Laine has written previously about trips of hers that have fallen through, and I’ve changed my plans while traveling, but my trip to Peru was the first time I’d had my plans completely shut down by protesters. When living in Madrid during an election, protesters filled the city, but they didn’t actually effect me. Protesters in Cusco threw a big gigantic wrench on two of our days in the city.
The protests revolved around a law that would allow private companies to provide tourism services to several of Peru’s archaeological sites. A lot of the protesters had signs with Machu Picchu on it saying “not for sale”. But…the law wouldn’t apply to any of the sites which have world heritage status, such as Machu Picchu. Apparently there was confusion over what exactly the law was trying to accomplish and not everyone seemed to be on the same page.
In an effort to better understand what was going on, I asked my home-stay about the protests, but all he offered was that the people in Cusco loved to protest and didn’t take any of it very seriously as it happens all the time. This might be true, but it wasn’t really super insightful. He also continually called everyone commoners, or communists…I’m not really sure.
Day 1 of protests
Without being aware of the protests in advance we’d planned on taking a free walking tour of Cusco in the morning and exploring some ruins in the afternoon. We headed into the Plaza de Armas an hour before the 10:30 tour to hang out. Anytime there are a group of people chanting loudly it’s a touch ominous sounding, but the protests weren’t violent, and it was interesting to see the people of Cusco coming together for their cause. At 10:30 we headed to the plaza one street over for the tour meeting point, only to learn that the tour was canceled due to the protests. They said they would try to run the 12:30 tour, but couldn’t guarantee it. We waited around in the plaza for the rest of the morning as there really weren’t a lot of other options. We could visit the ruins outside of town… but the buses and taxis were shut down. We sat and watched the protests, which were now feeling a good bit less exciting and more like a personal oppression. I guess they were accomplishing what they wanted but I was still a bit fuzzy how the privatization of sites the government couldn’t pay to upkeep would negatively impact them. Finally, the tour ran – though the guide had to pretend he wasn’t working to avoid getting heckled by the protesters.
We looked up a dinner theatre restaurant. It wasn’t close enough to walk. No problem we’ll just grab a taxi… oh – right – none of those.
Day 2 of protests
The sound of the chanting throughout the city is ringing loudly by 8:00 am. We had planned to visit Pisac and the markets there. As they are one hour outside the city limits of Cusco we have no way of getting there. We decide to try the textiles market as it’s close to the airport – walking distance but not near the city center. It’s closed. We walk back through San Blas in attempts to visit a souvenir shop. As we approach the shops the doors are being closed and latched as messengers tell the shop owners that the protestors approach. Of course. The restaurants in the city are all closed today. Because protests. I know that these people had things they were fighting for and I’m all for making a point – but it really did feel like the people suffering from the protests were tourists – not the government. What was at one point exciting and interesting to watch was now a personal attack on our joy. We sat on benches in the plaza as every single shoe shine man attempted to clean my ratty old boots, and multiple people offered us hand drawn paintings which were shockingly similar. Kelly tells the people I like my boots dirty, and they can’t believe it. I want to make them dirtier just to spite them.
On the third day the protests end, but we see hints of them on our day trip outside of the town. The roads have been covered in rocks and boulders in places blocking access to the city. I ask our tour guide what he thinks of the protests. He said he participated the first day but then got bored. I don’t really know what to think as we are then distracted by a conversation in which he wants to buy a Peruvian dog but I argue that they look like a hyena turned inside out. He assures me they are nice to pet dispite having no hair, as they are smooth and warm. I maintain they look like a hand and I want nothing to do with them. We laugh together, but I still don’t really understand the protests.
Honestly, I would have hoped to have a much more detailed idea of how exactly the new law proposals would affect people in a real day-to-day way. From what I gathered about half of the people were for the law, and half against. Being in the middle of protesters for two days I would have thought I would have a true and deep understanding of their personal struggles, but the answers I got varied and didn’t really answer me directly. Either way, their efforts seem to have paid off as the law has been suspended. For now.
This was the first time I really felt like my travel plans were shut down and I wasn’t able to reroute to something. I am pretty lucky as hundreds of travelers missed seeing Machu Picchu, or got stranded in random towns. But, we had good weather and good company, and I did get a solid tan on the backs of my hands from sitting in the plaza for so long. Silver linings.