Cusco, through the eyes of someone who worked there 70 hours per week

Top left, actually taken in Arequipa, the rest are in Cusco

In other words…

what not to do.

After living in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, anything with less than 1 million people feels like a small town. With a population of about 1,316,729, Cusco has a lot to do, is full of great people, and great food.

Cusco is known for its magic and its aura. I can’t say fellow travelers are wrong about this. Despite having to work so much (long story here), I can’t say I feel as stressed as I would anywhere else. Just walking around the town clears your head. There’s a beautiful view everywhere and my body is slowly getting used to the freezing weather. I’ve been able to run in this altitude for a bit now and on a trip to the Sacred Valley while being in places that were 3800 meters in altitude, the only thing I worried about was my fear of heights as I walked up Ollantaytambo. Thanks to coca leaves, I felt no altitude sickness.

But there’s also the fact that there are two different Cuscos.

There’s the part every tourist goes to. The cafés, restaurants such as Green Point and the bars in San Blas. There are the quaint coffee shops and alpaca stores that cater to tourists. There’s the fact that the majority of travelers aren’t people of color, and few people take any responsibility for the uneven power dynamics that exist here. And of course, Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley.

Most people aren’t aware that they spend more on their cuy dinners than most cusqueños make in one day. They’re not aware that many of the employees at travel agencies can’t afford the tours they’re selling to people who demand to be treated as if they’re special because “they came all this way for this.”

There’s the Cusco made up of people who work anywhere from six to seven days per week trying to make sure everything works for tourists. The people who do tourists’ laundry and get yelled at when said laundry place can’t press alpaca sweaters or dry delicates (no one here can afford that stuff, or they wash it by hand in the freezing weather). There are the taxi drivers who take people everywhere and sometimes have no change for a tourists bill for 200 soles.

I can’t say there are things that don’t inconvenience or annoy me either. Four years in Argentina, being an immigrant in the US, and a bit of travel here and there taught me that there are some things available in rich countries that just aren’t available anywhere else.

As a person of color who speaks fluent Spanish (with a mix of Argentinian and other accents), I’ve also talked to people who prepare my food and see them make some of the best dishes I’ve ever had for under US$3. I don’t know if I have an iron stomach or an iron heart, but nothing here has made me sick.

Having volunteered at a busy hostel I’ve also listened to the way people get paranoid about altitude. They’ve asked if they’ll die, nevermind that indigenous peoples and their descendants have thrived in these conditions for centuries despite colonization. They’ve mentioned that they won’t have coca tea for altitude because of an anti-drug stance. This, despite the coca leaf’s many health benefits. It’s as if people won’t believe that yes, a simple tea will cure them. They want a magic pill or an easy fix.

The only thing that’ll help is a simple tea and two or three days here.

I’ve been called useless when there was a taxi strike even though it wasn’t my fault. I’ve overheard the things English-speakers really say about Peru and people of color in general because they think I don’t understand them.

Though I too, know that climbing up ruins and going trekking is going to hurt my legs, I also know no one asked me to do this. It’s hard to have sympathy for people who think their Machu Picchu trek is special, or who look to the many beautiful things to do here as a to-do list while discriminating against the people who make this possible for them, treating them as inferior, and disregarding their advice.

In many ways, I was lucky to have been working my butt off so hard. Most people here are extremely hard workers, dedicated parents, and speak at least three languages (Spanish, English, Quechua, and Portuguese are the most common).

Most tourists come here and see everyone as servants. I came here expecting nothing except a headache. I never got it. Instead, I now feel a sense of being at peace, being at home, and a responsibility to tell privileged jerks to cut the shit.

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