Volunteer & Philanthropy

Donate to a Great Cause: Tierra De Niños!

October 1, 2014

Hello Friends,

Happy Fall!!

I can’t believe it is the end of September…2014…time is certainly flying by…

But I can’t say that it hasn’t been a very rich and full time! For those I haven’t spoken to recently, I’ll just say that it’s been a year of getting grounded after my time in Peru with Casa de Milagros – which as you can imagine has been a pretty major transition. I also relocated from 15 years in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’m back in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley in California where I grew up; near family, horses, and lots of amazing wine :) I am happy to share that life and business are doing very well. I haven’t had much bandwidth to reach out to many of my old friends or write much on this blog – but that will be changing soon!

The Casa has also gone through much transition, but is thankfully on stable ground, at least for the time being. There are new directors, and a surge of new financial support and resources that have come forward in recent months. I have not been directly involved in the past year, but will continue to support in whatever way I can. I have been in touch with the US Board and new directors, and will be announcing a very cool fundraising initiative sometime in the next couple of months. I will also be involved with a few other projects in Peru that I am helping with marketing and fundraising support. Stay tuned for more info on all fronts!

Tierra De Niños

I’ve been recently asked to help a much smaller but equally wonderful project that is near and dear to my heart – Tierra de Niños. TiNi is part of a larger international initiative called ANIA, that empowers children with environmental skills and knowledge, and is located throughout Peru, and globally. The Tierra De Niños projects are dedicated to educating children and their communities about eco-consciousness, yet ends up being so much more involved and impactful. ANIA provides the training, and framework for leaders to implement their programs in either a school, orphanage, or community setting – such as revitalizing community parks in very underprivileged communities, after school programs teaching kids organic farming, and much more. (See Below for more Info!)

This particular project is in a small rural town outside of Cusco called Rakchi, and is run by a good friend of mine from Lima named Magali Pestaña. Magali was one of the tutors at Casa de Milagros that I hired to run art and various experiential learning workshops with the kids. She’s truly amazing, and super dedicated to social work with children in Peru. She’s been running the Tierra de Ninos project there for over 3 years – and until now, has done all of the fundraising, and logistics on her own, with very limited resources. This year, she has been able to get a couple of more consistent donors, and finally has a bit of stability to be able to run the program through the end of the year. However, the funds cover the basic program needs, such as staffing, supplies, and administrative costs.

Some Projects Magali Runs Include:

  • Greenhouse Maintenance, Gardening & Permaculture
  • Art Classes & Workshops
  • Theater & Oral Storytelling
  • Care of Self & Environment
  • Photography Classes & Workshops
  • Self Awareness through Art & Self Expression
  • Recycled Plastic & Crafts Workshops
  • Cooking Classes
  • Much more!

Magali reached out to me to see if I could help her raise about $750 to cover transportation costs for her and her co-teacher, who have to get to and from the project from Cusco city 4-5 days a week, and are currently doing so out of their own pocket. I would love to help her as much as I can – and my first step was reaching out to my nearest and dearest to see if you felt moved to support in any way – or if you could please forward this info on to any one you think might be interested.

My goal is to get 30 people to donate $25 – but any amount helps!

I have included below a few things to give you more information and details about the project – but if you would like to learn more and have any additional questions, I’d be happy to answer them for you – please Contact Me.

More Info:


I will be collecting funds and wiring a check for whatever I am able to raise by October 5th in one lump sum via a Western Union transfer. Please note that because this is a Peruvian NGO, and not an established US 501c3, you are not able to declare this as a tax deductible donation here in the US (if you are in Peru, Magali will mail you a receipt). Just know that you are supporting a very worthy, grass-roots project, that unfortunately does not have the funds for much marketing, fundraising, or administration – but is doing amazing work!

To donate, you may send a check for any amount, payable to me, to my address:

PO Box 485
Santa Ynez, CA 93460

or you can pay via PayPal:


Stay tuned for lots more posts very soon…

Big hugs,


Casa de Milagros Purpose

News & Updates – September 2012

September 14, 2012

“To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”
~Bernadette Devlin

Wow….has it really been 3 months??

Surreal to think that just a few months ago I began this amazing adventure (well, the latest chapter anyway) and oh so much has happened since…

You haven’t heard too much from me during this time – just too much happening very quickly to even process it for myself, let alone be able to communicate it in any kind of sensical way…to say I was consumed would be an understatement.

I am blessed to report that I am doing very well, as are the kids, and the future of Casa de Milagros is looking very bright…;-)

When I left, so much was up in the air and unknown…and on the ground there was SO much work to do. So I did what I went there to do – roll up my sleeves and get to WORK.

I am so thankful to say that the work paid off. In just the first month I was able to reduce the operating budget by 50%, greatly reducing our overhead and have continued to operate on a 50% budget for the last two months. I have re-staffed, and hired on an amazing administrator who is helping me manage the day to day and has been an immense support to me and everyone at Casa.

There has also been a lot of legal and operational work with regards to the organization in Peru, and lots of clean up with things like our tax returns, the Peruvian board, all of the million financial and legal considerations involved with running a non-profit in Peru. Not to mention the social work side of things that I had zero clue about but have somehow managed to pick up quickly! I have been learning the ins and outs of running a home for children, and all of the many facets that entails…

I have worked in partnership with John Munn, the US Board president, on the fundraising and PR side of things. When I arrived we had less than 2 months of budget left, but in the past few months have thankfully been able to secure funding through to the end of year. We are very hopeful that soon we will have a solid donor base that covers our yearly budget for 2013 and beyond. This means that Casa is staying open for business!! ;-)

I have spent a lot of energy on networking and have formed some amazing relationships. I am starting to build invaluable partnerships within Cusco and in the non-profit world in Peru.  There are incredible people doing wonderful work there…and I feel so fortunate to be meeting so many of them!

Perhaps the most intense and important work of all has been the work with the kids. A lot of my energy has been spent on helping them heal and feel a sense of safety and stability for the first time in several years. Everyone at Casa has felt the uncertainty and instability of the past few years, and each child has internalized it and has acted out in their own way. Little by little we are working with each of them, and the shift has been tremendous; there is a sense of hope and positivity that has not been felt in a long time.

