Falling in like with Cusco

One can´t help but have some preconceived ideas about a place, especially somewhere like Cusco which is an absolute hub for backpackers in South America and has so much literature on the city and its surroundings.

Maybe it was the general bleurghy feeling following a fifteen hour overnight bus journey, but as we arrived into Cusco I really felt quite flat. I guess I expected architectural wonder and beauty right from the outskirts, but it just didn´t deliver. It was the same dusty streets and brown buildings with corrugated tin roofs and litter lying around that I´d seen repeatedly since arriving in Peru.

But then Cusco is a city, and all cities have their grubby, dirty sides. Yes, I was probably just feeling a bit travel tired.

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Cusco outskirts

To add to my frustrations, the taxi driver couldn´t find the hostel and tried to charge extra as a result. The hostel was expensive, nice, but outside of my budget. The next one seemed much more like it: dorm beds starting at S/.13 (£3.08). But it was a bit of a dive and smelt musty and if I´m honest, I was too quick to dump down my bags and sign up for the night. Lack of sleep drove the decision.

Fed and watered, I quickly found a better place to stay – clean, affordable and friendly – so I checked out of the first place. Even the half price they charged me was worth the switch. I looked forward to a night in a comfy bed with crisp linens. Oh, sweet luxury.

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The turning point came a day later with a free walking tour of Cusco. I met my guide, Yonathan, and a bunch of other travellers at Eco Packers hostel. Beaming and full of beans and information, Yonathan was the key to understanding and appreciating the city.

Starting in the main square, Plaza de Armas, I learnt about the Inca sacrificing of virgins, and about the impact of earthquakes on the city (not as much as there could be due to anti-seismic structures).

In Plaza Recogijo, the Inca church foundations still stood strong despite Spanish attempts to rip down what they saw as a place of Pagan worship, only to rebuild it in their own style. ´Inside this church, it´s a more genuine experience,´ explained Yonathan, ´less fancy and touristy.´ All churches in Cusco open their doors to the public for free between 6:00am and 8:00am and Yonathan suggested we take a look inside this one at some point, particularly to look closely at the deity of the virgin Mary and observe that this statue was in fact… a barbie doll. ´And we all know that there is nothing virgin about Barbie,´ he said, before going on to explain typical religious festival parades led by girls in mini skirts followed by marching bands and religious idols carried carefully with pride. ´It´s a strange mix of traditions and ideas,´ he added.

The concept of a plastic doll as an idol is not totally unexpected. Peru seems to encourage and embrace all things kitsch (another good example of kitsch in full swing is in The Fallen Angel, a bar and restaurant glitzed out in gold and floating angels and bathtub tables and strokable furnishings, the ´gayest place in Cusco´, apparently).

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Fallen Angel, Cusco

In San Francisco square I learnt about the botanical properties of the plantings, including the muña tree whose leaves provide natural altitude relief when rubbed together and breathed in deeply.

In the San Pedro market I sampled a fresh juice from one of thirty or so fruit stalls, and noticed how huge chunks of San Pedro cacti were on sale (I was also offered ayahuasca). I indulged in an ice coffee shot in Cusco Coffee and tried chocolate tea in the Choco Museo, a cute little set-up offering a wealth of information on the chocolate making process alongside chocolate making workshops (S/.70).

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Steps and alleyways in Cusco

Wandering up old streets and steep, difficult steps nearby Plaza San Blas, we arrived at one of the highest parts of Cusco´s centre offering wide views of the city and overlooking a park in the process of being completed. Peru´s history came back for a modern bite. ´It – the park – is funded by the Spanish´, smiled Yonathan, ´they guilty for what they do to us.´ 

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Views down over Cusco

We made our way back down cobbled streets and by pretty, tiled street signs, back down to the hassle and bustle of Plaza de Armas. It had been three interesting and fun hours of discovery and making new travel friends. Now was the time to tip. (Tipping guides seems to be common practise in Ecuador and Peru, how much is up to you. In this case, many people gave between S/.5-S/.15).

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In the evening after food, I walked along Plateros and passed a group of young guys doing some form of line dancing on the square close to the Santa Teresa Convent, hats held in close to their chests.  

The walk back up to my hostel in Nueva Alta took me away from the tourists and touts along tight streets with tired buildings and peeling paint, and passed dozens of little shops all selling the same snacks and drinks. Popping into one for some water, I noticed that it opened up into a makeshift working men´s club, guys of all ages huddled in together on wooden stools, chatting and drinking and laughing.

Cusco, I like you more already. Let the days roll on and the romance blossom.

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