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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Cusco

Being in Cusco was a confusing experience for me. I’ve never been in a city that I loved so much and yet made me so uncomfortable. On my first day in the city, we were walking through the central plaza and at first glance, it was easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. The cathedrals and clock tower were stunning examples of colonial style architecture. But when I looked again, I saw Starbucks, KFC and Patagonia.  “Cusco is being colonized again,” Ben stated. Just as the Spanish destroyed Incan buildings to make space for the cathedral I admired so much, American companies are shoving out local businesses to provide tourists with all the comforts of home. Ben then showed us the remnants of the Incan buildings that the Spanish were unable to destroy because of the quality of the craftsmanship. The smooth stonework was incredible, the blocks fit together perfectly with only the tiniest seams between them and in comparison, the Spanish stonework was clumsy and amateurish. I couldn’t help but try to picture how this plaza must have looked 500 years ago before Pizarro arrived, or how would it look now if the Spanish had never arrived. What buildings would I be seeing? How might Incan architecture have evolved both asthetically and technically? After all the ruins I saw on the Choquequirao trek, I think I have a better idea of the Cusco that was and it makes me sad to think of what could be.

But at the same time, I still find the buildings around the plaza beautiful. Despite judging the KFC and resisting the impulse to go to Starbucks, I ate udon for lunch one day because I’d been craving Japanese food for three months and couldn’t resist. And while it certainly wasn’t the best udon I’ve ever had, the flavors were a taste of home and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly happy. On the other hand, part of me recognizes that as much as I enjoyed my udon, buying it contributed to a system of tourism. In our discussions of what distinguishes a tourist from a traveler from a learner, we agreed that tourists seek out similar experiences to what they would have at home, and I had done exactly that. Obviously there are worse places I could have put my money than a Japanese restaurant run by a Peruvian family, but at the same time, part of the problem I have with Cusco is that all the little authentic Peruvian restaurants and shops are being swallowed up by things like gringo cafes with English signs that say “free wifi” and “pay with visa” or “falafel with avocado” and travel agencies, and this restaurant clearly catered to the same crowd.

Something else that struck me about Cusco was how kind all the people were to me. On Thanksgiving, I wanted to call home but the pay phone by our hostel ran out of money, so I ended up asking a chain of five people for help. I think it was pretty clear that I had absolutely no intention of buying anything at any of the stores I entered but people always took the time to answer my questions and one man gave me a labeled map (unfortunately my map reading skills are equally as bad as my sense of direction) and another woman walked me part of the way to the Avenida del Sol.

On our last night in Cusco, Mira, Ella, Katherine and I decided to walk up to the Christo. Their navigation skills are on par with my own but with the help of another labeled map we made it about halfway there before two taxi drivers told us to take the back way up so we could get in for free. We walked up a flight of stairs that seemingly led to nowhere and for a minute we were convinced that we’d gotten lost, but after talking to a woman who’s house we passed on the way up, we learned that all we had to do was climb up a bit, take a left and walk up the flight of stairs and walk a bit and we’d be at the Christo. Her advice was sound and after a walk with stunning views of the city we found ourselves at the Christo ten minutes later, looking down upon Cusco as the sun set. We took some photos and spent a few minutes sitting in silence admiring the view before realizing that we were going to be late for dinner and needed to find a taxi. Our driver was named Alejandro and he pointed out some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the region, taught us a few words in Quechua, and shared his opinions about the tourism in Cusco. To him, it was a good thing because it brought more people to the city and helped the economy, but at the same time he saw the effects it had on traditional businesses.

Now that I’m leaving Peru, one of the many reasons I wish I could be in this beautiful country longer is because I want to spend more time in Cusco. While my feelings on it are confusing, I want to go back because I feel like I only scratched the surface of this ancient city and there’s so much more I could learn and experience.