White Churches, Dark Burro

29 December 2016 – As if I’m not lucky enough just to be here at all, I am about to become even luckier. I will join the students of the Art Restoration Training Course on a field trip to the Colca Valley.

Oscár, Michaela & other instructors are nearing the end of the 2nd unit of training for 20 interested students; the first unit focused on sculpture, this one is devoted to paintings. The day I drop in, each work table has reached the “colour reintegration” stage in the laborious process of bringing these badly damaged works back to life. Here Michaela discusses colour choice with Jaime (who, days later, will give me the origami owl featured in my Las Motocholitas post).


The Colca Valley is known for its depth (twice that of the Grand Canyon), its wildlife, its hot springs, its strong Quechua-Aymara traditions, its bungee-jumping even — and its gleaming Colonial-era churches.

Once again gleaming, that is, after some 15 years of patient restoration work throughout the Valley, largely funded by Spanish international development money and led by Peruvian art restorer Juan-Carlos Cavera Catalán. Juan-Carlos himself, a resident of the Valley, will visit some of the churches with us.

But first we have to get there. It means a long day of combi-van travel that first drops us south to Juliaca, then west into Arequipa Region and on to Chivay, the Valley’s main town.

En-route we drive through the Salinas & Aquada Blanca National Reserve, an eco-reserve where, if you’re lucky, you may spot wild vicuña. (Unlike llama & alpaca, they refuse domestication; you spy them in the wild, or not at all.) The van veers suddenly onto the shoulder & brakes — vicuña!

Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aquada Blanca

Snap-snap, goes every smart phone, and we’re on our way again.

More good luck, we arrive in Chivay in mid-festival: days of celebration in honour of the Vírgen Inmaculada Concepción — and also of ethnicity, including dress and dance. The plaza is a-whirl, the decorations as exuberant as the danzas Wititi.

Chivay, decorations for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary

Across the plaza, the town church: Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Not gleaming white, but otherwise a foretaste of what we will see in the days to come.

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Chivay

In Yanque, for example …

Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, Yanque


and in Lari.

Purisima Concepción, in Lari

Did you notice the long crack running down from the bell-tower on the left? And the tip-tilted angle of the cross on that tower? This is volcano country, earthquake country. You can lovingly restore a church, and then …

Ichupampa church, after the Aug 2016 earthquake

another earthquake can hit.

Which happened this August, once again shattering the church in Ichupampa.

Later we spy Volcán Sabancaya on the horizon, still breathing great plumes into the air.

Sabancaya exploded in August 2016, it is still venting, still active

The church exteriors are pure white; the interiors a blaze of colour & texture.

Largely blue & white in Corporaque, where Padre Miguel (L) and the rest of us listen to Juan-Carlos (R) and then ply him with questions.

Corporaque, Padre Miguel (L) & Juan-Carlos

The Lari church has more green in its colour scheme.

interior, Lari

I am truly awe-struck by the intricacies of retablos, altars, pulpits — but my heart responds more to simpler (& typically, slightly later) details. An angel guarding a window peak in Yanque, for example …

a window angel, in Yanque

and this doorway motif in Lari.

in Lari

Tourists come & go. Villagers come & go. Ladies of the parish, as with this duo in Corporaque, just quietly get on with their work.

arranging flowers, Corporaque

Then there’s the late morning we make the long — oh I do mean long, the long & bumpy to be even more precise — yes, the very long ride to Canocota. Where the church is firmly locked up, no key to be found. And the plaza is empty. Except for the burro. Who trots briskly back & forth & back & forth. And back & forth.

We watch him.

the burro of Canocota performs for Michaela

And then we pile into the combi-van and bumpity-bump, drive back to Chivay for lunch. We revisit a pollería down the lanes by the market. I choose fried chicken & rice, just like the kids at the next table. Every now & then I, too, raise my eyes to the big screen.

fried chicken & fútbol, in Chivay

Liverpool & West Ham are tied 2-2.

Then we dive right into the market. Tonight will be our last night, we’ll pile up a huge fogata (bonfire) in the grounds where we’re staying, roast vegetables in the coals & grill chicken & sausage to go with them. Michaela has the shopping lists: we divide into mini-squads of Arms To Carry Things.

in the Chivay mercado

Not asleep, just quietly peeling her mandarin orange. She jumps right up once we start buying.

Back to our residence out in Achoma, a couple of hours of uni-sex fútbol

at play in Achoma

and it’s time to build the bonfire, cook our food, spend a long, last evening with each other.

roast corn, roast sweet potato, friends

Next day, and the next few days, it’s zip-zip for me. Back to Ayaviri. Back to Cusco. Back to Lima. Onto the final plane — at 3:15 a.m., heaven help me.

I sleep.

When I come to again, peer out the window …

over Lake Ontario, perhaps?

I can see I’m back in Canada.



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  1. Wonderful journey – and so glad you were able to spend time in the Colca Valley. One of the regrets we had after our 7-month trip to South America was not spending more time there. Of course, we left just hours before the August earthquake – so maybe luck was with us for deciding not to stay an extra day?

    • Hours before … Well, now you can see what happened. The church is chained off behind high fences (I stuck my camera through a loop), not in use, some talk of eventual restoration, maybe years from now??? Our Padre Miguel stared at it in dismay.

  2. Welcome back…such a wonderful adventure…have a happy new year Penny ☺

  3. I’m not usually lost for words. This journey is amazing, so different and so varied, and you move so far beyond mere tourism. I’m sorry you’re back in Canada!


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