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.



Posies & Selfies

27 December 2016 – We spend December 8 in the town of Orurillo, an easy motorcycle hop of 48 km or so from Ayaviri. Michaela knows the town well & loves it for its charm; like the rest of the Ayaviri team, she also cares a great deal about its church, el Templo de Santa Ana. It is high on their priority list for restoration support (should they ever be in a position to expand their efforts beyond Ayaviri).

Santa Ana is very old (late 16th c.), Oscár tells me, original but for the metal roof  — and one more example of the churches now crumbling away all over Puno Region. “The authorities have graded it as unsafe for human use. They use it anyway,”

So I’m eager to visit the church. But it’s not the first building to catch my eye, as we dismount in the central plaza.

Municipal Offices, Orurillo Puno District

I am enchanted by the municipal office building. Michaela is horrified at my enchantment, begins to reassess her opinion of my aesthetic instincts. Don’t care, I love it. The world now recognizes Andean Baroque as a valid school within the larger Baroque, I hereby launch my own support group for Andean Art Deco.  A touch of bright exuberance in the sere landscape.

But yes, the Templo de Santa Ana is much more important.

side wall, Santa Ana, Orurillo

This side door is disused, signs of erosion are visible across the entire adobe wall. Yet somehow, despite fragility and loss, everything about it still exudes a powerful sense of peace and calm dignity.

Especially that door …

disused side door

Lots of action at the main door, where townspeople are beginning to gather for today’s Mass. It will be a double celebration: the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and the First Communion for an entire group of children.


detail, door in side wall


We go in. It is my first experience of one of these rural churches. Perhaps especially because of the simple exterior, I am entirely unprepared for what I see inside.

Templo de Santa Ana

Sumptuous, layer-on-layer, Andean Baroque glory. Propped up with scaffolding.

I blink at the centuries-old riches, the current extreme vulnerability, and find myself focusing — just for a moment of something easy to grasp — on the white posies at the end of each pew. Of course! To honour the First Communion.

I’m not the only one who is fascinated.

oh, the temptation!

I begin to take in more of the detail. Ornately framed paintings line both side walls …

side wall, Santa Ana

also with strategic support-poles, as needed.

supports throughout the church

Once the ornamentation was not limited to paintings & sculptures; the walls themselves danced with colour. Slightly later, and more decorous, tastes chose to cover up all that gaiety.

Now time is gaiety’s accomplice, and patches of colour escape to dance once more.

palimpsest -- earlier colour shows through the later whitewash


But they dance with the rest of time’s handiwork as well.

the wall cracks...

The Mass ends, the congregation makes it way to the door …

leaving Santa Ana after Mass

and into the warm sunshine beyond.

Where the excited new Communicants cluster with family, Padre Julian & friends …

& out into the sunshine

it’s Selfie-Time! Of course.

Michaela & I are invited for lunch by a couple who live in town. She has become warm friends with this family; over coffee, cheese, eggs & bread they swap affectionate updates. At one point, as context for a current situation, they allude to the era when Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path,” Peru’s Communist Party) & government forces battled throughout this region for control.

As usual, the fight for abstract nouns led to countless very real deaths; also as usual, the poorest suffered the most. No-one here escaped the impact. Eyes veil for a moment, sentences are half-finished & end with sighs. The moment passes. Now is now. Again smiles, & another round of coffee.

We drive home through splatters of rain. Lightening dances in the mountains.




    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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