Monthly Archives: November 2015

Falling in Love with Peru


Soon after I arrived in Peru, I began to regret not having planned to spend more time there.  I was instantly enchanted by the country–by its beauty, its charming people, its delicious food, its magical archaeological sites.  I tried to cram as much activity as I could into my nine days there, and my nonstop exertion, combined with the altitude and the strong sun, wound up wearing me out.  Nevertheless, I was spellbound by Peru and I can’t wait to go back.

I began and ended my Peruvian adventures in Lima, spending my first two nights in the Bohemian neighborhood Barranco, which had been recommended to me by my friend Caty.  While in Barranco, I dedicated myself mainly to the enjoyment of ceviche and pisco sours–an activity to which I would gladly have devoted much more time.

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Ceviche with avocado and sweet potato at Cevichería CantaRana in Barranco.
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A pisco sour at Macondo in Cusco.


A pedestrian street in Barranco
An interesting mural in Barranco

For the following day, I had booked an early flight to Cusco, but I was bumped from my flight and wound up spending most of the day in the Lima airport.  (This was my second bad experience with LAN Airlines.) I was grumpy when I arrived in Cusco late that afternoon, but the beautiful countryside in the Sacred Valley and the amiable driver my hotel had sent to collect me quickly put me in a better mood.

My driver, a native Quechua speaker, spoke slow, formal Spanish, free of slang and very easy for me to understand.  On the two-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, he tried to teach me a little Quechua (though I’ve forgotten every word he taught me), and he asked me to teach him a few words in English.  He was the first of several native Quechua speakers that I hired as drivers or guides during my nine days in Peru, and they were all warm, friendly men.

Cusco, capital of the Inca empire and one of the longest continually inhabited cities in the Americas, has an altitude of over 11,000 feet, causing many visitors to experience altitude sickness.  There’s a debate in the guidebooks over whether it’s better to adjust to the altitude in Cusco before going to Machu Picchu and other sites in the Sacred Valley or whether it’s better to adjust to the slightly lower altitude in the Sacred Valley before going to Cusco. I opted for the latter, deciding to go immediately to Ollantaytambo, a town with its own celebrated ruins about an hour and a half from Machu Picchu.  I spent two nights in El Albergue, a hotel inside the Ollantaytambo train station. All of the good things I had read about this hotel turned out to be accurate. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and many of them have lovely views of Ollantaytambo’s ruins and the surrounding mountains. The hotel’s restaurant serves organic produce from its nearby farm.  Best of all, it serves breakfast beginning at 5:30 a.m. to guests who are planning to board the 6:00 a.m. train for Machu Picchu, and after they’ve finished their breakfast, the train is waiting for them just outside the restaurant.

The view from my room in El Albergue in Ollantaytambo.

Many people had told me that Machu Picchu is one of the few “must see” tourist destinations that really lives up to the hype, and they were right.  It’s a breathtaking place, and its story (to the extent to which we know its story) is fascinating.  I arrived early, before the site had become too crowded, and hired a guide named Jose, who escorted me about and explained the mysteries and wonders of the place. He told me all about Inca cosmology, Inca construction methods, and Inca engineering.  He also propounded a wacky theory that has been disputed by nearly everyone to whom I have repeated it: that the Incas and the Quechuas were two entirely different races of people, the Quechua being a servant race ruled by the Incas, who were unusually tall.  The chief evidence for this is Inca door frames, whose height indicates that they were meant for people much taller than the typical Peruvian of today. The Inca race, he claims, was completely killed off by the Spanish, and because the Quechua people venerated them even after death, the Spaniards burned their bodies, making any investigation of his theory impossible. I tried googling this idea and turned up nothing, so he may be the theory’s lone proponent.






