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The changing face of Cusco

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It's more subtle than usual but it's still a KFC on Cusco's Plaza Mayor.

This email arrived from a good client of ours today, he goes every year with a large group of people so is uniquely well placed to observe the changes being wrought by mass tourism on this, Peru's most important tourist hub:

"Cusco continues to change dramatically but even more so in the last two years than i noted on previous occasions. The centre is now very sophisticated and it seems very americanised in their approach to tourists with a vastly enhanced tipping culture in restaurants, service charges added automatically to large groups, drink prices that now match Brisbane and very sophisticated restaurants as well as Starbucks and KFC  to join McDonalds in the Plaza. Not sure I like it as much in that it seems to have lost a little of its original charm in  the process. I guess that's progress but I still have a soft spot for the Cusco of the 80s when I first visited."

So that's it, we've got to the point where Cusco, the navel of the world, the heart of the mighty Empire of the Incas, has Starbucks, McDonalds & KFC all side by side in the central square.

I don't pretend that this is anything other than depressing. Just last night I was at a Peruvian cookery class here in Brighton being taught how to make the most delicious ceviche. What does the West send in return for this delicious treat? Fried chicken, microwaved burgers and 1,000 calorie cups of coffee. You give us Machu Picchu and the culture, architecture & history of the Inca, we'll give you heart disease. And cash. And that's the thing, if I were scratching a living out in the dry terrain around Cusco growing potatoes when suddenly a job at McDonalds appeared, I'd take it. It would feed my family and any moral qualms can go hang.

So I don't have issue with the supply side of this particular equation. I do have a huge issue with the demand side.

Now I'm perfectly sure that plenty of those customers, at least in McDonalds & KFC are Cusquenos and not tourists (not so sure about Starbucks), but Cusco managed for many, many years without them. Their appearance coincides with the growth in foreign visitor numbers. It's not too much of a stretch to think that these 'restaurants' would not be there without the demand brought in by the visitors.

And this is the crux of the matter. If you are intellectually curious enough to travel somewhere far away like Peru, then what the hell are you doing eating this stuff and not discovering Peruvian food? Food and eating are a crucial part of any culture, what we eat, how we eat it, where we shop, the flavours, the ingredients, where they come from....it's all part of the tapestry of a place, it's people. What are you going to learn about Peru sitting inside McDonalds on Cusco's main square?

Nothing.

And if you aren't there to learn, you're just there to look. And if you are just there to look, why not save your money, stay and home and watch a video of Cusco & Machu Picchu?

Travel has the power to enrich us all. Last night I watched as a handful of Brightonians tasted ceviche and pisco sours for the first time. As they did so, Peru became a real place, three dimensional, a place of interest - food of interest. For those of us lucky enough to have experienced the sensation of arriving at the Sun Gate having walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, those of us who have stood in the afternoon sun looking down on this most familiar of places and realised that it's nothing like the pictures, it's a thousand times more dramatic and beautiful. For those of us who have played a game of football with a child on a floating reed island on Lake Titicaca, laughing like drains as our feet get tangled up in the knotted ground beneath us and kicked the ball out of play - far out into the lake. For those of us who have hungrily anticipated our first mouthful of freshly sliced papaya in the Amazon dawn only to have it stolen from ours plates by a fearless scarlet macaw. For those of us who believe that we go to Peru, or anywhere else, as guests. To receive, to enrich ourselves, to learn and to appreciate.  For us, Peru is a place of fabulous richness. For us, the sight of Starbucks in Cusco is a source of shame and embarrassment.

For me, it's also a source of pride though, pride that we stand for a different sort of tourism. Travel which enriches. It makes me, it make us all, more determined than ever to keep unearthing the richness of these places. We'll keep walking the Inca Trail half a day behind everyone else in order that our guests get to have their moment at the Sun Gate. We'll keep going to the real communities in Lake Titicaca where children are playing. We'll keep taking you deeper into the jungle to get this close to the wildlife. Because if we aren't travelling to open our minds, to enrich our lives then why are we leaving home in the first place?

You can see our range of tailor made trips to Peru here, unless you are a 'box ticker', in which case there are plenty of other people who will get you to Peru and not be so opinionated so probably best look elsewhere! And if you want to learn how to make a really good ceviche, here's a link to Martin Morales' new recipe book.

And I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. I'm not normally so opinionated, at least not in public, but this is how we feel about what we do. It would be great to know if you agree or disagree, or anything in between.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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