Towards the end of July, John Munn came out to visit with his wife and their youngest daughter. Neither of us had any idea what to expect as it was the first time we were meeting in person, and we had both had such a crazy and mixed experience during our involvement with Casa thus far. But as soon as we met we pretty much fell in love :-) He’s a wonderful man, very humble, down-to-earth, and has a huge heart. We were on the same page about pretty much everything. He was also very impressed with the work I had done in such a short amount of time, and couldn’t stop saying how different things were from the last time he had visited. He said “you’ve done more by yourself in just 2 months than all of the other people combined did in the entire 18 months I’ve been on board…”  You have no idea how good that felt to hear ;-) More importantly, it was validation that I was where I needed to be…and that I actually COULD do this!

Throughout his stay, John kept planting seeds for us to have “the talk” which was essentially – “so now what?” Obviously neither of us had placed expectations on my time in Peru, other than to hope that there was a way to keep things going. When I left, I knew there was the possibility of it being a longer than 3 month project – but as I mentioned, there was no way I was going to risk everything (again) without first going and seeing for myself what the situation was. Now it was 2 months in, and both of us were feeling super inspired and fully motivated to continue the major progress that had been made. There was no way I could leave Casa now. John said there was no one else in the world he could imagine doing the job, and he asked me if I would be willing to stay on as the permanent director. He wanted to make sure I felt good about the situation and asked me what I would need to make it happen. Obviously I needed a couple of days to think about things, but in my heart I already knew the answer.

YES! Of course I accepted, and once we ironed out the details, I felt more than supported and taken care of – which felt amazing.  To be able to do the work I love and that inspires me on such a deep level, PLUS feel compensated and supported…it’s literally a dream come true. I feel beyond blessed, and incredibly happy.  Both John and I are committed to having this be just the beginning – to get Casa De Milagros on sustainable ground, grow the project, and then open other homes to be able to help many more children…it’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and it feels absolutely surreal that it’s actually happening.

SO…I am officially the Executive Director of Casa De Milagros Peru!  I have committed to living in Peru for at least the next two years but I have 10 weeks of vacation and a certain amount of flights included per year, so I will be coming to the states every 4-5 months or so to visit.  And you guys can come visit any time too! ;-)

This obviously means that my life in the states is on hold for now…I am back for a few weeks visiting and taking care of all of the details involved in packing up my life and moving to Peru. I am giving up my apartment (waahh!!) and selling virtually everything I own – so if you want any of my stuff let me know ;-)  Most importantly, I wanted a chance to reconnect with those I love and hope to be able to see as many of you as possible before I head back. I have been in the states for a little over a week just getting grounded and spending quality time with my family down in Santa Ynez. I just arrived to the bay area late last night and will be here for about a week. If you are free and would like to meet up, please contact me!

So much more to share, but way too much for one post..I have finally updated my website and blog here with some photos and stories about some of my adventures over the past few months. I’ve met so many beautiful people and had the most incredible experiences of my life…and there are many more to come! I promise to be much better about the updates from here on out ;-) To the right in the sidebar you will see a sign up box so you can receive updates from my blog to your email if you’re interested – if not I’ll be posting them on Facebook too.

Well my friends, it is a bittersweet (mostly sweet) day…I will miss all of my peeps, and my beautiful life here in California. But I know this is only bye for now…and besides, I’m only a Skype call away…;-)

Love you all so much and hope to connect with you while I’m here in the states…if not, ’til February!

Big hugs,




August 25, 2012

The town of Pisac (Pisaq) is one of my favorite places in the Sacred Valley.  I fell in love with Pisac the first time I came five years ago, and have fallen more in love with it ever since. It’s about 45 minutes from Cusco city and about 15 minutes from Casa De Milagros. Pisac is known for its amazing ruins, and for its popular artisan market. The entire town is lined with ancient Inca agricultural terraces that are still in use today, and the ruins provide an impressive backdrop to the town below. I’ve visited the ruins about 3 times, and there is still so much more for me to see and learn…

Impressive ruins and all, what I really love about Pisac is the market…and the people. Pisac has always been an artisan town with a rich and beautiful tradition of local artisans and vendors that produce everything from handmade silver to pottery and textiles.

Since arriving back in Peru, I’ve been to Pisac several times – mostly for Casa business such as grocery shopping and buying supplies we just can’t get in our little town of Lamay. But it’s also become my day-off destination…where I come to just feel peaceful and happy, and to enjoy a lovely afternoon…

I’ve found my favorite little spots to have lunch or dinner, such as Ulrike’s Cafe, the Blue Llama and the Pisac Inn. My favorite activity in Pisac is to sit out on the street in front of the Pisac Inn – right in the main corner/hub of the market – with a delicious Pisco Sour, and just people watch. There is a fabulous energy to Pisac, and it just seems to draw the coolest people…both tourists and vendors are some of the happiest folk you’ll meet in Peru. Of course I have my go-to vendors for a variety of beautiful handmade goods, and when I can I love to support them.

I just spent a couple of days shopping for gifts for my upcoming visit to the states, and was reminded how much I love this town! ;-) So I thought I’d share a few of my pictures of Pisac over the past few years…Enjoy!

View from the top of Pisac ruins – December 2008

Beautiful belt from a beautiful lady – Pisac Ruins December 2008

Gorgeous Pisac Valley – December 2008

Fancy Flute Player – Pisac Ruins December 2008


Beautiful Boy – Pisac Ruins January 2010

Our Fabulous Flute-Playing Guide – Pisac Ruins January 2010

Lulue and I playing Peek-a-Boo ;-) – Pisac Ruins January 2010

A Rainy Market Day – Pisac Market January 2010

A Rainy Market Day – Pisac Market January 2010

“Secrets” – Pisac Market January 2010

Pisac Inn – January 2010

Pisco Sour in Pisac – Pisac Inn June 2012

Beautiful Hats – Pisac, June 2012

Shipibo Tapestries @Ayahuasca Cafe – Pisac, June 2012

Flower Girls – Pisac, June 2012

Mi Amiga de Pisac – Pisac, June 2012

Casa de Milagros

Yoga Saturday with the Kids

July 15, 2012

Being out of my element, dealing with the transition and stress of the task at hand, and weathering the intensity of Cusco winter season has taken its toll on me physically and emotionally. I knew I needed to do something to care for myself…of course yoga is always the best medicine to tune in and love myself.

