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PERU: Cusco and the Sacred Valley_2

4 May

Choco Museo

In the days leading up to Semana Santa (Easter), one of the things on the children’s mind was chocolate (and eggs)! A fabulous Easter egg hunt, such as the one we did annually at Deerhurst Resort or my friend Marie’s house, was not in the cards so we opted to go to the Cusco Choco Museo ( to learn about Peruvian cacao and make some yummy Easter treats.

Emile, Filou and I (together with our new travellingfriends; Rachel Greenley & family), signed up for a 2-hour workshop where we were promised to learn the chocolate making process from cacao bean to bar. Everyone was excited and when we entered the Choco Museo, we knew we were in the right place; sweet cacao smells and cups of cacao husk tea (to die for!), were awaiting us.

We first learned how cacao is harvested in the plantations. From there, we went onto roasting the cacao beans in a beautiful clay pot. When cooled down, we peeled the beans and got to grind them into a paste using a mortar and pestle. This was harder then it looked as strength and a consistent pressing and turning motion was needed to get to the paste stage (in a machine, beans are crushed for 24 hours to make them into refined chocolate!).


Emile roasting his cacao beans in a clay pot

Our cacao paste was then used to prepare the first known cacao drink, invented by the Mayas (a people from the northern regions of South-America). Our lovely Peruvian instructor explained to us that the Mayas prepared this chocolate beverage, using a secret ingredient. She continued to say that in order for us to re-create this sweet drink, she needed 3 volunteers.

Of course our boys, together with Rachel’s son Sean, were eager to sign up for this volunteer task. However, once they got the explanation of what was involved, only our brave little Filou was still game. She mentioned that 3 drops of blood were to be added to this drink. The Mayas collected this blood by piercing the bottom of their tongues.

We couldn’t believe it but Filou was still up for the task after the explanation! The instructor then showed him a pin and told him to put his mouth over a bow while sticking out his tongue. She kept such a straight face that we all thought it was for real…but when push came to shove she touched his tongue with a piece of soft thread…you should have seen him smile when he realized it was all a joke and he got a chocolate for being such a great sport! We all had a good laugh and finally got to taste the “non-bloody”, delicious coco drink!


Filou getting his tongue pierced for our “bloody” chocolate drink

Then, we received a large bowl of refined dark or milk chocolate and some molds to get our creativity going. We had such a fun time making a variety of tasty chocolates using spices such as mint, cinnamon, chili, sea salt etc. Also, there were different kinds of nuts and fun items on hand for the kids, such as crushed Oreo’s, M&M’s and coconut pieces.

We took our artisanal chocolates home – after they had cooled down in the fridge for about 1 hour and savoured our delicious creations for days to come (even after Easter).



The Easter spirit in Cusco came alive by the various street decorations (red flags), sales of many different kinds of Easter cookies in the markets and on the streets, as well as the procession of Señor de Los Temblores. On the Monday of Semana Santa, a procession followed this patron saint of Cusco (a black jesus on the cross who is believed to have limited the damage from an earthquake in 1650) through the local streets.

During this procession, there were such masses of people and police around Plaza de Armas that it took Anthony and Emile about 1 hour to fight through the crowds to get home (after music lesson). On Good Friday, the local tradition is for women to cook 12 different vegetarian/fish dishes. And with a beautiful church on every corner of the city and many spiritual people (mainly catholics), religion appears to be alive and well in Cusco.

black jesus_copy

Procession of Señor de Los Temblores, in streets of Cusco for Semana Santa (Easter)

On Easter Sunday, we fled the masses of tourists and took a colectivo to the beautiful town of Pisac.  This little village in the sacred valley on the Urubamba River is full of history and charm and boasts a large Sunday market.  After some nice strolling around, we met up with friends that live up in Gringo Ville; a lovely community of houses that are surrounded by ruins and mountains – what a beautiful spot!  We had a lovely bohemic day chatting with Brie & family and several of their friends & neighbours.

