Jungle Gym— a Peruvian Party Workout

Escape to Peru for dancing, debauchery, and meeting the Angels of the Amazon— intrepid teens determined to defend our planet.

Peru stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
envelope flap
Driving through the mountains of Peru
My problem with turning 40 wasn’t the number itself. It wasn’t the black balloons, or the Botox— or running along the gerbil wheel of work, child shuttling, and laundry-sorting amidst the often-unremarkable days of middle age. No. It was the realization of how time surreptitiously separates us from our
back of envelope
Driving through the mountains of Peru
My problem with turning 40 wasn’t the number itself. It wasn’t the black balloons, or the Botox— or running along the gerbil wheel of work, child shuttling, and laundry-sorting amidst the often-unremarkable days of middle age.

No. It was the realization of how time surreptitiously separates us from our younger, budding selves— the people we once were when the world felt mystifying and dramatic and exciting; when our less inhibited imaginations dared to dream up weird and wonderful fantasies; when we took more reckless chances and never bothered to ask what’s the worst thing that could happen? because we simply didn’t care what the answer was.

The problem was by the time we reached our forties, many of us could barely remember the freedom we once had to explore and invent new possibilities for our lives. The problem was that our unwitting surrender to a life of mediocrity could lead to existential life crises that even sports cars and boob-jobs couldn’t fix.

THAT was the problem with turning 40.

Therefore, in a zealous attempt to commandeer my destiny, here I am. Creeping through the back alleys of a village in the Peruvian Andes, searching for the secret entrance to an after-hours party at a post-festival frat party with a woman named Dolly— Peru’s most unconventional tour guide. So far ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a question that’s crossed my mind more than once.

The idea for this unorthodox adventure hatched a few months ago at my 40th birthday party. My friend Connie had recently been trekking through the Andes with her Peruvian colleague Dolly and was regaling our group about the legend of the Virgin del Carmen over an extra-large batch of margaritas.

Apparently, a group of 17th century llama herders passing through the mountain village of Paucartambo saw the Virgin Mary’s image in a clay pot. They decided to honor the miracle by constructing her effigy and establishing an annual pilgrimage of devotion.
Celebrating in the streets
Four hundred years later, this auspicious event has evolved into a raucous, five-day fiesta— as deep in cultural and religious reverence as in debauchery and drunken chaos.

Every July, intrepid Peruvian revelers traverse winding mountain roads to descend on the sleepy village of Paucartambo. Elaborately costumed characters parade through the streets commemorating great moments in Peruvian history while the Virgin’s effigy is carried in a procession like a doll on top of a 30-foot wedding cake.

Flamboyant and provocative performers galvanize the crowds of partying pilgrims with whip cracking, food fights, and in your face mischief. Local beer flows, brass bands perform, and fireworks light up the night in a highly choreographed, swinging-from-the-chandeliers extravaganza.

Roman Catholicism meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Every night— while the rest of Paucartambo’s partygoers sleep off their benders until daybreak when it all starts up again— the different performing troupes keep the good times rolling at after-hours parties loaded with ceviche, beer, and all the pisco you can pour.

Spellbound by Connie’s narrative, I felt a flashback to my younger years. Before I could ask what’s the worst thing that could happen— and before the margarita buzz wore off— I booked my flight to Peru, contacted Dolly, and was off to Paucartambo to celebrate the Virgin.
Devils celebrating
As expected, Dolly’s extensive in-country connections snagged us invites to a clandestine all-nighter with Paucartambo’s most elite fraternal group, the Saqras (aka the Devils). Now, with nothing but moonlight to guide us, we are creeping down a narrow passageway in search of the entrance.

Through the dark compound, across the courtyard, and past the secret knock on the soundproof door, inside the Devils’ mancave is alive with twinkling lights, salsa rhythms, and glorious revelry.

Explaining this to our husbands will be awkward, but I surrender to Dolly’s lead. We down a shot of pisco and dissolve into the crowd. Dolly was the Thelma to my Louise.
Devils Troupe parading
Suddenly a gloved hand, attached to a sequined sleeve, attached to a masked devil reaches out to me.

“Bailar conmigo,” he purrs— charisma oozing from his fingertips.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Faster than common sense can answer, I take his hand.

Rocking the salsa with a beguiling devil, the night is young.