Oh how my body misses yoga…

Saturdays tend to be a mixed bag around Casa – usually tons of housecleaning, studying, and some sort of group activity. I have been so busy with the business side of things around Casa this past week, and I really haven’t had as much time as I’d like to hang out with the kids. So I thought I’d invite them to come and do some yoga with me. I ended up getting a larger than expected turn out, and was surprised at what a great yoga teacher I proved to be…;-)

Here’s a shot of the kids learning “Downward Facing Dog”…Yoga made even sweeter with great company :-)

Beyond Volunteering Cusco Inspirations

ANIA in Huacarpay: Seeds of Hope

July 9, 2012

Two and a half years ago, Cusco and the Sacred Valley were hit with some of the most intense and heavy rains in decades. As a result, much of the region was flooded, and there were disastrous landslides throughout Cusco, Much of the road through the Sacred Valley was taken out in several areas, as were some key bridges such as Pisac Bridge.

One of the most severely hit was the small town of Huacarpay, about 45 minutes outside of Cusco. After days and nights of heavy rain in Cusco, the river Huatanay had burst its banks and was raging through the village of Huacarpay, home to 1,600 inhabitants and thousands of livestock. A month after the floods, the whole population of Huacarpay was living in a tent city on a hill above the waterlogged, collapsed village, relying on donations of food, clothing, water and blankets. Thanks to the efforts of relief organizations such as Plan International and the independent charitable group La Casa de Mayten, the villagers managed to create an impressive degree of order amidst the chaos. They constructed a roofed cooking area, and organized relief efforts from within Peru and abroad. A temporary tent school was also built to educate the village’s 300 children.

Part of my work while here in Peru is to visit organizations to see about the possibility of placing volunteers for my work with Beyond Volunteering. Last Tuesday I visited a school called ANIA: Tierra de Ninos “Vida en mis Manos”. ANIA stands for Asociacion para la Ninez y su Ambiente (Association for Children and their Environment). I didn’t know much about the organization before I went, but I placed my first volunteer there, and since she was just finishing up her 3 week stay, I thought it would be a perfect chance to pay the project a visit.

The ANIA School I went to is located in the town of Huacarpay, so I was extremely interested in seeing how the town was doing after the terrible destruction of just a couple of years ago. Before I went, I had a few email exchanges with Yllari Chaska, the project director and volunteer coordinator. She was absolutely lovely from the moment we connected, and she offered to meet me at the bus stop in Cusco so we could head out to the school together. We met at the bus stop, and as soon as we started chatting, I felt like I had known Yllari for years – she was so warm and excited to share with me about the project. You could tell she was extremely passionate about the work.

When we arrived in Huacarpay, we passed through the outside of town where we saw some of the houses devastated from the floods – still just as they stood two and a half years ago, an eery reminder of just how much destruction had taken place.

We then walked up a hill and eventually saw a cute little green school situated on a small hilltop that overlooked a gorgeous lake.

As you arrive, the first thing you see is a beautiful hand-painted gate that reads “to this school come only those that love children.” Awesome ;-) As I entered the school, more beautiful art and gardens greeted me on either side of the walkway. Everywhere I looked there were cute, creative concepts like the “Hotel de Bichos”/Bug Hotel ;-) and simple but wonderful examples of ANIA’s mission at work: to teach these children how to love, honor, and care for the land.

“To this school enter only those that love children”

Manure Compost

Bug Hotel ;-)

Sensory Garden

Then a small woman with a huge smile and cute ruffly green apron popped her head out of one of the classrooms. Yanet is the director and main teacher at the school. She was so warm and friendly and super excited to have us visit, so she ushered us in to the classroom to have us meet the kids. It was wonderful to see the creativity and resourcefulness that true passion can inspire. Yanet showed off all of the tools they have created for the kids, and all the ways they “make it work” with such limited resources and funds. I was blown away at what is possible, and how HAPPY these kids were to be at school!

Most of the children who attend ANIA are from the remote countryside of Cusco, some of them up to 2 hours away. Their families bring them to Huacarpay to receive their education, work as housekeepers, and to learn Spanish. Yllari explained to me that the parents think they’re doing something good, by giving their children a chance to be successful through learning Spanish, but many of them struggle with the realities of sending their children to a school so far away from home. This is why Yanet and the other teacher who works at the school, Norma, make sure to give the children all the love and affection possible. The children are all so affectionate – all of them excitedly said “Hola” to me and a bunch of them ran up to me and gave me hugs. They’re amazingly grateful for the opportunity to come to school, and to receive the level of love and support that they do; and it’s so sad to think that they don’t get the love they deserve where they live. ANIA is their only refuge.

After the floods a couple of years ago – the school at Huacarpay became a fort of sorts for the locals who were displaced from their homes. As a result, the school ended up incorporating an overnight component (“internado”), so the children have been able to stay the night at the school during the week. This has added a great service to the families since the children have a safe place to sleep and no need to travel every day to/from school. But this has also added a substantial expense to an already lean budget for the project, and only a few days after my visit I was informed that the “internado” would be closing.

ANIA’s philosophy is to educate children through means of the environment. They recycle everything, from the dolls they make out of plastic bottles, to the purses they weave from plastic bags, to the benches they’re making out of weighted plastic bottles and mud. They make most of their crafts in art class, and sell them at the annual Christmas Market Cusco hosts every December 24th. The money goes to buying things for the school, as the government doesn’t help them out much. A few years ago they bought some camera equipment and now they have a news show that they broadcast on YouTube.

“Ecological Learning Area”

Energy efficient warm water sinks ;-)

“Glass” windows made from recycled plastic bottles

“Glass” windows made from recycled plastic bottles

Solar panels donated a few years ago for heating water

The projects’ main focus is on plants, and on instilling a sense of ecological awareness and responsibility. Each student gets a small plot of land that they learn to take care of. Many of them have small vegetables growing. Through the act of farming, the children are taught the value of nature. Each plot es divided up into a section for “Pacha Mama” (Quechua for Mother Earth), a section for sharing (they bring the plants in that section back to the house they live in), and a section for personal gain where many of the children sell their crops or eat them themselves. They also have a greenhouse, where the students work in groups, and they get their own small plot for medicinal plants. Yanet and Norma encourage a visual and physical approach to learning, rather than having children sit and listen to lectures and copy down notes, they get to create and experience the process. ANIA encourages creativity and resourcefulness in children while teaching them about the importance of taking care of the earth.

