The Intangibles of Isla Taquile

Take a boat tour to the Uros Islands out of Puno, and the package will likely include a visit to Isla Taquile (Taquile Island). Where? you ask. That’s what I said when I booked it. OK, I thought, as long as I get to see the reed islands.

Turns out, if I had done my research, I should also have looked forward as much to this visit because of a marvelous cultural tradition that earned it the rare UNESCO designation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity.

Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That’s quite a mouthful, a designation that I have trouble repeating without stumbling over the words.  To be serious, the idea behind it is to recognize an ‘intangible’ art that needs protection and faces pressure of disappearing without it. It involves a cultural heritage or tradition in which an entire community gets involved and goes further by recognizing the observance as a form of cultural identity. It could also include spaces where these activities take place. Examples are expressions of art, craft, music or dance; festivals; markets; rituals; language or other forms of oral heritage. To date, there are 166 such proclamations.

The approach to Taquile from the west was visually impressive because of extensive terracing, the legacy of the Incas who took the island by force in the 15th century. On de-boarding, my tour group was instructed to meet in the central plaza. It wasn’t effortless getting there, the middle of the island. The western side of Taquile challenges anyone who hasn’t gotten accustomed to the thin air. The stairs were a steep climb, though my lungs kept screaming Everest. No tour information I saw warns visitors who might have respiratory or cardiac issues. A local woman offered muña leaves to ease the strain. When I finally got to the plaza, I discovered that the world-famous woven products are displayed and sold in a community building facing the plaza.

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Taquile Island, with a population of only 2,000, was bestowed the UNESCO recognition for the exceptional quality of its hand-woven clothing and textiles. If the skill involved in making them were all that was considered, that would’ve been the end of UNESCO’s vote. Here, there’s more to it than that. All able-bodied Taquileños take part in the handicrafts. The women do the weaving, and the dyeing and spinning of wool. The men, including boys as young as 8 years, do the knitting.

Women and men both wear the chumpi, a wide colorful belt woven by the women with ancient patterns depicting annual events. Islanders have worn these belts even before the Spanish arrived.



The men knit chullos, the ear-flapped hats that are seen throughout the Andes. The ones the men here wear are distinctive for their extra long pointed tops that drape over the wearers’ heads down to their shoulders. The ones for sale have different designs than those worn by the island’s men.



It isn’t just these two famous garments that make what the Taquileños do so distinctive but that they make their entire wardrobe, a mix of Spanish peasant and traditional Andean clothing, and utilitarian textiles, the crafting of specific articles relegated along gender lines. And they wear them in their daily dress. Weaving requires skills that are passed down from one generation to the next and is an integral part of the island’s culture and social practices. Certain garments, like the chullo, coca-leaf purse or almilla (the woman’s shirt), even reveal the wearer’s marital status. It is for these reasons that UNESCO thought it important to recognize the weaving arts of Taquile and help preserve its way of life.

The pace seems unhurried on the island. There are no cars or roads, no running water. And with no electricity, there are no cell phones or other powered devices or appliances. After our group gathered in the square, we were taken to an outdoor dining area where we were served a prix fixe lunch.

Quinoa soup

Quinoa soup

Fried trout

Fried trout

Trout omelette

Vegetable omelette

Lunch was followed by a harvest dance performed by men, women and children.

Harvest dance

Harvest dance

The walk back to the boat took a different route, one on the other side of the island. It was noticeably longer than the arrival, more gently sloping but downhill. With no need to catch my breath, it gave me the opportunity to appreciate this beautiful place, set in the sea-like Titicaca, above it a deep blue sky that you find only at high altitudes. The peace and solitude are intangible, like the weaving culture. Two hours after boarding the boat, I was back in Puno, thankful that I had the chance to experience an island that hadn’t entered my mind at all before taking the tour. Wonderful surprises like that thankfully happen every now and then.



