Slow Travel Peru – Falling in love with Cusco

Editor’s note: This is a slow travel guest post by Sarah Shaw. Sarah is a travel writer and mixed media artist, currently working as an English teacher at a public school in Seoul, South Korea. She authors www.mappingwords.com, a travel blog that tells stories about people and places encountered abroad, in the form of narratives, photo essays, destination articles and general musings. She enjoys dancing, singing karaoke, playing with cats in cafes, and embarrassing herself in foreign languages.

When I was five years old, I saw a woman on television working as a mapmaker and charting territories from a helicopter. Awestruck, I gazed into the screen, longing to be in that helicopter and soaring over patterned fields and curvaceous rivers. Ever since, I told myself that I would see the world. My mother would say, “When you’re independently wealthy,” but I knew that I would travel without being rich.

In high school, I was determined to go abroad. Throughout my last year, I slaved away in a greasy east coast American chain restaurant. While my friends went out on Saturday nights, I delivered heart-clogging burgers and three-scoop sundaes covered with hot fudge and towers of whipped cream to impatient customers. At the end of the night, I would count a wad of bills, caked in grease and barbeque sauce, knowing that I was one step closer to embarking on a new adventure.

I didn’t exactly know where I wanted to go, but I wanted to live somewhere. I wasn’t interested in traveling from city to city, and I didn’t have the budget for that anyway. I longed to establish myself in a community, if only for a short period of time. Since I was studying Spanish at school, I decided to go to Cusco, Peru for a couple months before entering university. I didn’t know much about Peru, besides what I briefly learned about Machu Picchu and the Incans in my high school world history class. I found a program where I could study Spanish at a local language school for one month and volunteer with an after school program for the next. I didn’t have many expectations.

When I arrived in Cusco, I was mystified by the cobblestone streets with middle-aged women dressed in layers of skirts and leading alpaca whose hooves created a rhythm with each step. I began studying Spanish while living with a host family in an upper-middle class neighborhood called Magisterio. This home was three stories high and housed twelve people, including two related families with children, their grandfather, two maids, and me. The maids were indigenous Peruvians who grew up speaking Quechua as their first language. Sometimes, they would sit with me in the park next door while they strolled around with the children. They would teach me some basic words in Quechua, like “wawa” meaning baby. I was fascinated by the sound of these onomatopoeias.

My Spanish school was located in central Cusco, halfway up a steep, cobblestone street next to la Plaza de Armas. For four hours a day, I would study in a class with a few other students. We conversed with our teachers and studied traditional and contemporary song lyrics. I distinctly remember learning the imperfect tense through “Los Caminos de la Vida,” a song titled, “The Roads of Life.” I would drink coca tea during breaks, watching the leaves swirl in my cup as I sat on a terrace overlooking the mountains with giant words “Viva El Peru Glorioso” carved into the side.

Outside of Spanish class, I met Peruvian friends by frequenting a bar with a small dance floor, drinking pisco sours, a local Peruvian drink, and participating in salsa lessons. My Spanish and dancing improved simultaneously, since, as a gringa, I was never without a dance partner. My friend Marie was bubbly and outgoing. She introduced me to many friends, who I thought were all family since she addressed each one as hermana, sister, or tio, uncle. I soon learned that these familiar terms can be used to associate with close friends. I began meeting up with these friends outside the bar, and we would go to the swimming pool or eat together. I was even invited to a family gathering, where Marie’s uncle spent all night making pizza in a brick oven.

Additionally, I practiced speaking Spanish with local taxi drivers. Each taxi ride costs a flat fare of less than one US dollar, and I viewed this opportunity as a practical, inexpensive private tutoring session. Small talk would lead to Peruvian history and culture lessons, and of course, whether I had a boyfriend or not. One taxi driver even recited a love poem in Quechua, and translated each line into Spanish. Another driver recognized me from a previous day and greeted me with, “Hola, Sarah!” as I opened the passenger side door.

I didn’t realize how acquainted I’d become with Cusco’s local community until I attended the Virgen del Carmen festival in Paucartambo, a small town outside of Cusco. Besides having food poisoning, paying to squat in a hole in the ground covered by thin curtains, and sleeping on a dirt floor for a couple hours because we didn’t book a room, I recognized a number of people I’d met, or rather they recognized me. Among thousands of people at this festival I saw one of my Spanish teachers, the aunt from my host family, my friend Mary, and a few others. Although I had only been living in Cusco for a month, I had immersed myself in this community and I started to feel accepted.

