Thursday, February 25, 2021

Native folk art and crafts of Peru

Peru is known for its world-class folk art.

From pre-Inca times to the present day, handmade arts and crafts have provided a visual expression of Peruvian culture. The nation’s skilled artisans have forged one of the most highly developed and diverse folk art traditions in the world, working in a variety of mediums and styles.

Pre-Hispanic designs and symbols often fused with art forms from colonial Spain in works of art as beautiful as they are utilitarian. From quirky masks to complex woven textiles, from hand-painted pottery to intricately carved gourds, from hand-crafted instruments to elaborate wood carvings, Peru’s distinctive handicrafts are an excellent way to bring home an authentic reminder of the country’s vibrant traditions and culture.

This is the first of a two-part story about different kinds of Peruvian handmade crafts.

 Woven Textiles

Hand-woven textiles are an ancient art.

Beautiful hand-woven textiles are among Peru’s most famous native crafts. They’re also among the most ancient: The oldest fabrics discovered in the country date to about 10,000 B.C. Using traditional backstrap or horizontal ground looms just like their ancestors, artisans today weave fibers of prized alpaca and vicuña wool, as well as cotton and linen, into colorful designs that reflect local customs and motifs. Bold, bright designs range from intricate geometric patterns to revered native animals, which show up in yards of fabric that you can buy as tablecloths, table runners, placemats, rugs, tapestries, and blankets.

Alpaca Wool

Highlands people tend their llama flocks.

Hardly anyone leaves Peru without buying something made of alpaca wool such as sweaters, hats, tote bags, super-soft scarves, and traditional ponchos and blankets. After all, these Andean camelids have been a key part of Peruvian life for centuries. Lightweight, breathable, and hypoallergenic, alpaca is insulating and non-itchy. Baby alpaca items, made from the fleece of the first shearing, is supremely soft. Rarer and softer still — with a price tag to match — is the ultrafine wool of wild vicuñas, from which alpacas are descended.

Larry bought an alpaca sweater, and I 
have a soft creamy vest.
But beware: While many products are advertised as 100% baby alpaca, chances are they’re blends of alpaca wool or even synthetic acrylic fibers. If you want to guarantee the real thing, shop at national brands such as Kuna or Sol Alpaca stores where the prices will match the quality. Or buy alpaca in Cusco at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, a non-profit collective of hundreds of weavers, or in Arequipa, a thriving textile center.


Colorful yarns are used in hand embroidery on garments and home accents. 

Another millennia-old fabric tradition is hand embroidery, which often served ceremonial purposes in ancient times. Today, it reflects the cultural identity of each region or village, which has its own unique style. You’ll find vibrant, patterned embroidery on local women’s skirts, handbags, men’s vests, jackets, and other traditional garments. Pillowcases with brightly colored floral accents or elaborate wall hangings stitched with scenes from daily life add a pop of color to your home. Known as bordados, these hand-dyed, alpaca-yarn narratives are embroidered on a wool cloth background.

Appliqué Fabric

I have this amazing wall hanging that depicts scenes from 
daily lives of people living on the floating islands of Uros.

Gorgeous wall hangings of another sort are Peru’s distinctive quilted appliqués on cotton fabric called arpilleras (meaning "sackcloth" or "burlap"). These hand-stitched, three-dimensional patchwork panels typically depict pastoral scenes of daily life, such as villages, markets, landscapes, or carnivals. Two biblical themes, Noah’s ark — with requisite llamas— and nativity scenes are also popular. The women who make these elaborate tapestries attach scraps of fabric including vinyl, felt, or straw fibers to the cloth background to tell the stories of their lives.

Wood Carvings

I love this colorful puzzle from Peru.

From religious figurines and masks to portable altars and toys, Peru has a rich wood-carving tradition derived from Spanish religious sculptures and carved furniture made for colonial churches and convents. In Cusco, expert sculptors carve classical religious figures such as the infant Jesus, angels, and Virgins that are often gold-leafed, as well as kings, magicians, dancers, and soldiers. In the town of Molinos, near Huancayo, artisans make a variety of wooden objects from kitchen utensils and toys, painted animals, and mythical beasts. In folklore-rich towns like Paucartambo in the Cusco region and Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, elaborate carved and painted masks of fanciful creatures and stylized characters are produced for popular festival days.


