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Cusco Peru - Tourist City

PERU | Monday, 22 May 2006 | Views [7764] | Comments [2]

The Spanish streets of Cusco

The Spanish streets of Cusco

Come to Cusco, all of tourist life is here. Having now traveled in Central and South America for seven months, this is the first town I’ve arrived in that accommodates nd welcomes every kind of tourist. Of course, most of them don t come to see the town at all, the main attraction is the Lost City of the Incas at Machu Picchu, one of the world’s great tourist sights; and for younger travelers the only way to get to Machu Picchu is by doing the Inca Trail, for many it will be the only trek they will ever do.

To accommodate all these people Cusco has built up a vibrant tourist infrastructure. The area around the Plaza des Armes, the old Inca centre of the city and the streets around the lovely square and church of San Bas and crowded with restaurants, trekking agencies, laundries, internet joints (where I am writing this) craft shops and of course hotels, from five star converted monasteries to five dollar a night hostels, all of them vying for the tourist Sol.

And there is the hustle on the streets, which is very unique partly because it is so unrelenting and because it’s so varied. People are selling pictures, wooly hats, cloth and woven bands of all sizes, pullovers, postcards, painted gourds,  figure puppets, cigarettes, shoe shine, pan pipes, jewelry and so on and on. There are even women offering massages. Along with all these people offering their goods and services there are the women from the hill villages who come into town in their best clothes, with their children and a llama in tow, who for a fee will allow you to take their pictures. For the cutest of the cute, the girls will pose with a little lamb.  

The Plaza des Armes was the focus of the city in Inca times and the street plan around it dates from that time, as do many of the buildings, where the original Inca stone work can still be seen. The Spanish built their churches on top of the shrines to the dead Incas and the early conquistadors occupied all the main buildings around the square. In 1536 these were the scenes of hand to hand fighting as the Incas stormed down from their fortress of Saqsaywaman, which overlooks the city, during the first great Inca rebellion and the Spanish conquest almost hit the buffers. Nowadays, the great tourist icons are here, cafes and restaurants galore as well as the British pub, the brew pub (I recommend the Imperial) and of course the Irish pub, the highest Irish owned  pub in the world for those of you for whom these details matter. As you walk around, the restaurant touts call out their dishes, pasta, pizza, steaks, and in the next place also, Pasta, pizza, and steaks. They throw themselves the lifeline of hope as you walk by, shouting ‘Maybe later’ after you. Not only do all the restaurants sell the same ‘international’ food, they charge the same prices (all slightly above the norm) and even have the same handwritten, grid like menus. Apart from risk of being sold overpriced, mediocre food the real downer about eating around here are the Pan Piper bands. As a rule I object to having to be a captive audience for someone else’s version of music. Not only is the music usually loud and bad but you are then intimidated into handing over money for the ‘service’. In Cusco, the bands go around in large groups, with a couple of pan pipers, some guitars and often a big drum. They are very, very loud. Although many do play ‘Andean Music’ the classics are popular, particularly the Beatles and the more mawkish Simon and Garfunkle tunes. A few evenings ago I heard a French group singing along to a Pan Pipe rendition of ‘Hey Jude’. It wasn’t pretty. Before they start playing maybe they should ask the ‘audience’ how much money they would pay for them not to play. They may find they do just as well for no effort at all, and the diners would be much happier.   

The area of San Blas is just to the north of the Plaza des Armes and has a different character, quieter with an old town feel. The church and square of San Blas form the focus for the hand made jewelry sellers and the students from the language schools. There are comfortable cafes and the restaurants serve things other than Pizza, Pasta etc, there is even an Indian restaurant. Best of all the Pan Pipers don’t come here.

So what kinds of tourists come to the city? Top of the pile are the two week people. They are on their annual break and have paid top prices to agencies at home to do the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail has become a nice little earner for the Peruvians, not only for the trekking agencies but also for the bureaucrats who hand out the permits and licenses. The chance to walk it has now become a scarce commodity, although the message has still to get through to many people. Lots of travelers turn up in Cusco saying they want to walk the trail the day after next, only to be told they might get a place next August. Just how wonderful an experience it is, I don’t know, but I don’t think sharing a campsite every night with 200 other people (not including the porters) and then having to follow these people everyday is not quite the ‘communing with nature’ experience people might expect. However the two week people have it all sorted, they know what they are doing everyday.