Two months quickly passed, and it was time for me to fly back to the United States to begin a new chapter at university. I didn’t want to leave. My friends and I spent my last night together drinking on the street and dancing to our favorite songs, and in the morning, they met me at the airport. They gave me small gifts and cards, and I cried on the short flight from Cusco to Lima, frightening a quiet Asian couple seated next to me.

As I recall the two months that I lived, studied and volunteered in Cusco, Peru, the first things that come to mind aren’t Machu Picchu and the museums I visited. I think about dancing salsa with my friend Gustavo to Marc Anthony’s “Tu Me Hace Amor” in a dingy bar with a small dance floor, completely unaware of anything besides the music and our bodies moving to the beat. I think about the homemade meals I shared with my host family, including hearty soups, thick slabs of meat, rice, potatoes, and an array of colorful corn. I picture myself riding in one of the local white vans, squeezed next to indigenous women carrying babies swaddled in colorful clothes on their backs. I envision the woman who sold ice cream next to my host family’s house and knew my favorite flavor. I think about my Spanish teachers and the children I drew pictures with at the after school program in San Sebastiano. Most of all, I think about the friends I made, who I occasionally talk to on Facebook, even though my Spanish has withered over the past six years. This period of slow travel drastically changed my perception of the world and allowed me to analyze my own philosophies. The amount of sites you visit or the souvenirs you bring home are not nearly as substantial as the people you’ll meet abroad. They are the key to learning about a new culture. Soon enough, I was called hermana too.

How to Slow Travel in Cusco, Peru:

Learn the local language(s): There are plenty of affordable Spanish language schools, where you can study for a few hours each day to brush up on your skills. I studied for a month at Amauta, a school located in La Plaza de Armas, and they even offer a basic course in Quechua, the indigenous Peruvian language. You’ll be sure to impress new Peruvian friends and acquaintances.

Take a cultural class: Whether it’s cooking or dance, you can learn a new skill while making new friends. If you arrive at the bars and clubs early, you can take free dance classes and have a chance to meet local dance teachers.

Stay with a host family or volunteer: I had the option of staying with a local family or living in the Spanish language school’s housing. Not only did my Spanish improve by living with a local family, but I was invited to birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and out to eat at local restaurants. They fed me homemade Peruvian food and I had ample opportunities to learn about Peruvian life through our conversations. Volunteering enabled me to help out the local community and also learn about Peruvian culture first-hand.

Eat at the markets: The most authentic and cheapest Peruvian food can be found in the traditional street markets, and hole-in-the-wall side street restaurants. Avoid the fancy tourist traps around La Plaza de Armas and other heavily tourist populated areas.

Shop at the markets: Additionally, there is a plethora of markets filled with goods, from used CDs to handcrafted souvenirs to clothing. You must learn how to count in Spanish, because bartering is essential. Otherwise, you will constantly be paying far too much for your purchases.

Travel with local transportation and take walks: Small white vans are the cheapest transportation, although you may have to step over people squished in the aisles. Taxis are also cheap for foreigners, and you have a chance to practice speaking Spanish with the drivers. The fares are a set price, and they are slightly higher at night. If you’re traveling a short distance, take walks. There are so many places to explore in Cusco, including ancient ruins scattered about the city and narrow cobblestoned side streets with small shops and restaurants.

-Text and Photography by Sarah Shaw and may not be used without her permission. Hosted on www.theartofslowtravel.com

5 thoughts on “Slow Travel Peru – Falling in love with Cusco”

  1. A lovely series of images. Reading about your experiences in Cusco is especially interesting to me, as I was there last week, and loved the place and its atmosphere, and the people, too. Muchos saludos desde Santiago de Chile…

  2. Hi Sarah,

    This article is fantastic. I just visited Cusco this week and fell in love with the city immediately. I want to go back and was thinking of doing exactly what you did, a month or two in Cusco. How did you find and arrange your program? Do you have any recommendations for Spanish schools or places where I can volunteer or teach English for a short period?

    Thank you for your help and for sharing this wonderful experience with us.

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