When I bought my ticket to Machu Picchu, I paid extra to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen just behind the ruins in most photos of the world’s most famous archaeological site.  I had read several articles that said that this hike was absolutely not to be missed, so I paid the 50 extra bucks it costs to have access to the Huayna Picchu.  And then I began to read articles that said that the hike was dangerous and terrifying, that the descent was particularly perilous, involving narrow stone steps, no railing, and a precipitous drop down the side of the mountain should you misjudge your step.  On the train to Machu Picchu, I sat next to a Japanese tour guide who had led several expeditions to Machu Picchu but had never climbed Huayna Picchu. She told me, in barely comprehensible English, that a Japanese tourist had once fallen to his death on the hike and that now no Japanese tourist would dare climb that mountain.  (She was wrong.  I saw several Japanese tourists making their way up the mountain.) Jose assured me I would be fine, and I when I saw several middle-aged and older hikers doing the climb, including a woman who I would guess was about 70, I figured there was nothing to worry about.

The beginning of the hike up Huayna Picchu

The ascent took about an hour, and though I had to stop and catch my breath frequently, it wasn’t until I got almost to the top that I encountered any difficulties. Not too far from the summit, there’s a nice terraced area with lovely views–views that are every bit as impressive as the ones from the top. I now think this would be a good place to call it quits.  But I didn’t know any better at the time, so I pushed on.  A little ways ahead, I saw that the 70ish woman had turned around and was heading back. She had apparently run into a challenge she was unprepared for, and I soon discovered what it was: a narrow tunnel with wet, muddy floors that one has to crawl through.  I crawled through it, and when I came out the other side, I noticed that my backpack had come open.  I thought nothing of it at the time, but when I got to the summit and wanted to take a photo, my camera was missing.  In a panic, I headed back toward the tunnel, only to run into a park employee who told me I wasn’t allowed to go back in that direction.  When I explained to him that I had lost my camera, he calmly pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to me. The case was muddy, but the camera worked fine.  I thanked him profusely, then returned to the summit, and soon afterward, began to descend those narrow, terrifying steps I had read about.  I held on to the side of the mountain and edged down the steps, taking the advice that the man behind me was giving to his wife:  “Don’t look down. Just face the mountain and go down slowly.”

Here I am at the top of Huanya Picchu, sweaty and sunburned and very happy to have been reunited with my camera.
The view of Machu Picchu from the summit of Huayna Picchu

I obviously made it back to Ollantaytambo in one piece.  That night I had quinoa and pisco sours in a restaurant overlooking the town square while all the town’s residents, including the restaurant’s employees, were glued to a soccer match between Brazil and Peru.  I was utterly charmed by Ollantaytambo, a pretty little town surrounded by soaring mountains. The nearest mountains are home to the ruins for which the town is famous.  There’s a crafts market next to the entrance to the ruins, and there are numerous cafes and restaurants catering to the hippie backpacker types who are drawn to the town.  On the evening I arrived, I went to a funky bakery on the plaza and had a chocolate banana muffin and mug of coca tea, which is said to help tourists cope with the altitude. (I wanted to bring a bag of this tea back home with me, but I read online that it’s illegal in the U.S.)

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Coca leaf tea at la Esquina, a bakery/cafe in Ollantaytambo.
The path that led from my hotel to the ruins in Ollantaytambo.
The main plaza in Ollantaytambo, with some of the town’s famous ruins visible in the background.


The day after I visited Machu Picchu, I hired a guide to show me around the Ollantaytambo ruins—another affable man, one who was as interested in hearing about my life in California as he was in telling me about Ollantaytambo. Then I hired a driver to take me first to Pisaq, another town with famous ruins, and finally to Cusco, where I was planning to spend four nights.  The entrance to the ruins at Pisaq is at the top of a mountain, and the ruins spill down the mountain, leading eventually to the modern town of Pisaq, located in the valley.  When we got to the Pisaq ruins, I hired another guide and then agreed to meet my driver in Pisaq’s Plaza de Armas.  The guide played an Andean flute as he led me around the Pisaq ruins.  After an hour-long tour, he pointed out the path that I would follow to reach the plaza and told me I should hurry because it would take me about an hour to get there. It was another nerve-wracking descent, this time because I was often not sure I was going the right way.

The entrance to the Pisaq ruins.




