

One of the things that many foreign visitors to Cusco try is Salsa dancing. There seems to be dozens of Salsa Dance schools and clubs (Mythology, Mama Africa, Kamikase, Roots, etc) clustered around the Plaza de Armas.

Early on when our family was taking Spanish lessons at the Amauta Spanish Language school, we would take their free Dance lessons on Friday nights. My wife and I and our kids would swirl around doing doble enchufles with twenty-something backpackers, while the instructor barked out the rhythm “uno, dos, tres…cinco, seis, siete.” After a few weeks, we started to get pretty good and started to accent our twists and swirls with a little Latino swagger. For us this was great entertainment and exercise and, as the rest of the backpackers headed out to the clubs for more, we’d go out for dinner and then head home to our apartment.

It seems that almost everywhere you go in Latin America, there is Salsa dancing. Salsa dancing originated in Cuba, where the Spanish guitar and the African drum collided to form unique rhythms in the New World. Salsa -- also a word for a sauce with various ingredients -- became popular as nickname to refer to a variety of different music, from several countries of Hispanic influence: Rhumba, Són Montuno, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha cha cha, Danzón, Són, Guguanco, Cubop, Guajira, Charanga, Cumbia, Plena, Bomba, Festejo, Merengue, among others. Many of these have maintained their individuality and many were mixed creating "Salsa".

The more we think about life in Peru – as well as the rest of Latin America -- the more we realize how the fusion of three continents (Europe, South America, Africa) touches almost every aspect of Peruvian life.


Family Travel For A Year: What About The Dog?

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year can pose many logistical questions.  For example: What will you do with the family dog?

Our dog is a male, 6 year-old shepherd-mix that we got from Smiley Dog Rescue in Oakland, California about three and a half years ago. After a 6 month family sabbatical in 2005, one of the things we decided to do upon returning home was to get a dog. Without a lot of experience with dogs, we evaluated the pros and cons of rescue dogs and decided to get one, figuring that giving an unwanted dog a home outweighed any other considerations. By October of 2005 we had our dog and after a transition period where he would find every possible way out of our fenced yard, he settled in quite nicely. We quickly learned that he had to stay on leash while on walks, as he'd lunge and growl at certain types of dogs while he'd be friendly with others. Around the family he was very good and he was a great dog for us.

When it came time to start planning our suburban exodus, deciding what to do with our dog was not "top of mind" for us. Once we started to focus on it, the first thing we did was to add up a year's worth of kenneling costs At the rates we'd paid previously, we were looking at $9,500 for a year and that's only if he never left a 4'x4' cyclone fence cage with a concrete floor. If we added a daily 45 minute walk, it would cost close to $20,000 for a year for a pretty miserable existence.

Around the time we were starting to wonder where we could possibly place our dog, the woman who was to rent our house suggested that we could keep the dog at our home and she'd take care of him, along with her three poodles. This seemed perfect; our dog could stay in his own home and even have some canine companionship. She and my wife decided to give the idea a test one afternoon. All of our hopes came crashing down as our dog immediately defended his territory and started growling and barking and did not stop for the entire hour they were at our house. With each growl and bark, our dog's chances of a nice comfortable year in his own house slowly evaporated. Both my wife and our tenant agreed that this would not work.

A few weeks later during a dinner party with our best friends, after a few glasses of wine, the wife of the couple said that they'd love to watch our dog while we were away. As we put away a few more glasses, we ended the evening feeling optimistic about this scenario. The next day, in the cold light of day, we all realized that their house was on the market and there was no way of knowing if their future home would accommodate a dog. Back to square one.

A month later, a dog-loving friend of my wife's casually mentioned that she might take our dog for a year. My wife slowly worked up to suggesting a "doggy-sleepover" to see if such an idea might work. With no other options in sight, we awaited the fateful night. Again, our irascible canine could not contain himself. Not being on his home turf, he paced the house all night and just could not get comfortable. Again, it was mutually decided that we would pursue other options.

At this point, my wife even emailed Smiley Dog Rescue to see if there was a possibility that they'd take the dog back, even temporarily, but they said no.

As a last resort, my wife called her sister in Los Angeles. My sister-in-law and her husband don't have kids and have a nice back yard and she told me wife that she'd do it only if all other options were exhausted. My wife assured her that they were. She and my son brought the dog down in May and thus far the match has been very good. Our dog gets a lot more time walking than he did with us and my sister- and brother-in-law seem to genuinely enjoy his company. At one point during a recent walk, one of their neighbors even asked if he was for sale. From being unwanted and possibly having no home to being set up in a perfect environment and being the talk of the daily walk, our dog has come a long way.