Night and Day, A Tale of Two Peruvian Bus Companies

I walked up to the Transportes del Carpio bus counter in Arequipa to pick up pre-paid roundtrip tickets to Aplao, but it wasn’t going to be as simple as that. Not by a long shot. The biggest problem was I didn’t speak Spanish. The second was the clerk didn’t speak English. The bus line, after all, serves locals. The result of the ensuing miscommunication and misunderstanding was that I wound up having to purchase additional tickets for my wife and me to make sure we got to Aplao. In the end, everything got straightened out with the help of our tour company, but this experience and one that followed highlighted a basic fact about bus travel in Peru. There is a big difference among bus companies.

Take the bus to Aplao. By modern standards, it was antiquated—cramped, the pitch and width gave airline economy seats a run for their money, the windows rattled in their frames. The upholstery was worn, curtains dingy. No air-conditioning, no bathroom. If nature calls, you have to wait until the bus arrives at one of its planned stops. And an American adventure movie was played (too loudly) on a single CRT monitor in English with French subtitles. This was supposed to entertain locals?

The next bus my wife and I took was one from Arequipa to Puno, a popular route for tourists. We boarded at the very same Terminal Terrapuerto in Arequipa as above, but the bus line was Cruz del Sur, a company that provides a higher class of service and considered possibly the best bus company in Peru. Though we already had tickets in hand, it was clear from the beginning that the travel experience was going to be much different. The agents all spoke English, they collected our baggage at the counter and there was a special waiting room for customers. There were even restrooms in the waiting room, while ‘outside’ you had to use the public facilities at a cost of 50 céntimos per person.

The bus was much more comfortable than del Carpio’s. The dimensions around and in front of the seats were more generous, it was quieter, there was an onboard toilet. And a meal was served, although it was nothing to write home about. The seats were more modern, comfortable. A blanket. Your own entertainment system.

Cruz del Sur (image from

The difference was like night and day.

I’m not out to diss del Carpio, only to make a point. If modern amenities are important, you’ll pay more for the privilege.

Islas Uros, What Price Commercialism?

It’s like walking on a waterbed. Unnerving at first, there is a definite squishy firmness under your feet as you walk on an island made entirely of totora reeds, so thick that there is no danger of falling through into Lake Titicaca. Even so, the feeling that water is underfoot never leaves you.

Lake Titicaca is an incredibly large lake at over 3,200 square miles (8,300 km2). It is the mythical birthplace of the Incas, the progeny of Manco Capac and Mama Occllo, and straddles both Peru and Bolivia.

Lake Titicaca (image from wikipedia).

The Uros people have been living on these floating islands for centuries. It’s thought that the idea arose because the Uros wanted to escape marauding enemies like the Incas, which explains why there are still watchtowers on many of the ninety or so islands. This strategy couldn’t have been successful because the Uros were subjugated anyway. Really, how can you escape a determined army by isolating yourself on a tiny island? But their culture and way of life endured.

Historical necessity aside, these islands are really remarkable. Everything is made of totora reeds, including the homes that sit on them, as many as ten on an island, and the double hull boats that have an uncanny DNA to those of ancient Egypt and Easter Island. The reeds grow abundantly in the lake. Because most of the buoyant reeds are underwater, they rot quickly, so there is the almost perpetual need to overlay existing layers with a new one, as often as every two weeks.

Rotting reed foundation needs to be topped with new reeds often.

Rotting reed foundation needs to be topped with a new layer often.

I made arrangements to visit the islands through my hotel, a tour that also included a stop at Taquile Island, but you can walk right up to the boat launch area in Puno and purchase tickets. You can also arrange for an overnight homestay. The Uros have been receiving tourists for a while now. It has gotten to the point where it seems there is inordinate reliance on visitors to supplement their income. Another way to put it is that tourism has changed their traditional way of life, for better or worse. Tourists come in droves, transported by commercially-owned motor boats or community-owned ferries to one of the participating islands.

I was bothered by aspects of the experience. It had a certain staginess and smacked of commercialism. It started, in our case, with just the resident women waving at the incoming boat, all in a line along the dock. Later, after a presentation by the men on how the islands are constructed, each lady selected a group of tourists to come into her home where she asked each guest his or her name, where each was from, did some chit-chatting, hoping to establish a ‘connection’ before the Big Sell. This is when the hostess displayed her wares for sale, woven tapestries, trinkets, dolls, even little model boats made from the reed. When you’re a captive audience, it’s hard to say ‘no.’

