After nearly four months of living in Cusco and walking about 95% of the time, I’ve learned a few things and made some important observations that have made my adaptation to the culture here much easier.
Walking is the most common way of getting around. Buses and taxis are great is you need to cover longer distances quickly, but any newcomer immediately realizes that walking is the preferred way to get from once place to another with all streets busy from dusk till dawn every day.
There is no better way to explore any place than on foot. The slower pace allows you to see your surroundings and how people interact with each other and their city. You simply cannot get this from inside a taxi. Being a part of the moving city is so much more important than just passing by. Seeing a place from behind a window hides the sounds and smells that give the Cusco and unmatched vibrancy.
Nothing is more important than being aware of everything as you walk. Most people are overly concerned with pickpockets. That, of course, is a concern in any large tourist area, but it is probably the least of your concerns. Interacting with traffic and walking without stumbling, falling, or twisting an ankle is the larger challenge.
The historical center of the city was not built with modern transportation in mind. Many streets are extremely narrow — especially those in San Blas — with nearly non-existent sidewalks. They were built centuries ago with pedestrian traffic in mind as their designers had no concept of present day vehicles.
It can be quite stressful trying to keep your balance while walking on a few inches of stone sidewalk while vehicles zoom past with a seeming disregard for pedestrians. Large vans and delivery trucks are especially dangerous as their wide mirrors often extend into the sidewalk. I’ve seen them miss hitting people by only an inch or two on many occasions.
Also, old streets and sidewalks have been worn down by centuries of traffic resulting in some of the smoothest pavement I’ve ever seen. When it rains, this stone pavement becomes treacherous. Trust me on this. Even the locals know to be extremely careful when the roads and sidewalks are wet as they become slick as ice. Slipping and sliding is a real danger, especially on steeper climbs.
Another serious concern is that many sidewalks are in great disrepair. Stepping in a hole is a very real possibility. Uphill and downhill steps are uneven both in length and in height. Walking without being careful where you are stepping is an invitation to falling. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen several times just in the short time I’ve been here.
Crowded streets pose another challenge. Westerners find it someone disturbing that people here often do not like to yield anything to oncoming pedestrians. It’s common to have to step into the street because a pair of conversing businessmen refuse to allow you to pass on the sidewalk which they are completely taking up completely oblivious to anyone else. I’ve literally been pushed into walls or into the street by unconcerned men who simply refuse to give up any space on the sidewalk.
Crossing streets is fairly straightforward and safe with a few caveats. First, jaywalking is accepted, though not very common. If you choose to cross to the other side of the street, make absolutely certain that there are no cars coming from either direction. Don’t assume that, because a car is distant, that it cannot get to you quickly. Speed limits do not exist and cars, trucks, and buses routinely speed down the street at levels hat would cause them to lose their license in many other countries.
You’re much better off crossing at intersections where signal lights are common, especially in the city center. However, crossing at intersections is not always a safe proposition. Be aware that cars often speed through yellow lights and even red lights if it has just changed. Never assume that a green crosswalk light gives you the right-of-way. Always check traffic, especially looking for vehicles turning. Keep in mind that drivers have no problem blocking an intersection or a crosswalk if traffic does not allow them to continue through.
Some who live here have told me to be careful of certain neighborhoods and around busy markets, but others have said there is no reason to be overly concerned. After four months of living here, I’ve wandered around most of the city including those “unsavory” neighborhoods I was warned about — even at night. Not once have I ever been the least bit concerned for my safety or felt I was in a dangerous situation. I wish I could share an exciting personal story about dealing with a robbery in a some dark alleyway, it’s just never happened to me.
Certainly danger can be found in any urban area and crime against tourists is a very real concern, but nothing replaces simple awareness of your surroundings. The truth is, hundreds of thousands of Cusqueños go through each day of their lives without any problems at all.
While I certainly do not worry much when out exploring the city, I feel apprehensive when walking through heavy crowds and I tend to avoid them whenever possible. This is where pickpockets tend to operate. While I’ve not had to deal with a theft like this, I do know friends who have. Sometimes they’ve even taken extra reasonable precautions to avoid theft and still been robbed.
When I’m in a very crowded place such as the El Baratillo or San Pedro markets, I am even more aware of who is around me. I frequently stop or change direction and look around. If someone looks suspicious, I try to make eye contact so that they are certain that I am aware of them.
When going to places where crime against tourists is more likely, I also do not take anything of any value. Expensive cameras and backpacks are left at home as they are magnets for thieves. (All I carry is a small pocket camera.) Any money is carried in a front zippered pocket to discourage easy pickpocketing.
Despite my focus on warnings and precautions, I cannot recommend enough that you get out and walking the streets and neighborhoods alongside Cusqueños. Once again, awareness makes it less likely that anything will happen to darken your time in the city.
If you came to Cusco to just check it off your bucket list, then you probably don’t care about this anyway. But if you are a true traveler who visits a place to “experience” rather than just “see” it, then you have to get out and become a part of the ebb and flow of this wonderful city.
Cusco is not a museum. It is living city that breathes with a dynamic spirit and vitality not seen in many western cities — certainly not in most US cities that I have seen. The people that you pass on the street live real lives. The sights and sounds and smells that fill your senses give you a small insight into their lives and, if you open yourself up, you just might go away a changed person who is better because of what they have shared with you.