South America- Quipu

You know that feeling you get when you really want something, but know that you shouldn’t have it?

Well, recently, I’ve been frequenting the Teacher’s Lounge, only to find that it is littered with cupcakes, doughnuts, cookies, cookie cakes, and everything Sugar. I don’t know if this is a direct result of my teaching classes about [the Cuban singer] Celia Cruz’s trademark of shouting, ¡Azúcar! (sugar) in all of her songs; but regardless, The Sugar Room, as I have now coined it, might as well be magnetic: I can’t stay away.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vegetables and those trendy green smoothies and juices. I love spicy foods, curries, Vietnamese Pho, empanadas, steak, rice and beans, and anything seafood-related. But I LOVE–[note the bold and capitalization and cue lofty, dramatic music]–desserts. Like, to a fault. Dark chocolate and I are BFF’s.

So, in an attempt to justify shoving a second cupcake into my mouth the other day (don’t judge!), my eyes scanned the room for inspiration. Maybe we could feign that the upcoming sugar rush wasn’t a total waste: and it was at that moment that I happened to notice a small package of mint chocolate bars on the table.

It wasn’t that they were calling my name, necessarily. It was the brand that caught my eye: Andes, as in Andes Mountains. As in South America. As in Spanish curriculum territory. As in boom shaka-laka-laka! The librarian had told me something about rope storytelling in South America. Let the research commence. #CupcakeBreakJustified

Where to Begin?

A long, long time ago–we’re talking 2500 BC: or, when the world had primarily hunter-gatherers–someone tied a bunch of knots on a string of llama or alpaca hair [around some sticks], that would be discovered millenia later. We don’t know who this person was, or any specific details about their family. When boiled down to that, it might seem knot so extraordinary… and yet, it was.

You see, these knots would develop over the centuries into an incredible meta-linguistic system. They would be color-coded and distinguished by knot type, direction, spacing, and location. The knots would expand to become a major form of historical documentation and communication for use within the Incan Empire in South America. They would tease linguists and anthropologists with their complex structures and depth of thought.

The word for ‘knot’ in Quechua–the language of the Incas, which is still alive today–is quipu (or khipu, ‘key-poo’). It makes sense, then, that the majority of these knot cords, or quipus, have been discovered in Peru and the surrounding Andes Mountains of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.


Research about quipus is ongoing. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a couple named Marcia and Robert Ascher “grew the known inventory of khipus in worldwide collections from just over 70, to about 400 examples” (Manuel Medrano). This–in conjunction with recent technological advancements (e.g., spreadsheets)–allowed for significant data analysis throughout the following decades. Nowadays, there are over 600 quipus in museum collections around the world, although some estimates claim closer to 800. While quipus are still primarily unintelligible, anthropologists have nevertheless been able to deduce and gather a fair amount of information about these fascinating knots.

For starters, knot color played an important role. Ethnohistorian Sabine Hyland wrote a lovely narrative account about her research here. She traveled to Peru in 2015 and, after many negotiations, was able to visit with an Andean tribe guarding two Collata khipus inside a colonial chest. Hyland saw the khipus firsthand and learned that the colors were sourced from cotton and/or

“delicate animal fibers--crimson, gold, indigo, green, cream, pink, and shades of brown from fawn to chocolate.”

[The colors of these particular khipus were vibrant and] “made of fibers from six different Andean animals–vicuña, deer, alpaca, llama, guanaco, and viscacha (the latter a common rodent hunted for food). In many cases, the fiber can only be identified through touch–brown deer hair and brown vicuña wool, for example, look the same but feel very different.”


Moreover, according to researcher and professor Manuel de León, “the colors of the strings represent different categories–for example, brown corresponds to government; crimson to the Inca sovereign, ruler of the empire; and red to war–while the knots indicate quantities, including the number zero, which is represented by the absence of knots”.


While the Collata khipus are unique in certain ways, khipus are typically quite colorful and varied. Current day research is working to determine the stories behind these knots. For example, the Incas used these portable, lightweight cords to keep track of the new lands they conquered. They would record everything about the area.

“What the Incas would do if they conquered an area was go in and the first thing they would do is send their accountants, their inventory people,” MacQuarrie says.

“They would go in and literally count all of the different resources: the streams, the fields, they’d measure the fields, the people, the sexes of the people, mining, fishing, whatever. They would keep records of it and they would take that information back to Cusco and they would make decisions on how to administer that area.”


So the quipus were used, first and foremost, to record quantities. Medrano mentions in his talk, Knot Just Numbers: Andean Khipu Strings, that the numerical structure(s) of the quipu would seem to indicate that they were likewise used to keep track of debts and credits, such as taxes. Algebraic equations are also evident in the sums of the knots; but quipus were not calculators, rather, arithmetic records.

Both Hyland and Medrano toy with the idea that the quipus may have been used as a tool to record stories and legends. There are strong indications of this fact, such as Rosetta Khipus, in which quipus align directly with historical documents by Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega, and were likely transcribed by the Spanish from quipucamayocs, or specialists from the time period who knew how to read and make the knots. Not everyone could read a quipu.

This is a big deal because the Incan Empire was known not to have a written language; but if the quipus somehow correspond to a logosyllabic system, and someone is able to crack the code, an entire history of Incas will be revealed which, up to this point in history, has been hidden from view.