There was the opportunity to take a ride on one of the marvelous boats, in our case, a catamaran flanked by two traditional double-hulled boats. But the privilege cost each of us S/10, which wasn’t voluntary.


Before the tour moved on to Taquile Island, the passenger boat made one more stop for tourists to get an official Uros Islands passport stamp. I was surprised (or maybe not) that it cost S/1.

Granted the amounts I’m talking about didn’t break the bank. At the going exchange rate of $1 = S/3.4, we’re talking peanuts here. Should I have just sucked it up? Maybe so. It’s just the idea of having to shell out for every little thing through pressure, guilt or obligation.

Let’s be clear though that tourists are the ones who created the demand, who are intruding on the lives of the Uros. Who can blame the latter for improving their lot? Ironically, there’s no doubt that the ability of the Uros to lead a traditional way of life has been changed, maybe forever. There are families who still refuse to be bothered by tourists. They are fending off the new ‘Incas.’


Arequipa, the White City, the Silent Stones

Rooms almost glow from within. Light reflects softly from surfaces as if they’re white-washed, made of ivory-tinted, slightly purplish stone, called sillar. Their whiteness the Spanish invaders admired so much that they made building material out of it. And why not? This rhyolitic rock is plentiful in the Western Andes where volcanic pyroclastic flows deposited countless acres of them long ago. This is a city surrounded by volcanoes, dominated by El Misti, a perfectly shaped cone that towers above the skyline at almost 20,000 feet. Arequipa, La Ciudad Blanca. The beloved city of Mario Vargas Llosa.

I admired sillar’s stark beauty. It is a unique building stone, not only for its light color but its pockmarked texture full of holes left behind millions of years ago by escaping Pleistocene gas bubbles. Its high ash content readily rubbed off on my finger. The thickly applied lime mortar is slightly darker than the stone, making for a pleasing, almost rustic pattern. It seems as if all of Arequipa’s Old Town is built of sillar.


I was struck by a unique architectural feature of buildings made with sillar, the vaulted ceiling. In my hotel room, Zig Zag Restaurant, in many buildings, these high barreled spaces made interior spaces seem to soar. This design may have more to do with structural integrity against earthquakes than aesthetics, but it was striking nevertheless.

Many devastating quakes have struck Arequipa. The Cathedral was destroyed several times, not only by earthquakes but fire and volcanic explosions. It was rebuilt or repaired after each event, the last time in 2001 after an 8.1 temblor struck the western Andes. The basilica is the ultimate monument to sillar.


The appellation of White City has another, darker meaning, one repeated to me by a docent at an archaeological museum. To many, the term symbolizes the Spanish racist attitude toward the darker indigenous peoples. Arequipa became the most powerful seat of Spanish power in the region, complete with administration, culture and religious infrastructure, including La Catedral that spans an entire side of the Plaza de Armas. It was also a fervent supporter of the Spanish crown. With consolidation came discrimination.

Sillar continues to be made today. In fact, you can take a tour to one of the quarries outside of town to see how blocks are made with sledge hammer and chisel. Sillar, the foundation of Arequipa, remains mute to the White City’s past, a silent witness and unwitting participant in Spanish conquest. And it’s a most beautiful stone.

Maracuya, Granadilla. I’ll Call It Passionfruit.

I have had my share of passionfruit the last several years. I consider it my absolute favorite exotic fruit whose incredibly heady aroma can fill a room with its unmistakable scent of the tropics. My frenzy started out in New Zealand where the fruit has a dark, purplish rind and crunchy seeds not unlike pomegranate. One time, my daughter bought a whole bag of them. It disappeared in no time. The same variety was available in Australia, where it was served as a fruit for breakfast at a resort I was staying at in Torquay. My wife and I ate several each morning. One of the servers noticed and was kind enough to see us off to Melbourne with several more to take with us.