Similar to them are the two week elder division, mainly wealthy, retired people who are paying top prices to see the sites. They are rarely seen walking the streets (and never on the trails) as they are shepherded around from their five star hotels to the museums and Inca forts on Mercedes buses and land cruisers with ‘Abercrombie and Kent’ stickers on the front. They only time they are seen en mass is around lunchtime at Machu Piccu, after the morning train from Cusco has got in.

A large group are the younger, longer term travelers, also known as the backpackers (which includes me), who are on the ‘Gringo Trail’, either they have come from Argentina and Bolivia or they are headed that way. The large part of the backpackers are made up of Israelis, a nation little seen elsewhere in Latin America, although they are common in Asia where there are at least a couple of battalions of the Israeli Army wandering around India and Thailand. They tend to go around in groups of eight and upwards, all know each other and all want to sit together in restaurants. They have carved out their own district to the west of the Plaza des Armes, where the restaurants have their menus in Hebrew and the trekking agencies boast Israeli prices, in other words, don’t try and bargain them lower. 

Some of the most integrated tourists in Cusco are the language students. These are mainly young women from America and Britain who come here for up to three months at a time to learn Spanish. As they tend to live with Peruvian families and speak the language reasonably well, they have some real insights into what is really going on here and have the chance to build up friendships. They usually hang around San Blas chatting to/up the young Peruvian men who sell hand made jewelry there. 

One of the largest groups and growing everyday are the volunteers. These are young people who have just left school, usually British or Australian who are doing their ‘gap year’. They come together in noisy groups of varying maturity, usually with an elder mentor in tow, and bond. They (or most likely their parents) have paid big money for their chance to enhance their CV’s by doing voluntary work abroad. Traveling for pleasure is not acceptable anymore; you have to be seen to be doing something not only to improve yourself and but to improve the world as well. Doing voluntary work abroad, preferably with disadvantaged children in a third world country, has become the modern equivalent of National Service for the British Middle Classes.

Last but not least are the ex pats. Travelers, who came here, liked it and stayed. They are mainly from the English speaking countries, Britain, America and Australia and they run the better cafes, bars and restaurants in town as they know what tourists actually want. In the mornings they meet in Jacks café, which is owned by an energetic Australian called Jane, to discuss the latest goings on.

Beyond the tourist center is the city where the Peruvians live. Most tourists only see this part of town in a cab on the way to the Airport or Bus station. Out here the locals have their own restaurants, markets and shops and the vast majority never come into the ‘tourist land’ center.

Before I came to Cusco I had heard of its reputation for crime. Strangle muggings, taxi muggings and just plain muggings awaited the unwary here. During the day there are a lot of policemen on the streets, but just like in the rest of Latin America, come 6 o’clock they’ve disappeared. The South American Explorers Club recommends that you don’t walk more than two blocks from Plaza des Arms or San Blas at night. They have a point, the streets suddenly become very dark with lots of unlit alleys and corners and there are certainly no policemen to be seen. For all that, most of the reports I heard or read involved people being set upon as they walked back alone to their hotel at three o’clock in the morning. Walking through deserted streets late at night with ten bottles of beer inside you can’t be recommended anywhere. No doubt there is crime, but as in most places it’s of the unthreatening kind. The young men hawking digital cameras on Avenue Sol are not deposing of unwanted birthday presents, there are almost certainly insurance claims on them, but it is unlikely they got the goods through force but because tourists were careless.

Since I arrived in Cusco, the bright sun, the clear air (there is little pollution) and the charm of the place has certainly made me like the place more and more. It’s very comfortable, the food is good, the people are friendly and there are always more travelers to talk to. A great place to visit and recharge the batteries when you are traveling for a long time. Give it a try.


Tags: Observations



Hhhh funny - about the Israelis :)))))

  Ilana Jan 4, 2011 4:46 PM


Good and realistic summary of the crime situation in Cuzco and Peru in general, still true in 2011. It's generally safe if you keep your eyes open and don't do outrageously stupid or irresponsible things, which is no different than many parts of NYC or Chicago at night. I enjoyed the article and its reasoned approach. Good work.

  Chris May 23, 2011 1:41 AM



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