My Favorite Nativity Sets

I am not typically focused during my travels on picking a particular item from every place I go.  (OK, maybe a beer glass but I am not consistent with that one…)  But if an item really catches my eye in a certain category, I do buy it.  Nativity scenes (“pesebres” in Spanish) is one of those categories.  I especially like the ones from Andean countries which you will see below.  Here are my favorite ones with special emphasis on one of them.

Nativity scene made from glass

Only exception in the bunch: this was a gift I was given, source unknown

Nativity scene from Poland - Christmas

From Poland

Nativity scene from Peru - Christmas

From Peru

Nativity scene from Chile - Christmas

From Chile

Now to a series of pictures from a nativity scene from Panama.

Nativity scene from Panama - Christmas

Nativity scene from Panama – the entire set

Nativity scene from Panama - baby Jesus, Christmas

Baby Jesus

Nativity scene from Panama

One of those who came to adore baby Jesus

Nativity scene from Panama - Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary

Nativity scene from Panama - Joseph


Here is hoping to many more still to be discovered and happy new year to all!!!


Read some about the trips when I acquired the Nativity sets:

Poland:  Visiting Krakow, Czestochowa, the Wieliczka salt mines, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Wadowice.

ChileSantiago, Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, the Atacama Desert, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Valley of the Moon, and the Tatio Geysers.

PeruLima, Huaraz and Ancash, Puno, Cuzco, and Lake Titicaca.

PanamaPanama, Panama City

Hope, Bones and Natural Beauty in Puno, Peru

The main reason for my trip to Perú was work.  And there were projects for me to visit to see firsthand how the projects my organization executed helped combat deep poverty by improving economic livelihoods, health care, education, sanitation, etc.  I was about to see people that as I tourist I would likely not get to see, rural areas most tourists do not visit, and understand how real life is for the millions of people in areas less accessible than the more known Machu Picchu, Lima, Cusco, etc.

What follows are snippets about what I got see during the project visits in the Puno region.

It’s Not Skin & Bones – It’s Just Bones

But, as often happens (happily for me), on my way to visit various projects, the local colleagues like to show anything of interest along the way as it both serves to showcase their land and history but also as good breaks for pit stops. Much appreciated, my friends!

One of the MOST interesting things I saw was a church in a town called Lampa. The church is the Immaculate Conception and the town’s distinguished former residents hang around even after they pass away…

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Lampa, Peru

Church of the Immaculate Conception in Lampa, Peru

Visit to a School in San José, Azángaro

Education is key for the success of children but can be a hardship in the short-term to the families.  In this part of Peru, it is likely that the families speak Aymara or Quechua as their home language so the question is how kids learn best.  One of the theories favors bilingual education so assimilation and other aspects of learning are faster or the learnings stick better (I am not an academician on this so take my statements as a layman’s approximation!).  My organization was involved in helping local rural schools develop and sustain educational programs that tap bilingual education so I was taken to to visit a couple of schools – where the children were thrilled to see a visitor sit in their classroom: I became the attraction as the picture below betrays!  What surprised me the most was the children’s chapped faces. You just want to apply lotion all over their dried out skin except that would not be really helpful if it is not sustained.  I have to say they were as happy as they could be though some of the them walked a couple of miles to get to school each way…

Happy kid with very wind-burnt cheeks 🙁

Kids lining up in the schoolyard – some walk miles to get to school…

Fattening Bulls to Make a Better Living

One of the projects I visited (in Huancané) dealt with improving economic livelihoods. In this case this was pursued by improving fattening of bulls that the locals would sell so 1.  they weigh more when they are sold and 2.  they get to that weight faster. In addition, farmers were being empowered to sell the bulls directly to the market instead of relying on intermediaries (who typically mislead them and take a big chunk of the proceeds).  From the 1-2 yrs it was taking them to fatten a bull to the size needed to sell it, it now takes them 2.5-4 months which means they quadrupled their income.  If you consider the money they don’t have to pay intermediaries (minus the costs they incur to sell the bull), their take is even higher.  These folks usually start with one bull and slowly grow to have 3-4 at a time after doing this for a few cycles.  An improvement indeed!

A bull being measured as part of the project’s activities

They emphasized over and over in the various areas I visited how this has helped them get from extreme poverty to just poverty.  They can now send their kids to school, for example.  The way the fattening time was sped up was by simply introducing protein in the diet of the bulls. The cool/smart thing was that the farmers already had most of what they needed in the form of waste created after collecting the various crops they grow.  Stems, leaves, etc. of different crops that remain after the core product is harvested used to be burned.  But some of these actually are highly nutritious for the bull and are part of the recipe for the new feed.  The only thing they have to buy is molasses and some powder (I forget what it was).

Myself with the project coordinator and a participant in the project near the home of the participant

Interestingly, I learned that one of the ingredients used in the feed is urea.  During one of the visits the locals prepared a demo for me of the mix being created.  There were about 9 women and each would pour an ingredient.  The molasses, the urea and the powder were mixed in a small tub by a woman with her bare arm and hand.  Then that mix was poured over the big pile and all the women stepped in to mix it all, again, with their bare hands! Imagine me standing there, having shaken everyone’s hands upon arriving and knowing full well I was to shake their hands when I left!

Preparing the bull-fattening mix – a demo for me

Well, God has a sense of humor. As I was a special guest and they are very hospitable folks, they prepared some roasted potatoes and white cream, and also served cheese they had made. I was expected to eat; otherwise, I would be rejecting their humble hospitality (actually more than a rejection, it would be interpreted as they had not offered something good enough for me – something I would NOT do to them).  I had seen a woman rinse her hands so I talked myself into believing they had all sterilized themselves before preparing the food and dug in to eat what I thought was the safest of the fare: the roasted potatoes. I had to try the cheese given how it was given to me but I successfully skirted the white cream (or liquid). Who knows what that was!  Cow puke (don’t think I exaggerate…)?  Curdled milk?  I didn’t want to find out.  I figured I had done 2 out of 3 and that was a stretch enough!  Plus I didn’t need a case of Inca-revenge on the long drive back…

Locals preparing roasted potatoes in Azángaro, Perú

Sewage Plant

Another type of project I visited were water treatment plants for “dirty waters”.  In one visit, they walked me around the tanks explaining the treatment process.  They also explained that beyond building the plant, a key component was to ensure the plant would be maintained and kept “sustainable” without external assistance when the project was over (a lot about local governance, fees, and training folks to do the maintenance on the plant).