Yllari showing us the greenhouse

We then got invited into the dining area to join the kids for their morning snack. It was a delicious juice/smoothie made out of bananas, papaya and milk. The children receive a morning snack, lunch, and were also given dinner when the internado was functioning, but now leave shortly after their lunch.

Modest but functional kitchen


I then had a chance to sit and talk with Jenna Davidson, the volunteer I had placed there through Beyond Volunteering. She was from Canada and had spent almost 3 weeks at the Huacarpay school. She said most of her time was spent doing pretty intense manual labor in the gardens. The land is very rugged and needs a lot of work – she doesn’t know how the teachers and kids keep them going year round, and has a huge appreciation for the amount of work that has already gone into the project. She says it has been one of the most impactful and special experiences of her life, and hopes to continue her work in ecological studies, and hopefully pay another visit to ANIA and Peru again very soon.

Jenna Davidson – a Beyond Volunteering success story! :-)

I had personally never seen or heard of anything like ANIA or Tierra de Niños; to see such raw passion and dedication in action was incredibly moving…I left Huacarpay so inspired, and full of hope that one person, and one cause, can indeed make a huge impact. Muchas gracias Yllari, Yanet, and Jenna – your work is felt by many and I feel blessed to call you my new friends! :-)

Me, Yllari & Jenna in the Magic Garden

To learn more about Ania and the their projects throughout Peru and the world, please check out their website:


Casa de Milagros

Eye Care Day at Clinica Kausay Wasi

June 18, 2012

This past week I had the pleasure of meeting the most amazing couple who founded and run a medical clinic here in the Sacred Valley in our neighboring town of Coya (Qoya). Their clinic is called Kausay Wasi, and they offer general medicine, dentistry, gynecology, obstetrics, operating facilities, and currently offer the only fully functioning x-ray lab in the entire Sacred Valley. In addition to their general care services that are offered 7 days a week, Kausay Wasi hosts between 12-15 visiting Volunteer U.S. Medical teams a year. Volunteer doctors have worked with Association Pro Salud Calca since 2003 and have operated on children with hearing difficulties, restored sight to elderly people blinded by cataracts, conducted orthopedic, cleft lip, palate, and reconstructive facial surgeries for burn and accident victims.

The founders, Guido and Sandy Del Prado, graciously invited the children and I to come and take part in the Optometry Campaign they were hosting this week in partnership with a wonderful group of expert optical care physicians from the United States. This group came as part of the non-profit, VOSH International, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating the provision and the sustainability of vision care worldwide for people who can neither afford nor obtain such care.

Casa De Milagros has always provided the best medical care possible to our children, however, funds and access to quality care are a constant challenge here in Peru. This was an incredible opportunity for the children, and for 10 soles ($3.50) each, they each received an expert eye exam, eye glass prescription, and free eyeglasses for those that needed them. I knew some of our children needed them, but was shocked that 9 of our kids left with brand new, much needed prescription eyeglasses.

One of our older boys, Belisario, was found to have an eye infection that the doctors said he might have had for quite some time, and was diagnosed as having an extreme light sensitivity. He was given some medication to clear up the infection, as well as 2 pairs of extra dark sunglasses to protect his sensitive eyes from the intense Andean sun. Each of the kids left with a brand new pair of sunglasses, and were very grateful for the amazing care and generosity from both Kausay Wasi staff and all of the wonderful VOSH volunteers.

On behalf of all of us at Casa De Milagros, MUCHAS GRACIAS!!! :-)

About Clinica Kausay Wasi:

Asociacion Civil Promotora de Salud Social Pro Salud Calca is a registered Peruvian non-governmental non-profit organization founded by Guido and Sandy Del Prado to provide basic health and dental care to thousands of Peru’s poorest people. Guido is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and former Peace Corps Director. Sandy is a former Peace Corps Volunteer and USAID Health Project Officer.

One of two fully-functional operating rooms at Kausay Wasi

Kausai Wasi provides General Medicine that is available at the Clinic seven days a week. They also offer Gynecological exams, Dental, Physical therapy Prosthetics General medicine are also available on a daily basis and pharmaceuticals are available at very low cost or provided free of charge to those who cannot afford to purchase them.

Over 100,000 low income patients have been provided with quality care over the past five years. Their General Practitioners see approximately 500 patients a week.

For more information, please visit their website at www.kausaywasi.org

Casa de Milagros

A Casa Homecoming

June 10, 2012

I’m home…

Officially landed here at Casa on Wednesday after a couple of weeks in Lima and on my Qoyllurit’i adventure

Was welcomed with warm and loving arms – the kids and staff have been so wonderful. The first day I arrived, Mama Yeni and Michael gathered a group to come and clean my house…I joined in and we spent a few hours wiping off cobwebs, dust, and unpacking my suitcases…at one point I looked up and noticed a beautiful painting, and smiled as I realized it was of Mama Kia and her dear friend and “sister”, Nikki. It was as if they were extending their arms and welcoming me home…;-)

In a lot of ways, it feels like I never left. Then I realize how much has changed since last time I lived here – two years ago exactly. So much life I’ve lived since then, so many wonderful people that have come into my life and so much growth…and then I look around here and see so much loss…

I have a huge list of to-do’s and a lot of work to do. Trying not to feel overwhelmed and let myself enjoy the experience – not let it feel so “heavy”…when I do start to feel the anxiety build I try to remind myself to just look up – take in the beauty and power of the “Apus” (Mountains) around me, the magic of the Sacred Valley skies, and the immense energy all around…not to mention the kids’ love…soak it in, let it fill me and give me strength.