However, before I venture into solving one of the world’s mysteries, I might need another cupcake. Or an Andean chocolate mint.


  1. Knots representing numbers: The mathematics of the Incas
  2. Unraveling an Ancient Code Written in Strings (& HERE)
  3. We thought the Incas couldn’t write. These knots change everything
  4. Quipu: The Ancient Computer of the Inca Civilization
  5. How The Inca Used Knots To Tell Stories
  6. Quipu: South America’s Ancient Writing System
  7. Knot Just Numbers: Andean Khipu Strings (video)

Paraguay- Bottle Dance

PARAGUAY: La Danza de La Botella, or Bottle Dance, is a traditional Paraguayan dance with unclear origins- although many say it is an offshoot of the galopa (a different folk dance). Dancers begin at a young age, balancing one glass bottle on their heads. As they gain more skill, more bottles are added. While four or five bottles is an absolute feat, some advance to as many as ten or eleven–see videos below. The top and final bottle has a ribbon of the flag colors of Paraguay tied on to it.

In class, students admired the Ñandutí lace on the dresses, enjoyed listening to the traditional Paraguayan polka music, and then attempted to balance books and paper cups on their heads and walk around the room. (Not quite the same- but safety always comes first.) Regardless, it is harder than it looks!

Above: Image #1, Image #2

Uruguay- Casapueblo

URUGUAY: Obviously, we need to do some sort of amazing artistic project on this art studio turned hotel with no straight lines (in the entire edifice, as per the artist’s preference, Carlos Paez Vilaró). I was thinking of using marshmallows as our medium, but the temptation to eat them is just too great for elementary aged students. I will keep you posted.

LINKS: Wondermondo (Uruguay)Hotel Art Casapueblo (Uruguay)Casapueblo Video (Uruguay), Home of Carlos Paez Vilaró

Image Credit

Peru- Huacachina Oasis

PERU: When I first read Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, I had a vague idea of what an oasis was. It seemed nice, but the concept felt distant and inaccessible–that is, until I stumbled onto an article about Huacachina, Peru. Granted, Coehlo describes an oasis in Egypt, but I would bet that there are similarities.

The Huacachina Oasis is the only oasis in South America, and as such, a huge tourist destination for sandboarding, dune boarding, and the like. It is located near Lima, the capital city. HERE is an official site about the oasis; after exploring virtually, the travel bug will invariably bite you. My apologies in advance!

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3, Image #4, Image #5, Image #6, Image #7, Image #8, Image #9

Uruguay- Calle de los Suspiros

URUGUAY: Aptly named, “La Calle de los Suspiros”, or Street of Sighs, this dot on the map leaves you aching for a slower pace of life. I took the BuqueBus ferry over from Buenos Aires and only spent a day here, but it was as though time had stopped completely. My memory of this day easily stretches to weeks, if not months, in my mind.

The cobblestone streets, Sycamore trees, lighthouse, and breezy winds from the Atlantic–coupled with a gourd of hot Yerba Mate tea (“MAH-tay”) and a few alfajores, of course–sweep travelers into another world.

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3; all other photos are mine. Note that the huge, white, artistic-looking building is not in Colonia del Sacramento, but rather, Punta Ballena, Uruguay.

Chile- Torres del Paine

CHILE: Torres del Paine, Chile is a national park that covers nearly 500,000 acres of land. Its diverse wildlife, epic views, and sunrises and sunsets are among the most peaceful sights in the world. If you’re looking to “get back to nature”, this is the place to be.

Spend some time outside in your backyard or on a walk around your neighborhood with your five senses in mind. What do you hear? Smell? See? What can you touch? How do you feel? What could you taste? (Are there fruit trees or anything edible in sight?) How does nature make you feel? If possible, try to be barefoot for a while. Block out one of your senses–for example, close your eyes–and see how that changes your perspective. Did you notice more sounds when your eyes were closed?

One of my most memorable science homework assignments in school was to do sit on my back steps and simply observe. Later, I had to handwrite a paper describing everything. It was so peaceful to pause, sit back, and take time to really see the world.

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3, Image #4, Image #5, Image #6, Image #7, Image #8

Chile- Futaleufú

Image Credit

CHILE: Futaleufú, Chile (in Patagonia) is perhaps most famous for its extreme water rafting. While this looks like the adventure of a lifetime, there are also plenty of other activities available for visitors there, should this fast-paced sport not, um, float your boat (bad pun). Click HERE for more information and to schedule a trip!

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3, Image #4, Image #5, Image #6

Chile- Skyscraper

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3, Image #4

CHILE: In Santiago, Chile, stands the tallest skyscraper in all of South America. It is called both La Torre Costanera and the Gran Torre Santiago. While this 980 foot (300m) tall and 64-floor high building is impressive, there are plenty of extremely tall buildings around the world. The more interesting question, I think, is how were these constructed? How do they stand the test of time?

In class, students first looked at various architectural designs and a list of the tallest skyscrapers in South America. Later, classes had the opportunity to participate in the famous Marshmallow Challenge (“Reto de la nube”) to construct their own building in a small group. Did you know that this exercise is even used with company CEO’s to promote creative thinking? Interestingly enough, however, kindergarteners tend to outperform nearly all adults, but especially business graduate students.