Azángaro - Water Treatment Plants, Perú

See that pool in the picture above, the one where EVERYTHING comes in?  They made me walk the ledge of that pool to get to the other side.  I kept thinking “how many HOURS away is my hotel if I fall in??”  “what if the earth quakes??”

After one of the visits, a local TV crew was waiting to interview me.  I am guessing it was a small station because we were quite far from the town of Puno in the middle of Azángaro. I was asked what I thought of the water treatment plant. Mind you, I know zilch about water treatment plants – except for what I had just learned.  I guess they thought the foreign visitor must have been an expert if I had come so far to see it…  So, I had to ‘with camera on me’ be spontaneous and say something half smart. I said that it was a great benefit to the town, etc. and some words about ensuring it gets the right maintenance because it is valuable to all the citizens, etc.  I hope I sounded smart but I missed the broadcast and didn’t get to Tivo it!  I do think I emphasized the right things.  Pat, pat.

The Beautiful Lands around Puno

I have to talk about the scenery here. The land is incredible. There are vast plains surrounded by mountains and the cloud was a perfect blue. That area may normally be called a valley but the expanse is so great that “valley” doesn’t conjure the right image. Since it was early winter and it was the dry season, the grass was browning but I still saw some green.

I could see a biking circuit for ecotourists being developed in that area to go visiting small towns and nature areas. But I guess too many tourists would spoil the sense of “real” the area gives. I left Puno by plane flying back to Lima wishing I could spend more time in this great land.

I have been very fortunate that I got to go off the beaten path and that I got to see undeveloped territory and the beauty of the land as it has always been. They say this area looks a lot like parts of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. The province of Azángaro is by far the one I liked the most in a very competitive field!  Ever since my childhood I have been fascinated a bit by Lake Titicaca (OK, more by the funny sounding name in Spanish…)  Now, having seen the beautiful landscape around it and its deep blue waters, I am definitely fascinated by it and understand how this part of the country is much more than the famous lake!

(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

Going to Heaven’s Door – and a Challenge in Gender ID in Lake Titicaca

Based on the recommendation of the local contact at work, I decided to spend the weekend exploring Lake Titicaca and its islands (Uros, Amantani, and Taquile) with a boat tour.  I barely scratched the surface as I stayed within the Peruvian side of the lake (I really had wanted to go to Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side).  I joined, among others, folks from The Netherlands, Belgium, and China.

Venturing into the lake – The Touristy but Nevertheless Curious Uros Islands

To get out of the bay of Puno, you pass through the Uros Islands.  These islands are built on the reeds that grow naturally in the lake. The history of the islands – so we were told – is that the local people on the shores of Lake Titicaca were being attacked 600 yrs ago or so by the expanding Inca empire. They didn’t want to be subjugated so they moved to the lake itself.

The islands have as a base the 3ft-deep root system of the reeds. They pull and tie the reeds together to build the islands.  Then they add layer after layer of cut reed. Each layer crisscrosses the other. After about 3-6 feet of this, they have their island!  They replenish the top frequently as the bottom layers of reed soften up over time (the islands have a life span of 30 yrs).  The islands are big enough for several huts and other key spaces but are really not too big.  They even have a school floating island. By the way, they are called floating islands but they are anchored 🙂

Residents of the one of the Uros Islands waiting for us to land

When you visit the islands, of course, the locals sell arts and crafts they make so if you are looking for some souvenirs, this would be a good spot.  The visit is quite colorful though I am sure is the same thing repeated for every boat.  While it may seem that their way of life has been “adulterated” for tourism purposes, I do believe they have their right to earn their livelihood as best they can.  Getting to the islands from the boat in the low floating canoes makes for a thrill ride – and excellent photography as you are very close to water level!

Hanging down low on the canoe taking us to the island

Here is a short clip where the local women send the visitors off with a song-and-dance:


Further into the lake – Visiting Amantaní Island and Staying with a Local Family

After the visit to the Uros Islands we moved into the main part of the lake itself to visit a real island, called Amantaní (around 4,000 residents). We were going to stay overnight on this island as the lake waters apparently become dangerous after the mid-afternoon. Therefore, since there are no businesses in the island, much less hotels, visitors who stay overnight, stay with local families who are very poor and subsist on the food they grow in their lots.

Someone clued in that there was an opportunity here both for the locals (income) and for the tourists (staying with a local family).  Local families were trained on how to host tourists at their humble homes and they PROUDLY display their certificates.  In return for providing lodging and meals, they receive some income from the company organizing the visits and they get to sell their crafts to their captive audience – er, guests (GREAT deals though).  Guests are expected to bring a bag of rice, sugar or something similar as a gift to the host family.

Our hostess waiting for us

The family is trained on what food to prepare for their guests as guests have nowhere else to eat on the island.  The hosts prepare 2 meals for the guests:  dinner and breakfast.  All the houses served exactly the same menu for the meals we had (the group compared notes when we left the island) and the food was mild and of the low risk kind.

Our meal: a variety of potatoes and a fried cheese (and a bowl of some broth on the top left)

Challenged to Make a Gender ID

Upon arriving in the island, the group had been divided into the host families in groups of 2 or 3. The 3 of us who were traveling solo got grouped together with one family to share a massive bedroom with a few beds.  The beds were OK (I sleep on ALMOST anything) and with about 3 or 4 woolen blankets each (there was neither heat nor electricity available). I slept in my jeans with gloves and my traditional hat.