Welcoming me “home”…


Cusco Inspirations Travel & Adventures

Qoyllurit’i: My Magical Journey to the Lord of the Snow

June 8, 2012


Two years ago, when I was living in Cusco from end of May to end of August, I was lucky enough to experience the full force of Cusco’s most festive months. June and July are filled with celebrations of Andean and Spanish origin; most of which are a unique and fascinating hybrid of both. I was in the throes of Corpus Cristi festivities when a local musician friend told me he was heading to Qoyllurit’i that next morning, and asked if I wanted to join him. I had never heard of it, and as he began to tell me more about this spiritual pilgrimage, I grew more and more curious. However, I soon learned about the extreme altitude and freezing cold temperatures involved, and decided it was probably not the safest thing to do given my lack of preparation and equipment. So, I left with the lingering desire to take part in this unique experience, and have been curious about it ever since…

Fast forward 2 years. I began feeling the calling back to Peru in a big way a few months ago as a new project with Beyond Volunteering, and also a critical time with Casa De Milagros began to unfold. My friend and partner with the Beyond Volunteering project, Carsten Korch, sent out an article and announcement about Qoyllurit’i. In it, he shared that 22 years ago he met his wife there, and that it is a sacred and special experience. He was organizing a group trek for this year’s event through his travel agency, Peru Experience. Something told me to open that email, and to watch the video. As I did, I knew that I just had to go. The timing was almost perfect in every way, so I called Carsten, and soon I was officially on board…

The Story of Qoyllurit’i

Each year the people of the district of Ocongate (Quispicanchis) perform a ritual that is based on Catholic religion, but whose roots lie in the ancient Incan principal of bringing man closer to nature. The ritual, associated with the fertility of the land and the worship of Apus, the spirits of the mountains, forms part of the greatest festival of native Indian nations in the hemisphere: Qoyllur Rit’i. In Quechuan, Qoyllorit’i means “Snow Star” or “Shining Snow”. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious festivities of Andean Peruvians, and millions of devotees participate in the event from various areas of the country. This is situated of the beginning of the mountain Sinakara in the village of Mawayani, at 4700 meters above sea level. Every year, days before the celebration of Corpus Christi, every small village or clan send a delegation with colorful dancers and “pauluchas” to the Capilla (Chapel) del Señor Qoylloriti.

The main ceremony is held at the foot of Mount Ausangate, at 4,700 meters, where temperatures often plunge below freezing. The ritual brings thousands of pilgrims, including shepherds, traders and the merely curious who gather at the shrine at Sinakara. Popular belief has it that the infant Christ, dressed as a shepherd, appeared to a young highland Indian boy, Marianito Mayta, and they quickly became friends. When Mayta’s parents found them dressed in rich tunics, they informed the local parish priest, Pedro de Landa, who attempted in vain to capture the infant Christ who had disappeared and left behind only a stone. Marianito died immediately, and the image of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i appeared on the stone.

Today, the festival starts off with the day of the Holy Trinity, when more than 50,000 pilgrims climb to the snowline, accompanied by all sorts of dancers in full costume (chauchos, qollas, pabluchas or ukukus) portraying various mythical characters. The Ukukus, or bears, are the guardians of the Lord and the Apu mountain spirits and apachetas, stone cairns built along the way by pilgrims to atone for their sins. The ukukus maintain order during religious ceremonies. “Los Pabluchas” represented alpacas and are intermediaries between the Sir Qoyllorit’i and his men. They climb at 4 o’clock in the morning to the iced mountain of Sinikara while asking for more animals and general prosperity. During the party the people who participated in the procession praise our Lady of Fatima to have good luck in business, life and their future. A group of hefty Queros, members of what is probably Peru’s purest Quechua community, dress up as pabluchas and set out for the mountaintop, at 6,362 meters in search of the Snow Star which is reputedly buried within the mountain. On their way back down to their communities, they haul massive blocks of ice on their backs for the symbolic irrigation of their lands with holy water from the Ausangate.

The end of the procession takes place at the ancient Inca capital of Cusco the celebrations of Corpus Christi; when all of the city’s streets and plazas fill with vibrant processions and music.

Our Trip

Having grown up mostly in California, I fully admit to being very inexperienced with extreme weather. However, nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the cold and altitude at Qoyllurit’i. The weeks leading up to my trip had been extremely full and a bit stressful – what with packing up my life to move to Peru, wrapping up client projects, managing Casa De Milagros and Beyond Volunteering, spending time with family, and then of course the week of travel to Lima, and Cusco. The day before the trip, I was feeling a bit ungrounded to say the least. I had this deep feeling, though, that part of the grounding and healing process would come with this trip.

I met our group for the first time at our pre-trek briefing meeting on Sunday afternoon. I felt relieved to see Carsten, meet the great people I would be sharing this experience with, and that our guide seemed very relaxed and knowledgeable. Since there really is no way to prepare for the altitude other than spend a few days acclimatizing (as I had), my only main concern at that point was the cold. I had purchased the most expensive sleeping bag I could afford before leaving the states – a Marmot synthetic bag that is suitable for up to 4 degrees celsius. When he told me it would get to minus zero, I opted to rent an extra bag from him at $6 per night (The best $12 I ever spent!) I also decided to get some stronger sunblock (SPF 60), a warm pair of wool gloves, and a “chullo” (Andean wool cap) to cover my ears.

The morning of the trek, I was incredibly anxious. The internet had been abysmal the night before, and I didn’t have time to take care of the last minute emails and random odds and ends I had to do before I left. A panic attack set in as I got in the van and realized I would have zero contact with the outside world for the next three days. The downfall of my line of work, is that it can feel essential to be “connected” at all times. The first hour of the trip was spent making lists in my head of all of the things I hadn’t done, and what could possibly go wrong. From deep inside, this voice came through telling me to “let it go”…I knew that this was part of the experience in and of itself, and that I needed to have faith, surrender, and be as present as possible. So I began the challenging process of “unplugging” and “letting go”…

I soon began to focus on the amazing beauty of the Andean scenery as we got further outside of Cusco. When we left, the city was buzzing with Pre-Corpus Cristi festivities, and it was a maze of people and cars all trying to make their way around this ancient city that was never built to sustain even a fraction of what it has to today. It felt wonderful to get out into the open air – and explore a part of Cusco I had not yet traveled to. About 45 minutes outside of the city, we passed a town that is famous for it’s bread – Oropesa. Our guide, Erick, got out and got us a big wheel of the famous Pan de Oropesa and we all enjoyed this fresh treat. A little later on, we passed several places I have heard of and wish to return to, such as Andahuaylillas. Soon we arrived at a Mirador (Vista Point) that had an amazing view of our destination: Mt. Ausangate.

We drove a total of 3 hours to a little village called Mawayani, the base of Qoyllurit’i at 4,100 meters above sea level. Here we were to have lunch, pack up our horses, and head off on the trekking portion of the trip. Mawayani was bustling with activity; people coming and going from the magical Qoyllurit’i. There are many who had gone up the day before or earlier that morning, paid their respects, and were now heading back. However, we were planning to be there for the main event which was that night and the following day.

