San Blas Festivity in Paraguay

While there may be a handful of worthwhile festivals held in Paraguay on an annual basis, none have more of a history or religious significance than Dia de San Blas. The San Blas festivity in Paraguay is rooted in Christian origins from a faraway land; Armenia.

Even if you know nothing about the patron saint himself, if you find yourself in Paraguay during the first few days of February, you are sure to be enveloped in lively festivities including parades, music and food.

The History of Saint Blaise

Depending on who you talk to about this martyred saint, you will hear his name pronounced as Saint Blaise in English and San Blas in Spanish. Since this is an English speaking blog we will refer to him by his English name.

Saint Blaise was a Bishop in the Armenian Roman Catholic Church but he was also a physician. It is purported that his main area of medical expertise was afflictions of the throat. People would come to him from all over Armenia and neighboring countries so that he could treat their physical as well as their spiritual ailments.

As his fame spread, many miracles were also credited to him. Saint Blaise continued to serve his people but in the year 316, he was jailed and executed by order of an Armenian governor who was acting at the behest of the emperor Licinius. Apparently Licinius, much like other Roman emperors of the time were keen on killing Christians.

While you can kill a man you cannot kill the impressions and influences he made in his life and that is why a day is set aside every year to honor this Saint in countries all over the world from Eastern Europe to South America.  Not surprisingly one of the grandest and most decadent Saint Blaise celebrations are held every year on February 3rd in Paraguay.

The Paraguayan San Blas Festival

The history of San Blas day is as much a part of the celebration as the festivities themselves. After all, this is a religious holiday and many devout Catholics consider this day one of the holiest of the year.

If you do plan to be in Paraguay in early February head to Ciudad del Este where the biggest and brashest San Blas festival is held.

Since Saint Blaise was a physician specializing in ailments of the throat, the San Blas festivity in Paraguay begins with the blessing of the throat by ranking clergymen. Once your throat has been blessed, you can begin filling it with delicious Paraguayan cuisine. Food is a huge part of the San Blas festivity in Paraguay so be sure to leave plenty of room in your stomach for delectable dishes.

In Ciudad del Este lies the Cathedral of Saint Blaise and it is form this cathedral that much of the festivities emanate. There are parades held in his honor that are made to depict some of his more notable acts as a Bishop and leader in the Christian community in Armenia.

San Blas festivity in Paraguay

San Blas Festivity in Paraguay

While the actual Dia de San Blas falls on February 3rd, the San Blas festivity in Paraguay is a week-long festival. In addition to magnificent parades, specialty foods and religious rites, you will hear much traditional Paraguayan music and songs that commemorate this beloved patron saint of the country.

The San Blas festivity in Paraguay should surely be on your list of Hispanic festivals to experience and to find out more about the exciting festivals that Latin America has to offer check out my article on Hispanic holidays.

Introducing the Colombian Chiva

Getting around in Colombia, thanks to La Chiva, has become as much a crash course in cultural heritage as it has a reliable means of getting from point A to point B. Should you ever find yourself meandering the streets of Madellín you will not need to look very hard for these colorful buses that taxi tourists and natives alike through the streets. Again, should you be meandering on foot in Madellín, you are traveling the wrong way…

Chivas in the Past and Chivas Today

In our modern age where the world is becoming smaller and procuring goods not usually manufactured in your home land is relatively simple, seeing something like a passenger bus in the heart of Colombia may not seem like such a an astonishing occurrence. Still, if you were a campesino in Colombia in the 20’s and 30’s your jaw would have probably dropped to the floor at the sight of one of these behemoths of metal and wood rumbling down a dirt road.

The chivas of yesteryear were hard-built and the materials to build them were even harder to obtain. While there are differing opinions as to when the very first chiva commenced operation in Colombia, the varying accounts still point to the first decade or so of the 20th century as their functional origins.

At this time an engineer named Luciano Restrepo and a mechanic by the name of Roberto Tisnes actually had to import the chassis for what is believed to be the very first Chiva to be used in Colombia from America. The rest as they say, is history.