By the time I reached Cusco late that afternoon, I was exhausted and sunburned.  I had done much more hiking in the past two days than I am accustomed to, and my knees were really upset with me.  And the mild temperatures in the Sacred Valley had fooled me into thinking that the sun was nothing to worry about.  The altitude may moderate temperatures, but it also intensifies the impact of the sun.  I was shocked by how red I was when I looked in the mirror that evening.  But at dinner that night, when I glanced around the restaurant and noticed that it was packed with beet-red gringos, I felt a little less foolish.

Cusco is a lovely city, but the first couple of days I was there, I was so tired I didn’t want to do much.  I did wander around a bit with the other sunburned tourists, visiting churches and museums.  On my third day there, I was fortunate to befriend Christiam, a Chilean art student who acted as my guide for a couple of days, taking me to the Templo del Sol and to some good restaurants.

The cathedral in Cusco

As is to be expected in a tourist town in a poor country, the streets of Cusco are full of people looking to make a quick buck.  Indigenous women wander around in traditional dress with baby llamas (and fully grown llamas), offering to have their photos taken with tourists for a tip.  Several young men sidled up to me and asked, in surprisingly good English, “Wanna smoke weed?”  And on almost every street corner, there are young women offering massages to male passersby.  “They’re not really massages,” Christiam explained to me, though I had already come to the same conclusion myself.


Throughout Cusco, Inca walls have been incorporated into newer buildings.


The view from the Templo del Sol in Cusco.
An Inca doorway in Cusco

On my final night in Peru, my husband’s hotel points got me a suite in the Sheraton in central Lima, only a short walk to the Plaza de Armas.  I spent my final afternoon in Peru exploring the museums there.  My favorite was the Casa de la Literatura Peruana, a fun literary museum that made me want to read more Peruvian literature.  (I found the exhibit on feminist poetry in Peru to be especially interesting.)


The Plaza de Armas in Lima

I was already a little travel weary when I arrived in Peru, and by the time I left, I was completely exhausted.  Nevertheless, I really didn’t want to leave.  I wanted more time in Peru.  And I’m sure I’ll be back.



My Six Favorite Colombian Experiences

Twelve days ago, I left Mexico to do some traveling in South America, starting in Colombia, where I just spent a week and a half.  A violent reputation steered tourists away from Colombia for years, but the country’s security situation has improved dramatically, and recently it has been getting a lot of positive press in travel publications.  It’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit, so when I found an amazingly cheap ticket to Bogotá on Interjet, one of my favorite discount airlines, I snapped it up.

Here, in no particular order, are six of the things I enjoyed most in Colombia.

Street Art in Bogota

A street in La Candelaria

La Candelaria, the oldest part of Bogota, is home to several universities and most of Bogotá’s tourist attractions.  During the drug war, it was a dangerous place, but it’s been experiencing a revival in recent years.  The neighborhood’s colonial buildings, in addition to housing some hip bars and restaurants, are often covered with colorful and imaginative murals.  On a Bogotá Bike Tour, I learned that the local government is paying artists to produce street art not only in la Candaleria but in other parts of town as well.  This street art certainly makes walking through Bogotá’s chilly, drizzly–and often grimy–streets a more pleasant experience.


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An interesting sculpture in La Candelaria

Social Urbanism in Medellin

The metrocable links the light rail trains to the city’s hillside slums.

Medellin, once the most violent city in the world, has made a remarkable turnaround over the past two decades.  In 2013, it was named the planet’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute.  Many people give the credit for Medellin’s transformation to former mayor Sergio Fajardo, a political independent who dubbed his policies “social urbanism.”  Social urbanism involves public investments in infrastructure and education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which in Medellin tend to be at the tops of the steep hillsides that surround the city.  (They remind me of the ironically named neighborhood the Bottom in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula.) The local government has connected these neighborhoods to the rest of the city with creative public transportation projects, mainly el metrocable, a kind of ski lift that carries people from the light rail train to the hillside slums.  In the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood, there are now escalators that climb the sides of the mountain so that residents no longer have to trudge up flight after flight of stairs to reach their homes.  The city has also invested in schools, community centers, and “library parks,” combinations of green space and libraries.  The most famous one, Parque Biblioteca España Santo Domingo, features an award-winning architectural design that is attracting tourists to the neighborhood that was once ruled by Pablo Escobar.

