LCG, Part VI: Cusco, Peru

Mis amigos,

Cristo Blanco is a Jesus statue that stands above the city of Cusco. With its arms outstretched, it seems to blanket the houses clustered below in its benediction. The Peruvians are a religious people, but this shouldn’t be seen as a strictly Catholic monument: there is a spiritual quality here sown in the land and the people who cultivate it.

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Cristo Blanco and the crowd he draws.

Cusco is a city of 450,000 in the south of Peru. Nestled in an endless valley of rolling mountains, it is about an hour and twenty minutes in plane from Lima, the capital and also the most practical venture point to Machu Picchu. Over the last twenty or so years, the city has seen a major surge in tourism as people from all over the globe come here to see one of the last standing wonders of the world. With this surge has been a major shift in city climate: the people here are noticeably shier than they were in Quito. Before this surge, Quechua (spoken by the Incans and the most widely spoken indigenous language of the Americas) was the major language here, and it wasn’t until tourists started coming with their money and their native tongues that Spanish became popular.

This shift explains both the spirituality of the city- there is a tangible spirituality here amongst the culture that has persevered- and shyness of the people- there is still a certain unfamiliarity and hesitance to open up this culture to foreigners. Regarding the former, Cusco was the Incan capital, and while the city has transformed significantly in the centuries that have passed, it feels as if the Peruvian culture has been built in the Incan culture. There are remnants of their legacy through the city, which the local population have developed upon and made their own.

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The city from the historic San Blans district.

Looking for things to do in Cusco? The Plaza de Armas is the (tourist) heart of the city and a good place to start. Wandering around, you can find museums and churches to your heart’s content, and even a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks (that is, if you came to South American to do exactly what it is we do back home). There are a slew of artisanal and local markets where you can find everything from craft chocolate and blankets to coca leaves and San Pedro (conveniently sold at the San Pedro Market). With the Boleto Turistico- a ten day pass that allows you to visit a collection of archeological sites and museums in Cusco in the surrounding towns- you can check out some of the ruins that surround the town, Saqsaywaman being the best known for both aesthetic appeal and pronunciation. El Templo de La Luna, an old temple in a scenic and tranquil field amidsts the hills, isn’t far beyond Cristo Blanco and is this writer’s personal favorite.

It was better being a gringo in Quito. Both cities are familiar with white people, but the difference in Quito is that you weren’t necessarily visiting the city for sight-seeing. Tourism isn’t the major industry in Ecuador’s capital as it is here, where it is more or less impossible to be white and walk down a street without being honked at by cab drivers assuming you are lost, or sit in public without being harassed by street peddlers. While neither city boasts much racial diversity (tourists aside), there is a larger Asian population here, which owes its roots to some worker-exchange agreement that happened between China and Peru when Peru was industrializing.

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Cusco from above.

Despite the comparative lack of public parks, the city is prettier than Quito was. There is greater homogeneity in architectural style this time around: you don’t see modern office buildings, churches, and shacks on the same block as you did in Quito. Looking out from a vantage point above the city, the roofs seamlessly blend into sea of similarity, raised to the same height, and especially with Señor Christ overlooking the city, it gives of sense of equality and unanimity. The city is very foot friendly (curiously, haven’t seen a single bike? These usually go together), with easy-to-navigate streets. There are a few popular bus routes that cost around 1 sol ($0.33). Taxis are cheap, but unlabeled: you stick out a hand to an oncoming rush of cars and an unmarked car pulls over and signals “get in.” Doesn’t foster tons of confidence, especially when you are presumed to be a tourist. The weather here, however, is worse. It gets colder at night and the rain isn’t limited just to the afternoons anymore, but pours over the whole day, when it pours.

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The main cathedral at the Plaza de Armas.

Plaza de Armas is also the main going-out district, which certainly simplifies making decisions relating to nightlife, but even there, there are options. Clubs tend to play salsa/ South American music before midnight and more electronic/ pop later on. They stay going strong as long as you do, and you can find both local and more touristy venues. I met up with a fraternity brother of mine conducting research for his dissertation down here, and we relished the opportunity to drink craft beers at an English-tavern styled place called Norton’s Pub. After all this time down here, both of these, together, were infinitely appreciated. Traveling and sight-seeing are wonderful, but really, there is nothing like knocking back a few with a good friend from an old life.

TL;DR: Cusco is awesome.

American Stereotype of the Week: Apparently all Americans love peanut butter. I confirmed this stereotype when I found a gas station that sold Peter Pan and I bought two jars for 46 soles, or ~$16 dollars.