Before chivas were a regular part of Colombian life peasants, or campesinos, mainly relied on horse-drawn transportation and of course a good old fashioned walk (or in many cases in Colombia a hike) to get to where they needed to go.  In the early 20th century when Colombian chiva buses started to be more common, campesinos could be seen regularly hitching rides on them.

The earliest Colombian chiva buses were simple with canvas roofs and hybrid wood and metal framing but soon, as need for the campesino’s goods to travel with them grew, they began to evolve. They were fitted with roof racks soon enough and ladders running up the back so that campesinos could store and transport their goods.

Introducing the Colombian Chiva

Introducing the Colombian Chiva

The Colombian Chiva Today

Today however, chivas serve a different yet equally useful purpose. If you are in Medellin today especially during the flower festival you are sure to see very colorful and stylized buses traversing the streets in the evening. These are the chivas of the modern day.

The chivas of today hearken back to their simple forerunners in most aspects-size, construction, roof racks and ladders- but are distinct in that each Colombian chiva driver or owner personalizes their vehicle with colorful painting, murals and other creative designs.

These humble buses have become a symbol of Colombia and a must for anyone visiting. While most people today use chiva buses strictly for getting around and having fun, then next time you take a ride in one be sure to take a moment to consider the campesinos that depended on these vehicles for everyday essential functions and let the chiva become a transport for you into the past and the future.

Top 10 Places to Visit in Quito Ecuador

The breadth and the volcanic landscape that surrounds Quito Ecuador will surely captivate you upon site when you visit this capital city seated high in the Andean mountain range. Aside from the geographic beauty of Quito there is much culture to take in and a wealth of artistic experiences to take part in.

Great Places to See and Experience in Quito Ecuador

For those who are enthralled by ancient artifacts and the effects of civilizations long passed there is the Museo Guayasamin. Oswaldo Guayasamin was an influential painter who actually died somewhat recently (1999) and besides housing some of his own works, the Museo Guayasamin is also home to his vast collection of pre-Colombian artifacts.

Top 10 Places to Visit in Quito Ecuador

Maternidad by Oswaldo Guayasamin

You will see magnificent fertility figurines that were believed to increase the possibility of conception and burial masks. The museum itself was once the home of the famous painter and collector and it immediately envelops you in an atmosphere of wonder and otherworldliness.

For anyone who loves history and is entranced by it like I am, you have to continue to take advantage of the one of a kind museums in Quito. That is why among the top 10 places to visit in Quito Ecuador I am including the Museo Nacional. This museum will take you through a journey through Ecuador’s history from the pre-Spanish era to the colonial era to the Valdivia culture.

This next entry into my top 10 places to visit in Quito Ecuador should only be ventured after you have been in the city for a few days and have acclimated yourself to the high Andean elevation but once you have, the trek is well worth it. The TeleferiQo is a sky tram that offers up unbeatable views of the mountainous landscape.

It takes you up to the Cruz Loma peak and form there you can either hike or rent horses to climb all the way to Rucu Pichincha for even more breathtaking sights.

There are things to do around Quito if you are traveling with your kids as well. In fact, at the base of the aforementioned TeleferoQo station is the Vulqano Park– a wonderfully lively children’s amusement park that again, offers spectacular views.

Plaza Grande is among the top 10 places to visit in Quito Ecuador because it is a bustling city center that contains many attractions in a relatively small area so you can see a lot just by coming to this amazing square.

The Palacio de Gobierno stands at the northwest side of the square and is essentially the Ecuadorian Whitehouse. If you are lucky you can take tours of the staterooms and maybe even stand on one of the balconies that over-looks the entire Plaza Grande.

If you happen to be in the Plaza Grande on Saturday, make sure you venture to the northeast side of the square where the Palacio Arzobispal is. The Palacio Arzobispal is essentially a collection of shops and restaurants but what drew me to it and what will draw lovers of live music like me is the concerts held on the covered patios of the restaurants on Saturday night.