I’ve also had passionfruit in Hawaii, where it’s called liliko’i. The most common form is oblong, has a yellow rind and tart and sweet fleshy seeds. The islands grow other varities, too, which I’ve sampled.

But I hadn’t expected it in Peru, at least not in the quantity that was available there. The first I saw it was at an ecolodge in the Amazon basin where the fruit also was served for breakfast but in a basket with other fruits. It was yellowish to orangish, globular and about the size of a medium apple.


My wife asked a server what it was. Maracuya. Passionfruit. We split it open from its styrofoam-soft rind and beheld a huge bunch of seeds (see top image). The flavor was more mild than New Zealand fruit and doesn’t have its intense aroma, but the seeds were less crunchy and, as I said, there was a humongous amount of them. If you’ve never had raw passionfruit seeds, think of a mass of slimy, slippery polliwog eggs with a taste of the tropics such as you’ve never experienced. You guessed it, we had maracuya for breakfast everyday we were at the ecolodge and whenever it was available at all our subsequent hotels throughout Peru. Talk about obsession.

We also were told that it’s really called granadilla although I’ve never been able to find anything on the internet that distinguished it from maracuya. I’ll just call it passionfruit.

Passionfruit is famously exploited in desserts and drinks. The Kiwis and Aussies have their pavlova, the Hawaiians their plethora of liliko’i desserts (including shave ice), the Peruvians their maracuya sours. I like it just as well straight from the rind, juices dripping from my fingers, seeds crunching between my teeth and perfume overwhelming my olfactories.

Who’s Minding the Archaeological Store? The Toro Muerto Petroglyphs

Julio Zuñiga Medina is troubled. Toro Muerto’s archaeological treasures that are represented by roughly 5,000 ancient petroglyphs, presumed to be of the Wari people, are not being protected by the Peruvian authorities, it seems. It is possible to wander over 5 km in this desert area unsupervised and unwatched, even though vandals have defaced and removed rocks. All this deeply bothers Julio who bemoans the fact that very few Peruvians seem to care, only tourists who come here to see the ancient artwork.

With his wife Durby, Julio Medina owns a lodge by the Majes-Colca River, the first in the valley to accommodate guests. River rafting is a favorite sport around here. The shrimp caught in the river is the stuff of gourmet legend, which Durby will prepare beautifully, like all meals at the lodge.

majes river shrimp

Julio is a man of many interests. He makes his own wine from grapes that are crushed the old-fashioned way, by stomping. He likewise makes pisco in a distiller he fashioned himself, aging the brandy in huge earthenware jars that were manufactured in 1734 and inherited from his grandparents. He used to be a bullfighter in the very ring that sits on his property, complete with viewing stands. He revels in the fact that the Milky Way can be seen from his backyard. But, most of all, he talks lovingly about the valley that has long claimed his affection. At this stage in his life, he says, he doubts he will ever leave, even though his children live in six countries around the world. In short, Julio is deeply rooted in the land, a native Peruvian of Spanish ancestors who came here generations ago.

Julio loves to take his guests up to Toro Muerto. He has taken a personal interest in the petroglyphs, having studied them for years, catalogued them, and even has his own interpretations of what the enigmatic symbols on the rocks mean. He would ask both my wife and me for our own, which was like asking us to decipher Aymara. At one of them though, I thought I saw the dawning of our solar system. When he said it meant creation to him, for a fleeting moment I thought I had broken the Enigma Code. Each rock with at least one petroglyph is numbered, courtesy of an unknown (to me) entity but which Julio uses to cross-reference his own written material that he brings with him to share.

We ask him the obvious question of whether he’s ever going to publish his writings. Even if Julio’s been asked this many times before, he replies that it will be up to his family after he’s gone. For now, he sees it as his mission to talk one-on-one to as many people as will listen about the stories on the rocks, the largest collection of petroglyphs in the world. Will enough people care to save them from thoughtless violation? The government should at least do more than just collect admission fees. Nothing would please Julio more.