Mediocrity be damned.
Parading in the streets
DANZA CHUCCHU troupe on parade
Parade members
Color and chaos
Party in Paucartambo
Musicians in parade
Celebration and revelry
Peruvians watching parade
Parade spectators
Peruvian cultural parade
Peruvians watching parade
Best view
Peruvian masked men
Qhapaq Chuncho troupe
Man from Peru drinking beer
Festival traditions
Peruvian child
Little party-goer
Peruvian woman
Paucartambo pilgrim
Dressed as devils
The SAQRAS (Devils) troupe
Girls from Peru
Peruvian chicas
Peruvian man playing instrument
Paucartambo musician
Man in parade
Whimsical costumes
Store owner selling yarn dye
Market stall selling yarn dye
Women at the Umoja village
Seeing is Believing
Paucartambo mountains
Back in the 17th century, when a group of Andean llama herders spotted the image of the Virgin Mary in a clay pot on their way into Paucartambo they were so inspired by the apparition they created an effigy of the Virgin, a temple to house her, and an annual festival to pay homage.... continue reading
Four hundred years later, Festividad de la Virgen del Carmen is celebrated with costumes, dancing, drinking, and plenty of religious ambiguity as Peruvians across the region descend on Paucartambo to pay respects, to offer blessings, and to party.

And while the festival offers religious reverence and cultural unity, it also offers commercial profits. From framed photos to key rings to brooches, market stalls peddle sellable swag bearing Carmen’s image. The town church sells flowers and candles for pilgrims’ offerings. Mamacha Carmen even has her own artisanal beer and Facebook page.

To be fair, Virgin Mary sightings have spanned the globe since 40 AD, and Paucartambo pilgrims aren’t the first to cash in. Ebay offers a variety of creative items bearing the likeness of Jesus. And the woman who saw the Virgin Mary in her grilled cheese sandwich sold it for $28,000— subsequently inspiring even more ingenious inventions.
Kenyan women of Umoja
The Catholic Church jumped into the conversation around 500 years ago, instituting a strict vetting process for miracles worthy of church support, but according to scientists, it’s likely that humans will continue to believe what they see with or without the church’s approval.

Science journal Cortex explains ‘face pareidolia,’ as a phenomenon in which visual stimuli appear to resemble an unrelated object or person. Researchers at the University of Toronto say "seeing 'Jesus in toast' reflects our brain's normal functioning and the active role that the frontal cortex plays in visual perception.”

Basically, "instead of the phrase 'seeing is believing' the results suggest that 'believing is seeing.'"
Rebecca at Vital Voices conference
Kenyan girls singing
Pisco, an amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile, was developed by 16th-century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain.... continue reading
Video game controller
Acquiring its Quechua name from the Peruvian town of Pisco, Peru's production of pisco has remained artisanal for hundreds of years— including copper pot stills and lively afternoons of grape-stomping, singing, joking, punch-drinking, and rip-snorting good times.

Peruvian Pisco won over 20 gold medals and was named the best liquor of the world in the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2011. But imbibers be warned— Gran Pisco is 86 proof.

More than one drink and you might see visions and apparitions.

More than two and you might start a religion.
Map of Peru
Satellite map of Kenya
World map
Haitian drink
High Anxiety— Ayahuasca and the Night of Your Life
Shaman stands on mountain
Arguably one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, Peru is home to thousands of plants containing medicinal properties able to treat a wide range of ailments. But it’s the shaman who works intimately with these forces of nature that makes the healing magic happen.... continue reading
Peruvian shaman
Somewhere between a doctor, an herbalist, a priest, an advisor, a therapist, a guide, a psychic, and a dealer, the shaman not only provides the remedies people need to heal, but he journeys into the spirit world to help find solutions to disorders that conventional medicine can’t reach.  By addressing the energetic and spiritual aspect of the patient’s illness from another realm, even complex health conditions like depression, addiction, and anxiety have been successfully cured.

One of the most famous herbal treatments is Ayahuasca— used for centuries among indigenous tribes as a diagnostic tool for mental, emotional, psychological, or energetic disorders.

In a ceremonial ritual that takes place over an entire night, the shaman begins by blending the Ayahuasca into a potent mixture for the patient to drink. The healing process begins with a “scorched earth” purging including extreme diarrhea and vomiting to release built up negative energy. From there, powerful hallucinations lead to psychological introspection, elation, and illumination.

Far beyond riding unicorns across strawberry fields, this chemical conduit takes patients to an outer realm where they have reportedly made contact with spiritual beings who helped them uncover underlying sources of their pain, resolve emotional-spiritual imbalances, and discover revelations on the true nature of the universe.

Freaky? Kinda— but reports of success are common. According to the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), clinical trials showed Ayahuasca to be “physiologically very safe,” with the potential to change life attitudes for the better in cases of drug addiction, depression and trauma.