In the Marshmallow Challenge, participants have exactly 18 minutes to try and build a free- stranding structure using only one yard of tape, one yard of string, 1 large marshmallow, and 20 pieces of spaghetti. The key is that the marshmallow has to be on the very top of the structure.

ASIDE: It is very possible that I may have given miniature marshmallows to students as a treat after the activity. What?! I did this project with first through fourth graders– there was no way they weren’t going to fight over and try to eat the one marshmallow!

Some teachers like to have a reflection discussion afterwards, and then do the same lesson again the following day to see what and how students work differently. Others stop the timer after about eight minutes, discuss as a class what is and is not working, and then get back to work (with 10 minutes remaining on the clock). If you sense there is a lot of frustration in the room, I would definitely recommend this second strategy. Have fun!

@TEDx site HERE.

Impressively Tall Buildings


Image #1, Image #2 & Tallest buildings in Chile


Image #1, Image #2 & Tallest buildings in Argentina


Image #1, Image #2


Image #1, Image #2 & Tallest Buildings in Peru


Image #1, Image #2 & Tallest buildings in Colombia


Image #1, Image #2

Uruguay- Punta del Este

URUGUAY: La Mano de Punta del Este is a huge sculpture on the beach of a seaside resort called Punta del Este in Uruguay (on the Atlantic coast). It was constructed in 1982 by an artist, Mario Irarrázabal, when there was an art exhibition but no space for him to participate in the town. So… he went to the beach! The fingers are made out of steel bars, plastic, concrete, and metal mesh.

In class, we did not use steel bars; instead, kindergarten students smeared a piece of paper with glue, and then sprinkled real sand over it to recreate la playa/ the beach. Next, they smushed their palms (no splatting, please!) into a color paint of their choice, and put a handprint on the beach. It was a simple project–albeit messy, for sure–but helped students to connect with a country that they knew little to nothing about.

While waiting for their turn to make a handprint, kindergarteners “built” the Andes Mountains on my floor map with blocks, through much of South America. It was a good day!

LINKS: La Mano de Punta del Este (Uruguay)

Image Credit, Image Source, Image Credit Unsplash

Peru- La Rinconada

PERU: La Rinconada is the highest city in the world. It is over three miles high (16,732 feet). It is also on top of a gold mine! For more details, check out this link HERE.

In class, students made their own tiny pieces of gold, while others tried to build a tower to the ceiling to represent “the highest city in the world”. You could definitely go more in depth here on the topic of mining with older students.

Regardless, be sure to take either the shortest or tallest student in the class and do a quick long division problem, to find out exactly how many clones of said student–standing on top of one another–would equal 16,732 feet high.

LINKS: Highest City in the World (Peru), The World’s Highest City is in Peru- PHOTO, La Rinconada, Inside the Highest Town in the World- Departures (have to subscribe)

Image #1, Image #2, Image #3

Venezuela- Ice Cream

VENEZUELA: Heladería Coromoto in Merida, Venezuela, is home to 900 flavors of ice cream and a world record, at that! Have you ever been in a rut, and wanted to try something new, different, novel to get another perspective? Well, here is your chance! Try avocado ice cream with black beans; or trout ice cream; or perhaps spaghetti with cheese ice cream. Click HERE to learn more.

In class, students had fun dreaming up strange combinations of flavors, and even began ‘selling cones’ made out of colorful paper.

Paraguay- Ñandutí Lace

Image Credit

PARAGUAY:Ñandutí, (Guaraní Indian: “spider web”), type of lace introduced into Paraguay by the Spaniards. It is generally characterized by a spoke-like structure of foundation threads upon which many basic patterns are embroidered.

This structure, resembling a spider web or the rays of the Sun, is usually made on a small circular cushion and is common in many Spanish countries. It is also found in drawn thread work. A comparable lace is made on the island of Tenerife and bears its name.” –Source

LINKS: Getting Crafty, Embassy of the Republic of Paraguay

Image #1, Image #2, Source

Chile- Atacama Desert

CHILE: The Atacama Desert (in northern Chile) is known as the “driest place in the world”, but you might not believe that if you chance upon it during the desierto florido phenomenon. Every so often, this megadry 41,000 square mile (105,000 sq km) area receives unexpected amounts of rain, causing seeds deep within the earth to bloom.

“In August even more rain fell and a second even wilder bloom followed. A barren country where you can walk for days without seeing an ant, a fly, or a blade of grass erupted in a gloriously obscene display of flora.”

Craig Childs

One Twitter user described it this way: “The average rainfall is 15mm/ year. Some weather stations have never received rainfall at all. But when it receives higher rains, it blooms like a fairyland (Susanta Nanda). Supposedly, this fairyland reappears every five to seven years, but take that with a grain of salt: the desert is a wild beast with a mind of its own, and will bloom when it feels like it.

While the photos are incredible, some sources seem to say that one of the images depicted is of the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas. Regardless, the desierto florido is a real thing, and does in fact happen in the Atacama.

People living in the Atacama used to speak a [now extinct] language called Kunza, also known as Lickantantay. The Tierra Hotels offer a PDF of activities for children and a list of vocabulary in Kunza.

