Thursday, May 6, 2010
Like all tourists visiting Perú, I visited blissful city of Cuzco, a mystical walled city nestled deep in the Andes Mountains. The former capital of the once-mighty Incan capital has a decidedly indigenous flavor and serves as the launch pad for the Tierra Sagrada de las Incas (i.e Machu Picchu and all of the goodies). And while this trip was primarily spent socializing in the company of friends, and not so much individual exploring, I still have a few words to share regarding my handful of impressions.
First, Cuzco conjures up everything I thought Perú would be: the looming mountains; stereotypically indigenous people and their festive cultural and customs; centuries-old cities and peoples that have resisted the hand of colonialism and time (seriously, Cuzco fashion is still pretty much in the 1920s, with twill suits/blazers and Spanish peasant dresses known as “polleras”). All of that comes at a high price, though; as the city is swamped with tourists and migrant Peruvians eager to profit off of them. To really drive the point home, I was told on more than one occasion that it is Perú’s most expensive city.
Despite the above, it is a great city to explore. Nestled 11,000ft up in the Andes, Cuzco is easily one of the highest cities in the world, something that makes getting there, and really, getting acquainted with it, an adventure itself. It is for this that tourists don’t too much of anything on their first day as the altitude means thinner air; altitude sickness, breathing problems and shortages of air are not at all uncommon there. Such an high altitude has its perks, too: the air is rather crisp and “natural” feeling..at least when not clogged up by the emissions from dated minivans.
Altitude notwithstanding, Cuzco is an incredibly amazing place. Like many former colonial cities in the Americas, it is compact and easy to cover on foot, at least when not being affected by the many hills or the high elevation. Though built over a once-flourishing Incan metropolis, Cuzco manages to feel colonial in nature: the ubiquitous uneven cobblestone lanes; little details in buildings such as columns and cornices; the balconies spilling over with lush floras; small roads crowned by triumphant victory arches; and opulent, if oversized arched doorways. This also means that it is full of all sorts of hidden nooks and crannies: things like covered alleyways and back-streets, overlooked plazas, and imposing colonial-era churches that are quite easy to miss.
And despite the lingering Spanish influence found in things like the skyline of church spires, or the at-times overbearing tourist presence, it is still very much a Peruvian-kind of town. Pre-Columbian infrastructure is still very much in use, and an easy majority of the people I saw were rugged-looking Andeans donning festive-colored shawls and ponchos (and of course, their famous bowler hats). Indeed celebrations commemorating village life, especially religious processions seemed fairly commonplace, with one taking place every day I was there.
The tourists are everywhere! It’s a weird coexistence. The amount of post-compulsory military service Israelis, gap-year Australian college students, and grungy-looking, dreadlocked European hippies backpacking in the surrounding mountains, partying in dormitory-style hostels, and trying to score coke/or getting wasted on pisco sours, was to be commended. Supplementing them are the hordes of Peruvians who descend on the city, with seemingly every one being a “tour guide” of sorts. All sorts of old ladies walking around with alpacas/llamas/goats, asking you to take their picture, only so they can try and get some money out of you. Whatever, though..they’re fairly easy to avoid.
My favorite part of Cuzco was enjoying coffee in one of the several expansive plazas, admiring the remarkable colonial architecture or the gentle, verdant hills that serve as the city’s backdrop. Or aimlessly wandering the winding narrow roads lined with whitewashed houses replete with red tiled-roofs and boldly-painted front entrances. 12-pointed stones built by the Incas, dot the walls of buildings in the main area, and in some areas, Spanish-built stones have replaced Incan sections. I also enjoyed checking out the massive local markets, staffed by ponytailed-grandmas wearing polleras, and filled to the brim with stalls jammed with colorful foreign-looking fruits and vegetables.
The majority of my time was spent in and around my hostel: lounging around in my slippers drinking coca leaf tea and pouring over Spanish-language newspapers. When I wasn’t doing that, I was perfecting the art of conversation with my eclectic bunch of roommates: David, the 60-something year-old Irish-Quebecois who has traveled the world over and offers endless insight and wisdom; Sanjid, the swarthy British-Indian law student who offers free legal advice to post-Katrina refugees; and Idun and Lennard: the Norwegian travel duo who gave up their comfortable jobs and lifestyles in Oslo and Bergen to backpack South America.