Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cuzco, Peru: It's Like an Onion; It Has Layers

Plaza de Armas, the main square in the city
Cuzco, Peru, at first meeting might seem loud, overwhelming, frustrating and a bit dangerous (in regards to crossing the road or simply walking along the narrow cobblestone streets with 12-inch wide "sidewalks"). However, once you get past the cars beeping, traffic cops blowing their whistles, street vendors constantly trying to sell you their goods, and get used to the cars speeding around corners on cobblestone streets, the city becomes something else. It's charming, energetic and fun, there are tons of hidden restaurants, shops and markets that become found when you take a moment to look, and the people are extremely friendly, down to earth, kind and curious when you open yourself up to conversation while sitting on a park bench in the sun.
Looking out over the city of terracotta rooftops

Drew and I spent a few days in Cuzco before our trek to Machu Picchu, and we immediately liked it. It was beautiful, set in a valley surrounded by mountains, all the rooftops the same clay terracotta color mixing with the green of the hills. The bustling plazas had an energy that was upbeat without being intimidating, with historical churches lining the streets, and hilly cobblestone roads that seemed to have no particular order or organization. It was always buzzing and therefore a bit dizzying at times!
La Iglesia de San Blas in San Blas Plaza near our hostel

However, living in the city for this week after returning from Machu Picchu, I am beginning to see it in a different way. It's still loud, colorful and energetic, however there's more to it. The maze of roads has become familiar and make sense. The street vendors don't seem so obtrusive, and are actually interesting to talk with. Walking on the narrow streets can still be a bit scary, but now I know what to expect and I know how to pass people on the 12-inch wide sidewalks when cars are coming, by squeezing into a doorway to wait for them to pass by or quickly hopping around them into the street and back up on the narrow strip of safety!

It's a very different city than anywhere we've been so far and I like it. It's slower paced than the US, yet hectic. It's loud, yet mysterious. There's no lack of places to eat, whether you want a fancy French dinner served on white linen or a crispy empanada fresh out of the fryer to eat on the street. You can take a photo with a baby llama or try an alpaca burger. There are signs all over for "cuy al horno" or baked guinea pig. Pastelerias (pastry shops) abound, as do markets with expensive American candy, shampoos and lotions, and cheap helados (ice cream).

There are probably a hundred young men who approach tourists with nearly identical portfolios filled with paintings that were painted "by them, their friend, their teacher and their father." Interestingly, there are only about five different styles of paintings...

There are older women in colorful traditional clothing carrying their handmade goods on their back with big scarves. They are sweet and like to talk, and of course, want you to buy their things. But most of them aren't pushy. They're curious to talk with you if you start a conversation and open and eager to answer questions and explain their wares and their culture.
A talkative local showing me how she made
 the woven belt I bought from her
 The dogs in Cuzco have lives more exciting than some people I know! They meet up with each other in the morning after searching for hidden treasures (food in the trash or on the street) from the night before. They congregate and play and sometimes "argue" with each other. Later in the day, most can be seen taking a siesta, maybe outside on the stoop of their home, or their owner's store, or maybe in one of the plazas. In the evening they come alive again and begin to hunt for dinner, for their friends, and for a mate. It's quite interesting to see how differently they live here, not like our pampered, spoiled pooches in the States who only go outside to go to the bathroom!
One of the many Peruvian pooches taking a siesta on the street

Cuzco is a charming city with a lot of soul. Religion, culture and history is very important to the people as is tourism. It's easy to get annoyed by the never ending noise, people asking you to buy things, and having to constantly climb cobblestone hills. But it's also easy to become enamored with the culture, beautiful setting, and different way of life. Mucho gusto, Cuzco. I'm glad we've had the time to get to know you at a deeper level than simply "the city you fly into to go to Machu PIcchu."

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