Speaking of friends, it was a real delight to have good friend Jeannette Lee and her partner Dave in town. They came to Cusco to trek the Salkantay Pass (apparently more beautiful and less touristy than the popular Inka trail) – and we ended up having a nice catch up over lunch. Afterwards, there was some fun jamming going on in San Blas Plaza all together – what a treat for the boys to learn from such a great friend and accomplished musician!


Jamming in San Blas Plaza with good friend Jeanette Lee, from Canada

Depacho ceremony; honouring Pachamama

Our new amiga Lainie suggested that we go for a hike in nature to give some love and appreciation to Mother Earth. Her friend Ceasar, led us up into the hills above the Sacsayhuaman Ruins (where a few days before the kids had enjoyed the natural rock slides).  The nature was beautiful, with hardly anyone around. We ended up at a place near a river with a large rock that had some impressive Inca carvings (huge Inca cross). Following some fun climbs and getting in touch with nature (we all had to take off our shoes and it was suggested we lie down in the grass, stare up into the sky and take in nature), Ceasar started the Despacho Ceremony.


Ceasar with traditional headpiece

In the Andean traditions of Peru, a Despacho is a ceremonial offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus (mountains).  It is the Inka’s believe that the land, earth and universe will take care of them if they take care of it. They consider a Despacho, an offering or fair exchange for what was taken from the land and to preserve their relationship with it (Ceasar urged us all to re-gain our relationship with nature as he believes many of the harms and illnesses nowadays are due to our lost connection with Mother Earth). Our Despacho focused on thanks for the bountiful offerings Mother Earth gives us each day, personal gratitude for the beauty in our lives and prayers for those in need that surround us.

We gathered in a circle around Ceasar and watched him make the preparations for the ceremony. He placed a wide variety of symbolic offerings on a large colourful blanket in front of him, all with great care and intention. There were sacred rocks, crystals, flowers, dried corn, coca leaves, strings, candies, wine etc.  He then arranged bundles of coca leaves (3 in each bundle with pointy leaves representing the mountains, and rounded leaves representing the earth) and handed a bundle to each one of us (we were there with 3 wonderful families).  We were then instructed to blow on the leaves, give a prayer and send thanks and good wishes into the universe.  Also, a type of flowery alcohol was poured into our hands three times, We were to smell the liquid and rub it over our entire bodies as a type of cleansing.



Filou receiving the “cleansing” liquid 


Ceasar blowing prayers onto the coca leaves

Ceasar then took our leaves back, dipped them in wine and arranged them, together with many beautiful flowers, candies and confetti, into an amazingly colourful ensemble. Once completed, the bundle was folded, tied up into a package and burnt ceremonially over a large fire. It is believed that the fire allows the spirits to “eat” the offerings in peace and that any heavy energy is turned into ash for Pachamama to consume and compost, transforming into fertile ground for new endeavours.


Prayer to the mountains


Depacho offering of flowers, candies, feathers and many good wishes for Pachamama (Mother Earth)



Final thanks and prayers with the offering package in hand, before it is being burnt and given to Pachamama and the mountain spirits

We all felt very privileged to have been part of this sacred ceremony; a wonderful practice of gratitude. Thanks to Lainie for organizing, Ceasar for leading the ceremony and Carrie for translating and explaining the interesting, local traditions & beliefs.

Filming a CSR documentary-commercial in Santa Teresa

A few days later, I was also grateful for Emile who found an interesting posting at his Spanish school. A film crew was looking for seven people to participate in the filming of a documentary-commercial for ScotiaBank. I was in the mood for doing something crazy so I signed up and, together with six 20-yr old cute backpackers (I was thankful they included my 40+ face), I set off to Santa Teresa. In true Peruvian style we spent the first day waiting (all day!!!) for people and lost luggage to arrive, and after a 6-hour bus ride we finally arrived at our destination.