While the guides packed up our stuff and prepared lunch, the group walked around the town, checked out the sights, and bought any last minute supplies. I bought a small flashlight for about 10 soles/$3.50 and took some great pictures of some gorgeous little girls and local merchants.

At the advice of our guide, I also picked up some candies, since sugar is good for boosting energy in high altitude. Another option is to do as the locals do, and buy huge chunks of sugar cane to gnaw on…you could buy a yard long piece for about 3 soles / $1.00, and I was in awe at the amount of it all around us. We then headed back and had a delicious lunch of Fajitas and pineapple “refresco” (a light juice). By the way, the food that was provided and prepared by our guides on this trip was absolutely phenomenal – muchas gracias chicos!

Once we were nourished and fully packed up, we headed up the hill and began our pilgrimage…

The first hill is probably the most difficult. It’s steep, narrow, and there are tons of people, horses, llamas, and donkeys fighting for the path. There’s also the realization once you make it huffing and puffing up to the top, that the journey has only begun. I think all of us were feeling a general anxiety around the unknown, and thinking, “what have I gotten myself into??”

The hike from Mawayani to Qoyllurit’i is about 8.5 kilometers/5.25 miles and took us about 4 hours. Of course, there’s the added element of the altitude, which goes from 4,100 meters at Mawayani to 4,700 meters at the top of Qoyllurit’i. Along the path, there are a series of “estaciones” or crosses; 13 in total. They became the only thing that kept me going…my competitive nature set in and I just focused on checking each one off one by one…

When we finally made it to the top – fear, cold and fatigue gave way to awe and wonderment. I was completely enthralled by the intensity of people and celebrations, and of the organized chaos that is Qoyllurit’i. I couldn’t help thinking this is what the a wild west town must have been like – a temporary city full of horses, dust, and hastily assembled stalls selling everything a pilgrim might want for the journey up the holy mountain. There were tents and booths selling everything from offerings for the mountain gods, hot chocolate and teas, and every kind of food imaginable. There was even a psychic monkey and his two friend parrots who picked your fortune out of a box…it was intoxicating! We followed our guide, Erick, who somehow amazingly led 14 of us to our 8 tents amidst thousands.

When we arrived to our camp, we got paired up and assigned to our tents, and our guides treated us to a snack of coca tea/”mate”, coffee, hot chocolate and crackers. While we attempted to rest and warm up, he briefed us on the plan for the rest of the evening, our camp rules, and where to find our “potty tent”. As the sun dropped, we began to feel what real cold at high altitude feels like. I had on 5 top layers, 2 bottom, 2 socks, gloves, and 2 caps…but the cold comes up from the mountain below and through your feet, and there is almost no way to avoid keeping your toes from freezing. Amidst all of that, many of us decided to venture out into the masses to experience the festivities.

We wound our way through the crowds and up to a small temple where we were greeted by some friendly “pabluchas”. Amidst the dancing, drumming, whistle blowing and fireworks, I began to forget about the cold and my aching muscles, and joined the party. We approached a group of very merry dancers, and both Ximena and I were the first to get dragged in to join the celebrations. My partner was very excited, and I was able to follow his lead pretty successfully. Within seconds I went from freezing to sweating, and my heart began to beat out of my chest. Altitude is no joke.

After about an hour, we left the celebrations and made our way back to the tents, for what was to be the most restless night of my life…

I spent the first part of the night experiencing intense shivering attacks in the tent for what felt like forever, but was probably about an hour and a half. I couldn’t believe how cold it was, despite having TWO good quality sleeping bags, and being bundled in layers of clothes. The air is thin enough to make me hyperventilate while trying to keep warm in the sleeping bag. I vacillate between covering myself up completely, and then gasping for air at the hole in my bag. Every movement took my breath away. I begin to remember all of the people I had seen on our journey through the camp who were sleeping with nothing on them but plastic sheets or ponchos. I saw women, men and children huddled behind our tent with no shoes on, lying on the ground completely without protection. What are these people made of? Their fortitude both amazes and humbles me. Our group are 14 of a very small number of non-Quechua speaking participants in this ancient festival of the snow and the star, and now I know why.

Somehow, amidst the shivering and racing thoughts, I fell asleep…a restless night to say the least, but when I awoke, the exhaustion fell away, and the energy and magic of what was waiting outside of my tent took hold…

Our guide prepared us for the day and let us know that each of us would be allowed to have our own time, to experience Qoyllurit’i in whatever way we wished. We had each been called to this mountain for unique and special reasons, and so we should take the opportunity to fulfill our purpose. Along our journey up the mountain, I had taken time to say a little prayer and set an intention at each of the crosses. On this day, I decided to let go of self-imposed intentions and let myself be guided. We made our way to the temple, and realized that they were opening it up for the first mass of the day.

We somehow wiggled our way into the massive crowd fighting for a spot, and next thing I knew I was in a mob of people all grabbing and fighting to be as close to the altar as possible, so that they and their wishes could be “blessed”. Although I was raised Catholic, I don’t consider myself a religious person. However, I couldn’t help but be carried away into the emotion of the moment. I too wanted desperately to be blessed! I started feeling the crowd grow denser and the shoving get more intense, so for a moment I panicked realizing one misstep could mean major problems. But before I could finish that thought, I looked up to realize I had been placed just a few yards from the priest, and in that moment he looked right at me and literally showered me in holy water. As I wiped my face, the crowd guided me out to the left side door, and next thing I knew I was outside of the church, in a bit of shock. I said a few prayers outside the church, and couldn’t help but smile, thinking of how truly blessed I was…and realizing I always have been…

We continued to follow the processions and check out the many wonders all around us. Soon I found myself at the top of the mountain where people were buying and “selling” land, houses and businesses. I glanced over and saw a mass of people gathered around what appeared to be a priest, and realized this was what Carsten and Virginia had told me about – that there would be the opportunity to ask the gods for marriage – for yourself or for someone else. The ritual involved having a “priest” marry you, or the person for whom the wish was intended. I suddenly knew that I had to do this.