LINKS: Paranal Observatory in Chile, Atacama- Flowers Bloom Following Rain

Bolivia- Pantanal & Trains

Imagen de Stefan Muller

BOLIVIA: I read a book recently that took place primarily in the pantanal. It sounded fascinating–and I desperatedly want to do a project on it–but the lesson plan has not come to fruition quite yet. Check back in the future for more on this!

LINKS: GLOBE TREKKER- Tough Trains (Bolivia), Tough Trains Series- Across Bolivia the Pantanal to the Pacific, Arica to La Paz By Train (Chile/Bolivia)Sucre to Potosí en Buscarril (Bolivia)From the Pantanal to the Pacific (Bolivia)Río Mulatos-Potosí Line (Bolivia), Toughest Place to Be a Train Driver (Bolivia)5 Highest Railway Lines in the WorldGlobe Trekker: Tough Trains (Bolivia)Tough Trains (Bolivia)

Most Dangerous Railways in WorldTough Trains (Bolivia)Tough Trains2 (Bolivia),

See also Argentina- Train to the Clouds

El Fútbol (Soccer)

SOUTH & CENTRAL AMERICA: Fútbol is an important part of the culture in many Spanish-speaking countries. During the 2014 World Cup, I happened to be in Buenos Aires–and the city exploded with enthusiasm after advancing to the finals. It seemed like everyone was your best friend, whether you knew them or not. Horns honked for 24 hours straight, people waved flags out of cars, gorged themselves on pizza, and held their breath as Messi kicked… and Argentina beat the Netherlands in the semi-finals. Spoiler alert: Germany won in the finals.

In class, students travel outside to play “Spanish soccer” and truly live the language. Here, the only–I repeat, only–rule that really matters is that students speak shout and yell in Spanish. “Who plays defense? What counts as a red or yellow card? Are the teams fair?” Frankly, none of that is too important–as long as students are running back and forth, kicking a ball, and shouting in the target language, I am happy as a clam.

Class Routine

Each day, students sign up for what they want to do. They can be a futbolista/soccer player, portero(a)/ arquero(a)/ goalie, entrenador(a)/coach, or árbitro(a)/referee. The two teams (that represent Spanish-speaking countries) get into a circle and chant either, “¡Este partido, lo vamos a ganar!” (we’re going to win this game!/Spain), or “Ganamos, perdimos, igual nos divertimos” (we win, we lose, either way we have fun!/ Guatemala).

Next, a special “visiting coach” [student] leads the teams in warm-up exercises. Now it is game time! Students work hard to shout in Spanish continuously, while trying to score a goal. Key vocabulary: Por acá/over here; pásala/pass it; la tengo/I got it; soy portero(a)/I’m goalie; la pelota/the ball; ¡apúrate!/hurry up!; casi/almost; hace mucho calor/it’s really hot; no manos/no hands; suelo/ground; ¿Qué?/What?; Yo dije…/I said; agua/water. Speaking English results in a penalty (referees have students count backwards in Spanish 5-0 and ‘complain’ “Quiero jugar”/I want to play!).

At the end of class, the teams line up and say, “¡Buen partido!” (good game!). While Mondays and Thursdays are practices, Fridays are official games and ‘Facepaint Fridays’, where students safety-pin paper flags to their shirts and have the option to paint their faces their team colors. Spanish music plays frequently, to help create a truly immersive experience.


  • ¡Pásala! (pass it)
  • ¡Por acá! (over here)
  • ¡Por allí! (over there)
  • La pelota/el balón (the ball)
  • Soy portero/a; soy arquero/a (I’m goalie)
  • ¡No manos! (no hands!)
  • ¡La tengo! (I got it!)
  • ¡Vamos! (Let’s go!)
  • ¡Patéala! (kick it!)
  • ¡Corre! (run!)
  • ¡Rápido! (quickly)
  • ¡Apúrate! (hurry up!)
  • ¡Sube! (go up the field)
  • ¡Quédate ahí! (stay there)
  • Defensa (defense)
  • Descanso/entretiempo
  • Fuera
  • No inglés (no English)
  • No fui yo (it wasn’t me)
  • Fue… (it was)
  • ¡Vamos a ganar! (we’re going to win!)
  • ¡Gooooool! (goal)
  • ¡Golazo! (amazing goal)
  • “Este partido, lo vamos a ganar.”
    • We’re going to win this game! (Spain)
  • “Ganamos, perdimos, igual nos divertimos.”
    • We win, we lose, either way we have fun! (Guatemala)
  • REPORTERO (un trabajo para alguien que no quiere o no puede jugar, por cualquier razón): “Fulanito tiene la pelota. Corre muy rápido. Patea la pelota y ¡GOOOOOOOL!(narra lo que sucede en tiempo real)
  • CONSECUENCIAS: Números 10-0 (cuenta regresiva obligatoria, como consecuencia por 10 segunditos cuando hablen en inglés o por accidente o a propósito)

Facepaint Fridays!

  • Mondays & Thursdays are practices, but Fridays are considered “official games”.
  • Here, students are welcome to paint stripes of their team’s Spanish-speaking flag on their cheeks.
  • They also have signs with their last name and favorite number to safety-pin to their shirts.