Did the Incas Build All of Machu Picchu?

To many, Machu Picchu is the poster child of the Incan civilization. Like an ancient lost city, the ruins lay hidden from the world for centuries, even the Spanish invaders, until they were ‘revealed’ to archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet, for all its majesty, Machu Picchu isn’t the only impressive legacy of the Incas. I visited several ruins in Peru: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Qoriqancha—all breathtaking in their own way.

But, there are anomalies at Peru’s ancient archaeological sites. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that there are three distinct, very different styles of stone construction, easy to overlook or ignore if you’re in a hurry. The conventional wisdom is that the Incas did all the masonry during their brief reign in the 13th-16th centuries. When the Spanish invaders arrived, everything was already in place. They made assumptions and recorded what they saw. Without a written language, the Incas cannot tell their own story.

Is there more than meets the eye?

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How to Make the Perfect Pisco Sour

Pisco sours are an essential experience in Peru. No culinary trip would be complete without imbibing at least a gallon of the stuff (so I hear) in the land that learned how to distill the grape. Chile also produces pisco. Unlike cognac that is aged at least two years in oak barrels, Peruvian pisco must be aged in neutral containers, such as stainless steel, so as not to pick up flavors or colors and therefore makes it a terrific cocktail ingredient. The brandy drunk neat tastes of the tropics and warm spices and may or may not be aromatic, depending on the source grape.

I did my part in sampling sours, including a stunning one made with maracuya, a fruit from the passionfruit family, instead of lime. There were also outstanding pisco cocktails served at the Pisco Museum in Arequipa (also one in Cusco). Our bartender spent quite a bit of time explaining to my wife and me the differences between pisco styles. Even our lodge host in Majes Colca Canyon, who makes his own pisco in a distillery that he fashioned from scratch, made my wife and me a sour that he served with dinner. In short, pisco sour might be considered the national cocktail.


Piconaso (Museo de Pisco, Arequipa)

Capitan, Chilcana pisco cocktails

Capitan, Chilcana pisco cocktails (Museo de Pisco, Arequipa)

But, it wasn’t until I got to Lima that I, as well as others who took the Lima Gourmet Company food tour (and one that I highly recommend), was shown how to make the perfect pisco sour at the Embarcadero 41 Fusion Restaurant, where I also learned how to make ceviché. Making the ‘perfect’ anything is obviously a matter of taste and so I took instruction with that in mind. The twist that the bartender demonstrated was to only pour a portion of the sour into a glass, then to swirl the shaker to bloom the foam before pouring the rest. She also suggested using a non-aromatic pisco, such as Quebranta.

Pisco Sour

3 oz. Quebranta pisco
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. lime juice
1 egg white
1 cup ice cubes
Angostura bitters

Place all ingredients except bitters in a shaker and shake vigorously for at least 10 seconds. Using a strainer, pour contents into two white wine glasses until about two-thirds full. Swirl the shaker for a few seconds, then pour the remaining mixture carefully from a about a foot (3o cm) above each glass waterfall-style. Shake a few drops of bitters on top. Serve.

Other popular pisco drinks are Chilcana and Capitan. Like I said, you could drink a gallon of the stuff. I almost made it.

A Case for Peru’s Culinary Melting Pot: Sillao

Peru has many surprises. It contains 84 of the world’s 103 biomes, has perhaps more archaeologically significant sites than any other country, and enjoys a food culture that is second to none in South America. The biggest surprise for me, despite its proximity to the equator, was the country’s sometimes bone-chilling climate, due mainly to the Andean mountain range that thrusts many cities and towns up to some of the highest altitudes on earth. And there is another surprise, not nearly so grandiose, but a cultural footnote whose importance didn’t set in until I saw it with my own eyes.

Chinese restaurants. Chifas. Everywhere.

It seems that every town in the U.S. has a Chinese restaurant, but it could equally be true of Peru. Peruvians love their chifas. And what more quintessential condiment of Chinese (Cantonese) cooking than soy sauce? Peruvians call it sillao (pronounced see-yao).