The most remarkable of Peru’s wooden folk art are its unique brightly painted retablos, or small portable altars. Originally used by Spanish priests to teach indigenous people about the Bible, these colorful diorama-like boxes depict everything from intricate religious or historical scenes to simple scenes of everyday life in the Andes. Originating in Ayacucho, the boxes are elaborately hand-painted with typical Ayacucho flower designs adorning their hinged flaps. Inside the boxes, artists fill multiple levels with hand-carved figurines of people, highland animals, and both Christian saints and pre-Columbian gods, a unique blend of religious traditions. Typically, the upper level symbolizes heaven with saints, sacred Andean animals, or nativity scenes, while the lower level portrays life on earth, such as a hat shop, a cantina, or a musical group.

Information courtesy of Angela Tuell, Percepture,

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Canada bans cruise ships until 2022

For many Americans who are ready to be on the move again, an Alaskan cruise seems like the ideal way to jump back into traveling—not too far away, beautiful scenery, and a destination that is still part of the United States. Cruise lines have been offering great deals, and ships have been filling up in recent months for the season that runs from May through September.

The Alaska cruise season is effectively cancelled for large cruise ships
that sail in Canadian waters.

But Canada has other ideas. Our northern neighbor is not being friendly to cruise ships and the many towns and cities in Alaska that depend on tourism for a large part of their economy.

On February 4, 2021, Transport Canada, the Canadian government’s transportation department, banned cruise vessels with more than 100 passengers from sailing in Canadian waters until February 28, 2022. A few small ships will still be allowed to sail.

So, just skip Canada and go straight to Alaska?

Scenes like this are not likely in summer 2021.

Well, there’s a maritime rule in effect called the Jones Act that requires foreign-flagged ships that sail in U.S. waters to stop in at least one foreign port when sailing between U. S. ports. That includes almost all of the larger lines that go to Alaska, so they typically include a port stop or embarkation point in Canada, such as Vancouver.

The ban affects more than Alaska vacation cruises. It also prohibits all adventure or pleasure craft and passenger vessels from entering Canada’s Arctic waters, thus eliminating itineraries of even smaller expedition vessels scheduled to go there in 2021.

What’s more, prohibiting ships from sailing in Canadian waters affects cruises along the east coast and Great Lakes as well as. The fall 2021 New England to Canada cruise season is effectively killed because of the long time frame set for the ban.

Many businesses in Alaska port towns
like Skagway are really feeling
economic effects of no tourists.
Transport Canada says cruise lines that don’t comply with the order could face penalties up to $25,000 per day, a jail term of up to 18 months, or both. This new regulation comes on top of Canada’s already strict requirement that arrivals from abroad must furnish three COVID test results—one taken prior to arrival, a second COVID test as they self-isolate in a hotel after arriving, and then a third test after quarantining at home.

What if you’ve booked one of these cruises already?

As of now, no cruise lines have officially cancelled their 2021 Alaska or New England cruises. Stakeholders in the tourist business are trying to have good-faith discussions with Transport Canada officials, but so far without success. Transport Canada does say that the ban could be rescinded if the pandemic improves sufficiently to allow the resumption of cruise activities. But it’s doubtful if that will happen in a timely manner to save summer and fall cruises.

If you already have a cruise booked that docks at a port on either the west or east coast of Canada, you may just have to wait to see if you’ll actually be able to travel as planned. Don’t be surprised if you’re left in limbo for a long time.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Texas caves worth a visit

Whether you’re feeling the cold of winter or the heat of summer, caves provide steady, comfortable temperatures year round. More than 3,000 caves are scattered throughout Texas including many “wild” or undeveloped caves.

But Texas has a variety of “show” caves, too. Here are four popular Central Texas caves that I encourage you to visit. Since COVID is still a factor, be sure to check availability of tours and any special requirements before heading out—or save this information to use in a couple of months post-pandemic.

Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels, Texas
Natural Bridge Caverns 

Billed as Texas’s Largest Underground Adventure, Natural Bridge Caverns has been attracting visitors since it opened to the public in the 1960s.  During the  90-minute Discovery Tour visitors travel to a depth of 180 feet and walk along winding paths at a pleasant 72 degrees. See ancient formations that are still growing including stone monuments, colorful rocks, and glistening crystals. Since 2008 guides have led tours to a second cavern discovered at the site which features special lighting to showcase rare and delicate formations.

Ropes Challenge is fun for kids 
and adults.
For a day-long family excursion, check out the gardens, Canopy Ropes Challenge, four zip lines, and mining activities.  Located 30 minutes north of San Antonio near New Braunfels, Natural Bridge Caverns is open year round.

Inner Space Cavern  

Longhorn Cavern is near
Burnet and Inks Lake State Park.

Hidden for more than 10,000 years, Inner Space Cavern was discovered in 1963 during construction of the state’s first major highway. A drill suddenly broke through solid limestone and revealed an enormous cavern system directly below the intended path.  Located 20 miles north of Austin off I-35, it is one of the best preserved caves in Texas.