Santa Teresa, a town deep into the mountains, on the edge of the Amazon, is situated 6.5 km from Machu Picchu and is at the axis of several alternative routes leading to the archeological site. In 1998, a landslide completely buried the town and destroyed that bridge that connected it to Machu Picchu and Cusco. Since then, the people of Santa Teresa have been a true example of what determination, hard work and a fighting spirit can do to resurrect a community.

It was because of the needs in this area that ScotiaBank ( – in cooperation with the humanitarian organization CARE ( – decided to focus on one aspect of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative “Bright Future” here. To celebrate the end of their 4-year commitment and successful launch of initiatives and entrepreneurship in this region, a documentary was commissioned.

The crew, a group of about 12-15 funky, hard-working, independent filmmakers from Lima (one was the spitting image of film star Johnny Depp), came together to make some magic happen. We were asked to bring at least 3 different outfits as several scenes were to be taped over the next couple of days.


Part of the crew at work


With sound technician, Mario Rivas

For example, we pretended to hike the Inka Trail (which in reality, was us walking up a steep set of stairs with heavy backpacks – 3 times!). We also acted that we were visiting a plantation and strolled the “coffee route”. It was here that we learned how the locals had turned their coffee beans into a sellable product and an educational, tourism opportunity. I was asked to do a scene in which I used a very large rock to grind coffee beans by hand. It was in the traditional way, that a stone was moved in in a back-and-forward motion to crush the roasted goodies. It was fun to do but harder then it looked!

Besides coffee, Santa Teresa also produces some delicious, organic honey and we got to witness the launch of the first honey store in town! The opening of this commercial outlet was inaugurated with the breaking of a bottle of honey liquor. In the honey scene, Sophie (another Dutch girl) and I, had to taste and buy honey (after 3 scenes of tastings, we had had our fair share of the sweet stuff!).


Scene in the honey shop, being filmed by director  Jorge Carmona


With Sophie van der Ploeg; honey shop scene

Lastly, the locals have learned to use their beautiful pieces of land into camping opportunities for trekkers. Our film crew set up 10 tents on one piece of land and mounted a “Camping” sign. We pretended to drink coffee by the campfire and unpack our backpacks. It was all a lot of fun!


The “film stars” from L to R: Diego, Camilla, Iris, Melissa, Kyle, Sophie & me

It was an amazing weekend of connections, Spanish practice, and fun activities such as salsa dancing. The crew took amazing care of us – feeding us local dishes such as Pachamanca (fried yuka root, sweet potatoes, lamb and chicken cooked underground) and Cuye (guinea pig).

The guinea pig, a true local delicacy, took us all by surprise. The animals were cooked over a large fire and served in its entirety (complete with head, arms, legs and fingernails!). We all wanted to be respectful of local traditions and gave it a try, with some of us liking it more then others (it tasted like a piece of salty rabbit!). Thanks to sweet Sugey, director Jorge Carmona and its amazing crew, we were all a very unique experience richer; one that I will certainly remember for a long time to come!


Our lunch; guinea pigs (a Peruvian delicacy) and chicken

And with that wonderful memory and many others, it is time for us to leave Peru. We say Hasta Luego to the lamas, the colourful people, lomo saltado and the numerous magnificent ruins. Our time here was one of many connections – Kim, Lainie, Brie, Rhoni, Raisa, Rachel, Mel & families – we thank you for your warm friendships.

Kim & Scott– you guys were the sweetest for throwing us a good-bye party! We hope our “Inka” paths with continue to cross. Now we’re set for a long bus ride and get into the beautiful country of Bolivia. Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo Perú!


Natural rock slides at Sacsayhuaman Ruins


Lainie, me, Kim & Rachel

Farewell Peru

At our Cusco Farewell party; beautiful Buen Viaje sign made by Kat and Kane Crawford

















16 Apr

No trip to Peru is quite complete without a visit to the magical, world-famous Inca site of Machu Picchu. From Cusco it’s still a bit of a trek to get there so we decided to break up our journey and explore the beautiful, historical town of Ollantaytambo (also locally referred to as Ollanta, probably as the city’s name is a real mouthful!).