Inca Kola: Liquid Bubblegum

I remember trying Inca Kola when I visited Peru 25 years ago and being unimpressed with the sweet yellow, carbonated cola that is the Peruvian national drink. It has an unusually sweet, fruity flavor that is often compared to bubblegum. Having learned the Spanish words for bubblegum (chicle) and juice (jugo), I often said Jugo de Chicle instead of Inca Kola when talking to Peruvians, which invariably got a polite chuckle. I knew that Peruvians love it when you like their Inca Kola, but I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it. Perhaps the most charitable way to describe Inca Kola is to say that it is an acquired taste.

Inca Kola was created in 1935 by José Robinson Lindley, a British immigrant who used the refreshing taste of lemon verbena to anchor the recipe and it became instantly popular. These days Inca Kola is owned by Coca-Cola, who owns the trademark everywhere but in Peru. Inca Cola and Coca-Cola run neck and neck in terms of market share in Peru with each brand capturing about a third of the soft drink market.

When our family arrived in Peru I thought that my 14-year old son and 12-year old daughter would love the bubble gum taste, despite my previous experience. For one of our first meals I ordered them each an Inca Kola and eagerly awaited their reaction. They both took a sip and put their glasses down to a chorus of “yuck.”


Juanita The Ice Princess of Arequipa

On our first day in Arequipa we had two goals: see Juanita, the 12-year old Inca ice princess recently found near a glacier and find a toasted bagel with cream cheese for our 12-year old daughter. Our daughter is keeping a list of the foods that she misses most from home and a toasted bagel with cream cheese is high on the list. Among other things, she has “drink tap water,” “eat real pancakes with real maple syrup,” “eat real cheese” (those of you from France, you can lower that supercilious eyebrow now) and “eat clean and big strawberries.” We went to a place that our guidebook described as a “Starbucks-style” coffee house searching for that elusive bagel, but had no luck. After eating a tasty lunch, we visited Juanita.

Juanita is the frozen body of an Inca girl who lived to be approximately 12-14 years old and she died sometime between 1440 and 1450. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) in Southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate. Juanita was remarkably well-preserved after 500 years, due to being encased in a glacier for most of that time. In September 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato (20,700 ft), Reinhard and Zárate found a bundle inside the crater that had fallen from an Inca site on the summit. Owing to melting caused by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcano of Sabancaya, most of the Inca burial site had collapsed down a gully that led into the crater. To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain a remarkably well-preserved body of a young girl. In addition, they found—strewn about the mountain slope down which the body had fallen— many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods; these included statues and food items. A couple of days later, the body and the objects were taken to Arequipa. The body caused a sensation in the scientific world due to its well-preserved condition.

Pointing out the similarities in gender and age to our daughter, we learned about what her life could have been like as Juanita. We summarized the advantages: she would be buried with expensive artifacts and jewelry, could wear a very expensive vicuña wool garment and spend eternity with the gods. As for the disadvantages, well, there’s the death thing. During the height of the Inca Empire, sacrifices were common as way to appease the mountain gods who controlled nature. Children from all over the empire were gathered for selection in Cusco and only the most beautiful, innocent and perfect child would be chosen for the honor of going to live with the gods.

We visited Juanita at the Museo Santury on a beautiful spring day in Arequipa and she was in pretty good shape for a young girl over 500 years old. While her skin was a leathery brown, her hair was shiny and black and pulled into a tight pony-tail. The right side of her face is slightly marred due to a couple of weeks of sun exposure (the time between being jarred loose from the glacier and being discovered). For half the year she sits in the fetal position in a refrigerated glass case in Arequipa; the other half of the year she is on tour.

Anthropologists and historians have deduced that Juanita and the presiding priests walked 150 miles from Cusco and climbed the chilly Ampato volcano for the sacrificial rites. At the summit, she would have been extremely cold and was probably given a libation that put her to sleep. When the ceremony was over, she was struck with one precise blow just above the right eye that killed her instantly.

After learning all this, my daughter respectfully declined consideration for the role of sacrificial virgin. We decided to go hunt for the toasted bagel and cream cheese instead.