No rest for some at Almudena Cemetary

Almudena Cemetery

Almudena Cemetery

Almudena Cemetery

It’s a Saturday afternoon and Michael and Alexander aren’t out on the street doing what kids normally do; riding bikes or playing soccer. Instead, they’re scrubbing and polishing crypts to a brilliant luster.

“I really like my job because I can help my mom buy food,” smiles Michael, words spoken in Spanish but translated by my friend Liz.

The hard-working brothers also don’t seem to mind the somber nature of working at the Almudena Cemetery in Cuzco, Peru. On the contrary, it’s a rich, festive and decorative place to toil.

The boys buff chrome borders and glass windows with hand cloths and a few squirts of lime juice. Alexander uses his bare hands. On the outside of the grottos are dioramas or windows into past lives. Sentimental objects and memorabilia like dolls, flowers, photos, soccer balls, even beer bottles, reflect the personality of those buried.

For some reason, the names and birth/death dates of the dearly departed aren’t always on display?

For a few extra nuevos soles (Peruvian currency), the siblings will even sing folk songs or dance. They did so for us which upped their bottom line.

They aren’t the only ones to take advantage of the enterprising nature of cemeteries in Peru. Street vendors roam past burials selling flowers, water, soda and trinkets to family members who decorate the dioramas.

With tips, the boys can earn up to $8 a day. The money helps to pay for essentials like food, clothing and school books. That may not seem like a lot to us but, to the vulnerable, it makes a world of difference.

Unless it rains, the siblings clock in right after school, scrub until dark (easily a 10-hour day) and then head home. Not surprising, a majority of the seven acres is reserved for those who were rich and/or famous. If the monthly stipend or rent is not paid than a humiliating sticker is slapped on the face of the glass panel until it is. If not, the casket or urn is removed and dumped.

After the sun goes down, the brothers retire to their mud brick home high in the hills that overlook Cusco. Despite the breathtaking views, the steep climb up and down hundreds of steps hampers frail members of the family from getting around, especially grandparents who still live with their children. But, they have no other option.

Living in the urban city is expensive so the poor tend to dwell on land they have no legal right to occupy, also called “squatter settlements.” Most lack electricity, water, and waste disposal services but it’s a roof over their heads and, for that, many are thankful.

Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, I’ve see this complicated housing phenomena often when I visit developing countries. But, that’s a subject for another blog…

I highly suggest a guided tour of this unusual attraction and be sure to bring tips for the boys.

Cusco Cemetery

Almudena Cemetery

The spirit and power of Apu and its people

Sacred Valley

Sacred Valley faces

Apu or spirit of the mountains is a term tossed around quite a bit in Peru. Our guide Enrique helped explain its Inca origins and importance but until we actually drove through the Sacred Valley, I don’t think many of us truly grasped the power and magic of the area. The Peruvian Andes afford a celestial fortress of protection to all who safely navigate her narrow, hairpin turns and bouldered skin. Stretching to a height of 20,000 feet, this is the heartland of the Inca empire.

As I’ve learned this week, the indigenous tribes of this rugged utopia have thrived here for centuries. Far from primitive, their collective minds achieved greatness by practicing three guiding principles: love, learn and serve. This holy belief system is still alive and well today as demonstrated by rural farming communities throughout the Sacred Valley. We visited one called Huila Huila.

As soon as the gates opened, a stampede of tiny, smiling faces rushed us to wrap our wrists in knitted bracelets and escort us to the school auditorium. I was smitten from the start.

Over their school uniforms, some of the children wore crisp white t-shirts donated by Vantage Adventures Cares: a pilot program that aims to enlighten travelers with truly local culture, one that helps to foster personal connections by offering a level of intimacy rarely considered by other tour companies.

Once our group settled, the children proceeded to show off their talents through song, poetry and… jump roping. Teachers and staff beamed with pride. Heads of community shared the microphone to repeat words of welcome and appreciation in Spanish, easily translated by our guide.

A retired theoretical physicist-turned-magician from our group reciprocated the joy with some simple street magic, a rope trick that boggled the brains of 100 or more well-behaved bambinos, let alone the adults. A few minutes later, a communal lunch of roasted guinea pig and tasty cooked potatoes, rice and carrots cemented the kinship.

Our visit concluded with a tour of bare school rooms lacking basic needs like electricity, computers and heat, a standard of living lower than most in Peru, but still clean and organized. Yes, these kind souls are poor in material but rich in a spirit, customs and beliefs. Not only are they the descendants of a superior and influential Inca civilization but strong as the Apu that surrounds them.