We arrived in Ollanta by colectivo; these are comfortable mini-vans that regularly shuttle between towns and where for S/10 you get a seat on the bus that leaves when full. Go to Calle Pavitos and you’ll know you’re in the right place as everyone yells to get you on their vehicle!

Ollanta, a very small but utterly charming town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, dates back to the late 15th century.  The locals retreated to this town after the Spanish conquered Cusco and right away we could feel the town’s rich history. The entrance of Ollanta is the Plaza de Armes, which is surrounded by colonial buildings…It was here that we got our bearings, enjoyed a delicious coffee and saw a cool, vintage police car!


Vintage police car in Plaza de Armes, Ollantaytambo



Houses and doorways dating back to Inca time


We first headed to the Awamaki office ( to get details about our homestay for the night.  They directed us to the house of Petronilla Gonzales-Orue, her daughter Rene and adorable granddaughter Cynthia.

After warm bienvenidos & hugs from Petronilla and an excited hello from the four-legged friend of the house (the boys were crazy about this jumpy, white, fluffy dog), we left our overnight bags and headed for the hills.  Instead of visiting the very touristy Ollanta Ruins, we opted for the Pinkullyana hike. Walking the very steep and somewhat harrowing path that leads to thegorgeous Incan Storehouses and overlooks the town and main ruins was a real treat (and free!). From the top, we enjoyed spectacular views of the Urubamba Valley.



Pinkuyllyana Inca storehouses built out of fieldstones on the hills. Their location at high altitudes, where there is more wind and lower temperatures, defended their contents against decay


Enjoying the view of the Urubamba Valley and Ollanta Ruins

Refreshed, we returned to Petronella’s house, a dwelling located close to the town’s artisanal market where she sells water to tourists by day and hosts Awamaki volunteers and host families by night. During our lovely chat over dinner, we learned that her daughter Rene works with children in Chilka, a small community nearby. Being a teacher, she spoke slowly and articulated clearly which greatly enhanced our conversation with her in Spanish.


Petronella, our host mom in Ollanta, together with Awamaki  volunteer Francesca

The next morning, we were all a bit off our game as we didn’t sleep too well but nevertheless, we met Deeba of Awamaki (, in town for our Quechua community visit. We drove for about an hour, high up into the mountains to the rural community of Atacancha (the drive up through the breath-taking mountainous region was truly stunning!). Once there, we were greeted by a most colourfully dressed group of women (all sitting in a circle, some with young children peacefully sitting next to them or attached on their backs), in the process of spinning, weaving and/or colouring yarn. It was such a lovely sight!

We learned that Awamaki ( is a nonprofit social enterprise that works with these rural Andean women and their communities to create economic opportunities and improve social well-being. They do so by empowering these weavers with skills and training and assisting them to sell their products to international retailers of ethically-sourced handmade goods.


Office of social enterprise Awamaki

Also, Awamaki helps to connect global volunteers and tourists like us with these communities so that they can learn about the local culture and traditions. We love these kinds of interactions and information gathering and learned so many interesting facts…such as knowledge about the traditional dress of this indigenous, ethnic group of people.

The traditional dress worn by Quechua women today is a mixture of styles from pre-Spanish days and Spanish colonial peasant dress (lots of red colours!). They wear up to about 7 layers of skirt (it gets freezing cold in the mountains!) but traditionally with no socks or stockings underneath. Their standard footwear are ajotas; open sandals that are made out of recycled tires, which makes them cheap and durable. Over their many layers of sweaters, they wear a sleeveless chaleco, which is richly decorated with buttons.


Traditional dress of Quechua woman, complete with bowler-style hat, layers of skirt and chaleco

And the more their bowler-style headpiece is worn to the side, the more interested they are in finding a life partner (if they add flowers to the headpiece they are even more open to “romance”). The straps that hold up their headpieces are all intricately and uniquely knitted with beats – to portray individuality. All in all, such a unique and interesting style of dressing! I loved being surrounded by the abundance of colours and sweet, shy smiles of these Quechua women.


