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.



“Cultural Patrimony” — & a child with a flute

25 December 2016 – Everything, of course, flows from the imposing, 18th-c. Cathedral.

San Francisco de Asís is the still centre of it all: spiritual purpose; spiritual, artistic & cultural resource; the heart-beat that drives Padre Miguel’s campaign to help people value, truly connect with, their own heritage.

Catedral San Francisco de Asís

But this is where you feel the connection being made — in the cheerful, very approachable little Cultural Centre & Museum, a few blocks away on Jirón 25 de Diciembre, whose front reception room doubles as a restoration workshop for objects that can be hand-carried from the Cathedral.

Centro Cultural y Museo, Ayaviri


Michaela performs introductions; I talk first with Oscár, a seasoned art restorer & consultant in the field, while his younger colleague, Jesús, continues to work quietly in the background.

“You came here a couple of years ago ‘for two months,’ ” I tease him. “What happened? Lose track of time?”

Penny, Jesús (background) & Oscár in the restoration studio of the Centro Cultural


He grins, shrugs his hands into a there-it-is gesture. “I feel a very strong social motivation,” he says. “For me, this work is all about taking pride in our past, respecting our past. Everyone is welcome, people come in, they see us loving these objects, bringing them back to life, they see the results in the museum, it can open another dimension in their lives, a very special space …  Young people especially,” he adds. “They come in, they’re not intimidated, they feel this is part of their lives.”

He is silent a moment. He draws breath. “We have to do something! Here in Puno Region, there is so little protection for this culture.”

And so, in this former mining-company office, now owned by the Prelature of Ayaviri, they are doing their something.

Jesús still bends over his work …


Jesùs at work


and Oscár leads me on a quick tour of the Museum, which houses restored objects that have no role in the present-day liturgy, most of them from the 17th & 18th centuries.

The first room is devoted to sculptures, including — and I chose it with today’s date in mind — a Nativity scene from the early 18th century.

Nativity scene early 18th c.

Unusual, says Oscár, because the figures are near life-size. Unusual too, I think, for the very tender treatment of the animals.

detail, Nativity scene

Next room, paintings. Almost all the paintings & sculptures are identified as anonymous works of the Cuzceño school, including this Señor de los Tremblores (late 17th-c., painted on linen).

Señor de los Tremblores

Now a room devoted to silver and liturgical objects. I am embarrassed to have taken no specifics about two of these wonderful items. Neither this silver plate …

silver offertory plate

nor this hand-stitched case, probably for Mass linens, surely the work of patient, skilled nuns?

linens case, hand-stitched

But I do know something about this portable wooden altar (retablo de campaña).

It is early 18th c., and, unlike almost all the other items in the collection, comes from elsewhere. In this case, from the church in Orurillo — which I am about to visit in a motorcycle day trip with Michaela.

portable alar, early 18th c.

The last room is devoted to regional archaeology — everything from snakes coiled in protective fluids in jars (“Eeeuwww!” go the schoolkids, delighted) to pottery. This vessel probably dates from the Qaluyo culture, which pre-dated not only the Inca but the Pukara before them.

vessel, probably Qaluyo culture

Next to all that, a children’s corner, with child-sized tables & art supplies, where young visitors can share their impressions, enter the artistic dialogue.

Could I be more pretentious?

How about… where the kids can grab a crayon & have some fun.

kids' corner

Speaking of fun. We follow our ears to the tiny central patio, drawn by giggles & chatter, to discover  a handful  of kids has wandered in — not part of an official school visit, just ’cause they want to.

One little boy clutches a flute. Oscár asks him to play.

child plays his flute in the patio

One of those plaintive Andean flute-strains fills the air. (Why do I think of the tremolo of a loon’s call?)

I am so touched. The children feel welcome, and want to visit. They hang around. They connect.

Cultural patrimony in action, I think. Exactly why Padre Miguel, Oscár and the others put in all these hours, day after day, doing what they do.


The team is physically in their little corner of the altiplano, but the Internet touches all corners. (Note: these three sites are all in Spanish.)

  • For more about the history & architecture of the Cathedral, click on this Enciclopedia entry;
  • for an appreciation of the work that is starting to happen, including some reference to the restoration workshop, click on this Sodalicio report;
  • and for a visit by Telecultura Ayaviri to the workshop, check out YouTube !






248 Km (& 1 Puppy) Later …

23 December 2016 – My last post got las motocholitas aboard the BMW, its snout pointed toward the maze of downtown streets that will eventually lead us to the highway. Michaela is in superb control of the machine; I am uneasily aware that from now on, it’s up to me to get the biking gear on & off my body and my body on & off the motorcycle, all by myself, just like a Big, Brave Girl.

Finally we’re free of the city. We hit Highway 3S, and there’s nothing between us and Ayaviri but 248 km of top-of-the-world open road.

I don’t have to worry about anything now but mirroring Michaela’s body angles with my own. I am free to exult in this fiercely glorious play of sweeping mountain ranges & brooding sky. My brain makes a few comparisons — highlands of Iceland? the Canadian high arctic? — and then settles down to enjoy the Peruvian here & now.

“We’ll stop for lunch,” says Michaela eventually, her voice popping into my ear via our headsets. “This is my favourite place, if I’m not powering right through, I always stop here.”