Film: Rated PG-13 (older students)

Venezuela- Roller Skating

VENEZUELA: “For locals in the capital of Caracas, it is customary to strap on your roller skates and glide to Christmas mass. As legend has it, children go to bed with a piece of string tied round their toe and the other end dangling out of the window. As skaters roll past, they give the string a tug and children know that it’s time to, well, get their skates on” (source). 

The streets are actually blockaded off each year so that families can roller-skate to Midnight Mass safely. People say this began as an alternative to sledding, since Venezuela is right on the equator and therefore quite warm in December. While I would not recommend roller-skating in the middle of the street in this country, you could go to a rink to skate!

Argentina- Mercados

ARGENTINA: In much of South and Central America, outdoor markets, or mercados, are a common sight to see. In Buenos Aires, we would spend our weekends wandering the ferias, taking in all of the sights (tables/blankets of items for as far as the eye could see), sounds (street musicians and Tango), and smells (dulce de leche, empanadas, asados/ parilladas, alfajores, choripán, Yerba Mate tea). A few of my favorites sights were flipbooks of San Telmo-Buenos Aires, a figurine of Don Quijote made out of recycled leather, and a street performer dressed entirely in gold paint that made me jump a mile when he moved after I had believed him to be a statue!

Continue reading “Argentina- Mercados”


Dance is a very important part of the culture in many Spanish-speaking countries–from the Tango in Argentina and the Flamenco in Spain to the Merengue and Salsa in the Caribbean, dance brings everyone together. Virtual or not, we are all one big family, so let’s get up & dance!

In class, students watched two astounding young Salsa dancers and a dog dancing Salsa for inspiration (see below). While third and fourth graders learned the basic Salsa dance step, second graders focused more on the Tango and Merengue. Older students ended the year with a small fiesta–eating chips and salsa while dancing Salsa!

Virtual learners were given the challenge to dress up in a fancy outfit and record 5-10 seconds of them dancing to a song in Spanish (more music below). Naturally, we added an ‘out’, for the timid of heart.

  • In the Dominican Republic, there is a saying, “El que no baila, no come bizcocho,” which means, “He who does not dance, does not eat cake”.
  • However, we will make an exception to this rule today; for anyone who does NOT want to be recorded dancing, you may make a tres leches cake (or any kind of cake).

Different Currencies

Gif Credit @BCRA

No matter the age, most students seem to love looking at different currencies from around the [Spanish-speaking] world. One day, my kindergarteners spent an entire class cutting out euros and pesos; I couldn’t get them to stop! As they get older, the conversation expands. Second graders, for example, looked at me like I had 14 heads when I showed them–using a currency converter–that $100 USD was equivalent to $377,530 Colombian pesos; but even with a huge question mark stamped on their brains (WHAT?!), they were still fascinated by the concept.

While comparing values of different currencies can be a fun exercise, challenges arise when trying to explain the why. If any educators (or financial gurus) out there have ideas about how to break down said information into easy to swallow, bite-sized chunks, please feel free to comment below!

LINKS: My Classroom Economy, MarketWatch, MarketWatch Game, MyKidsBank

Fake Money to Print for Classroom

More Links: Billetes y Monedas (Chile), Billetes (Argentina), Banknote boliviano, Banknote News (Bolivia)

Argentina- Street Art

ARGENTINA: We return to Argentina because it is a fascinating land of extremes: from the Southern Lights in Ushuaia, to Iguazu Falls in the north, there is something for everyone here. This week, we are focusing on the constantly changing street art of Argentina. When I lived there, I was amazed at how some of the walls were 4 inches of paint thick- many times, the murals would change overnight!

Here, classes began with an initial layer of ‘graffiti’ (writing words & sentences in Spanish on a huge sheet of paper), and then progressed to doodles, paintings (Xul Solar), and murals. Our goal is to layer the papers and see how thick our street art can get! We will cut out flip tabs to see the previous layers. Feel free to try this at home as well.

LINKS: Mi Sala Amarilla- Xul Solar

Image Credit (tiger), Image Credit

Peru- Nazca Lines

PERU: The Nazca Lines are a group of ancient geoglyphs in Peru. They are made out of naturally occurring elements, like rocks, stones, or earth. These trenches–running in all different directions in this part of Peru–appear to be roads from ground level. However, from an airplane, you can see that they are actually huge designs depicting anything from hummingbirds and lizards to astronauts and spiral shapes. Drones are helping to uncover even more in recent years.

This Nazca Lines Craft for Kids is one activity you can try in class or at home. In class, students recreated these designs with masking tape on the floor. Check out this link HERE for an entertaining account about how this lesson plan evolved.

LINKS: New Nazca Lines Found (Peru), Nazca Lines Geocaching (Peru), Ancient Drawings Discovered (Peru), Las Líneas de Nasca, Nazca Lines- Peru, Nazca Line Theories

Music & Sand Skiing in Peru

Colombia- Emeralds

COLOMBIA & BEYOND: Last year, second graders became very excited about gemstones and minerals. As a result, we spent time learning which minerals come from South and Central America, and then painted rocks to create amethysts and lapis lazuli look-a-likes. Several filled little cups of water and dyed the water various shades with food coloring.

