Monthly Archives: May 2017


(We find ourselves, suddenly and surprisingly, back in Pennsylvania. But we still have stories to tell from Peru.)
Vilcashuaman is a small town that used to be 4 or 5 hours from Ayacucho and soon will be two and a half hours from Ayacucho. Right now it’s about three, as they are paving the road as we speak. Vilcashuaman (‘Sacred Falcon’ in Quechua) was an administrative center for the Incas and a crossroads of the Inca road system. It boasts a temple of the sun with a Catholic church built right on top of it and an ushnu, a 5-platform pyramid.

With the coming of the paved road, Vilcashuaman is readying itself for tourism – they have a glossy brochure for tourists, and the guy in the town office on the plaza says people come from all over the world. Still, when we walked around town, people would stare at us and often say “gringo!” – not an insult, just a statement of surprise. We found a place to stay that rented us two rooms at 25 and 20 soles (that’s about $8 and $6) – the more expensive one had a TV (neither had a bathroom).


This is homeschool in a $6 hotel room.


Zeke going local – breakfast of rice, chicken, and lentils – at the market in Vilcashuaman.

Off the gringo trail, one needs to get used to eating lots of soup and lots of rice. We ate at the market for breakfasts, bought bread, cheese, and avocado for lunches, and had suppers at a chifa (a chinese place). It was easy to go under budget in Vilcashuaman.


The mountain in the middle is Pillucho, the goal of our long hike.

We took one of our best long walks of the trip from Vilcashuaman. When we told the guy at the tourism office we liked to walk in the countryside, he took us at our word and told us of a place 10 or 12 kilometers away – Pillucho, where there are some chullpas (burial towers) left by the Chankas, historical enemies of the Incas. We couldn’t get much more information than a general gesture toward a nearby (totally impressive) mountain. And so we set off the next morning, armed with sandwiches, lots of water, and a little chocolate. We asked someone which road out of town to take, asked directions of folks along the way, walked a U in a great deep valley, and eventually found ourselves on the edge of the town, accompanied for a while by a guy who said he was the mayor (and he did know a lot about the town) and asked for a little donation for the work they had done clearing the site (later reading confirmed that it is the locals who cleared the path, and there is no admission charged).


On the way back. But the mountain Anna and I hiked up is right behind us.

We were told that the road to Pillucho has been accessible by car for less than ten years – before that, it was on the backs of burros, llamas, and people.


The town of Vilcashuaman from up near Pillucho.

We walked through a pasture with cattle and sheep to the base of the mountain. Zeke decided to stay put and I went around the side to scout, finding only incredible views in various directions.

When I came back Anna had headed up the steep part of the mountain, and so I followed. This got steep, but only scary for about 20 feet, getting past the rocky outcrop just before the top. On top, the mountain was flat and about 50 feet wide, with steep drops on either side, burned trees along the way, and a path going (thankfully) along the middle of the top.

IMG_2217Then, at the far end of the mountain, the chullpas.


This was one of those places that have a palpable energy to them, like the air itself carries meaning. It made us talk in near-whispers and move slowly and respectfully. Even without the towers, it would have been clear that this was special ground. There were stunning views in every direction. Despite the exposure there was no wind, but instead an intense feeling of calm. If there had been a guy there selling funeral plots, I would have bought one on the spot.

And so we headed back to find Leticia and Zeke and start the walk back. We passed several herds of cattle being driven (or in some cases, just seeming to walk on their own) one way or the other along the road back to Vilcashuaman. By the time we reached town we had walked somewhere between 13 and 15 miles and were ready to attack another big pile of rice.

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A girl turning 15 is a big deal in South America. When the family has the money to spend (and often even if they don’t), there is a party – a quinceanera – that can attain out-of-control-wedding-reception-like proportions. We have been threatening Anna with such a party, noting the most gaudy salones de eventos that we pass.


Quinceaneras are often held in a Salon de Eventos, a place like this. This one is in El Alto, Bolivia. (Source: pinterest)

She has taking this all gracefully, perhaps knowing that ultimately we would cave in to her wishes for a quiet day, a Leticia-cooked supper, and going out for dessert. And so it was, with the bonus of a visit from the South American-residing grandparents.


Birthday breakfast on the roof at the Park Hostel, Arequipa.


And dessert, downtown Arequipa.

Recent adventures in (in order) Ollantaytambo, near Maras, Salineras, and Vilcashuaman (all in Peru).


And a bonus: This one from May 2012, the last time Anna was in South America for her birthday. (This is above La Falda, Argentina.)

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Kraps are still funny.

IMG_2036IMG_1956IMG_2067Five years ago, it was Ayacucho we were trying to reach (from Huancavelica, to the north) when we had the crash that sent us back to Lima for treatment. We had read that Ayacucho had some kind of magic, largely hidden from foreigners by a few decades of Shining Path activity and by location and bad roads. The Shining Path is gone (or at least less active) and the roads are paved, and this time we were coming from the opposite direction (Andahuaylas), and it felt (to me, at least) that finally seeing Ayacucho was unfinished business.


Ayacucho is known for its retablos, boxes of varying sizes that open up to show 3D scenes ranging from the birth of Jesus to drunken revelers. Sometimes the shops are painted to look like them as well.


In the town of Quinua, they make these ceramic churches that people put on their roof. In Ollantaytambo, it’s bulls.

What used to be 10 to 12 hours between Andahuaylas and Ayacucho is now five. The driver, though, did the exact opposite of what Leticia and I both learned in driver’s ed – slow down before the curve, and accelerate out of it – instead accelerating until the last moment, when it became clear he couldn’t hold the curve at that speed, and then braking hard. This meant that any attempts at sleep had to be made while tensing your body to ensure not being thrown out of your seat.

IMG_1899IMG_2056We arrived just after Holy Week, which is such a big deal in Ayacucho that you can’t get a hotel room. There isĀ music in the streets, to me most notably in funeral processions, in which the casket is carried to the cemetery with a marching band following and traffic doing everything it can to get past at any opportunity. There is a certain energy there. But traffic is bad, though partly it seemed that way to us because there were roads closed and traffic diverted to run right in front of our hostel. The sidewalks are narrow and overflowing with people. And the air seemed pretty polluted.


Carnival rides left from Holy Week.

As I edit this a few weeks later, though, my memories are already changing. Much is made of the (at least) 33 churches in Ayacucho, and many of them have a beautiful energy about them. We followed a parade in with bands (of course) and guys on horseback driving donkeys with bundles of sticks loaded on their backs. One night students from all different departments of Universidad Alas Peruanas, one of the newer private universities with branches all over Peru, paraded through the plaza with marching bands (almost every department had one; those without seemed a bit downhearted in comparison with the sheer glee the others showed), floats (the civil engineers had a working drawbridge on the back of a pickup), and fireworks. From our priviledged spot on the balcony of a restaurant, we could also see beer and shots of something strong appearing from the backs of a few floats. All this was part of the celebration of the 477th anniversary of the founding of Ayacucho, after just a few days relief from the party that was Holy Week. Evidently there is a running of the bulls during Holy Week, too, and rock concerts and all-night dance parties.


Third Station of the Cross.

The best things about our stay were the Hotel Crillonesa, where Carlos and Alicia (and everyone else) treated us like family, my visit to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga, where I was welcomed warmly and listened to patiently, and our brief trip to Vilcashuaman, which I’ll relate in the next post.


These are the dedicated folks at the Universidad Nacional de San Cristobal de Huamanga that survived 4 hours of math in gringo-Spanish. And the gringo responsible for it.


And these are (some of) the good folks at Hotel Crillonesa, and the gringos they sheltered.

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