The Peruvian Experience: Lima and Cusco

As I write this, I’m sitting in a little room in Venice and trying to make sense of the things I saw. It’s been about two weeks since I returned from Peru and I’m still having trouble trying to put the experience into words. It was so utterly different from the life I’m used to that it almost doesn’t seem real, and even when I was still there I had trouble believing that I had actually made it to South America.

So I’ve decided to write up the experiences into this travel blog. While I was in Peru I kept a travel journal and took more pictures than was reasonable, and I’ll be attempting to recall my experiences from there. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do the country justice, but I certainly intend to try.

Those of you who have read my earlier blog posts will already know a little bit about the trip. I went to Peru as part of a fundraising initiative for Practical Action: after meeting my fundraising total of £2850 (which all went directly to the charity) I was lucky enough to head out to Peru with a group of about twenty other fundraisers. In the last days of August, we flew out to Madrid, then on to Lima, where we spent the night before flying on to Cusco the next morning.

Lima was…an experience.

When we arrived it was already dark and most of us were half-asleep. What little we saw of Lima was seen through the windows of a tourist bus. Now that I’m back, I wish I’d had a chance to look around the capital properly, but at the time – when we were driving past barred windows and buildings with barbed wire around the rooftops – I wasn’t quite so keen. It was quite an eye-opener. Our hotel was neat, clean and very well-equipped, but I hadn’t expected it to be in the middle of such an intimidating looking city. Ornately decorated churches were surrounded by chain-link fences and barbed wire, and delicate statues of the Virgin Mary were behind bars on every street corner. We passed through Lima on our way back to the airport when we were returning home, and I caught a glimpse of some of the official government buildings and the main square, but that was all I saw of Peru’s capital city. I’m fully aware that I didn’t do the city justice, and I’d like to go back and explore it further. It was the only city I could honestly describe using the word ‘juxtaposition’ without feeling pretentious: a fascinating place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After our night in Lima, we headed back to the airport, squeezed onto a tiny little plane, and took off for Cusco. During our flight we went straight over the Andes, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Enormous red-brown mountains, some speckled with gleaming snow, spread out before us like a carpet. Blue-green rivers twisted their way between them like ribbons, and wide lakes winked up at us in the sunlight like silver coins. We passed over the mountains through clouds that looked like scoops of vanilla ice cream, and the towns and cities below seemed so delicate and small that it was like looking at a spider’s web. For me, that was the moment when the excitement finally hit, and I realised how incredible this experience was going to be.

And then, we arrived in Cusco.

Cusco is one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s about 3400m above sea level, so when you first arrive the air has a strangely cold and dry taste to it and it’s very easy to become light-headed. It’s a twisting web of narrow, stone streets and wide open squares, surrounded by brown and green mountains on every side. The whole place is drenched in history: once the capital of the Incan empire, it was destroyed and rebuilt by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Now, the city is dominated by enormous churches and cathedrals, many of which are built from the smooth, wide stones that made up the ancient Incan palaces. Colourful tapestries spread across every street stall, the Incan flag flutters on every rooftop and gold gleams on the statues of the Virgin Mary, the conquistadors, and the Incan emperor Pachacuti. It’s a beautiful place and very well cared for, but what really drew me to it was the attitude of its people. Every Peruvian I spoke to was immensely proud of their heritage and their city. It was truly touching to see so many people have such pride in their country, their city and their past, and to be so willing to share it with tourists. I only spent five nights in Cusco, but the city will always be special to me.