This year, students studied geodes in their regular classroom, but I learned about it a smidgen too late to tap into the unit. Maybe next year?!

Colombia- Colorful Town

COLOMBIA: Is Guatapé, Colombia the world’s most colorful town? Last year, students painted colorful buildings and houses on tri-folds, and set up the cardboard in two lines so that they could ‘walk’ through town, stopping at various businesses and mercados along the way. The Señor Wooly song, “¿Adónde vas?” worked well with this unit. *Image Credit Jessica Devnani & Saul Mercado

This year, students also learned about finger painting street art in Colombia, and then mimicked the style on their whiteboards. I have seen this done on mirrors as well, but use whatever you have:

LINKS: Painting the Town- Part 1, Painting the Town- Part 2, TEDx- Take Back Your City With Paint

Pink Dolphins

Image Credit

Rock of Guatapé

In Guatapé, Colombia, there is also the famous Peñón de Guatapé–a 70-million-year-old rock that stands 656 feet high. Students did a long-division problem to figure out how many of them standing on their clones’ heads would be that tall, and then used Popsicle sticks to build the staircase up the side of the rock (or, in our case, the side of the classroom wall).

Felipe Salgado, Peñon de Guatapé, Colombia

Paraguay- Landfill Harmonic

PARAGUAY: Cateura is the name of a landfill in Paraguay where a town of people have taken a difficult situation–living in, quite literally, a dump–and made the best of it. They began by taking trash and repurposing it to build instruments, and now have an orchestra called Landfill Harmonic.

In class, students extended their study of forces, causes and effects to create their own instruments out of recycled materials. What sounds can you make with boxes, rubber bands, and a few old beads (or beans!)? Let’s get creative!

ASIDE: While Spanish is one of the official languages of Paraguay, Guaraní is as well–and, in fact, more people in Paraguay speak Guaraní than Spanish. It is very important to the life and culture there. Listen to the videos to hear what Guaraní sounds like. Mixing Spanish and English is often referred to as Spanglish, but mixing Spanish and Guaraní is called Jopara.

LINKS: Landfill Harmonic (Paraguay)Landfill Harmonic- Amazon (Paraguay), Landfill Harmonic YT (Paraguay)

“There’s a saying in Paraguay that people who visit always cry twice – once when they arrive and once when they leave.”



If this is of interest, also be sure to check out the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s art HERE. He makes massive works of art all created from garbage. To give you an idea of the size, the pupil of her eye might be a tire. There is a film about it as well, called Wasteland, but I haven’t seen it yet, so be sure to preview before watching with children. He also does a peanut butter and jelly Mona Lisa, which is very cool!

Bolivia- Salt Flat

BOLIVIA: Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat formation in the world. It is almost 11,000 square kilometers in area, with 10 billion tonnes of salt. During the rainy season, a light coat of water creates a perfect reflection of the sky–from sunrises and sunsets to beautiful starry nights. For a good read (with photos), check out this article entitled, “Walk the Salar“. For more images, click this LINK.

In class, students used watercolors to paint a sunrise on half of a sheet of paper, and then folded it over while still wet to create fun mirror-images. Later, we all tasted a lot of salt and contrasted it with azúcar/ sugar, and discussed how salt is a natural resource. Some students even covered a small box with salt (and glue) to create their very own ‘salt hotel’. If you visit in real life, you can actually stay in a hotel made entirely of salt. How fun!

LINKS: Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)World’s Largest Mirror (Bolivia), Pier’s Great Perhaps, Recorriendo el Salar de Uyuni, Luna Salada- otro Hotel de Sal, In pictures: The world’s largest salt flat in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni Photos (Bolivia)Salar de Uyuni Video (Bolivia), Salar de Uyuni- Sunrise (Bolivia)Salar de Uyuni-More (Bolivia)

Argentina- Southern Lights

ARGENTINA: Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city in the world, and also a great place to view the Southern Lights. We tend to hear more about the Northern Lights simply because more people live close to the North Pole than the South Pole, but in the south they are just as beautiful!

In class, students traveled to Ushuaia to see the Southern Lights, and then created their own version of the night sky out of black and white paper, chalk, and sparkles. We used this lesson plan, and also watched THIS in class. The video is from Iceland, but it is the same atmospheric phenomenon in the south. Read more scientific info HERE.

LINKS: Constellations, Understanding Star Patterns and Constellations, The 25 Most Inspiring Milky Way Pictures


  1. Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts (Northern Lights)
  2. My Aurora Forecast & Alerts (Southern Lights)
  1. Air Force Photo of Northern Lights

Argentina- Yerba Mate

ARGENTINA: Yerba Mate Tea (“MAH-tay”) is the ‘friendship drink’ of South America, especially Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay. You drink the tea out of a gourd, and keep refilling it with hot water all day long to sip. The tea leaves are loose (not in a tea bag). It can be quite strong to some people.

Students tasted it today and heard the Guaraní legend of how Mate came to be. A slightly different version of this legend in video form can be seen at this LINK. If you want to make more Mate at home, you can find it at most large grocery stores and also on Amazon HERE.

