Seven of us landed in Peru yesterday morning. We shared meals, got caught in a hailstorm, tried (and failed) to join a walking tour, snuggled baby llamas, and got (more than a little) tipsy on pisco sours.
Here are a few first impressions from a truly blissful day, exploring with friends:
It's so pretty it's so pretty
Cusco's charm is hard to resist. Walk anywhere around the Plaza des Armas and you'll get starry-eyed by the gorgeous architecture. It's just so lovely, we kept saying, every time we'd find a new street.
The food - Oh, the food
I remember eating well in Cusco ten years ago. I remember the ceviche, the quinoa soup, and the drinking chocolate (delicious). I already had high expectations for Cusco's cuisine.
Those expectations were exceeded. I shared trout ceviche with Andean caviar with my RY crew, something I can't wait to order again and again. We sipped pisco sours as we tasted each other's meals. Chrissy and I ordered the ahi de gallina, the most tender chicken covered in a yellow pepper sauce. Peter braved the cuy (guinea pig) and Mike raved about his lomo saltado. Our bellies were full and happy.
My wallet is going to cry.
This city is not as affordable as I expected. There are tons of incredible restaurants priced ~ $15 per entree. Granted, it's a tasty entree that would cost at least $25 in Durham, but still. I'm not thrilled about spending $15 on dinner for myself every night. I scoped out some markets, but have thus far found the cooking supplies to be minimal.
I'll figure it out.
It's so nice to be warm.
Cusco and La Paz are similar in altitude. I did no research on the weather (typical) and therefore expected Cusco to be just as chilly. I was wrong. It does get chilly at night, but I get to trade my puffy coat and scarf for tee-shirts and sandals during the day. Today is a beautiful 70 degrees and sunny - for now. It was the same yesterday, and then it started hailing. This is the Andes, after all, where weather changes extremely quickly.
We're going to get hustled - hard - all month.
Our daily commute from our apartments to the workspace passes right through the most touristy sections of town. The beautiful little cobblestone streets are dotted with markets, selling colorful wares. The architecture is gorgeous and so distinctly Cusco. The air smells clean, such a nice contrast to La Paz's fuel-scented air.
The only little annoyance in our daily stroll: the persistence and aggressiveness of the people selling their goods.
I know that Cusco is a tourist hub. I suppose it comes with the territory. But it doesn't feel great to say a harsh "NO" to fifty people trying to sell you a massage, a tour of the sacred valley, a photo with a llama, a painting, whatever. I tried a nice "no, gracias" - it didn't do the trick. A smile and a polite word only increases the persistence. You have to wear a resting bitchface and practice your disdainful side-eye. It's not my favorite mood in which to start the day and not my favorite facial expression to sport in general.
A note on "touristy" places
Cusco is definitely a tourist city. It's the gateway to the sacred valley and Machu Picchu. Yes - most of the people walking around are not Peruvians. Yes - a lot of it is westernized (there's a KFC and a Starbucks in the main square, after all) and possibly contrived.
It's gorgeous, it's full of history, there's still an undercurrent of authenticity below the commerce and the here, Americans and Europeans, have some familiar. This place is popular for a reason.
There is value in going off the beaten path, to places where few visit. Yeah, off the beaten path is great. It's a travel adventure that teaches you a lot about yourself. Some travelers, I think, scoff at the idea of visiting a "touristy" place. But why?
I don't get the badge-of-honor mentality that some have when they talk about popular destinations, using a trailblazer travel approach with a holier-than-thou tone.
I don't want to go there, everyone goes there. That doesn't seem like a good reason.
Off the beaten path, we deal with shaky infrastructure, food that makes us sick, and a total lack of convenience. It can be extraordinarily difficult and an opportunity for personal growth. In Cusco, I have to wade through aggressive shop vendors, but I also get to take a hot shower and order a cheeseburger if I'm craving a taste of home. It's less of a "personal growth" moment and more of a place to be curious. Both are valuable. Easier is not lesser.
Why the defensive aside? I guess my tolerance for people telling other people how they should travel is waning. The more I travel, the more I am convinced that it's a highly personal thing. Travel is beautiful and rewarding, but it's also hard.
Which genre of hard you select is up to you.
I'm not better than you just because I've lived in the developing world, where things can be difficult (but also affordable). Just as you aren't better than me because you've lived in luxury while you travel, which is quite expensive. It's just different. And it's all about attitude.