For a bit of context: I am a 32 year old, happy, successful, single woman, and have until recently not really even known if marriage was for me. In this past year, however, I began to realize that something inside of me did want to get married…and this felt like the perfect place to make that proclamation out loud. So I asked what I needed to do, and was instructed to purchase my wedding bands, marriage certificate, and set off to find my husband. I ran into Carsten and his wife Virginia, who upon learning that I planned to get married, became very excited, and offered themselves up as godparents. We soon came across a young man named Pico, who had traveled all the way from the neighboring state of Apurimac to take part in this ritual, in the hopes of summoning land, a wife, and prosperity. He was very humble, very sweet, and very excited to get married, so off to the altar we went!

There were many people waiting to get married, so this was no easy task. Being taller than almost everyone there helped, and soon enough, Pico and I were called next. The ceremony was lovely, and hilarious. The priest was a character to say the least, and everyone in attendance had a great time…

Before I knew it, the priest was declaring us husband and wife, the ceremony was over, and I was officially wed. The ritual was not over however, as I was told I now needed to get my certificate notarized, so I did. Pico then informed me that the wedding party had to do a formal cheers/ “brindis” to the happy occasion. He passed around water for us all, and covered the two of us in confetti and ribbon. After a few happy photos and lots of hugs, we bid farewell to Pico, and continued on our path…a short but sweet reception and honeymoon. :-)

The whole experience got me thinking about the concept of “desires”. These people all around me knew exactly what would make them happy: a house, a business, a family. Yet I realized with a bit of sadness that I honestly didn’t have a clear picture of what my heart truly desired…of course I wanted all of those things, but I suddenly realized that a clear vision had thus far eluded me. Perhaps I had been caught up like so many of us as we “grow up” and are forced to give up our fantastical dreams for the practically attainable?? So I thought hard about what it was that would make me truly happy, and what my dream life looked like…

I suddenly got a very clear vision of a spanish-style hacienda, overlooking a gorgeous valley, with a beautiful home surrounding a brightly lit courtyard, horses and animals, and enough space to host a big, loving family and many friends. I turned around and saw a beautiful young girl selling property titles, so I bought my land, and began building my dream hacienda. When I was done, she gave me some confetti and firecrackers, and we inaugurated my dream home.

As we descended the mountain back to our camp, I was on a total high. I couldn’t believe the amount of energy I had felt and that I suddenly realized was welling up inside of me. I had just experienced something truly special, shared amongst the tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims that had also come to set their intentions for a happy and prosperous life on the Mountain of Ausangate. It is said that the power of Qoyllurit’i doesn’t come from the mountain or the gods, but from the power of combined human energy and intention. Regardless of what that power is, or where it comes from, I know that I felt it in that moment. As I stood there overlooking the processions, I suddenly welled up with tears. It was a combination of the intensity of the energy, the passion, faith, and devotion that I had witnessed, and the depth of history and culture…in that moment it all just kind of took my breath away…

When we got back to camp, we were welcomed by some indigenous women who had set up shop in the middle of our camp. They were dressed in their brightest and finest, and were selling some of the most gorgeous tapestries and weavings I had ever seen. One of them came up to me and asked me if I wanted some old coins. When I took a look at what she was holding, I realized they were real silver coins from 1782 and 1789 during the time of Spanish colonialism. I was very tempted to buy them, but at 300 soles each (around $85), I was going to have to pass…

That night was a lot more calm than the first, as many began their descent down the mountain that day. The cold however, remained intense, if not more so, and so we all huddled together in our dining tent reflecting upon our magical day. The processions also remained; a steady, rhythmic and constant backdrop of the entire experience. That night the stars were spectacular. Erick joined Gemma and I out under the dark sky to try to make out some constellations. It felt like they were all there, where they had always been, and where they belonged: amidst the magic and purity of these places most of us no longer go…We waited, patiently, for the moon to rise, and when it did, it was the most glorious thing I had ever seen. I went to bed completely inspired and at peace. The second night was still freezing, but once I was able to fall asleep, I slept through most of the night, and awoke rested and happy.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to pack up our camp and head down the mountain. After a light breakfast, we headed out, and bid farewell to this magical mountain. The trek down flew by and we made it back to Mawayani in an hour and 45 minutes.

We all chose to skip lunch in lieu of getting back to Cusco and resting, so we packed up the vans and headed back to the city. The drive was peaceful and quiet; most of us exhausted, and reflecting upon all that we had just experienced. As we approached Cusco, we could feel the energy and hear the familiar rhythm of the processions in celebration of Corpus Christi. The music, the dancing and the energy had followed us from the mountain into the center of Cusco, and we were again in the midst of one of Peru’s most intriguing cultural and religious traditions.

That night, we decided to have a farewell dinner at a great restaurant called Incanto, right off of the Plaza De Armas. It was amazing to see everyone clean and warm!

It was a lovely end to an amazing adventure – each of us feeling a special bond from having participated in something that not many people will ever have the chance to know. We were each coming back from the lord of the snow infinitely grateful, and forever changed…a few of us even married…


I put together a quick, silly little “preview” of the adventure, and a video of some of the footage I took:

Qoyllurit’i 2012 – Trailer from Claudia Miro on Vimeo.

Thank you so much to Carsten Korch and Morten Bruun of Peru Experience for putting together such an amazing journey; our guides Erick Farfan, Jose Abel Pancorbo and their fabulous crew; and of course all of my fellow pilgrims: Virginia Korch, Elisa Guzman, Ximena Guzman-Velasco, Gemma Chipulina Yoshida, Ana Perla, Marco Elias, Kim Allen Jones, Luis Eduard Romero, Tania Meave, Javier de Sousa Ferreira, Carla Gambirazio, Aurelio Gambirazio & Gladys Alvarado. Lo hicimos! ;-)

See My Full Album Below:

Casa de Milagros Cusco Purpose

Spring Has Sprung…Updates & New Beginnings

April 24, 2012

It was about a year ago that I wrote my last “real” blog post…amazing how time just keeps movin’ right along…

Since last spring, I have been consumed with launching my business, C.Miro Consulting. It has been such a blessed and amazingly rich time. I have learned invaluable lessons about business, life, and myself, and have had the opportunity to serve wonderful clients. Being an entrepreneur definitely keeps you on your toes, and I would have it no other way. ;-)

This past November I went to Peru for my grandmother’s 80th Birthday, and it was a beautiful, meaningful trip on many levels (you can see my pictures on Facebook.) My trip was focused on family, and I got to spend quality time with many loved ones, most especially my beautiful grandmother.