Finally, before you leave the Plaza Grande, be sure to stop at the Cathedral of Quito. Fascinating historical tombs of Ecuadorian independence figures and legends can be seen here along with captivating religious art.

I always urge friends and family who are considering a visit to Quito to do so between November and December because the greatest festival of the year occurs during this time. The Founding of Quito Festival as the name implies celebrates the establishment of the city. You will be privy to everything from DJ and live band performances to bullfights and Flamenco dancing.

For a bit of mystery and enchantment head over to the Monastery of San Diego which is home to the curious painting by Heironymus Bosch, Passage from this Life to Eternity which no one can be certain how it ended up in the monastery to begin with.

Quito is one of the most captivating cities in Latin America and besides these top 10 places to visit in Quito Ecuador there is so much to discover and explore. Anyone interested in Quito and locales like it should also check out Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan. You can read all about it in the article Why Visit Lake Atitlán

Burning the Muñeco: A New Year’s Celebration in Peru

Even for those of us blessed with good health and happiness, sometimes there are those years.  Hard years, challenging years – years that make the celebration of New Year’s Eve something particularly meaningful. If this has been one of those years for you, you might try a trip to Peru, where their tradition of Burning the Muñeco (Doll) is a visual representation of the change from the old year to the new one.

Peruvians burn the muñeco in the New Year’s celebration.  This doll is similar to a scarecrow or an effigy, and can, in fact, be considered an effigy of the Old Year.

The muñeco dresses in rags or is made with paper, and totally filled with flammable material or sometimes fireworks.  At midnight it is set on fire on New Year’s Eve.

Although some still make them at home, these days, many stores sell them commercially.

New Year’s Celebration in Peru and Burning the Muñeco

Many countries practice this tradition throughout South America and parts of Mexico.

This tradition is yet another example of religious syncretism, or a combination of different cultures into one belief system, common in Hispanic religion due to the influence of the Spanish.

Also a tradition in parts of the Old World, the burning of the Año Viejo is considered to have come from pagan rituals in Europe.

The burning of the muñeco is at its most basic a real-world representation of the common desire that most people have to leave bad events of the year in the past and to start the New Year with a positive attitude.

Different Kinds of Muñecos

Muñeco waiting to be used.

Muñeco waiting to be used.

One of the unique aspects of the New Year’s celebration in Peru is that muñecos often deal with current events, both local and national. For example, you can find politicians and famous Peruvian celebrities on store-bought muñecos, depending on what has happened in the country during the year.

Communities will also have figures of famous (or infamous) locals. Interestingly, many muñecos are actually based on respected or popular figures, not just those with negative opinions.

Muñecos and Waquis in Parco

As with most traditions, there are regional differences. One of the more well-known places they celebrate by burning el muñeco in Peru is in the District of Parco, in central Peru about four hours from Lima. In this Andean region, inhabitants accompany the muñeco by waquis, dancers that represent the Old Year as locals bid it goodbye.

The waquis dress in rags, with tattered hats and sandals, wearing wooden masks expressing different emotions. Each dancer plays a role in this representation of the old year, and the dances demonstrate the pain the year feels at having to leave.

With handmade rattles and more modern instruments, the parade plays songs with the Andean rhythm huayno. They also play the fool to the amusement of the town residents, hiding their “pain” with clowning and mocking of those in attendance.

In this area, the celebration goes very late. The “quema del muñeco” actually takes place in the early hours of January 1, after musicians and the waqui dancers traverse the different streets of the area waking up residents, who say goodbye to this representation of the year from their doorways.

Residents soon make their way to the plaza, where the giant Muñeco is waiting. The party continues from there, with traditional food and drinks and a celebration that last until the wee hours.

The New Year’s celebration in Peru and other countries is a vivid representation of how ancient traditions have survived through history and how they continue to be culturally relevant today.

Burning of the muñeco is part of good Peruvian Christmas traditions, because no matter how you celebrate the holidays, everyone wants to have a happy New Year.

