Almost everyone who is going to Peru will end up in Cusco at some point in their trip. It is, after all, the number one tourist destination in the country. And for good reasons: Incan temples, Spanish architecture, archaeological treasures, beautiful art, music, and dance, culture, it’s all there. This city truly deserves its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
But this is a story of another Cusco, an experience that most tourists will not have.
On the day of our arrival, our second in Peru, we went immediately to the train station to book tickets for the trip to Macchu Pichu. We were all struggling with the altitude, sipping coca de mate like our lives depended on it, and dealing with jet lag grogginess on top of everything else. At the station, the ticket counter lady said, “No, No trains on that day. There is a strike.” We didn’t think much about it, and just shifted our plans one day to go and return on the same day instead of making it an overnight trip. Besides, there is so much to do in Cusco that the extra day there would let us explore more of the city and its surrounds.
The next two days were filled with horseback rides through Incan ruins, tucking into some tasty guinea pig dinners, and enjoying a tangy Pisco Sour in the evening on the Plaza Mayor. The so called “train strike,” as we had dubbed it, was not on our minds at all.
Until the third morning, when I awoke to what I was sure were gun shots fired very near to our hostel. This assumption seemed to be confirmed by the landlady when she poked her head into the dining room that morning and told us to, “Mantenga las puertas y ventanas cerradas, por favor.”
“Por que?” We asked. It was cool outside, but no reason to bolt the windows and doors.
She answered with a nonchalant tipping of her head towards the street, “La Huelga. Strike.” And out she went to refill the coca de mate pot.
Now at this point we should have put two and two together. But with our US frame of reference, a strike was simply a walkout, or a group of people carrying signs and marching in front of some evil-doing business. We still clung to the idea of a transportation strike, as this was the day we had originally tried to get rail tickets for the Macchu Pichu outing.
By the time breakfast was over we had mostly forgotten the landlady’s warning and ventured out for another day of visiting the sights and enjoying the crisp winter air on that sunny, July morning.
The city was a little quiet as we walked downtown towards the Plaza, but a few people were out and about. Some shops were open, one or two old men sat in a cafe, a solitary mother pushed her baby in a stroller, a few children ran in the square. Just a quiet, peaceful morning. Until it wasn’t.
We had made it to the Plaza Mayor and were walking along the store front across from the cathedral when the store keeper rushed out the front door and motioned for us to come into her store. We looked through the doorway at the typical tourist souvenirs, smiled and said no thank you and kept walking.
She threw herself in our path, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me in. Corinne and the girls followed somewhat bewildered. Still in the doorway, I couldn’t help notice now the chanting, drum beating, and general ruckus that sounded like it was just around the corner. And, in fact, here it came, around the corner just as the the shop owner was pulling the heavy wooden doors closed tight. She dropped a barricade bar in place, turned from the door, let out a heavy sigh, and nearly yelled at us, “La Huelga. Strike!” As if to say, crazy Americans, why are you even out there today?
Well, the next hour and half went by peacefully, enough. We enjoyed a light snack and some lemonade the shop owner shared with us, and tried not to cringe too noticeably as rocks and sticks beat on her fortress-like doors.
She just smiled and chuckled to herself, “La huelga, la huelga.”
The strike was a quick one, and we were even able to book an afternoon tour to Saksaywaman which are pretty much right outside of town. Other than a little scare and uncertainty, we had a fabulous strike day, and the next day was even better as we chug-chugged in the train up the mountain to Macchu Pichu.
Have you been to Peru? Been caught in a strike? Tell us about it in the comments!