On that trip I met a man named Carsten Korch who owns several business and has some great projects in Peru, one of which is called Beyond Volunteering. We both were struck by how serendipitous our meeting was, how much we had in common and how much passion we both have for Peru, its culture, and amazing potential on just about every level. We knew we had to stay in touch, and that someday soon we would be collaborating on something great…

While in Peru, I also got to visit the kids at Casa De Milagros, a brief trip but the first time being back since I lived there for the summer almost 2 years ago. It was wonderful to see the kids, and I was greeted with the most amazing attack of hugs I’ve ever received! I was happy to see that they were all healthy and seemingly doing well. However, I realized that everyone was still struggling with feeling “safe” after the past couple of years of loss and instability since Mama Kia’s passing. I left them some gifts, a few awesome board games, a lot of hugs, and promised to be back very soon…

As usual, leaving Peru was very hard, but this time it felt even harder. I really felt like I was leaving behind where I was supposed to be…when I got back I had a very clear message that I needed to go back to Peru – not just to visit, but to begin building a life there. Ever since I can remember, I have dreamed of having a life in both worlds – a lifestyle that allowed me to divide my time between Peru and the states. My trip to Peru 3 years ago planted a very big seed, and I came back from that trip being very clear about the 3 things I needed in order to make my dream happen: acquire my citizenship, finish my college degree, and build a virtual business that I could run from anywhere in the world…Check, check, and pretty much check ;-)

Obviously it is not easy to think about leaving my life here in the states…I have a beautiful life, wonderful friends and family, and lots of things I would be leaving behind.

Was I being irresponsible?

Was I just trying to see the grass as greener?

Was I making a mistake? 

I talked about it with many of my closest friends and family, and in the process, came to realize that my calling to Peru is indeed a very grounded one. While there are always risks involved with any big change or move – there are undeniable opportunities for me in Peru, on every level. I started seeing how much has been lining up for me there over the past few years. I then decided that I would make it happen within the year, and not stress about when and how, but just to set the intention and let it go…

The past few months have been an amazing time of self reflection and inspiration. Beautiful people and resources have shown up for me in big and small ways…the signs are everywhere :-)  I began working with a dear friend and colleague, Anne Martin, who is a Marcia Weider certified Dream Coach, “Reinvention Specialist”, and was finishing her certification in a performance coaching program. She offered me 3 months of complimentary coaching, which I enthusiastically accepted. What an amazing gift! Anne was such a wonderful mentor and guide through a process of rediscovering my dreams, and the vision that I have for my life. She walked me through a process of revisiting what I had dreamed of as a little girl, all of the little blocks and negative experiences along my journey that had made my vision a bit blurry over the years, and to tune into what I was feeling NOW. She helped me to create a vision for the life I wanted to manifest as of today, one that incorporates all of the pieces of me and who I want to become. I created an essence statement: “I AM EMPOWERMENT”.  That one little exercise shifted how I began to see myself in my life and business, and how I wanted to show up from here on out. I saw how that related to all of the roles in my life that were the most meaningful to me – coaching little girls in basketball, working with the kids at Casa De Milagros, and teaching my clients how to be more successful. I love helping people see their true potential!!!

This time has also been incredibly fruitful professionally, as the process of creativity and reinvention began to show up in my business as well. My other friend and colleague, Tammi Spruill of Fruition Branding has been an invaluable source of inspiration and support as I set out to redefine my business from the inside out, and bring more of “me” into it. She holds such a wonderful, safe space for creativity and helping you develop the foundations of your business from a creative perspective. The work I did with Tammi helped me figure out how I wanted my business to look and feel to people, and what I wanted it to represent. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tammi. ;-)

Little by little I felt myself moving closer and closer to Peru…I knew it was about to happen, but until now, I also knew I couldn’t make any firm decisions quite yet. I just kept meditating, journaling, talking to friends & family, focusing on being present, surrendering, trusting, and allowing the universe to guide me where I was supposed to be…

About a month ago, mi amigo Carsten officially offered me the role of Executive Director of Beyond Volunteering, and I accepted!  In a nutshell, Beyond Volunteering helps source volunteers from all over the world, place them where they will be most suited to their interests and skills, do all of the coordination in Peru, and takes care of them when they arrive so that they have a safe, rewarding and mutually fulfilling experience. My job is to help raise awareness of BV, grow their online presence to reach more people, and generally make the whole project more successful by helping both the non profits in Peru find more quality volunteers, and by assuring that the volunteers going to Peru have more positive, meaningful experiences. I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding project, and I am thrilled to be on board. :-)

Pretty much that same week, I started getting back in touch with the directors of Casa De Milagros. Without going into too many details, the situation over the past month has become very dire as the Casa has lost not only their interim directors and leadership team, but also their primary source of funding. They have approximately 3 months worth of funds left and no certainty as to what will happen after that. I have been asked to come down and do what I can to help rebuild Casa, raise funds, develop a work/volunteer program, and create a sustainable organization once and for all. I have my work cut out for me…but I am ready…;-)

This was the final “sign” that I need to be in Peru right now…I am following my heart, and trying to stay as grounded as possible while being open to the path that is unfolding. This is a major practice in TRUST! ;-) I am allowing for the evolution of my life and business, and even though it might feel like a bit of a shift in priorities, I realize that this is exactly what I have envisioned my entire life! I always pictured myself doing meaningful work in Peru, and empowering those in need. I feel so blessed to have that opportunity present itself now…and I say YES!

For now, I will continue to work with a few of my existing clients so that I can supplement my time there and support myself, without placing a burden on the Casa. However, I know that the task at hand is going to require a lot of my time and energy and realistically may not leave me enough time to take on much client work over the next few months.

So I have put together a fundraising effort to help with my travel and living expenses, and also to purchase some much needed technology equipment for Casa. If you feel compelled to help by donating or helping spread the word – please CLICK HERE.

Also – once again I am looking for a home for my beautiful, adorable, and extremely loveable baby Bonita…so if you know any loving cat people who could use a fluffy pillow for a few months, let me know! ;-)

Love and blessings to you my friends and family – I love you all and can’t wait to share my experiences and developments with Casa & Beyond Volunteering with you very soon…stay tuned! xoxo