Longer article

Short version of legend: The Goddess of the Moon comes to earth as a human, finding herself in the middle of the jungle at night and face to face with a ferocious jaguar that is ready to attack. She closes her eyes–expecting the worst–when she hears a man whispering to the jaguar in an unfamiliar language. The jaguar relaxes and does not attack the woman. The man says that the jungle is dangerous at night, and to come to his family’s hut and sleep there until morning. The man dreams that night that the woman leaves him a plant to thank him for saving her life. The plant’s leaves are meant to be ground into a tea and shared with friends to “[recreate]… the joy that is born when humans discover divinity in everyday life. When he awakens the following morning, the woman is gone but a plant is on her cot, as his dream foretold (source).

Long version (taken from this page HERE): “A Guaraní legend has it that, once upon a time, there was a beautiful goddess with long black hair and skin as white as snow, who was so in love with human beings that she would spend hours and hours watching in fascination their every move from the skies above.

It was on a summer afternoon, at the scorching time of siesta, that she succeeded in convincing her father, the God of all gods, to let her walk at least for a few hours, secretly, through the infinite paths of red earth that go deep into the huge and thunderous waterfalls of the jungle in Misiones (2). Right there, humans, whom the goddess admired so, lived happily in huts made of straw and mud, in community and in contact with Mother Nature.

So it happened that, jumping for joy, that very night the goddess finally descended onto planet Earth. Her eyes wide open, like a little girl, and barefoot, so she could move more freely through the deep harmony of the thick vegetation, she ran gracefully like a gazelle, plunging herself into the scent of wild ferns and all sorts of herbs, smiling when listening to the many mysterious nocturnal sounds that inhabit the jungle.

It was while she was mesmerized with the buzzing sound that surrounded a beehive that, all of a sudden, a jaguar crossed her path. It stared and roared at her menacingly, with fierceness, getting ready to attack. The goddess was paralyzed with terror. Having become a human, she had lost all the powers that could have saved her from such a threat. She closed her eyes and mouth, expecting the worst. Yet, she heard a voice murmuring some meters away from where she was standing. Plucking up enough courage, she opened her eyes. And she saw a dark-skinned and brown-haired young man, dressed in a loincloth, who was on his knees close to the animal, whispering to its ear words in a strange language, which the goddess had never heard before. After a while, the jaguar eventually sat on its hind legs. Yawning, it shamelessly opened its mouth wide, inadvertently showing its ferocious teeth. It started to play with the lianas that hung in front of its head. The goddess understood that peace had been restored to the jungle.

“My name is Arami,” said the young man, while he petted the appeased feline and, at the same time, bowed before the girl.

“I thank you, Arami, for your help. I am Jasy, and the heavens will be eternally grateful to you for having saved my life,” replied the goddess, feeling a sudden rush of emotion.

“The sunrise is still some hours away, and it is not a good idea to walk in the jungle at this time of night. Let alone tonight, since darkness is deeper as there is no moon. If you wish so, you are welcome to rest in my family’s hut, Jasy.”

Hardly had Arami finished pronouncing the word “moon,” than the goddess had let slip the hint of a smile. Blushing, she had lowered her head and she had taken her hand to her mouth.

“Who might this strange and beautiful girl be?” wondered Arami, deeply intrigued.

Later that night, while he was sleeping, he dreamed the weirdest dream he had ever dreamed. He was floating over a huge, white and silvery lush forest. From behind, pale and extremely high despite towering trees, Jasy was watching him and smiling, with the same eyes and the same smile he had appreciated so much, hours before, while he was petting the jaguar. She was undoubtedly the same girl. Except that, in the dream, she was taller, so, so much taller, that her face rose above the jungle, reflecting on it a soft, brilliant and whitish light; and her hair was longer, so, so much longer and blacker, that it spread over the whole sky like a jet night where few stars shone. In a moment of clarity, Arami realized that, in truth, he was not floating but gliding over the white darkness while sitting comfortably on the palm of Jasy’s hand.

“As a reward for having saved me from the jaguar,” said Jasy to him, “tomorrow, when you wake up, you will find a new plant in the middle of your garden. Its name is Caá and, after toasting and grinding its leaves, you will make with it a special blend of tea you will come to call mate. You will share the drink with those people to whom your heart is attracted. With each sip that you and your friends drink, you will be recreating and manifesting the joy that is born when humans discover divinity in everyday life, a discovery that is as sacred and perfect as the roundness of my body navigating among the constellations.”

The next morning, Arami did not find Jasy on the improvised straw bed where she had slept. He did find, though, in the middle of his garden, the plant of yerba mate. He followed the instructions he had received in the dream and, finally, at sunset, he sat on the emerald-green grass growing from the red earth, and poured the ground leaves into a hollow, small gourd. He added hot water, slowly, very slowly. One, two, three and four sips, through a thin cane straw. As soon as the beverage began to enter his body, Arami thought he heard Jasy’s smile echoing in the fresh breeze that surrounded him. He raised his eyes, as if he wanted to find her. It was dusk. The whisper of the smile began to vanish, jutting into the night that was arising, towards the extreme East horizon. There, from behind thin clouds, the sharp reddish thread of a dazzling New Moon was beginning to shine its light over the lively green and thick jungle in Misiones.”

