A bit like the breeze, rankings often blow one way in the morning before changing course in the afternoon. This is especially true in American magazines seeking ever more sales. However, Travel and Leisure in its annual “World’s Best Awards” recognized a jetstream that blows with increasing vigor. They honored Cuzco As the “top city” in “Mexico, Central, and South America.”
Cuzco deserves this award, even though Latin America is filled with amazing places worth exploring. Tourist industries throughout the region, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, spend millions of dollars promoting their scenery and customs. And each has something to offer. But Cuzco, one of the old timers in Latin American tourism, finds itself fresh and raring to go.
Machu PIcchu may be its crown jewel, but Cuzco is much more than a staging ground for that site where even the air seems to pause to pay homage. It is even more than a charming colonial city of orange tile roofs and white stuccoed walls. Cuzco is the definition of vibrant.
It is filled with young archaeologists who open new aspects of the Inca experience, such as in all the areas that have been excavated and are now open to the public in the Sacsayhuaman park, or the Inca terraces that are being exposed in the city itself.
It fields a large flock of entrepreneurs who seek constantly to make the tourist experience better and to find new ways of approaching Cuzco and its surroundings. As a result, Cuzco has become a site for adventure tourism and many new routes and trails have been opened.
With the increasing emphasis on local culture and the involvement of local institutions, Cuzco’s plaza becomes ever more a ceremonial center. Every Sunday there is the ceremony to raise the flag, but even more involved and colorful are the major feasts and the frequent entrance of troupes of folk dancers who move and bounce round the square. They are not performing for tourists staged representations of traditional life, but are performing for each other and themselves.
Cuzco is also a center of economic activity. Tourism may lead out but it is a market center and a political center. This latter is shown in the slogans pasted on the wall of the University’s building on the plaza, the Paraninfo.
If all of this were not enough, Cuzco is becoming a center for food. To be sure, Lima far outstrips it, but Cuzco is a place where Lima’s chefs open restaurants, send their apprentices, and find food given importance. One can always an enjoyable meal in Cuzco.
The city lives twenty-four hours a day. Its plaza throbs at night with the music of discos and bars whose bartenders serve classic and creative, new drinks.
If you prefer a pub to have a beer, play darts or pool, or watch the latest game from Europe or the United States, Cuzco has those too around its plaza.
Above all, the city shines with creativity. Its artists and craftsmen, although often burdened with the canons of marketable styles, also break free and create fresh and interesting works shown at the city’s galleries. To be there for an opening is not just to sip wine and chow on snacks, it is to become part of a community of art joining tradition with innovation and international trends.
Though a city of half a million people, Cuzco feels much smaller. It excels in charm and friendliness. Though more tourists arrive each year than Cuzco has people, it is far more like the large cities who placed beneath it. Neither it nor they lose their identity and soul to tourism. It lives, is vital, and yet makes tourists welcome. Cuzco is the best city in Latin America to visit.