A freelance journalist from the U.S. shares his experience of being quarantined in Cusco and speaks upon the health and financial risks of locals.
I’ve been living in Cusco since about November. I’m a freelance journalist and before this I was traveling around South America a bit, covering the protests in Ecuador and working on my (laughable) Spanish. When I arrived in Cusco, something about the city made me want to stay a while. As I came to find out, that’s a pretty common story for foreigners who pass through here.
There’s really no other city that looks or feels like this—the mix of Inca and Spanish architecture, the unique cultural and culinary influences, epic ruins just a few miles walk from the city center, and all of it set in the Andes at the insanely high altitude of 3400 masl. There’s also so much history and natural beauty to explore in the nearby Sacred Valley. Cusco itself is amazing, but it also makes an excellent base of operations to explore the surrounding area.
These past few months, I’ve been living in Santa Ana and now Wanchaq, teaching some English classes at a local academy and doing freelance writing—some for publications back home in the United States, some for local tour operators. My time was spent exploring the city and all it has to offer, and going on lots of hikes, meeting lots of alpacas and llamas.
However, my routine completely changed when the quarantine went into effect in mid-March. My school closed and there’s only so much reporting you can do without being able to leave the apartment. But I’ve been keeping busy with a few projects and a lot of Nintendo (particularly Mario Kart).
So far I’ve been pretty impressed with the decisive action of the Peruvian government. Like a lot of places, there wasn’t a lot of early testing here, and there still isn’t—so it’s difficult to say exactly what official numbers mean. The official numbers for COVID-19 cases in Peru are currently over 1000, but without widespread testing, that doesn’t give a very full picture of the situation.
People in quarantine in Cusco embraced the masks right away. In fact, you don’t see anyone outside who isn’t wearing one. Completely different from the attitude towards masks in the United States The curfew was originally set at 8pm, but recently they moved it up to 6pm and continued to add and alter restrictions during quarantine.
The way they’re handling this back home in the U.S. is embarrassing. It’s a picture of incompetence. When I saw media coverage of all those spring breakers at the beach, I knew we were in trouble; my home state of Florida, with its older population, is going to get hit very hard. Even though my elderly parents still live there, I never really considered going home. My big fear is getting delayed at a crowded airport, catching the virus, then giving it to my parents who are at high risk.
Comparatively, Cusco is a way better place to wait this out than anywhere in the States, especially Florida—but ask me again in two weeks. I’m not sure the quarantine in Cusco or anywhere in Peru were implaced soon enough, but only time will tell.
I do worry about what could happen. The healthcare infrastructure here in Cusco is basic at best. It’s easy to imagine the hospitals and clinics becoming overwhelmed during a pandemic. And there are unique risk factors for Cusqueños and Peruvians in general. From kissing each other on the cheek every time they meet, to crowded and perhaps unsanitary markets and public transportation, there are pre-existing conditions for a virus to spread very quickly. As well, given its status as the gateway to Machu Picchu, people from all over the world were (prior to the lockdown) constantly flying in and out of this touristic city—another high-risk factor.
On that note, I worry a lot about locals who depend on the constant flow of travelers. There are things I can do from my apartment to make extra money, but Cusco is a tourism-based economy. With the airports and borders closed, there’s not many options left for locals to make an income. And people’s savings won’t last forever, and I wonder what will happen when some can no longer afford essentials.
President Vizcarra said there would be help for low-paid workers (35% of wages for any employee earning less than 1500 soles a month) and there have been some other measures taken; I hope that’s enough.
The beating heart of the city, the Plaza de Armas, is totally empty now, which feels surreal. It’s usually a swarming hive of tourists and guides and hawkers. The cathedral looks strange and out of context without the usual crowds.
Grocery stores have been open, and there’s been plenty of food and toilet paper here, so the supply chains are holding up, at least. The stories and photos of hoarding back home—I haven’t seen any of that here.
In Cusco, face masks are mandatory at the grocery store, and last week they didn’t let me in because I wasn’t wearing one. I was forced to go find a pharmacy that had some in stock, which wasn’t easy—it took me about 45 minutes to track one down. That was a little scary—it was either find a mask, or don’t eat.
There have been clear signs that the government isn’t really sure how to handle this. For a few days, the grocery store wasn’t selling alcohol—it was in stock, but it was all taped off and police weren’t allowing the store to sell it. Now that’s over. Why did that happen? Impossible to say.
The soldiers with rifles in the streets are a startling sight, but the police and military have all been kind to me so far. Some of my fellow foreign residents have been hassled by locals or police, for little-to-no reason. Obviously, that’s not unique to Peru—Asian-Americans are having a tough time in the States right now, as well. Sadly, in situations like this it’s much easier to blame outsiders, or even just those who appear to be outsiders. I’ve been lucky so far—aside from a few glances and people crossing the street to get away from me, no one’s treated me any differently.
All things considered, being quarantined in Cusco hasn’t been too bad for me personally. My apartment has lots of windows and natural light, I’m catching up with a lot of friends via video chat, and while I’m not able to work as much or be as productive as I’d like, I’m keeping somewhat busy.
As soon as this is over and I’m able to, I’m going to head to Machu Picchu. I still haven’t been, and it will probably never be cheaper or less crowded than when the state of emergency comes to an end. If there’s still a tourism industry, that is.
All photos contributed by author. Follow Stephen K. Hirst on Instagram
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