My heavenly bed…

For bathrooms, we had outdoor latrines which were fairly nice as far as latrines go, though I suspect these were built with the tourists in mind. They were “fairly nice” because the seating area wasn’t actually above the latrine hole but, instead, by pouring a bucket of water, the stuff was pushed through a pipe to the latrine hole proper a few feet away.  Having used regular latrines, I was happy for this improvement!

Who did I stay with?  A Belgian woman (who I still keep in touch with named Liesj) and… someone else.  No, not trying to be mysterious.  We had no idea if said person was a man or a woman.  The person was from China and the name was something we didn’t know if it was male or female (Chong, I believe).  By the person’s physique we could not tell either what gender the person was.  Adam’s apple, breasts, etc. were not perceptible.  Liesj and I had a moment alone after arriving at the home and we asked each other, almost at the same time, if the other knew what Chong was.  We both laughed and shrugged it off as we walked downstairs to have dinner served by the owners.  At different moments, we tried to ask Chong questions that we hoped would give us via her answer the right piece of data as to its gender.  We failed miserably.  For the moment…

So let me make a parenthesis here needed for the story:  Part of the entertainment for the evening is to have a little party where the boat’s guests get together, listen to local music, and buy a beer or two.  It also entails wearing some local attire:  a poncho for guys and a skirt & blouse for the women.  Remember this.

Back to the story… Liesj spoke Spanish and Chong didn’t.  I did most of the talking to the owners (whose main tongue is actually Quechua).  They were quite shy (perhaps somewhat uncomfortable hosting people from other countries? or perhaps simply their nature?) but I tried to ask questions to learn more about them.  Our hostess, it seems, was sharing Liesj’s and my struggle as she asked me during our conversation (how smart!) how many ponchos and how many skirts/blouses she needed to get for us.   I told her with a smile:  Ï don’t know (how smart!).  Liesj and I quickly had an aside in Spanish and we came up with a BRILLIANT plan:  we told the lady to bring two of each and THEN we would know what Chong was!

When the moment came to get ready, Chong volunteered that she didn’t feel like wearing the skirt and blouse so she would do the poncho!  We were thankful that Chong didn’t just take the poncho without that comment because that comment solved our riddle!

A Hike up to Heaven’s Very Doors

That afternoon we hiked to the top of the mountain to see pre-Inca temples and watch the sun set over the lake. The hike was hard as most of us hadn’t been in Puno a full day yet and we were hiking to 4100m… (Puno sits at 12,421 ft or 3,860 m).    At some point, a young woman from another boat asked me “Are you from Atlanta?”.  I was a little surprised that someone guessed and when I said that I was she said:  “Oh I work at Figo Pasta and I recognize you because you go there a lot.”  Guilty as charged and so amazed she could place me in such a different setting!!!  Me?  Oblivious…

Hiking up Amantani Island in Lake Tititcaca in Peru to watch sunset from a temple

Making our way up

The lake is a beautiful blue and the sky picture-perfect. You can see in the distance the high peaks on the Bolivian side of the lake covered with snow. Since it is so high there, the air is thinner and the color of nightfall seemed different.  The images will stay with me forever!

Sunset from the top of the island…

Sunset from the top of the island…

A Final Island to Visit – Taquile

As we left Amantaní we headed to neighboring Taquile Island which did have more of an infrastructure.  We went to the main square (a small hike but on a very pleasant path) and enjoyed a great lunch at a local restaurant.

Looking towards Amantaní from Taquile

I have to say that though Taquile has more of the comforts, Amantaní and the “realness” of the experience made it far more memorable for me!  While not a crazy adventure, staying in the quarters we did may not be for anyone but I actually recommend it if you normally do not things like that – it is only one night and it will give you stories of gender ID, latrines, or just about the beautiful night skies high up in Titicaca!


And Work Took Me Places…

A lot of my international travels have been part of or enabled by work.  Whether is being asked if in 24 hours I could leave for Helsinki to spend 3 weeks there in the middle of winter, or whether the miles accumulated by years of sometimes-weekly travel have allowed me to go out of the country for vacation, work has always been a key factor in my exploring.  I would say it is second only to my zest for travel and exploring!

As part of this reflection, I thought it would be cool to capture where all have I been to related to work whether for a one-day meeting to year+ assignments.  Here it goes!


In Germany, my discoveries were how great German food is (not just the ones I had known like wursts).  Also, my colleagues made it a point of making sure they were showing me places like beer halls and good restaurants and that hospitality -no offense intended- took me by surprise, especially when compared to other countries where I had expected a warmer culture.

Sulzbach/Bad Soden (outside of Frankfurt, Germany)

Dusseldorf (Germany)

Munich (Germany)


I have been to a good bit of France but for work these two sites were it.  In the Riviera, I enjoyed being by the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean and yet seeing the Alps at a distance, staying in Cannes or Nice, depending on the week and the mood!  Paris, well, what can I say.  An incredible city even if it was hard to develop social contacts due to the long hours at work and perhaps the language barrier (I spoke basic French then; medium after I left there and focused on learning the language).

Paris (France)

Sophia-Antipolis (France)

View from the terrace of the apartment building where I lived in Paris!


Basically shuttling between client offices in both towns.  I was amazed at how small the country is and yet how exotic it felt to me.  Den Haag much more subdued than Amsterdam.  Amsterdam, just phenomenally interesting.  Getting to work with the Dutch allowed to see how their cultural traits are unique and how some of the stereotypes I had heard of showed up in work settings.

Den Haag (The Netherlands)

Amsterdam (The Netherlamnds)


The rest of the European work sites were of shorter durations than the ones above with the longest being 3 weeks.  But they all allowed me to explore each of the places and/or visit with friends who lived in those places.  Work definitely gave me a good opportunity to see more of Europe.  How else would I have spent 3 weeks in Helsinki had it not been for work?!