Would you like to burn away the old year? Tell us about it in the comments!

Christmas in Bolivia

One of the most beautiful aspects of Navidad in Latin America is that each country has its own traditions, but they all still have the underlying feeling of Hispanic Christmas. Christmas in Bolivia is no exception.

Like many parts of Latin America, the Christmas season in Bolivia lasts from December 24th to January 6th. The Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) is perhaps the most important event of the Christmas season for Catholics. As in many parts of the world, Bolivian Catholics attend a midnight mass.

After the Misa de Gallo, a meal is shared as a family. The main dish is traditionally a spicy soup called La Picana, which has chicken, beef or lamb, and pork, and Bolivians serve with corn and potatoes.

On Christmas morning, breakfast is generally buñuelos, or fried dough, served with a drink such as api (made of corn) or hot chocolate.

Traditions of Christmas in Bolivia

In homes, Bolivian Christmas decorations often center around a pesebre, or Nativity Scene. Also called a nacimiento, mangers can be simple, with just the primary characters of the Christmas story, or more elaborate, with up to hundreds of figures.  Pesebres are sometimes made of local gourds which are hollowed out.

Another important aspect of la Navidad en Bolivia is the Spanish Christmas songs, or villancicos. Because of the large number of indigenous people in the country, these traditional songs are not only in Spanish, but are also in languages such as Quechua and Aymara.

The carols are so ingrained in the culture that even people who don’t speak the Quechua and Aymara languages are familiar with them. On Christmas Eve, children will sing and dance to these carols in their homes.

Traditions regarding Christmas trees and presents vary among parts of Bolivia. For example, in certain regions, Christmas trees are common both at home and in cities, as public decorations; in others, no.

Also, some families exchange gifts on Christmas Day, others after eating dinner on Christmas Eve, and yet others on Three Kings Day (Jan.6, Epiphany).

Poverty and Christmas

Activities for underprivileged children are common at Christmastime in Bolivia.

Activities for underprivileged children are common at Christmastime in Bolivia.

Bolivia is a very much a developing country, with more than half the population living in poverty.

In fact, many families do not exchange Christmas gifts at all due to a lack of resources. As such, it’s not surprising that many Christmas traditions have to do with the poor.

For example, it’s common for social organizations to organize campaigns to collect food and toys for families.They also organize parties called Chocolatadas where underprivileged children are served hot chocolate and treats, and are often given presents.

Poverty has impacted Christmas in Bolivia in other ways. For example, in cities it’s common to see people from rural areas who arrive in hopes of receiving a handout from those in the holiday spirit of giving.

Poor children also sing and dance to villancicos on the streets as they ask for money.

Gift Baskets for Christmas

Another important and touching tradition is that of the traditional gift basket that employers give to their employees.

Large enough to be shared with families, the Canastón de fin de año is filled with basic groceries, as well as traditional Christmas goodies, especially cidra (non-alcoholic cider) and panetón, a sweetbread with raisins, nuts, and dried fruit.

Employers give this basket as an end-of-year appreciation for hard work, the gift is particularly special since bonuses are not generally offered throughout the year.

Perhaps the most joyous aspect of Christmas in Bolivia are the famed fireworks, or pólvora. Said by some to rival Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, these bright colors light up the night on Christmas Eve.

Have you spent Christmas in Bolivia? Tell us about it in the comments!

Oktoberfest in Argentina: Beer Festival

When we think about Oktoberfest, most of us only think of Germany, but did you know that Latin America has its own version that it is actually very popular worldwide? It’s in Argentina, and this Oktoberfest is the world’s biggest German celebration outside of Germany.

Oktoberfest in Argentina is known as the Fiesta Nacional de la Cerveza (National Beer Festival). Starting on the first Saturday of October and finishing a week later, this celebration of beer in South America attracts almost 100,000 tourists every year.

History of Oktoberfest in Argentina

Beer factory and restaurant in Villa General Belgrano, home of Oktoberfest.

Beer factory and restaurant in Villa General Belgrano, home of Oktoberfest.

