Living in the Shadow of Machu Picchu
As the nearest large city to Machu Picchu, Cusco Peru is the gateway to the celebrated “Lost City of the Incas”.
In reality, Cusco is a modest sized city of only about 300,000 people. It is extremely scenic and picturesque, in that strange way that only third world countries have seemed to master.
Unlike in the United States, where even decent neighborhoods can be riddled with trash and graffiti, Cusco is clean, well-kept and safe. Quite a few of Cusco’s buildings seem to be crumbling yet, even in these you see a sort of pride of place. The people here do their best to keep their personal space clean and well tended.
Radiating out for 8-10 blocks in every direction from the city’s main square, all the streets are cobblestone or made from stone blocks. They are very narrow by American standards, giving Cusco a sort of quaint European charm.
Because so many tourists pass through Cusco — more than 60% of all tourists to Peru visit Machu Picchu and nearly all of these arrive by way of Cusco — the Peruvian government goes to great lengths to make a good impression. Police stand on nearly every corner night and day. Armies of street sweepers keep the streets and sidewalks free from debris.
The result is a city so safe that my daughter and I walked freely at all hours of the day and night carrying expensive cameras and a good deal of cash without ever once feeling unsafe. Not just in the tourist areas, we got off the beaten path and roamed several mercados frequented almost exclusively by locals. We checked out interesting streets and alleys. We even attended some sort of local festival.
Everywhere we went the people were friendly and cordial. Despite knowing only a few scattered words of Spanish, and relatively few locals knowing more than a few scattered words of English, we had little problem getting by in Cusco and in Peru in general.
Peru has a surprising number of “stray” dogs and cats roaming freely. In the US, when one encounters a dog the first worry is whether it is aggressive. Will it attack? In Peru, the dogs are just as friendly as the people. In fact, it’s almost as though dogs in Peru have their own parallel society. The dogs and people live alongside one another but with minimal interaction, including a complete lack of animosity from either species toward the other.
Because so many “wealthy” tourists pass through the city, Cusco has a lot of sidewalk vendors and people roaming the streets hawking souvenirs. We found these people to be very persistent but also remarkably polite. Although they may persist in trying to persuade you to buy whatever knick-knacks they are selling, even after being told no a dozen or more times, you will never see one becoming aggressive.
Amazingly, if you are looking for something specific, we even had quite a few vendors direct us or even personally escort us to another vendor who was selling that very thing. I don’t know if they benefit from this in any way beyond good karma but it was refreshing. We had one young boy who tried to sell us a painting literally minutes after we’d already purchased one from someone else. We told him that we didn’t need another painting.
When I casually mentioned to my daughter that I was starting to feel hungry and that we should go in search of a vegetarian restaurant, the young man led us nearly six blocks to an absolutely amazing little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that was off the beaten path and frequented mainly by locals. Along the way we all talked as best we could, given the language barrier, about the city and about Peru in general.
If you travel to Peru, I absolutely recommend visiting Machu Picchu. It is beautiful and wonderful. A sight not to be missed. At the same time, don’t overlook the beautiful and wonderful city of Cusco. Of all the foreign cities I’ve been to, this one might just be my favorite so far.
(Interested in my travel itinerary? I share the whole thing here.)