An escalator (or escalera electrica) helps residents climb the steep hillsides of Comuna 13, one of Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods.


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Parque Biblioteca España Santo Domingo


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Botero’s depiction of the death of Pablo Escobar

The art of Fernando Botero is everywhere in Colombia, not just in museums.  I saw his sculptures in plazas in all three of the cities I visited in Colombia, and I also saw street vendors and souvenir shops selling replicas of his most famous paintings.  The Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Antioquia Museum in Medellin are the best places to see his work, but both museums also exhibit hundreds of modern masterpieces by other artists that Botero donated from his private collection.  According to Botero, his famously oversized figures are not fat:  they just have volume.  Nevertheless, the word I heard most frequently from other museum-goers was “gordo,” or fat.  Botero’s paintings and sculptures are often quite funny, and they contain wry social commentary.  Maybe I’m overreaching, but his art seems to share a sensibility with the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez.  In the work of both men, reality is depicted in a distorted way that manages to reveal something essential about Colombian society–and about humanity.



La Ciudad Antigua in Cartagena


Cartagena is Colombia’s biggest tourist attraction for a good reason.  The Caribbean port city contains a beautiful walled “ciudad vieja,” or old town, that is full of color and music and fabulous restaurants.  I’m not a fan of heat, and walking around in Cartagena is a little like walking around in a sauna.  But I still enjoyed wandering its narrow streets and taking photos of its colonial mansions.  I saw dance performances in plazas, heard the sounds of salsa emanating from bars, and ate in wonderful restaurants.  (My two favorites were Restaurante Donjuán, where I had a tasty quinoa salad with shrimp and chipotle Caesar dressing, and El Boliche Cebicheria, where I had a couple of craft beers and a spicy ceviche with fresh coconut.)

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Ceviche with fresh coconut at El Boliche Cebicheria

Quite by accident, I arranged to visit during the Cartagena Independence Day celebration.  On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence before any of the rest of what was then known as the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. This led to a standoff with the Spanish military in which 4,000 people died, prompting Simon Bolivar to give the city its enduring nickname, La Heroica.  Today, Cartagena’s Independence Day is celebrated with parades of beauty queens, loud firecrackers, and the entire populous running around with huge cans of shaving cream and spraying everyone in sight.

Residents of Cartagena spray each other with shaving cream while they await the desfile de reinas, a beauty queen parade. This was early in the afternoon, when people were still relatively sober. The shaving cream battles escalated after dark.


Because of the holiday, many tourist sites were closed for the week, including several of Cartagena’s museums.  I wound up going to a museum that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have visited–just because it was the only one that was open–and I’m glad I did.  The Museum of the Inquisition, predictably, gives an overview of the Spanish Inquisition, both in Spain and in the Americas, displaying some grisly torture implements that were used to extract confessions from people accused of blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, and sodomy.  (One of the most horrifying ones was used to crush the breasts of women accused of witchcraft.) But the Inquisition turns out to be only part of the museum’s focus. The top floor is devoted to local history, including Cartagena’s 1811 Declaration of Independence. For me, the most fascinating rooms were the ones that told the story of nearby San Basilio de Palenque, the first settlement in the Americas populated entirely by former slaves.  In 1603, a group of escaped slaves, led by the legendary Benkos Biohó, built a fortified village in the mountains about 30 miles from Cartagena.  San Basilio withstood attacks by the Spaniards for over 100 years.  It occasionally sent expeditions to Cartagena to attack incoming slave ships and liberate the captives.  When the Spanish government grew weary of trying to conquer San Basilio, it officially granted the town’s residents freedom and a large degree of sovereignty.  San Basilio de Palenque even has its own language, Palenquero, a Spanish-Bantú creole. It’s the only Spanish-based creole that is still spoken in Latin America.  Communities of escaped slaves sprang up all over the Americas, including the US, though American history books rarely talk about them.  In Cartagena, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, the founding of San Basilio de Palenque is a celebrated part of local history. Palenqueras, colorfully dressed women who come to Cartagena from San Basilio to sell fruit, are iconic in Cartegena.  (Tourists pay to take their photos.) They’re such an important part of the city’s identity that they were heavily featured in the Independence Day parades, alongside the contestants for Miss Colombia.IMG_9862_edited