It all started thanks to the first German immigrants in the small town Villa General Belgrano, Córdoba, where the beer festival has taken place since the 1960s.

Adopting the style of an Alpine village, architecture included, these residents preserved traditions from the old country such as food, language, and music. In fact, Villa General Belgrano is the largest German settlement in Argentina and is considered a prominent tourist destination thanks to this festival.

There are a lot of activities during Oktoberfest in Argentina, so it’s good to do your research and plan ahead.

Despite the name, the celebration is not all about beer. One of the things about this festival is that family is always included in the festivities.

In the parades, for example, there are carriages, orchestras, dance groups, musicians, and even the villagers dressed up with traditional German outfits.

Tourist Tips for 2015 Oktoberfest in Argentina

One of the most unusual activities during Oktoberfest is the Hot Dog Parade. And when they say hot dogs, they really mean hot DOGS.

This parade has dachshund after dachshund in hot dog costumes, which, as you can imagine, is quite a sight. The Hot Dog Parade is definitely one the most popular activities at this beer festival, so if you get the chance to enjoy the Oktoberfest in Argentina, it’s one for the must-do list.

Another activity on your to-do list should be the coronation of the Reina Nacional de la Cerveza. Each year, a beautiful young lady is selected as the National Beer Queen for that year’s festival; she will then participate in many parades and activities for the two weekends of the festival.

You also should make a point to attend an “Espiche”. This is the beer version of shaking a bottle of champagne so that the froth goes everywhere when it’s opened. But instead of a bottle, they shake up a barrel of beer and spray the contents on those in attendance. It’s done each day to start the festivities, so watch out for flying beer.

With this beer festival and Latin party, Argentina gives us a great example of how cultures can mix and evolve around the world, combining different traditions. Not a bad lesson for Oktoberfest.

Would you go to Oktoberfest in Argentina? Let us know in the comments!

What Are The Nazca Lines in Peru?

As human beings, it’s in our nature to try to find explanations for phenomena that seems impossible to explain. One of the most fascinating- of these ancient mysteries is the Nazca Lines in Peru. This series of geoglyphs, or a large-scale artwork, in Southern Peru, is the subject of research and theories due to the immense size of the structures and the unusual figures that they reflect.

The Nazca Lines are series of hundreds of designs created dragging shallow lines in the ground of the dry Pampa soil.  By breaking through the surface of the red dirt, the white soil below was revealed, creating the figures.

The most impressive aspect of the Nazca Lines is how huge they are: the largest are over 200 meters (660 feet) across. That’s more than two football fields.

History of the Nazca Lines in Peru

The Astronaut, one of the most famous of the Nazca Lines.

The Astronaut, one of the most famous of the Nazca Lines.

The Nazca Lines date to between 400 and 650 AD and are named after the indigenous people believed to have created them.

The designs reflect a large variety of different figures, many of which represent animals or human figures. Some of the most famous figures are the Spider, the Hummingbird, the Condor, and the Whale, a surprising choice for the Peruvian pampa.

There is even one that has been called the Astronaut. This other-worldly figure fed the theory that extraterrestrials were somehow related to the creation of the Lines.

Another category is figures from nature such as plants, trees, and flowers. There is also a collection of geometrical figures, such as triangles, rectangles, spirals, and circles, as well as straight and wavy lines.

If you’re wondering how they have been preserved all this time, it is thanks to the area’s climate. The soil has a great deal of lime, meaning that the lower layer of soil would eventually harden. Combined with the pampa’s general lack of wind and an isolated location, the Nazca Lines were preserved for these hundreds of years.

They are, however, only 10 to 30 centimeters deep, and so there are concerns about seeing the Nazca Lines destroyed by human activities as well as extreme weather.

Explanations of the Nazca Lines in Peru

Like other mysterious phenomenon, people have made up all kinds of stories about them. Given their size, it’s easy to see why some believe that they were flight paths for aliens or designed to be seen by gods.

