• Image about Peru
Scenic overlook above Lake Titicaca.
When I ask the hotel concierge to recommend a nearby spot for ceviche, he is adamant: We will eat at Alfresco. The concierge assures us that he will make a reservation, slips coupons for free pisco sours in our hands and sends us off with a walking map of the neighborhood.


Learn more about traveling to Peru: travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_998.html
When we arrive, I notice a seaside scene painted on one of the restaurant’s walls, and I wonder if this is little more than a hokey tourist trap. But, always a good sign, Alfresco is filled with local businesspeople. Many of the men have their ties pushed aside to guard against ceviche-sauce spills. Loaded with garlic, peppers and ginger, the pale orange sauce puts just enough tingle into my lips to wake me up. My long wait for truly good ceviche is over. It has been two years since I ceviched in Quito, Ecuador, and though I’ve gone through many plates of lime-dressed fish back home, it just never feels as right as it does when you eat it in South America.

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A motorbike taxi in Lima.
Deep into my second bowl of cancha and sipping my first Cusqueña, the most popular beer in Peru, I am able to move on from my ceviche daydream and start focusing on the next day’s events, when I head to the city of Puno for Candelaria. I have no idea what I’m in for.

The music pours down one of Puno’s streets. There’s a band nearby, somewhere, so I walk up the block, turn a corner and find them. They aren’t looking good, and they sound even worse.

With the competition stage of Candelaria starting the next day, the group’s dancers look … unpracticed. The band’s horn section doesn’t sound like it has any plans to keep up with the drums. And the dancers have more in common with a tipsy group of college pals at a wedding reception than a group scheduled to perform at a large stadium and then dance down Puno’s streets for hours, entertaining the crowds that pack temporary bleachers along the route. A few blocks away I discover a team of dancers and musicians that look — and sound — like they are there to compete. Led by a group of women in bowler hats and pale yellow dresses and carrying noisemakers that make a loud rat-a-tat-tat, the group is in sync. When the drum section starts to come through, I step back on the sidewalk to avoid getting hit by the bass drummers’ mallets.

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Reed huts on the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca.
Held in the city of Puno, Peru’s self-described capital of folklore, the Virgen de la Candelaria festival meshes Catholic and Incan traditions. A celebration of the annual harvest, it features a dance competition that marries the Super Bowl with So You Think You Can Dance at an altitude of 13,000 feet.

With practice done and the competition at hand, I follow Berto, my guide, through the streets of Puno. Most are narrow and cobblestoned. Many of the buildings are decorated with painted-on billboards for RC Cola or Inka Kola, a neon-yellow soda that tastes like liquid bubble gum. Vendors sell brightly colored packets of cookies and candy, as well as plastic sleeves of fried fava beans and popcorn.

Berto leads a group of us on a search to find the statue of the Virgin Mary being carried in a solemn procession, which is closely followed by the dance troupes headed for the local soccer stadium.

Each year, thousands of people gather in Puno to watch 70-odd dance groups perform and compete. Some groups have just a few dozen dancers who provide their own music with traditional reed flutes, while others are made up of several hundred dancers and huge hired bands from around South America. Sequins and satin are everywhere.