Okay, I’m not really sure that Tejo was one of my favorite Colombian experiences, but it was certainly one of the most interesting ones. Tejo is a popular Colombian game that involves throwing rocks at little triangles of gunpowder in order to cause an explosion.  It’s played in bars, and apparently one of the rules of the game is that you have to drink lots of beer while playing it.  I found it a little unnerving.  It sounded like someone was getting shot every couple of minutes.

There’s no explosion in the following video.  (The group I was with wasn’t very good at the game.)  But it gives an idea of how the game is played.

I doubt I would have ever gone to a Tejo bar if it hadn’t been a stop on the Bogota Bike Tour, and I probably will never go again.  Still, I’m glad I got to experience this weird game.  It was an unforgettable experience even if it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant one.

Dancing in the Streets

In Colombia, I kept running across dance troupes performing in parks and plazas.  As someone who can’t dance, I’ve always been fascinated by people who can.  And Colombia is full of skilled dancers.

Día de Muertos in Mexico City


This year, for the first time, I found myself in Mexico for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and I was excited to witness this most Mexican of occasions here in Mexico, though I wasn’t sure that Mexico City would necessarily be the best place. For Day of the Dead activities, tourists tend to flock to Pátzcuaro or Oaxaca or some other smaller Mexican town.  Mixquic, a small community in the Tláhuac delegation of the federal district, attracts many tourists wanting to experience Day of the Dead celebrations, so I considered going there, but a number of Chilangos warned me that it would be an uncomfortably overcrowded place on Day of the Dead.  It turned out that I was able to see plenty of Day of the Dead activities in Mexico City without going to Mixquic, largely thanks to the efforts of my private Spanish tutor, Ernesto.

As I understand it, “Día de los Muertos,” which is the name many people give to the holiday in the United States, is a back translation of “Day of the Dead.” In Mexico, people usually say, “Día de Muertos.”


Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration, the first and second of November, and of course it follows Halloween, which many people in Mexico City do celebrate.  Several houses in La Condesa were decked out for Halloween this year, and on October 31st, I saw a few children trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.  But mainly Halloween is just an excuse for more Day of the Dead activities.  I saw people in Halloween costumes, but a huge majority of them were dressed as Catrinas or Catrines, the name Diego Rivera gave to the Mexican skeleton figure created in the early 20th Century by José Guadalupe Posada that has since become an emblem of Day of the Dead.

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A house decorated for Halloween in La Condesa.



There were several Day of the Dead events on Halloween, including a nighttime bike ride (with riders dressed as Catrina or Catrin) and a desfile (parade) of Catrinas and Catrines in the Historic Center.  I went to the zócalo on Halloween night, where the city had erected a huge stage (on which nothing seemed to be happening) and several enormous ofrendas (altars with offerings). There was a fascinating indigenous dance performance in one corner of the Zócalo, and lots of people in costumes were wandering about.

A giant skeleton rides a unicycle in the zócalo on Halloween night.


When I was in the Zócalo on Halloween night, nothing seemed to be happening on this stage, though it looked awfully cool. I’m sure there was a concert or something after I left the Zócalo in search of dinner.

