CUSCO is an interesting city. Someone once told me that they thought Peru’s capital city, Lima, felt “unfinished”, but to me Cusco is more so. Lima is big – and while there is obvious segregation between those who have money and those who don’t, the various barrios, districtos, and its enormous scale make it seem almost like it was made that way on purpose. Cusco, on the other hand, is a small city. Not small enough that it took me less than an hour to walk into the city centre every day, but small enough that if you meet someone once you’ll probably run into them again.
Originally Qosqo, the name Cusco refers to its former status as the centre of the Incan empire. In Quechua, it means something along the lines of “navel of the universe”. Cusco is very proud of its Incan past; it is full of murals, statues and Incan names that proclaim its heritage. Which brings me to my next point – Cusco has become the navel of the tourist universe. As it is the connecting city to the fabled Machu Picchu, in my approximately two months there I saw tourists of probably every nationality under the sun.
So while in the actual province of Cusco the main source of commerce is agriculture, in the city it is, of course, tourism. It’s hard to find a Peruvian who doesn’t work in tourism in Cusco. People will pay huge sums of money to learn English. I think this contributes to the unfinished quality I mentioned earlier. Parts of Cusco are very “nice”: the Plaza de Armas and its surrounding areas, full of shops and restaurants erected for the sole purpose of charging tourists as much as they can get away with, which is fair enough. Other parts of the city, or rather the majority of parts have normal shops and small, local restaurants, not selling alpaca wool tapestries or pizza but things that one might actually need, like TVs or fabric or pollo a la brasa and anticuchos. These places may not look up to the standard of their say, more European counterparts in the plaza which is fine – this isn’t Europe. Yet somehow the contrast between the clueless tourist in a llama sweater on his way to visit the statue of Pachakutec, the woman in long braids, a long skirt and bombin starting her two hour walk to work, and the crumbling apartment building across the street screams to me unfinished, unnatural, and to some extent unfair. It’s kind of awkward, even.
Cusco’s economy thrives off of our ‘need’ to see Machu Picchu, to ooh and ahh over textiles made by indigenous hands, to scramble on top of former Incan temples in the morning and head back for McDonalds in the evening. I can’t help but be reminded of something I heard on a tour of Cusco’s Sacred Valley (yes, I never said I wasn’t one of them). Cusco’s surrounding mountains are lined with Eucalyptus trees. Does that strike you as odd? That’s because Eucalyptus trees are about as native to Peru as I am. Brought to Peru from Australia in 1880, the aggressive plant not only threatened but killed off most of the native trees. Now I am not trying to say that the tourists are killing off native Peruvians. But I do feel like the tourists are a little bit like the Eucalyptus trees: not native, slightly destructive, but provide shade and oxygen and have become an accepted part of the landscape.