Vantage Advantage Cares program

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

Vantage Adventures Cares

*This trip wouldn’t be possible without Boston-based Vantage Adventures.
Twitter: #myvantageadventures

Expressions of Mother Earth (Mama Pacha)



llama or alpaca

llama overlooking Machu Picchu

Alpaca, llama, vicuña, bear, snake, condor, puma, swallow, and more, I can’t begin to mention all the animals (symbolic or not) that Peruvians identify with. For instance, take the sacred camel family.

Not unlike how the cow is a symbol of strength and abundance to Hindus in India, so too are these beasts of burden considered expressions of mother earth or Mama Pacha.

They have been essential to the Peruvian culture providing work, wool, meat, fur, bones and lard for centuries. Moreover, their excrement provides a fertilizer that helps to conserve the nature ecosystem of the Inca highlights.

Since I can’t take one home I bought a small stuffed toy llama instead:

stuffed toy llama

*This trip wouldn’t be possible without Boston-based Vantage Adventures.
Twitter: #myvantageadventures

Machu Picchu in pictures

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Wednesday was spent in awe and wonder at Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca citadel secured to a mountain ridge at nearly 8,000 ft above sea level.

The size, scope, magnitude of these sacred ruins can not be appreciated in photos so today I return for more photography starting from the Inca Trail.

In the meantime, enjoy what I had time (and internet connection) to post on my FLICKR album:

A Peruvian delicacy for lunch (the other white meat)

Guinea Pig Lunch

Host Lunch with Guinea Pig

Guinea Pig Host Dinner

Host Dinner

How did I recover from such a terrible bout of altitude sickness? Yes, I owe it to coca leaves but the true remedy was this famous Peruvian delicacy.

“The best way to show guests that a family is doing well [in income] is, first, how many people they invite, and if they are able to serve an entire piece of (pause)… what is about to come,” said Enrique Virto, our guide from Vantage Adventures.

The host family had invited twenty Americans to their beautiful abode; a four-course meal of every flavor imaginable. We smiled nervously not knowing what the final coup de grâce would be.

First up was an appetizer of quinoa soup, then dishes of “big ass corn” (coined by Mark) or Choclo, followed by yellow potatoes and sides of mush made from the purple lupin plant called tarwi, along with several dollops of other Peruvian traditions. Finally, the 6,000-year-old rodent made it’s debut.

The guests let out a gasp as a fully developed cuy (pronounced “kwee”) or guinea pig with head, teeth, ears and all body parts left intact was served. It had been roasted to a shiny brownish red glow.

It would be incredibly impolite, let alone a disgrace to the travel writing industry, not to try a bite so we carefully, warily, picked at the meat.

The verdict, it wasn’t bad! Yes, sort-of a cross between rabbit and chicken but no gamey smell and no tough texture. A little on the boney side but not bad!

Bottom line: don’t leave home without trying, even a small bite. Or, do like Liz did, and chew on the greasy fried skin that tastes “a lot like pork rinds”.

Cuzco, Peru: Feeling as ancient as the Inca

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru

coca leaves Cuzco, Peru

My heart is racing, my legs are wobbly, my ears are ringing and I’ve consumed enough of the revered coca plant to induce a mind-altering buzz. Where am I? In the Peruvian Andes, of course!

After an exhausting twenty-four hour commute, my press junket has finally landed in Peru. Our original itinerary anticipated us arriving in the Sacred Valley by this hour, 50 miles northwest of Cuzco, but the “Land of the Inca Empire” and home of the domesticated llama will have to wait until Tuesday.

Due to another run-of-the-mill farmers strike, all roads in and out of the Machu Picchu district are snarled with traffic. Odds are good that the anger between grazers and government stems from national water laws as well as taxes, two issues that I’m told are emblematic of social unrest in Peru.

No matter, this is South America and being able to adapt to changes in plans as well as having a malleable temperament are essential. And, besides, the Seventh Wonder of the World is worth the wait!

At a whopping 12,000 feet above sea level, Cuzco, a world heritage city, will take another day for me to acclimate. Pitifully, after just one flight of hotel stairs, I collapsed on the marble landing and sat for a moment recouping my strength. I’m feeling as ancient as the Inca!

Lucky for me, I’m staying at the Casa Andina hotel near the historic main plaza or Plaza de Armas. Within minutes, I secure urban scenes of a city rich in culture and dress.