Geneva (Switzerland)

Oslo (Norway)

Vienna (Austria)

Helsinki (Finland)

London (UK)

Madrid (Spain)

View of Oslo Fjord


My experiences in Latin America have been phenomenal.  Perhaps the cultural affinity or the approach to life, especially in Brazil, but I have seldom been disappointed or failed to enjoy my stay.

Chile trumps all other places in L.A.  by sheer duration of my work experience there (over a year).  I had worked there many, many yrs before (check my other blog entries) and I got to see more of the country in that year.  What a beautiful country!

In Peru, I got to explore more off the beaten path locations by the nature of the work assignment.  I got to see many places the average tourist sees and many they would never get to.  And, I got to enjoy the food of Lima which is just outstanding!

Brazil offered me good food and great fun besides the work.  Spending weekends in Rio or going out for the nightlife of Sao Paulo, Brazil never disappointed.

Sao Paulo (Brazil)

Quito (Ecuador)

Buenos Aires (Argentina)

Santiago (Chile)

Lima (Peru)

Cuzco (Peru)

Puno (Peru)

Huaraz (Peru)

Panama City (Panama)

Mayaguez (PR)

Church in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago


Here I definitely got to see some diverse places from Muslim and Arab Egypt, to deep Africa in Tanzania, to cosmopolitan cities in South Africa (I visited Cape Town too but not for work).  I have enjoyed the unique experiences each offered whether it was visiting HIV/AIDS patients in the rural areas around Mwanza, to going for food in very local places in massive Cairo, to getting into the history of apartheid in Joburg.

Johannesburg (South Africa)

Cairo (Egypt)

Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and Stone Town (Tanzania)

At the Apartheid Museum in Joburg


I got to spend a LOT of time in Toronto and had a lot of fun with a great crew of Canadians whose key contribution to my skill sets was to have me start calling a puck “puck” and not “the thing”.  I also learned that I needed better pacing drinking Canadian beer as it was stronger than the American variety.  Finally, I learned how to curl (as in the game/sport).

Toronto (Canada)

Montreal (Canada)

What has been your most interesting and rewarding international work experience??

The Little-Known Ancash Region of Perú

Sometimes things lead you to the unexpected.  And the unexpected turns out to be a pleasant – very pleasant – surprise.  As part of my work trip to Perú, I went to the Ancash region to do field visits to witness our work and meet the locals with whom my organization worked.  Besides the incredible insights I have gained from a work standpoint, I also gained a sense of how diverse Perú – and the world – are!

A wild and crazy bus ride

To get to Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region, an 8 hr bus ride is needed (unless you happen upon the rare flight to the landing strip close to Huaraz).  The bus ride starts with magnificent scenery driving through an ocean-side desert north of Lima.  Beautiful yet different than any ocean-side drive I have done, except maybe going from Santiago, Chile to La Serena.
Lma Huaraz road travel Pacific adventure bus

Great road as I leave Lima along the Pacific coast of Peru

The road turns inland and the route crosses some mountain ranges that separate Huaraz from the ocean.  Crossing these mountains, of course, yields nice views and also some mildly scary moments due to the drop-offs from the road down to the abysses (and the sometimes lacking guard rails on the road).  Add to that a crazy style of driving buses at high speeds on mountain roads and the experience is most complete!   Check this very short clip of what the bus ride is like:

Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region

Huaraz is a provincial capital not in the top cities of Perú.  I had never heard of it before.  But it sits privileged being located in the middle of Ancash.  The town is not large but it is not a village.  It has a large enough expanse and great views of the neighboring mountains, including Mt. Huascarán.

Huaraz, Peru, Ancash, mountain, vista, view

View of the town of Huaraz

Mt. Huascarán in Ancash (not far from Huaraz) one of the tallest mountains in the hemisphere

Mt. Huascarán in Ancash (not far from Huaraz) one of the tallest mountains in the hemisphere

Being an “Expert”

Unlike prior trips, in Huaraz, the focus of my work visits mercifully was not about entertaining the visitor, which can easily become how the local staff plans it, but about letting me see firsthand the work of our staff.   This was nice for a change, though I still got a lot of curious looks especially from children. I visited various government offices throughout the week I was in Huaraz. One of these was the regional president’s lieutenant’s office who was sort of excited about an American being there and sent me to the regional tourism director to share “my opinions” with her. They were very keen on hearing an outsider’s view of the possibilities here for tourism.  I found myself –again- being asked for my opinion on something I am not an expert at, but –again- I felt compelled to talk as if. I told them the truth which is that the land in the Ancash region (where Huaraz is) is quite spectacular and any traveler would enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

Diversity in the Natural Beauty of Perú

The Ancash region is different than the regions around Puno in that the latter are the “altiplano”, the high altitude plains where the lands seems to not end. Here, it is somewhat lush but not overly so; lots of mountains, canyons, rivers with lots of mini-rapids, and mountains whose sides are a vertical sheet of rock (and these are couple of thousand feet high from the altitude at which I am at). Switzerland, for example, is not as impressive in the landscape when compared to this region.

Bathing Habits for You and Me

I visited a community (called Buenos Aires) where sewage lines were being installed by the town and households were being helped to build a real bathroom not just a latrine.  The engineer, who was supporting the homeowners in deciding what to build and where, asked the man of a particular house how often they showered and he said maybe every other day.  Sounded reasonable, since they don’t have indoor showers, and since it is cold weather due to the altitude (and, hence, cold water).  Then another man piped up and said “well, maybe once a week”.  After some silence, another man owned up “well, maybe not even that frequently”.  Yes, that was indeed diversity in bathing habits from what I do…