Sillao (siyau), image from

Fried rice is big in Peru. Really big. Yes, the humble fried rice that many U.S. Americans substitute for steamed white rice at their own chifas. It has even found its way beyond the confines of Chinese establishments to become a mainstream item at many local restaurants alongside other Peruvian favorites. They call it arroz chaufa, or simply chaufa. Made with leftover rice, meat, vegetables and aromatics (including green onions and ginger), its main flavoring ingredient is sillao. I had my first taste at Lima Airport when I arrived in Peru. I had my second only hours later when it was served as a snack, wrapped in a bijao leaf, on the bus that picked my wife and me up in the Amazon rainforest. I ate it again almost two weeks later, in Arequipa at Chifa Mandarin.

Chaufa, China Wok, Lima Airport

Chaufa, China Wok, Lima Airport

Chaufa, Puerto Maldonado

Chaufa, Puerto Maldonado

Chaufa especial, Chifa Mandarin, Arequipa

Chaufa especial, Chifa Mandarin, Arequipa

A Peruvian favorite, as popular as chaufa, is lomo saltado. It’s a dish that consists of marinated beef steak strips, red onion, tomato and other ingredients. What makes it distinctive is that it’s typically stir-fried in a wok. Our homestay hostess in Chinchero used one in her kitchen when she prepared saltado. In fact, saltado means stir fry. Here again, sillao plays a prominent role in flavoring the dish. Peruvians add their own twist by adding aji amarillo (a spicy yellow chile) and serving lomo saltado with fried potatoes alongside steamed white rice. Chicken can also be used instead of beef (pollo saltado).

Lomo saltado, Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Lomo saltado, Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Pollo saltado, home stay, Chinchero

Pollo saltado, home stay, Chinchero

Lomo saltado, Mojsa Restaurant, Puno

Lomo saltado, Mojsa Restaurant, Puno

Last, but not least, is pollo a la brasa, the famous Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Whole chickens are marinated in sillao, lime juice, herbs and spices before being grilled over wood to crispy, blackened perfection.

Pollo a la brasa, Los Toldos, Cusco

Pollo a la brasa, Los Toldos, Cusco

Pollo a la brasa, El Pio Pio, Arequipa

Pollo a la brasa, El Pio Pio, Arequipa

Sillao is used in several other Peruvian recipe applications. The large influx of Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century has had a significant effect on Peruvian cuisine, as much as influences from indigenous peoples and immigrants from Africa, Europe and Japan. This happy marriage of ethnic inspirations, called comida criollo, is what Peruvians call their own, a cuisine as broad, exciting and complex as the country itself. Sillao is only one contribution.

The Astonishing Salt Ponds of the Incas: Las Salineras de Maras

A guided tour from the Sacred Valley to Chinchero or Cusco usually stops in the community of Maras. In one of the great hydraulic engineering projects of the world, the Incas built an intricate system of 5,000 salt ponds fed by small aqueducts of salt-laden spring water, a remnant of ancient seas that were trapped high and dry by the geologic uplifts millions of years ago. Water flow is regulated periodically to allow for evaporation so that the Maras families, who belong to a cooperative, can mine the salt for sale. Mining rights are only passed down to family members.

Small aqueduct that feeds the salt ponds

Small aqueduct that feeds the salt ponds

To get an appreciation for the total size of the fields, you can gaze at them from an overlook before taking the narrow, dusty road down to the parking lot.


Salt ponds at Las Salineras (click to enlarge)

When I arrived, the lot was packed with cars and buses. To get my first up-close look at the ponds, I first had to wend my way through stalls lining both sides of the narrow street that is the only access. The salt pans, varying in color from white to pink to tan, were as blinding as snow. This high contrast in full sun made it difficult to take good pictures. There were paths along the ponds where I could stoop down and taste the salt. The vast majority of tourists only linger at the closest ponds before leaving. To get to the other end would take a good deal of time, I suspect. The Incas were masters of terracing, and Las Salineras is no exception.

Salt here, much cheaper than buying it in Cusco, is of high quality.