And not a moment too soon. Americans are becoming more stressed, depressed, and anxiety-ridden than ever before.
Jungle in Peru
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, and an estimated 8.3 million suffer from serious psychological distress. Teen anxiety is at an all-time high, and with Internet addiction and social media fostering a culture of constant comparison, nobody can ever feel “good enough.” As American society struggles to cope with everything from schedule overload to the steady drumbeat of mass shootings, sexual assaults, and the existential threat of climate change, pharmaceutical companies happily find new ways to medicate, mask, and manage our pain.

Morphine. Fentanyl. Oxycodone. Percocet. Vicodin. Ambien. Intermezzo. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Inderal. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin. Dramamine.

The list goes on.

Even though the US has less than 5% of the world’s population— Americans consume more than 80% of the global opioid pill production. Sales of prescription opioids have passed $11 billion annually— enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.

Even more ironic? While the volume of pain meds prescribed in the US has quadrupled over the past 20 years, self-reported depression isn’t going down.

No surprise, Peru’s shamans have been steadily gaining cred from the outside world as Americans continue their search for wellness. For the past two decades, Westerners have been teaming up with shamans to form Ayahuasca healing retreat centers to help patients face the causes of their conditions and take part in the healing equation in a whole new way.

But— shamans warn— these retreats are not about psychedelic tourism. “Most of the treatment we’re carrying out is for trauma,” says Matthew Watherston, founder of the Temple of the Way of Light, a “The drive is often the crises that people feel in day-to-day life, manifested on a psychological, emotional or physical level. Ultimately, these are all symptoms; the origin, typically, comes from an energetic imbalance or disorder.”

Either way, this brew is a trip. Have a look below:
Peruvian family
Amazon family at home
Peruvian Jungle
Jungle canopy
Kids riding in canoe
Off to school
Village in the Amazon
Amazonian village
Peruvian kids
Cute kids
Bird perched in tree
Indigenous youth
Indigenous youth
Canoe on river
Peaceful boat ride
Cloud over mountain
Rain cloud
Amazon jungle in Peru
Amazon tributary
Tree in Amazon jungle
Jungle floor
Guide in canoe
River guide
Colors of the jungle
Reb-bellied piranha
Fast Food
Teeth of piranha
One of the most notorious predators of South America’s rivers and tributaries is the razor-toothed Red-Bellied Piranha. This carnivorous fish— with strong jaws and a fierce, scissor like bite— is known to hunt in groups numbering more than one hundred, and able to take down prey as big as a cow.... continue reading
When one piranha locates a potential victim, the attacking scout signals the others. Soon, every fish in the gang rushes in to take a quick bite before swimming away to make room for the others. For thrill-seeking aquatics, here’s a handy guide on how to swim with the piranhas and not get eaten alive.

Otherwise, reverse the natural sequence of things and put piranha on YOUR dinner plate.
Eating Piranha for dinner
Kenyan textile
Alleyway in Cusco, Peru
Cusco back alley
Selling baskets
Baskets for sale
Old building in Lima, Peru
Colonial influence in Lima
Structures at Macchu Pichu
Macchu Pichu
Peruvian women selling things
Jungle Vendors
Dolly in action
Herbal exlixers
Pacific coast in Peru
Pacific coast
Building at Macchu Pichu
Up close at Macchu Pichu
Selling potatoes
Peruvian potatoes
Police officers in Lima, Peru
Lima fashion police
Cathedral in Cusco, Peru
Cusco cathedral
Birds flying
Birds over square
Flag of Peru
Peruvian flag
Colonial building in Peru
Colonial architecture
Llama eating leaves
Llama llunching on lleaves
Vendors along the highway
Andes roadside vendors
Fedoras for sale
Peruvian felt fedoras
Maras, Peru
Salt mines in Maras, Peru
Building tiles
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Climate change, mental health, and the generation gap
Vietnamese textile
Dina with Afghan girl
Ready for a stop along the Silk Road?

Next stop, Afghanistan!
Photo credits
Picture of Paucartambo: KimonBerlin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Cusco_to_Paucartambo_%2823388539049%29.jpg

Pisco bottles: Daniel Peppes Gauer from Porto Alegre, Brasil [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Botellas_antiguas_Pisco_Capel.jpg

National Geographic Virgin Mary Map: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/11/151113-virgin-mary-sightings-map/#/big-world.jpg

Toast invention: https://www.awesomeinventions.com/shop/holy-mother-toast-stamper/

Cocktail at Pisco sour Catedral del Cusco: Dtarazona [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Shamen pot: Terpsichore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/Ayahuasca_prep.JPG

Piranha teeth: Lord Mountbatten [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1e/

Piranha_teeth.JPGCooked Piranha: Bobak Ha'Eri [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/2010-0117-Peru-piranha.jpg

Flux in gigtons of carbon: By AIRS (Flickr: Carbon Cycle) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]- https://www.flickr.com/photos/atmospheric-infrared-sounder/8265010034