I touched down in Cuzco, hoping to take some Spanish classes and take in the history of this city and its surroundings. Having picked up conversational Spanish many years ago in my travels across Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, I was forever marked with the distinct accent, primarily the insertion of “shhhh” for “y” and “ll” sounds. Killing two birds with one stone, I settled on Cuzco to get some formal Spanish classes and some trekking.
Hoping to get the most of out of my 2 weeks, I opted to stay with a host family. In retrospect that was probably the best decision I made. Despite my reservations, it was also a really great learning experience. My initial interactions included a lot more gesticulation than actual words as I racked my brain for words to express my thoughts. It was frustrating as I pieced together and mentally translated my sentences, words in other half-learned languages would pop up instead, eventually drawing a blank. Thankfully within a few days my vocabulary was quickly coming back.
Having come from Quito, another city with relatively high altitude, I naively thought I could quickly hit the ground running once in Cuzco (around 3,500 m above sea level). To my surprise, I was rudely welcomed with “Soracha” (altitude sickness). That was my cue to take it easy and sleep for nearly 16 hours to acclimate. Some cocoa tea helped ease the transition as well.
The city of Cuzco, stands as a stark reminder of Spanish conquest. The ancient Incan city was dismantled to pave way for Spanish colonial town. An ornate church stands atop the ruins of each Incan temple or sacred sight. The narrow cobblestone streets and remnants of impeccably built walls stand as haunting reminders of the capital of the Incan empire. The city radiates from the Plaza de Armas, which was brought to its knees during an earthquake in 1950s, surprisingly Incan structures that could not be destroyed by the Spaniards stood their grounds as the city crumbled from the powerful tremors.
Walking the streets of Cuzco, I was left thoroughly conflicted. It was evident that the vast majority of those living in the city made a living of some sort of tourism related trade. Women, overly-dressed in traditional dresses totting dressed up sheep or llamas posed for a string of visitors in exchange for a few pesos. At every corner, hawkers pushed flyers in your face about tours, restaurants, treks. I was thankful for the tranquility for my host family’s house, where it was a bit comforting to discern from the tourist traps and have genuine discussions about Cusquenan life.
During my stay, I roamed around the city in the few hours of free time beyond my all day intensive Spanish classes. I quickly found my way back to the Cocoa Museum for a lovely cup of hot chocolate or their amazingly decadent brownie. Exploring the neighborhood of San Blas was also a highlight. Having to climb an endless amount of cobblestone stairs, and being thoroughly winded at the top is worthwhile to visit the many art galleries and take in the amazing panoramic view of the city.
Despite the outpouring of tourists around the city, wandering the small alleyways, I got to take in the charm of this city. I was definitely quite the unconventional tourist around these parts. I attracted a lot more attention from Cusquenans. It helped me start many friendly conversations. It seems that hijabi-clad, black-arab women are not their everyday type of tourist.
I did not have a single disappointing meal throughout my stay. Cooking at home with the family was wonderful, and getting to explore so many new ingredients. I was not brave enough to try cuy (guinea pig), although a few friends that I had made during my stay raved about it. As an added bonus throughout my stay, I picked up a new knitting stitch, that the grandmother at my host family taught me.
All in all, despite the two weeks, I felt that it was still too short. I was just beginning to scratch the surface and find out what makes this city truly tick.