Peru- Amazon River

PERU: Ed Stafford walked the entire Amazon River on foot. It took him 860 days, or almost 3 years, to complete the walk. He faced every kind of imaginable danger, and oftentimes had to machete his way through brush, while wading up to his neck in water. Unbelievable but true! Watch the videos to learn more, or check out his book about the Amazon on Amazon HERE.

LINKS: After 2½ years and ’50,000 mosquito bites,’ Briton becomes first man to walk entire Amazon river, 10 Fascinating Facts About the Amazon, Images from journey (Photographer Keith Ducatel); Similar Quest- Hiking Across South America

Great overview (below)

More Mature Audiences (longer)

Peru- Boiling River

PERU: Deep in the Amazon there is a river… that actually boils. You can fill an empty mug with a teabag and have instant hot tea. Animals that fall in are instantly boiled. The average coffee is 130*F; this river has been measured at 210*F. Yikes! It is an awesome thing to behold- just don’t get too close. For more information, check out the videos below. Students boiled water in class, measured the temperature with a glass thermometer, and then converted the degrees from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is external-content.duckduckgo-10.jpg
Andrés Ruzo– Photo from his book

Venezuela- Lightning

VENEZUELA: Catatumbo Lightning is a naturally occurring phenomenon in Venezuela. Here, lightning strikes continuously above Lake Maracaibo for 140-160 nights per year (some sources say up to 300) for 10-12 hours straight each night. This can produce up to 40,000 strikes per night!

To learn more, read this article HERE!! Or, to make lightning in a bottle at home, try this experiment. Mystery History has some great photos HERE.

Lake Maracaibo when it is not storming.

Argentina- Iguazu Falls

ARGENTINA: Las cataratas de Iguazú, or Iguazú Falls, is the largest set of waterfalls in the world. “Iguazú” means “big water” in the Guaraní language. Here is some basic information about them.

It is easy to forget that Argentina is about one third the size of the United States. That said, its climate goes to the extremes. When I was there, half of our group traveled south to see the penguins and snow (cold–Ushuaia), while my group went north to see the waterfalls (hot–Puerto Iguazú). Remember, this is the southern hemisphere, so “north” means closer to the equator.

Anyway, the day we visited Iguazú Falls, it was a balmy 85*F. First, we saw a perfect rainbow over the falls, and later, after a bit of hiking, my friends and I took a speedboat under the falls! We were completely drenched, and it was amazing!

I also saw beautiful butterflies and a baby coatí in almost every direction while there. The latter were running around like squirrels and clearly thought they owned the place. For more information on the coatí, visit THIS LINK.

In class, students made a model of the falls by stacking and painting rocks, and affixing them with a hot-glue-gun. Some year, we will figure out the mechanics of making it with real water!

LINK: Coatí, Animals at Iguazu, Iguazu Falls Coloring Page

Image #1, Image #2

Argentina- Train to the Clouds

ARGENTINA: This terrifyingly high “Tren a las nubes” (Train to the Clouds) in Argentina is, well, terrifyingly high! Students are in the middle of creating a model of it out of Popsicle sticks. Check out this video compilation of The World’s Most Dangerous and Extreme Railways, including trains in Argentina (Tren a las nubes, 7:35), Ecuador (Nariz del diablo, 1:47), and Peru (Ferrocarril Central Andino). Oh my!

For more information on the railways of South America, read THIS ARTICLE or watch the “Tough Train Series: Across Bolivia The Pantanal to the Pacific” below.

LINKS: Tren a las Nubes/Train to the Clouds (Argentina), Most Extreme Railways in the World (includes Argentina/Ecuador/Peru); see also Bolivia- Pantanal & Trains

Image #1

South America- Condor

SOUTH AMERICA: The Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world. It weighs up to 33 pounds and can have a wingspan of nearly 11 feet. Students tried to make a life-size replica of this massive bird with paper feathers, but ultimately tired of cutting them out. So many feathers!

Last year, a fifth grader cut one out of cardboard and painted it–much more efficient! Now there will be time to explore legends based on Andean mythology and Incan folklore.

LINK: Andean Condor (Chile), Andean Condor (bird)

Chile- Marble Caves

CHILE: Chile’s Marble Caves are a truly beautiful natural wonder. Students mixed teal and green paints to capture different shades, and later added true-to-life purples and yellows to their paintings to accent the vibrant backdrop. The author of the video below describes the caves as “like being inside the Aurora Borealis”. Wow!

LINKS: Marble Caves1Marble Caves2, Marble Caves FACTS, Cavernas de Mármol (Chile)Cuevas de Marmol (video), Atlas Obscura- Marble Caves

Peru- Rainbow Mountain

PERU: Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca in Quechua, has a unique composition–14 different, colorful minerals–that makes the mountain range appear like the inside of a jawbreaker. For more information on Rainbow Mountain, visit this link. Here are a few quick facts from the aforementioned site:

In class, students painted their own versions of Rainbow Mountain and/or tried to build a super high tower with blocks to represent the highest city (La Rinconada). One year, a class used this amazing, paint-pouring technique–see video below–to make a model of the mountain. This was crazy fun but really messy! Another student enjoyed the project so much that he painted Vinicunca on a canvas at home just for fun (see below). Wow!

LINKS: MyBestPlace- Vinicunca