Ocobamba is just a village strung along the highway. Dogs & pedestrians take their chances as huge trucks roll on through, doing the Cusco-Puno run.

Ocobamba, along Highway 3S

I admire the wall art — !! I’ve been dying to see some up close for the last hour or so!! — and learn that it’s almost exclusively political sloganeering, left over from the 2016 national elections.

I join dogs & other humans in judging the moment, and dive back across the highway to join Michaela under the fronds of the open-air restaurant.

the must-stop restaurant, Ocobamba

Fried trout, potatoes, rice & salad for both of us, plus a generous selection of herbal teas. I snag Clove & Cinnamon, Michaela chooses Camomile; when the trout arrives we both drop slivers under the table for a very persistent, astoundingly noisy, kitten.

There is also a puppy lolloping about, but he is otherwise occupied.

puppy vs coat hanger, Ocobamba

Well … somebody has to show that coat hanger who’s boss!

Back on the bike (yes! I make it!), on we go, and eventually here we are, in Ayaviri.

It is the capital of Melgar Province in Puno District; population 25,000 or so (I slightly nudge the 2007 census); market town for an important livestock region (beef & dairy cattle, sheep); at 3,907 m./12,820 ft., it is some 500 m/1,670 ft higher than Cusco — and, one must admit, it is not particularly attractive.

Raw-boned, scoured-looking, functional.

Ayaviri, Puno District

Though, and you get a glimpse in the image above, with some very colourful sidewalks.

Ayaviri, Puno District

Colour, too, in the market, its stalls heaped with fruit & vegetables from other parts of the country and elsewhere in South America, as well as local cheese, butter & yogurt. (Michaela gives me a quick smirk — I’m interrupting her contemplation of this apricot versus that one.)

Michaela chooses fruit...

Colour in the mini-taxis …

mini-taxi by Plaza de Armas, Ayaviri

less so in local dress, seen here in Plaza de Armas — though up close, some of the women’s traditional woven mantas (ponchos) are vivid in their intricacy.

Plaza de Armas, Ayaviri, Puno District

All this is fine, and I am ready to eat, ready for bed, but I am also so eager to wake up again & start meeting the people, seeing the work, that has drawn me to this place.

It is, of course, centred around the Cathedral of San Francisco of Asisi, whose towers poke above the level of surrounding shops…

San Francisco de Asis, from Jiron 25 de diciembre

and whose majestic 18th-c. bulk commands the Plaza, and indeed, the city.

San Francisco de Asis Ayaviri

Tomorrow, I tell myself; tomorrow.






Las Motocholitas Take to the Road

20 December 2016 – I’m home again in Toronto, but that has no relevance. You & I, we shall now hop aboard the historical present tense & zoom our way back to Cusco, Peru, early December.

I am pretty well over my bout of altitude sickness (thank you Ray, Michaela, Ada & others for your care); I am all packed up for the 248 km. ride to Ayaviri (capital of Melgar Province, Region of Puno); I am in Calle Saphi, leaning casually against a 1200-cc BMW.

I am ready to roll.


And I am such a fake!

I not only don’t know how to drive any size of motorcycle, I don’t even know how to dress myself for the journey.

This is very impressive biking gear — Kevlar, leather, the works — but it is borrowed, and it takes 3 people to tussle me into it.

Micgaela, L; Ada; Penny

That’s Michaela on the left, owner & driver of the BMW; then Winnipeg-born Ada, a mainstay of Peru Moto Tours and generous source of the borrowed gear I am wearing for the trip.

These cool shots of me all rigged out to travel are the triumphant results of other people’s hard work.

I obediently proferred limbs when asked; they aligned limbs with protective clothing, and tugged. I think I giggled a lot. I am only grateful nobody filmed it for You Tube, I’d never live it down.

But Wait! — as the infomercials say — There’s more!

Next I have to mount that very enormous motorcycle. Behind Michaela. Swinging my leg over a U-shaped berm of packed clothing that, yes, will support my back, but also presents a major hurdle for the mounting process.

“You just swing your leg over, like mounting a horse,” says Ray. “You’ve ridden a horse, right?” he adds, hopefully. I dash his hopes.

So it takes another team-effort project to heave me aboard.

But I am finally in place, and off we go.

La Sociedad Curvas Peligrosas de Motocholitas — roughly, “The Dangerous Curves Society of Biker Babes” — heads for the highway.

Michaela in front; me behind

In the days to come, I will visit churches & cathedral of great age and varying states of restoration; I will meet skilled, stubborn Peruvians dedicated to that heritage for a whole range of religious, social & economic reasons; I will exult in fierce, minimalist, top-of-the-world landscapes, & catch the pungent odour of eucalyptus in my throat; I will eat in local markets with the group & one evening soak with them in a volcanic hot spring; I will see sheep, llama & alpaca, even the elusive & undomesticated vicuña; I will pass lakes dotted with flamingoes.

And, late one afternoon, in a combi-van rattling through the Colca Valley, I will become the owner of a rare species — no, a unique example — of owl.

my origami owl, thank you Jaime

The origami owl. Mí búho de papiroflexia. Which I shall call Gallo (Rooster).

But all these wonderful moments are yet to come.



    "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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