Buenos Aires, Ancash, Peru, village, clouds, cloudy sky, development

The main plaza of the town of Buenos Aires under threatening skies

Witnessing a Land of Tragedy

On my one day off, I got to visit the Laguna Llanganuco which is really two lagoons nested in a narrow canyon between the massive Mt. Huascaran and its neighbor peak. The setting between those two peaks is narrow yet magnificent. As we approached, my driver explained to me that in the 1970 earthquake (that killed half the population in Huaraz), a chunk of the mountain broke off. You can actually see this – it is a massive area; hard to gauge from below but easily 500 ft. tall. Well, that chunk would have normally fallen into a canyon towards the base of the mountain. This chunk was not only rock but part of the glacier covering the mountain at the time. It came town with such strength that it fell in the canyon and bounced OUT of the canyon wall and downhill straight into the town on Yungay. This town was obliterated and today the part where the town was is fenced in into a park called Campo Santo (Holy Ground). So many died and so complete was the destruction that the area was made into a burial ground and memorial. The town was rebuilt a couple of kilometers away. It is a very sad piece of history in the region. The mountain stands there as a reminder and the driver told me geologists say that there is a significant crack in the part of the peak that remains and that, at some point, that will come down too…

Laguna Llanganuco, Ancash region of Peru, colorful, lavender, green, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Around the laguna. Love the colors

Huascaran, Peru, Huaraz, Ancash, Peru, mountain, Andes, travel. photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Laguna Llanganuco, next to Mt. Huascarán

Odds and ends

Here are some observations/experiences:

–      I found a tiny restaurant near the hotel and work run by a Belgian and his Peruvian wife. I ate most lunches and dinners there; he is an incredible chef and everything is fresh (he makes the pasta, sausages, pies, flavored pisco drinks, etc.).  There is a cast of regulars (to which I belonged temporarily) and it was really nice to go somewhere during this type of trip and be known and get to “catch up” with folks. The owners are very generous and friendly and I sampled most of the flavored piscos with my favorite being the “ginger vanilla” [good drinks] one.

–      I have noticed in Puno and Huaraz how much construction there is going on. You see a house that is finished with a second story going up. That is, you see the re-bar going up on the second story.  Or you see half walls on the second story. I noted to someone how impressive this construction boom is. I was informed that actually many houses are like that for a long time. Owners do bits and pieces of the expansion as the money comes in and it can take a couple of years before they get to finish.

–      I went to the corn and chirimoya (fruit) festival in Huari where I was offered the local, special occasion delicacy of the town: roasted cat. No worries, I drew my line at guinea pig!

–      I didn’t try cat but I did try at my friend’s restaurant a drink made of fermented potato. It is one of the grossest-smelling things I have decided to taste. I closed up my nose and drank. It actually was OK – as long as you didn’t breathe when the glass was within a foot of your nose. The aftertaste wasn’t particularly pleasant but the upside is that it is loaded with penicillin so it probably killed all the bacteria gathered during the day.

–      As a reminder of the geologically active zone I am in, every now and then on a road you see a sign that proudly announces “Geological Fault 100m Ahead“.  Pleasant thought as you drive on the cliffside roads around here!  Usually the road is interrupted when you cross these faults. Makes sense.

–      On our way out of town there is a guarded complex with walls that are between 2 and 3 stories to protect the complex and with guard houses at each corner of the complex. A sign in front of it prohibits parking within X meters from the main gate. The third time passing by it, I ventured asking if it was a jail or a military base. I was told no. It is a site where the local breweries store their beer. Talk about national assets and security!  I love it.

–      One of my favorites scenes and scents in the countryside are the eucalyptus trees that cover many hillsides. They add a grayish green color to very green landscapes and when you drive close enough to them the smell is just wonderful. I wonder if I can grow them in Atlanta. It can be very cold and hot here so, maybe??

–      Coffee here is served as an extract (liquid). You are then to add hot water to it. Well, no one had told me and I had written off coffee here as pretty bad until I learned… It is actually quite good.

–      The hotel is one of the few buildings in the town with an elevator. The rooftop terrace has an incredible view of Mt. Huascarán (one of the tallest mountains in the western hemisphere) and its neighbors.  I love going in the morning and at dusk to see the sights.

–      Internet connectivity is available just about everywhere except the most remote mountain communities. There are Internet cafes just about every corner (I do not exaggerate). I also have had Blackberry access even outside of the towns. Sometimes I have been surprised how far away from towns I can be and still have access.

–      I stand by the comments about how great the people are in Perú. Time and again, I get more and more evidence of this.

A Miniature Fair by the Shores of Lake Titicaca in Puno, Perú

My work trip to Perú was going to take me to a three different regions of the country:  the better known Cusco and Lake Titicaca regions and the lesser known Ancash region.  But while the Lake Titicaca region is well known due to the lake, the hinterland behind the lake is fascinatingly beautiful and less explored by the average visitor.

Map (mapa) of Peru by its regions

Puno is the region in the lower right

This is the Puno province which sits at about 12,420 ft (3,860 m) above sea level.  Remember, Denver in the U.S. about 5,280 ft.  Puno is also higher than the highest point in many U.S. states!  Puno completely borders the lake on the Peruvian side,  and shares a land border with Bolivia and the jungle zone of Perú (Madre de Dios, a totally different climate zone).  I was not quite sure what to expect from the trip and the area but the natural beauty and the amazing people of the highlands of Perú definitely took my breath away. The area of Azángaro in the province was especially beautiful.

Puno and Juliaca are the key towns in the Puno province with the latter town having the main airport and being known by locals to be a place where one is easily robbed (why they emphasized it so many times to me is beyond me as I was going nowhere near Juliaca…)  Puno (with about 100,000 inhabitants) is by the lake (Juliaca is inland) so it is the gateway to Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side.  I visited most of the province except the 2 northern and 1 southern regions (that I know of! a lot of my travel was on country roads).  (Read about my visit to the islands in Lake Titicaca here: )

Mapa (map) of Peru and Puno province

Map of the Puno region; Azángaro is towards the center, right above the lake

On my way there

I made my way to Puno from Cusco where I had just concluded field visits as well as squeezing a day and a half of local tourism.  My method of transport was a bus ride that took about 6-7 hours – a welcome change from airplane rides but most importantly because I would be able to admire the landscape along the way.   The road was very well built, the terrain fairly flat (though rising over the distance), and pretty much a straight road so not a lot of wild curves to make me dizzy.

