Cuzco’s Cash Cows Turned Cold and Sour
Its image conjures a touristy but conservative city, numerously dotted with colonial churches patronized by devout folks with pure and simple hearts, warm and stranger friendly. Peeling bells recreate sonorous medieval sound.
This is just a product of my wishful thinking, fired up by travel books. It’s a false veneer. Cuzco is no different from other highly commercialized cities joining the rat race – inhuman, sly, jaded, sophisticated, and money-faced.
Cuzco will never be Cuzco without its baroque churches, its crowd pullers and cash cows. Majestic facades and awe-inspiring bell towers, opulent gilded interiors, and masterpiece paintings filled my imagination.
How will the government of Peru sell Cuzco without it?
Perhaps only a small token of Inca ruins justify the visit (excluding Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley). What is really left by the Spaniards for us to see are just stones built in engineering marvel joined together so tightly without mortar that a teeth floss can’t pass through. OK, that’s one feat of human wonder but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
I wouldn’t come here in the first place just for that, I’m not an engineer nor a nature adventurer and I will never come here if I knew it all along, unless I’m invited on an expense paid trip.
Essentially, the Catholic organization does not have anything to do with the tourism promotion program of the government.
Let there be a disclaimer in their tourism campaign, that these churches, although used as selling baits, do not necessarily sanction this attention. They do not welcome tourists.
It will come as a surprise that in the US commercials, Peruvian tourism promotion is generated at the expense of these architectural wonders. There is just a disconnect between what Peruvian tourism spin meisters are scheming and what church custodians are behaving.
If one has a vivid photographic memory, is retired and has spare six months to loll around and kill time to spend in Cuzco, architectural tour is a fulfilling activity. Two weeks is allotted for each church. But what about those time and budget conscious tourists like me?
On my arrival, all the major churches were closed. They open simultaneously, on a very limited time, either or both in the bitterly cold mornings, and in the twilight of dusks, unfit to be gazed at, lighted by the dimming sun.
Their opening times are very unpredictable.
Forget about guidebooks’ informing that the cathedral opens in the morning for real worshippers and early afternoon for art lovers and tourists, the latter is not observed. Forget about any piece of schedule information.
One can sneak in only during worship service, depending on the available priest who signed-up to officiate; otherwise, the church is sealed for the day. And there’s about five minutes of window time to gaze at the interior details before and after. As soon as the service is over, the custodian shuts off the lights and drives out everybody to the exit door like stray dogs.
Worse, no photography is allowed. I will certainly give in to concessions like no photography during mass ceremonies and no photography with flash, where is my etiquette? But what’s this? No photography at all!?!?
What ever happened to the tourist reminder “Leave Nothing but Footprints, Take Nothing but Photographs”? FORGET IT!
It was a cruel revelation and I lost my bearings. The unpleasant dry weather and high altitude made me uncomfortable. I was incapacitated by diarrhea and climbing difficulty for its cardiac hills, feeling the brunt of Atahualpa’s Avenge. The air of hostility and xenophobia in these places of interests made me more sick and disgusted. I traveled thousands of miles away to face a finger pointing out of the exit door, or worse, a shut door.
All the churches were closed, except for two or three such as Santa Clara.
One church, San Blas, is charging an entrance fee for its one and only attraction – its ornate pulpit – and mind everyone, no photography allowed. This is plain exploitation and quick-buck extortion at its best, coming from an organization that teaches morality and ethics.
Another church, Santa Teresa, I got the ire of the Mother Superior when she caught me. She challenged me what I can gain from this recreation. I can only speak Spanish so much but I love to lecture this medieval-thinking grandma living in the Age of Galileo and Inquisition about her religion and its pursuit of beauty, truth, and humanism.
Before I pushed for Cuzco, in Lima I made arrangements from the travel agency for a tour of Machu Picchu, which includes transportation and pick-up from Cuzco airport and drop-off to the hotel. I knew all along stepping out of the airport into the meeting point that I would fall into a tourist trap for I have not yet reserved a hotel and they knew I’m a vulnerable bird of prey.
My arrival is two days before the Inti Raymi festival. I was frightened by the thought of no vacancy hostels – what I can only afford. Even then, I resigned my faith and bequeathed my destiny into the hands of the tour agency proprietor I shall identify as Pocho, a round-faced, stout middle-aged Quechuan. He is always pitching, suffocating me with tours and ticket offers. I hate him more when he proposed to change my schedule, bluffing me with a warning that the Machu Picchu workers are about to hold a strike on the very day I was scheduled to go. If I know, he just wanted to re-schedule me on his loll day.
He introduced me to his pick-up driver Perry, an easy going Quechuan. Off we went to scout for a hostel.
His very deep-set eyes and long sharp nose as prominent as a condor’s beak reminded me of a brown-skinned Cherokee chief I must have seen in one of those Cowboys and Indians movies. His narrow face and drooping lips makes a serious look and every time he returned after checking-out a hostel, he emoted with his pouting lips and cross eyebrows, portending grim news, no vacancy.
Ten hostels in the city center rejected me and I was already hungry scouting for two hours. Finally, he suggested a hotel a few kilometers from the city center. My apprehension of commuting to and from the city with an extra taxi budget has finally come true.
It was in the expensive range. I have to pay in full for the four-day stay, that’s a prerequisite, to tie me in and close the possibility of scouting for a cheaper accommodation afterwards. This hotel turned out to be the dumping ground for tourists who have booked for the tour to Machu Picchu from Pocho’s agency. That sealed the tourist trap, making sure tourist dollars and commissions fall within the circle of company crony cliques.
Nevertheless, I have no regrets with this hotel. It was a great value for money.
Perry proved to be seasoned in this business and I hired him to take me to remote places from Oropesa to Andahuaylillas to Pisac to Chinchero to Urcos, down to Tinta, 90 kilometers east of Cuzco. A tourist driver astute in the tourism trade, he sells everything, and the array of services he sells is immense and diverse. He even offers Cuzquenian women at US$10 a pop.
He acted as my guide and go-between for me to gain access to churches, which are otherwise hard to approach. He initiated the talks but backed out whenever I have heated arguments with church caretakers. He made sure I take the right medications for my diarrhea.
And as we journeyed, his abusive side showed off, treating me as an ATM machine for expenses like gas and snacks. That was not part of the contract, excluding tips, which he demanded. What the heck, charged it to experience and this will just be one time, it won’t be repeated, ever.
Shop owners are jaded. They scrutinize money without finesse and discreet, test its tensile strength and texture, feel it with several runs on their thumbs and index fingers, gaze at it upwards. Even coins are checked, one was mistakenly dismissed as fake when I bought a bottle of water, and their judgment is final. Even the tips I gave were bound for examination. I guess that’s Peruvian custom pervasive everywhere, a manifestation of a scam-weary, mistrustful people. This is the only country so far where I experienced this.
The police are polite, way, too much more approachable than the arrogant cops of Los Angeles, but were not helpful with their answers.
Everybody thinks about money. From seven to seventy-seven, locals want a piece of tourist money. The cute little native girl with her red poppy cheeks petting her docile smiling llama charges for a photo-op fee. She claims my $1 change tips are no good and wants more. An old man surprised me when we returned to the car, charging me for S/.5.00 (nuevo soles) even if I don’t own it. I thought only cars are counted for parking fee, not per occupant.
Overall, I find the locals here are not specially endearing.
I shall pass this off anytime for Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, I can take pictures wherever I want and I know for sure what my tourist dollar’s fate is. I come psyched to gamble and loose, but here in Cuzco, I wasn’t warned that I’m going to make a gamble and eventually loose.