It is indeed hard to understand how it was possible to make such huge, yet accurate, drawings without being able to see them from above. Even now, to see many of them in their full glory, it’s best to view them from a plane.

There are endless proposed explanations for the Nazca Lines in Peru: aliens, irrigation schemes, maps of water sources, fertility symbols, and astronomical calendars. Explorer Jim Woodman even theorized that the Nazca must have invented the first hot-air balloon.

Visiting the Nazca Lines in Peru

It is possible to view them from the foothills nearby. In fact, that’s how they were discovered (or re-discovered, actually) in 1927 by Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia.

Still, despite decades of archaeological research into the Nazca Lines in Peru, facts haven’t been found that create a consensus as to their meaning.

The Nazca Lines in Peru were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and, as such, are a protected area.

The best way to see the lines is to fly over them, preferably in the early morning before sunlight makes them hard to see. 200 miles south of Lima, the area is also accessible from Cusco and Arequipa. They are fairly near Machu Picchu, making them a popular tourist destination.

If you are fascinated with unexplained phenomenon, the Nazca Lines in Peru are a must-see in any trip to South America.

Are you intrigued by the Nazca Lines? Tell us your theory in the comments!

Food Festival of Mistura Peru: One of the Best in the World

If you pay attention to food trends, you’ll know that in recent years, Peruvian food has been exploding in popularity throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. Peru itself has also become a favorite travel destination for food lovers and for three years’ running has been named the World’s Leading Culinary Destination by the World Travel Awards.

Whether you are already a fan or are intrigued by the popularity of this unique South American cuisine, your best opportunity to try it is this September at the food festival Mistura of Peru in Lima.

History of Mistura Peru

Mistura, or mixture in Portuguese, is the largest food festival in South America and one of the largest in the world.

In 2014, over 400,000 people attended during the ten-day run. Some 30,000 of those were foreign tourists.

With over 200 food and drink stands and a market with some 1,300 people selling fruits, vegetables, and other raw ingredients, this food festival is a feast for the eyes, the nose, and the palate.

The APEGA (Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomía – Peruvian Gastronomy Society) organizes the event.

The festival started in 2008 as Perú Mucho Gusto, and in its first year it was able to attract some 23,000 visitors. Since then, each year the festival has grown both in scope and in number of attendees.

In recent years, Mistura has incorporated themes such as sustainability, nutrition, and biodiversity, with the intent of showing the many facets of Peruvian food and agriculture.

Tips for Attending Mistura Peru

Vendors at Mistura Food Festival in 2012.

Vendors at Mistura Food Festival in 2012.

Mistura Perú is held each September, with the date announced in the spring. Since it’s in Lima, travel to and from is as simple as an international flight. But it definitely takes planning.

In order to see everything – as well as to have room to try a number of dishes – you may want to visit the festival more than once.

Try going during the week, as weekends tend to be very crowded. For most food purchases, you have to buy “Mistura money,” so be sure to leave time for the lines – they can get heavy around lunchtime when locals visit the festival.

If you are headed all the way to Peru, don’t just make time for Machu Picchu.  You’ll also want to take the time to check out the fair’s schedule, as well as details of the Mundos (worlds), which are the different sections of the fair.

Past examples included Carretillas (pushcarts that sell street food), regional sections such as Del Sur (From the South), Andino (Andean) and Amazónico (Amazonian), and Dulces (Sweets).

What to Try at Mistura Peru

Food on offer runs the gamut: drinks like pisco, chilcano, and uvuchado; desserts including suspiro a la limeña, queso helado, and rafañote; and more exotic fare, such as cuy (guinea pig), anticuchos (beef heart), and frog milkshakes.

Beyond the opportunities to try Peruvian dishes, there are also activities at the festival like master classes, talks, cooking competitions, and even dance performances and concerts. So you will have lots to fill your time while you rest your stomach.

With some planning, a plane ticket, and an appetite, you’ll be on your way to one of the most unique culinary experiences on the planet.

Are you planning to go to Mistura or have you been? Tell us about it in the comments!