Highway between Cusco (Cuzco) and Puno road, travel

The way to Puno from Cusco was beautiful and far from scary (unlike the Lima to Huaraz route!)

The local office had arrange a pickup at the bus station for me and I went straight to the office to meet some of the local folks, hear about their work, and the visits they had planned for me.  I had been itching to get to the hotel as I was tired and the altitude had increased from Cusco so I was feeling the lack of oxygen.  I had also asked ahead of time for help in planning some tourism activity for the weekend since I was getting there on a Friday evening and there were no field visits planned for the weekend.  We finalized those plans at the office and I was ready to get to the hotel.

A Miniature Af-fair

However, one of the locals offered to take me out that evening to see a special event celebrated annually in Puno:  the miniature fair (Feria de las Alasitas).  I was quite curious and decided it would be probably something to see so why not.  I dropped my stuff at the hotel and met her to go check this fair out.

Puno is nestled between hills and Lake Titicaca so there are a lot of steep streets except right by the waterside sort of where the fair was going to take place.  The town looked quite charming at night, especially near the hotel on a very lively street with a lot of eateries.

We approached the fair and I couldn’t quite believe the amount and diversity of miniatures of all kinds.  Any object you have in real life is sold in miniature.  The idea, belief, or tradition is that whatever you buy there in miniature will come true for you real life (and real size). Examples:

–        Want to get married?  Buy a miniature groom (if you are a woman), bride (if you are a guy), or  wedding cake

–       Want to come into some wealth?  Buy miniature dollars, euros, Peruvian soles (if you want to have money)

–       Want some good possessions?  Buy a car, laptop/PC, canned goods, etc.

–       Want a better roof over you?  Buy a house, apartment building, etc.

There actually is ritual sprinkling of the miniatures and prayers that are part of the tradition.  People sometimes assemble baskets with a variety of these items and take them home.  Besides getting their miniatures, they seem to enjoy walking around the different booths, picking out the items, and socializing.

Puno Peru miniature fair travel folklore culture arts photo

Some of the miniatures from the fair

The fair was mostly locals only and I greatly enjoyed the atmosphere as everyone seemed to be out and about enjoying the night, the fair, and each other. One of the funnest local festivals I have been to.

Puno, Peru, Lake Titicaca, miniature fair, good luck, tradition, culture

Just in case… I bought lots of “euros”, a house, and a car!

I also enjoyed walking around town at night – Puno was very lively and given its location had a good number of tourists.  It is definitely a great base from which to hit the lake and to hit the hinterlands of the Puno region!

Exploring the City and Region of Cusco (Cuzco)

Cusco may be better known for being the launching point to Machu Picchu (MP) but the city and its same-name region hold a LOT more in store than just MP and the Inca trail – so make extra time in your schedule to explore!  I flew to Cusco, the older continually inhabited city in the continent, from Lima on a Saturday morning (read more about Lima on my earlier entry

Arrival in Cusco

Arriving in Cusco, which is around 11,200  ft (3,400 m) high, is an experience because of the very thin air.  Thankfully, it was clean which was a welcome change from Lima.  It was actually hot that morning under a beautiful blue sky.

Upon getting to the hotel, I was offered mate de coca (coca tea) which helps the body adjust to the altitude (though I wonder if it is more about one not feeling anything; I didn’t perceive any different sensation out of drinking the half-cup size portions). I also took my altitude sickness med for nausea, lightheadedness, etc. (I didn’t have the symptoms – it was a preventive measure). All day long I had the slightest of headaches. Other than that and shortness of breath when walking up flights of stairs, I was OK. However , you are recommended not to do anything for a couple of hours after you arrive.  Once I got to my hotel, I felt tired and actually slept about 1.5 hrs (deep sleep as I would have late that night too) until my Cuzco city tour was to pick me up later that afternoon.

Cusco is quite a picturesque and pleasant town.  I liked it a lot.  Its main square (“Plaza de Armas”; there is one in practically every Latin American town) has really beautiful architecture.

Architecture near the main plaza or square in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Building by the main square in Cusco

Church on the main square in the town of Cusco (Cuzco), gateway to Machu Picchu in Peru

Church in the main square

Local couple taking a stroll in the main plaza of Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Local couple taking a stroll in the main plaza

There are sights to see within the town itself and around it.  The city tour showed me the key sites in an afternoon (the Corikancha which was the most important temple in the Inca empire in the city center; Sacsayhuamán, an Inca complex in the outskirts of the city; etc.). After the tour, I had time to stroll about as I pleased but I pleased to eat and go to bed…  BTW, in Cuzco, as in Lima, hotels had 110v outlets; I have had Blackberry access; there have been ATMs everywhere.  Traveling is so much easier these days than 20 years ago…  (Here is a quick link to a clip from the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and what makes the construction of it so impressive

Corikancha in central Cusco, the most important temple in the Inca empire

Sideview of the Corikancha in central Cusco

Getting to Machu Picchu

The trip to Machu Picchu (which was built around the year 1450) can be done in several ways.  One can certainly do it on one’s own.  There are a few things to coordinate and I didn’t feel like dealing with all that given the altitude “sickness” (slight as it was, you feel drained the first day) and the fact I was going solo and only had one day – I could not afford mistakes…  There are tons of tour companies that will coordinate logistics if you are not inclined to do it on your own.  Due to work constraints keeping my MP visit to one day, I went with an organized tour (the company, “Nuevo Mundo” went above and beyond for me).

Modes of travel include the Vistadome train (roof is partly glass so you can see more and not feel enclosed) which takes 4 hrs.  My train left at 6 AM with my pickup at 520 AM.  There were later trains but I needed to go as early as possible.  Waking up around 445 AM wasn’t an issue as I crashed at 9 PM the night before out of sheer exhaustion…  Another way of getting there is hiring a helicopter and getting there way faster – for a price.  Finally, one can spend a few days hiking the Inca trail that the Incas used to take to get to MP in its heyday.  Secondary trails are being developed and I am sure they would be better than the more popular one…

I had met some interesting folks on the city tour and ran into them again on the trip/tour to/of MP; they were neat people to hang out with and it made the tour a little more enjoyable.

