It’s been one month now since I’ve embarked on this crazy adventure to Cusco. One month ago, today, my family and I packed up all our things and moved to the other side of Peru, up into the magnificent Andes, to begin the CIEE Cusco study center. With a bold vision and an amazing team of academics and program managers I am excited for what the future will bring. The deep blue skies over steep green mountains, the rolling rainstorms that give way to rainbows, the wonderful people and their colorful culture are some of the reasons that make Cusco such an incredible place. Let me share with you my top ten favorite things about this magical place.
10. The culture. It is truly unique because of its mix of ancient and modern cultures from the Americas and Europe. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the culture has been made up of a combination of Incan and Spanish heritage or what we call mestizaje. As early as the colonial period, there is a history of intermarriage and mestizo families which is reflected in the vibrant customs and art of Cusco.
9. The art and music. Very few places have such a colorful and diverse mix of various art forms. This can be seen in the many museums, but it is especially exciting to witness at one of the many popular festivals and religious processions unique to the region of Cusco. Music and dance are central in the local culture; they are a form of identity and self-expression. Grandfathers dance alongside granddaughters, here there is less of a generational divide. Another less known form of art is the amazing textiles and weavers that have practiced this art form for thousands of years. Our fascinating course Traditional Andean Textile and Iconography, explores this important part of the culture.
8. The natural world. Everywhere I look are spectacular views of mountains, valleys, rivers and forests. Just being here in the presence of such natural beauty fills me with awe. Sometimes I need a bit of time to myself and I take off up the mountain, five minutes from my house. The lush forest and scenic views bring me serenity. However, all this natural beauty is in danger with the way we have been treating our environment. Decades of careless management of natural resources and an overreliance on fossil fuels has had a profound change on the climate. There is no better place to see the impact of climate change than here in the Andes. Many glaciers that were once abundant sources of water have begun to melt, threatening the populations that depend on them. You can study these important issues in our thought-provoking course, Climate Change.
7. The history. Cusco was once the center of the Incan empire that extended, at its most powerful time, north to Venezuela and south to Argentina. The Incans were not a peaceful people and conquered many cultures during their rule. The Spanish conquest brought Catholicism, colonialism, war and disease. Cusco has an old, complex, and many times tragic history. Depending on the perspective, the history changes dramatically. These perspectives are explored in our course, Human Rights and Democracy in Peru.
6. Globalization and development. As you know globalization and development does not always benefit everyone. The huge tourist industry, which has grown considerably over the last few decades, has brought economic development to Cusco. However, Cusco remains as one of the poorest regions in Peru and you can see this when you leave the city. Up in the surrounding mountains, the campesino communities, made up of mainly native Quechua speakers, live by subsistence farming. Modern infrastructure has yet to reach these communities. Thanks to the international attention that Cusco gets as a tourist destination, there are also many NGOs and non-profit organizations from around the world that are doing fascinating and important work, trying to reach the most vulnerable communities.
One issue I find particularly important, is how the modern economic system emphasizes individualism and competition between neighbors.However, traditional Andean communities are founded on collectivist values, which have helped them survive for centuries.I won’t bore you with my schpeel but if you also think it’s interesting, message/email me to continue the conversation!
5. Llamas and Alpacas. It might not sound like a serious reason, but they are so freaking adorable! Am I right? Everywhere you go, there are pet alpacas. They help keep the grass short and make great photo ops. And of course, their wool is the main fiber used in the typical clothing, rugs, blankets etc. in the Andes. On our program we visit a cool textile market called Awanacancha where you can learn about the different species, their importance to the local culture, and you can even feed these loveable beings.
4. The people. Maybe it’s because I lived in the huge city of Lima (12m people) for so long and the fact that Cusco is much smaller (500k), but everyone has been so nice and friendly here. People are laid back and love to strike up conversation. Our host families are the best. They are made up of fun, interesting people who are excited to show our students around. And it’s not just the Cuzqueño people. Cusco also has a large welcoming international community from all over the world who live, study and work here.
3. The food. Ok, so I have lived in Peru for a long time and I know that Peru is famous for its diversity of dishes and amazing flavors. But Cusco is even better than Lima! I don’t know if it’s the high altitude, the pure air, or maybe the freshness of the ingredients, but everything tastes amazing! And thanks to the large amounts of tourists that visit Cusco each year, there is a vibrant restaurant scene where you can try food from all over Peru and the world.
2. Outdoor sports. There’s something to do for everyone here. Between hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, back packing, horseback riding, white water rafting, and fishing, the area has it all! Even for lazier folk, and I am often one myself, there’s a mall, a movie theatre, shopping, yoga classes etc. It’s hard to be bored here.
1. Machu Picchu. Need I say more? As one of the seven wonders of the modern world, Machu Picchu is a major highlight of coming to Cusco. Its natural beauty as well as its incredible engineering and masonry are what make it such a unique site. However, Cusco the city and the Sacred Valley are full of more amazing archeological sites that boast the sophisticated religious, military and agricultural infrastructure that the Incans developed.
These are my top ten, at least for the moment. Thanks for reading until the end of this very long post. I hope to see you soon in Cusco!