Amidst a group of spinning and weaving Quechua women


I was also very interested to learn about the tradition of weaving. This traditional handicraft is a crucial aspect of Peruvian culture and it sits at the very core of Quechua culture, shaping personal and regional identities and acting as a form of inter-regional communication (they vest their entire sense of personal identity in their occupation as a weaver!). This skill of weaving has been handed down from Inca times or earlier. The women use cotton or wool (from sheep, llamas, alpacas etc.), and create a multitude of natural dyes (from locally available plants, minerals and insects such as crushed beetles) to produce a myriad of colours and shades.

They naturally spin their fibers into a fine yarn using a drop-spindle. This very old tool consists of a wooden stick with a weight on one end. Weavers clasp the stick in their hands and give it a spin, letting it hang freely at is spins. The energy from the spinning motion of the spindle travels into the fiber, twisting the fibers together to form yarn. It was very cool to watch!


Spinning fibres with a drop-spindle

With the yarn, the women then weave and incorporate numerous patterns or pallay into their designs (they are used to tell a story and are woven in stripes centered in the cloth). These weavings that are hand dyed, hand spun and hand woven can only turn into little masterpieces. Upon leaving, we were happy to buy a few in support of these hardworking women and their communities.


Filou learning first hand the technique of back strap loom weaving, while making his own woven bracelet

After our return to Ollantaytambo and thank you’s to Deeba, we took the VistaDome of Peru Rail ( to Aguas Calientes (incredible ride through the mountains and parts of the famous Inka Trail).From many we heard that this town was not the most attractive or interesting place to be in, but at this point all we wanted was some chicken soup and a good bed to sleep in. To our surprise, Condor Palace Hostel ( provided just that – the best shower and bed we’ve encountered in Peru so far! So after a really good rest, we were all feeling better and ready to spend our long-awaited day at Machu Picchu.

As Machu Picchu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is technically protected by the United Nations. Peru’s government has also officially safeguarded Machu Picchu since 1981 under the organizations’ “Union de Gestion de Machu Picchu” (UGM), the “Instituto Nacional de Cultura” (INC), and “Instituto Nacional de Recursos Nacionales” (INRENA). It is believed though that at times these organizations do more harm then good to the protection of the site. As Paolo Greer, a well-known US historian and explorer of Machu Picchu told us first-hand during a lecture at the South-American Club; Machu Picchu in Peru is all about money and politics.

He might have a point as new rules announced, but yet to be put in place, are meant to address the issue of overcrowding at the site. “All foreign visitors to Machu Picchu will soon have to hire an official guide to enter the Inca Citadel and follow one of three predetermined routes through the complex and face time limits (2 hours) to keep the traffic going”, under the new rules by the Ministry of Culture in Cusco. Would these new rules actually protect the site, or allow more tourists and money to flow in? The debate is still ongoing but we wanted to play it safe and get in before these took effect! So the week before Easter (the beginning of high season), it was.

At 8:30 am, we were on the bus that took us from Aguas Calientes high up into the mountains to the famous Inca site. The suspense was building, as we rode higher and higher into the mountains and increasingly dense morning mist. Where was this magical city and how did explorers ever find it here?





What makes Machu Picchu so unique in my opinion is that is embedded within a dramatic landscape between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin (truly a HIDDEN treasure of a city, located so deeply within nature!).

Once we entered the site and saw the spectacular monument of “La Ciudadela” (the Citadel), we understood what all the hype was about and why Machu Picchu has been named one of the NEW 7 wonders of the world. What a magical archaeological complex, this most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization is!


“La Ciudadela” – the Citadel at Machu Picchu

MP Photo

The refined architecture of Machu Picchu, with is many beautiful structures and stone terraces, seemed to blend so perfectly with its stunning natural environment. We felt very privileged and blessed to take 4 hours to stroll, sit & ponder and take in this most sacred and truly spectacular setting on earth; one that is absolutely deserving of protection (and where people should not run around naked, but that’s a whole other story!).