At Machu Picchu…

(I realize tons has been written about MP. so I won’t try to re-write the great American novel…)  Visiting the ruins wore me and others out. There are steps to be walked up and down and, though MP is lower in altitude than Cusco, it is still about 8000 ft (2,430 m) high. I strongly recommend that if you want to see it, see it sooner rather than later!  However, you can see it at any age, you will just have to go slower or perhaps arrive 2 days ahead to better acclimate.  There was a man who, I estímate, was around 80 yrs old (and who didn’t look younger than his age) and he was doing it!

One recommendation I was given but could not do was to stay in the town at the base (Aguas Calientes) so you can go back up to see sunrise (if it isn’t foggy which I heard it was that day) and to hike up to the famous mountain you see on the shots you see of MP (which is NOT Machu Picchu; when you see the famous pictures of MP, you are standing on the mountain called MP; this other iconic mountain is called Huayna Picchu). The picture below does not show that there are fairly decent looking hotels in town!

Town of Aguas Calientes in Peru, gateway to Machu Picchu

Street in Aguas Calientes

Me? I hope to come back and go up that mountain and then see the rest of the Sacred Valley which probably can use a few days to explore.  I have heard a good place to stay is the town of Ollantaytambo; people seem to like it a lot (I just drove through it on the way back to Cusco).

The standard and obligatory picture of MP!

My impression of MP? Tourist trap? Amusement park? Overrated? Most absolutely not.  It is as impressive and magnificent as people say it is and it exceeded even what I envisioned encountering. It is a powerful place due to the history, the architecture/engineering feats, and one of the most beautiful natural settings on earth.

Some structures in Machu Picchu are tilting and in danger of collapse - Peru

They are called ruins for a reason!

Terraces in Machu Picchu, Peru

Terraces in Machu Picchu

At the end, we visited the market and I had a slightly different experience. While you have to haggle, two things they didn’t do:

  • Be pushy or be “cat calling” you to come to their stall; when they did it was very soft and they only did it once
  • They didn’t run after you when you walked away to sell whatever object you had tried to haggle on; they left you alone and/or they had a price point after which, they were just not interested. I kind of liked seeing that as they seemed proud of their goods and didn’t seem to feel they had to make a sale if they didn’t get what they wanted.

Visits to Economic Development Projects

I visited some development projects my organization had worked on. It was neat to see, as I saw in Tanzania, how my organization makes a difference. My first week in Lima I heard everything about our approach in Peru and was impressed at how progressive they were in advocating the governments at various levels to take on their responsibility, and in building the government’s capacity to do so. The scale of poverty in Peru, while it can be extreme, takes place in a country with more human capacity and better infrastructure than sub-Saharan Africa.

Kiwicha field near Mollepata, in the Cusco region of Peru

Kiwicha field near Mollepata

The organization was working to help mountain communities diversify their economic activities so not all are farmers or so those that are farmers don’t all plant the same thing (which depresses crops’ prices).  Also, they receive help to find products that aren’t commodity (say, in the textile industry) so they can reach and be successful in international markets, since China and India can produce things cheaper than countries like Peru. They can differentiate their products from the mass scale production that takes place in Asia by producing better designsor distinctive (not mass-produced) products, by developing organic produce or things that can address more discerning developed world consumers (think premium coffees vs. Maxwell House – no offense to any M H drinkers!). Anyway, the economic activities I saw were:

  • an artichoke farm (new product being grown in the region and sought after by the U.S. and European marketings), growing proven varieties and continuing to experiment with new ones
  • high quality and design textile workshops where the women can work from their homes to produce for the larger entity they belong to and be able to pick up kids from school and take care of them (vs. being at a factory for the entire day) with minimal disruption to their work activity
  • jewelry artisan workshops producing (or trying to) for the international market.
Jewelry artisan in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Jeweler-maker apprentice

Textile worker in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru

Textile apprentice













Artichoke farmer in Urcos, in the Cusco (Cuzco) region of Peru

Artichoke farmer in Urcos, in the Cusco region

Lima – Impressions of an Old and Large Imperial Capital

NOTE:  This is the first of a series of posts that relate my experiences during a 5-week trip to Perú earlier in 2008. 

Arrival in Lima

I arrived in Lima in a direct flight from Atlanta.  The airport in Lima is very modern but the lines were long, especially landing at midnight US time. The taxi ride took about 30 minutes and I finally went to bed around 1AM.

The hotel, as many hotels around here, is a standalone operation. The building itself looks like from the 1970s. You would be amazed at how little concern for safety there is in the design, something probably that would not pass muster in many places… I can open the window (which is over 6 ft wide) almost to the full extent but the worrying thing is that the wall below the window is about 2.5 feet tall. Yikes! All you have to do is trip on some shoe left around and, sayonara room and hello gravity!

Low wall on the window of my hotel room

Said low wall on the window looking out from my 11th story room

View from my hotel room

View from my hotel room

Hard City to Move Around

The first work day started with the car that was supposed to pick me up not showing up. It was to be an omen for later in the day when waiting for a taxi to take me back to the hotel took 2 full hours by the clock!  This all was a good reminder to not expect things to be like they are at home – always a good reminder.

I was advised against renting a car due to all the construction going on re-paving streets. I was told the government decided belatedly to tear them up and re-do them ahead of an upcoming international summit – but they were doing most of the work concurrently making driving even more chaotic in this labyrinthine town. However, I also suspect that even with perfectly paved roads, the city road layout was confusing enough that I would not want to drive on them!

Street on the outskirt of Lima, Peru on the way to the highway to Huaraz

Street on the outskirt of Lima

The Parts of Town Where I Operated

The area where I stayed was called Miraflores. It is a very nice residential area. Not an area of mansions per se but lots of high rises, nice streets, etc. The hotel, as most places around here, does not have A/C or heating. It seems the weather is fairly mild for the most part. With the windows open, the climate in the room is quite nice but you get the traffic noise. After a night, you are used to it so it isn’t as bad as it may seem (plus I always have earplugs handy!).

