Every day is Tourism Day in Cusco

dia del turismo

On September 5th Cusco celebrates el Dia del Turismo, or the day of tourism with a parade and evening concert in the Plaza de Armas. The entire event is fitting, given the fact that the city’s economy is almost entirely dependent on the hundreds of thousands of International tourists that arrive each year.  Of course the city receives it’s share of national tourists as well, mostly wealthy Lima residents, though they pay less than half of what foreigners pay to see and do all of the same things.  One could argue either way as to whether or not this pricing structure is fair since it doesn’t seem entirely effective given the fact that the budget of many wealthy Peruvians surely exceeds that of many backpackers and the discounted price remains too expensive for the majority of Peruvians…but that’s currently the way the pricing system is set-up.       

Since the rediscovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, tourism has been the driving force behind economic prosperity and growth in the city of Cusco and it is this which has affected the city more than any other event since the arrival of the Spanish.  As a result, these days it’s literally impossible to walk down the street without offers of souvenirs, tours or language schools, invitations to restaurants and bars or having one of the many young girls working at the spas chasing after you asking, “massage, lady?”  Ironically, Carlos only receives such tourist offers and attention when we are together.  He can sit in the plaza all day and barely be bothered by anyone except maybe the woman selling the local homemade tea concoction, but as soon as I sit down next to him we’re surrounded by people trying to sell us all kinds of souvenirs. 

Here in Peru, as in much of Latin America, you are only considered to be a tourist if you look like one – which basically means looking like you are from North America or Europe and therefore perceived to have lots of U.S. dollars to spend.  To further highlight this point, one of the young boys selling postcards in the plaza stopped to chat with us for a moment and after finding out Carlos was Mexican, proceeded to comment that he wasn’t really a tourist because he looked as though he could be Peruvian. Never mind the fact that he is not Peruvian and is a tourist just as much as I am.  You can always count on kids to say what nobody else will.  And it’s for this reason that many visitors to the city tend to have unfavorable experiences and complain that they dislike how touristy it is and how they are constantly hassled. 

However, we’ve also come to find that if you venture outside of the centro turistico many of these distractions disappear and the city becomes very much like other South American cities.  Though I must admit that there are times when we take advantage of Carlos’ non-tourist status.  For example, we recently needed to buy new jackets since we arrived in South America ill-prepared for the cold.  First we settled on something we liked, then a few days later Carlos returned to the store on his own to make the actual purchases while I waited outside.  As we had expected, the price quoted to him was nearly half of what I was quoted a few days earlier, and after a bit of bargaining in Spanish it went down even more.  In fact, experiences such as this are so frequent that it’s become a bit of a joke between the two of us.

At the same time, there are many things about a touristy city such as Cusco that make it enjoyable and welcoming for foreigners, like the Day of Tourism parade, a very impressive showing of numerous talented and traditionally dressed dance troupes.  Interestingly, many of the costumes worn by the dancers are nearly identical to the traditional dress worn today by the indigenous people in and around Cusco and the dances similar to those performed at local celebrations and festivals.  The city and surrounding towns have successfully managed to preserve their culture and traditions amidst the influx of tourists and today they remain largely unchanged from the past – though at times this requires venturing outside of the city center to discover.  As for us, we’ve really taken a liking to Cusco and all that it has to offer.  With just one week remaining there are still a few places we have yet to visit, most notably Machu Picchu.

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