On November 1st, the first Day of the Dead, I participated in the ciclovía (as I always do), but this time many of the other cyclists had skeleton face paint.  I biked to the historic center and then wandered around looking at ofrendas.  La Calle de Regina, a pedestrian street full of cafes and restaurants, had been turned into an open air gallery of ofrendas, both ofrendas tradicionales and ofrendas contemporáneas.  The ofrendas usually feature skeletons, often dressed in traditional Mexican garb and doing things one doesn’t expect a skeleton to do–playing guitar, riding a bicycle, surfing.  The more traditional ones display photos of deceased loved ones, or deceased historical figures, and offerings of bread, fruits, vegetables, and beverages.  There’s often copal being burned in a censer, and there are nearly always marigolds and/or interesting arrangements of marigold petals.  According to Ernesto, the scent of marigolds is believed to help the dead find their way to Day of the Dead celebrations.

One of the many traditional ofrendas on Calle de Regina in the Historic Center.
A “contemporary” ofrenda on Calle de Regina.

On Saturday night, Ernesto arranged an excursion for his students (and several of their friends) to the Megaofrenda at the UNAM.  Every year, UNAM faculty and students create an enormous display of artistic ofrendas, and each year, the university chooses a Mexican historical figure to dedicate the ofrendas to. This year it was José María Morelos, a hero in the Mexican War of Independence.  Many of the skeletons in the ofrendas were dressed like Morelos, with his signature headscarf, or were acting out historical scenes in which Morelos was involved.

A mural depicting the corpse of José María Morelos.
There’s a Xoloitzcuintle (a Mexican hairless dog) at the feet of Morelos’s corpse in this mural. Ernesto explained to us that, in indigenous Mexican cultures, these dogs were believed to be guides for the dead in the spirit world.


The library at the UNAM, covered in murals by Juan O’Gorman. This has nothing to do with Day of the Dead, but I love this building, and it’s especially beautiful when it’s lit up at night.

On Monday, November 2nd, Ernesto met me in a subway station and took me to Xochimilco, the southernmost delegation of el DF and a part of the city known for traditional Mexican culture.  We first went to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which is famous for its collection of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, though on Day of the Dead, the main attraction is a huge ofrenda constructed by artists from around the country.  This ofrenda is so popular that we had to stand in line for an hour just to get into the building that housed it.  This year, the exhibition highlighted the link between Mexico’s biodiversity and the different kinds of arts and crafts that exist throughout the country.  It also featured pieces from the Museum of Popular Art and the Dolores Olmedo Museum’s collection of popular art.

The Ofrenda at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

After we had seen the ofrenda at the museum, we took a microbus to the center of Xochimilco and had a lunch of tlocoyos and quesadillas de huitlacoche in the mercado there.  (Ernesto told me that these two activities–riding a microbus and eating in the mercado–were probably the most authentically Mexican things I’d ever done.)   We tried to go to the panteón (cemetery) behind the cathedral in Xochimilco, only to be told that it was closed and that there were no Day of the Dead activities there.  We were advised to go instead to the Panteon de Xilotepec, in La Noria, just a few miles away, so we boarded another microbus and headed in that direction.

There was a festive atmosphere in the Panteón de Xilotepec.  Food and drink were being sold at the entrance to the cemetery.  Inside, graves had been cleaned up and decorated, mainly with marigold petals and candles.  Ernesto told me that the graves of people who died young are typically adorned with balloons.  Families were seated around graves, “visitando a sus muertos,” as Ernesto explained, visiting their dead.  They drank and talked and laughed.  I felt like I was intruding on private family gatherings as I meandered about with my camera, but as I walked past one family, a man reached out and affectionately patted me on the shoulder.  Wandering mariachis went from grave to grave, playing the favorite songs of the deceased.  Vendedores ambulantes roamed around selling snacks.  Many people spend the night in the cemetery, I was told.  Mostly I saw groups of people camped out by graves, but there were also a few solitary figures keeping lonely vigils beside tombstones.


Mariarchis perform at a grave in the Panteón de Xilotepec on Day of the Dead.
The graves of those who died young are often decorated with balloons.
I find myself charmed and moved by this tradition–remembering, honoring, and communing with the dead, contemplating our connection to them and our own mortality.  These days, Day of the Dead is celebrated in the United States in areas with large Mexican/Mexican-American populations, including the Bay Area–and it’s just one example of the many ways that immigration from Latin America is enriching life in the US.