A street corner in an older part of Lima

Work is in another district called Jesús María (“Jesus Mary”, kind of odd-sounding even for a Catholic like me…) with a lot of old houses that have, for the most part, been converted to offices but which retain a lot of architectural charm.

Building in Lima, Peru near the Jesus Maria area

Old style building near work

Near work is an old ministry building (about 10 or 12 stories high and monstrously large) which has a very large crack running through the outside of the building caused by the recent earthquake in Pisco – the building has been condemned, thankfully, but the building sits there as a reminder of the risks Lima runs as a large city in an earthquake-active zone…

My First Lunches – A Great Sign of What to Expect in Lima!

On my first day, lunch was at an early 130PM… I was starving! There was nothing around work so a colleague drove me to a restaurant where I committed 3 cardinal sins in the span of 3 minutes. The restaurant was very nice and my colleague told me not to worry… My 3 sins were:

  • eating sauces that were cream or milk based (milk here is not always pasteurized)
  • eating raw fish (ceviche)
  • drinking a lemonade that I didn’t see prepared with bottled water.

If there was a good time to teach me a lesson this should have been it… 36 hours later, I was still good – whew!! Of course, a good restaurant would not be a problem but I was still a little out of sorts to remember that with it being my first day in a new country with little sleep, and in a new work situation…

Another day for lunch we went to a home-style place that had a nice and complete lunch for 8 soles (about $3). It was delicious (chicken soup was the appetizer and it isn’t the run-of-the-mill chicken soup!). With prices like these, I knew I was going to eat like a king!

A Lunch I Will Never Forget

I tried the traditional mountain / Inca delicacy at lunch one day: guinea pig. It took a bit for me to accept the idea I was to take a bite of it but a coworker invited me to her restaurant, her treat, and I could not refuse the hospitality. I made sure I drove a deep work conversation during the lunch so I would not think of what I was eating.

Yes, folks, it tastes “like” chicken though it has less meat on it (some say rabbit but I disagree, though it has been 25 yrs since I had rabbitt…). I was lucky enough (God takes care of me) to mention to my colleague that I didn’t want to see a picture of one before eating it. Boy, was I glad I said that flippantly! When ordering, my colleague was kind enough to specify to the waitress to bring it without the head on mine and on hers. Can you imagine if that had shown up with a head??!! I would have likely gagged.

A Couple of Interesting Areas of the City

  • The area of Barranco is a beautiful, seaside part of town. It is just a few minutes from Larcomar, the mall hanging off the cliff by the Pacific Ocean, and offers quite a few options for dining and shopping.



  • I visited the Lima city center at night. It was VERY impressive. Colonial architecture on a grand scale which makes sense since Lima was in effect the capital of South America (more or less) during the colonial times due to the riches of Perú. It was very well policed, lively, and I felt safe.
  • My hotel was in Miraflores, on Ave. Larco which ends at the JW Marriott and across from it, Larcomar, a shopping center with lots of restaurants overlooking the Pacific Ocean from its perch on what seems to be a cliffside.  Cool place to go.
  • Miraflores has a park, further inland than my hotel, on Ave. Larco that is very charming with a plaza and neat architecture around.  There is also a GREAT and big place to buy arts & crafts from Peru nearby (Mercado Artesanal, close to Narciso de la Colina).  Finally, lots of shoe shiners who, for like 40 cents, will do a great job shining your shoes!
Miraflores Church on Ave. Larco in the Parque Central de Miraflores

Miraflores Church in the Parque Central de Miraflores

Building on the Parque Central de Miraflores in Lima, Peru

Building on the Parque Central

Getting a shoe shine in the Parque Central de Miraflores, Lima, Peru

The after (left) and before (right) of the well-priced shoe shine!

On the Road Again

I found out on the first day I was not to be based in Lima as I had understood before the trip. In fact the first week was the only full week I was to spend in Lima. The flipside was that I was going to get to see the country!

That first weekend I was to leave for Cusco, the base for going to Machu Picchu, to spend 3 days visiting projects and, over the weekend, go to MP (as a tourist). Originally I was planning to see MP at the end of the trip but since the local office had decided I should go to Puno (which is higher than Cusco), it made good sense to go to Cusco before Puno to acclimatize first to Cusco which would then make acclimatizing to Puno a tad easier.  I liked the plan because Puno is up at 12,421 ft (3,860 m)!

– Read about my Puno visit here and here.
– Read about my Cusco visit here.

Some Random Observations and Musings about Lima

  • I got to try a Peruvian Malbec wine while in Lima.  I haven’t had wine so sweet without it being supposed to be sweet! Clearly sugar was added to the wine by the “winemaker”  to cover its poor quality… I couldn’t finish it. Of course it cost only $4 – you get what you pay for. I was just hoping that good, basic local wines would exist. I switched to water…
  • The city streets are kept very clean of trash and all streets have street signs with their name (not something I have seen consistently outside of US/Canada/Europe)
  • Though the city is very polluted, it is not as bad as, say, Beijing.
  • They have this dish called tacu tacu which consists of smashed beans and rice served with beef or seafood. I tried it with seafood. Though I don’t eat calamari and other seafood items, I ate it ALL, except the octopus. The sauce was superb.
  • They always serve a plate full of corn kernels to snack on while you wait for appetizers or food. It is a different type of corn than regular corn (it is larger and whiter) and they toast them and put some salt on it. It is quite nice.
  • Oh, and did I mention I worked close to Chewbacca from Star Wars? It took me a few days to realize the Chewbacca noise I heard every 15 mins or so was a creaking door around the corner from where I sat…
  • Finally, Peruvians are super nice!  I would love to see more of this beautiful country and its great and proud people.

These are my impressions and experiences in the bustling, large, and noisy city that is Lima, Perú.  What have been yours??

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