Today visitors walk 69 feet below ground to view a variety of dramatic geological formations in large, eerie caverns.  The Adventure Tour departs every 20 to 30 minutes, no reservation required. On the Hidden Passages Tour follow a guide to an undeveloped trail in a newly opened section —flashlight provided—or become a true spelunker on the Wild Cave Tour through undeveloped sections. Although humidity hovers around 98 percent, the constant 72 degree temperature makes the cave pleasant even on scorching days.

Longhorn Cavern  

Unlike other Texas caves, Longhorn was created by rivers surging through cracks and holes millions of years ago. Left behind are unusual rock formations, domed ceilings, sinkholes, sparkling crystals, and petroglyphs carved in rock.

Spectacular formations are hidden in 
these caves.

Fossils dating to the Ice Age have been discovered in this prehistoric place of shelter, and evidence suggests Comanche Indians inhabited the cave at least 400 years ago. The Confederate army used bat guano to secretly manufacture gunpowder during the Civil War, while popular legends claim outlaws used the cave for a hideout.

The walking tour covers 1.25 miles round trip and takes about 90 minutes. On the Wild Cave Tour you’ll crawl through tight spaces using a headlamp. Learn about unexplained happenings on the Paranormal Tour, or book up to three hours of photography time in the cave. Located in Longhorn Cavern State Park near Burnet, cave temperature holds at a cool 68 degrees.

Cave Without a Name

Located in the Texas Hill Country, 12 miles from Boerne, this beautiful cavern is filled with stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, cave drapery, and gorgeous flowstones. Tour six major rooms in 66-degree comfort. Easy walkways and brilliant lighting add to the unforgettable adventure in this living cavern.  Tours depart throughout the day and last about an hour, entering on a stairwell that spirals down the original sinkhole opening and ending beside a clear subterranean brook.

Cave Without a Name has great acoustics for live music performances.

Other notable Texas caves

Cascade Caverns, 14 miles northwest of San Antonio, the first show cave of Texas to be discovered.

Caverns of Sonora on I-10, halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, considered one of the world’s most beautiful caves.

Wonder World Cave, near San Marcos, the nation’s only true earthquake-formed cave.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.





Thursday, February 4, 2021

We went to see bears--and got a bonus with the Northern Lights

Larry and I are sound asleep when we hear noises in the hallway of our hotel. Then there’s a brisk knock on our door. Sure, we had put out the “
Do Disturb” sign before retiring, but we really didn’t expect that to happen.

It’s 12:45 a.m. and the Northern Lights are visible.  Aurora Borealis.  In October.  We jump out of bed, throw on the clothes laid out for morning, and rush outside to the waiting van.

It’s Halloween, but there are no goblins tricking us. Tonight it’s all treat.

We only have to go about four blocks to find a spot with open views of the sky. Stars twinkle in the clear night air—and it’s really cold, at least for us Texans. But cold, clear weather is the right condition for seeing the Northern Lights. Thing is, that usually doesn’t happen in until January or February.

We are in Churchill, Canada—almost 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg—to see polar bears. Our first full day on the tundra in a Polar Rover yielded about 20 bear sightings. We saw bears sparring (play-fighting) on their hind legs, mama bears with cubs, and a variety of sleeping and strolling bears that have migrated to Hudson Bay.

If we did not see another bear, I would consider the trip successful. But we see even more the following day. This is the middle of polar bear season, a six-week period when the bears congregate in a rather tight area while waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can hunt seals and fatten up before winter. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe bear behavior and to photograph these magnificent creatures.

But we hit the jackpot. A gleaming green curtain of light illuminates the sky. I’m amazed by the spectacle. Then I turn around—and realize that the green streak reaches from one horizon to the other. The Big Dipper sparkles just above a portion of the emerald streak. 

A natural phenomena, the Northern Lights are caused by large numbers of electrons that stream from the sun towards the Earth along a magnetic field and collide with air particles in our sky. The resulting light, most commonly green, is colored by gases in the atmosphere.

We stand in the dark for half an hour, watching the green glow as it changes subtly with the winds—fading slightly then reappearing in full force. I try to take photos, but I don’t have a tripod and my point-and-shoot camera can’t capture the brilliantly moving light against a dark background. So I just try to etch the scene on my memory and remember how lucky we are to see this remarkable sight.

Now, I’m contemplating a trip to Alaska in the winter, when such things are allowed, to view the Northern Lights through the fiberglass roof of an igloo-shaped cabin. I can only imagine how amazing such a sighting would be as I lay in my warm, cozy bed!

Photos by Larry Burmeier