We’re lucky that our trip to South America coincided with Christmas and New Years, two major cultural holidays in this part of the world. We spent Christmas in Cusco, Peru, and New Years in Arequípa, Peru, with Puno and Lake Titicaca in between. The week between these two holidays is a major cultural time in Peru, and we’ve been able to see and experience some of the most amazing things both of us have ever seen. We’ve started writing a bigger post about Peru, but we thought we’d give a little window into what it was like to be in Cusco over Christmas Eve and Christmas.
As with much of Latin America, Peru emphasizes Christmas Eve in its celebration of the holiday. Cusco is a major tourist area, so not much actually shut down on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but we did get to experience three major things: Cusco’s Christmas Eve craft fair, the opening of many churches for services, and a cultural parade on Christmas Day. We also tried to bring in some of our own Christmas traditions and treat ourselves a bit over these two days, so it’s not exactly a window into what our daily life is like (e.g. we’re not eating breakfasts like that every day), but it’s still a good look into what we’re up to on a daily basis.
We started Christmas Eve with breakfast in the courtyard of our fantastic hotel in Cusco. We picked up some croissant-like breads at a bakery the night before, along with the most significant culinary accomplishment we’ve yet achieved – peanut butter in Peru. PEANUT BUTTER. We happily indulged in a breakfast of croissants with peanut butter, bananas, and raisins.
After breakfast we headed to the main plaza for the city’s large annual Christmas Eve craft fair, which consisted in part of the same sort of touristy items (e.g. alpaca sweaters and hats) that we saw everywhere but also of actual artisan craft items (jewelry, clothing, etc.) and mainly of items for people’s home nativity scenes. There were plastic and wood animals of all types and sizes, probably a few dozen booths selling bedazzled clothing and bedding for everyone’s baby Jesuses, and more moss and wooden mangers than we could possibly count. We came to understand that it’s typical for every home and every business to have a nativity scene – from small and basic to large and incredibly ornate – including the common characters but also a huge array of barnyard animals, fresh plants (e.g. moss) lining the scene, and a new outfit and bed for the baby Jesus each year. Over the next two days we saw countless families bringing their swathed and bedded baby to church to be blessed before bringing it home to put in the manger.
We could tell at the craft fair and even more as we wandered through town over the next two days that a huge number of people from the countryside had come into the city for the holiday. We learned later that our suspicions about this were true – huge numbers of poor people living in the country come into the city on Christmas Eve to receive free meals and other handouts from local churches and businesses. We saw many people – particularly women – dressed in traditional clothing and taking care of anywhere from one to five children as they waited in line for meals or huddled near the plaza selling small toys or asking for change. It was certainly a humbling experience to see so many people in this situation, and definitely difficult for the both of us.
The craft fair was about as crowded as a space could possibly be, so we ducked out up the steps of the main cathedral before heading out to find somewhere for lunch.
After wandering around for a while, we ended up for lunch at one of the same places we’d already eaten. We knew the daily special for ten soles was good, so we figured we might as well do it again. A traditional Peruvian pollo a la brasa sandwich – shredded barbequed chicken marinated in a mix of things including soy sauce, topped with shoestring fried potatoes – with a big glass of chica morada (purple corn juice with pineapple and lime – so delicious!). After lunch we ventured into Cusco’s central market, wandering for an hour or so in the aisles packed with every sort of food and home item you could possibly imagine. We settled in for a fresh pineapple and mango juice at one of the many juice stands, then headed back to our hotel for a nap.
In the evening we went to a Couchsurfing potluck party we’d been invited to, bringing with us a somewhat amended version of one of our favorite salads. On the way, we noticed that San Francisco Church was open for Christmas Eve services and ducked our heads in quickly to admire the altars and nativity, and snapped a quick picture of the official Cusco nativity scene in the Plaza. At the party, we hung out with Couchsurfers from around the world before heading back early to get some sleep.
Christmas morning, we opened our stockings – alpaca stockings I had purchased in Pisac, of course. The day before we had picked up little treats as we wandered around town, which meant we knew exactly what was in our own stockings but nonetheless it still added a little bit of comfortable tradition to our Christmas far away from home.
After our stockings, we exchanged gifts – for me, a dress I had loved from a craft fair in Santiago; for Brett, a bottle of fancy Cuban rum (well, Cuban company but made in the Dominican Republic). Again we knew what the gifts were, but that didn’t made them any less special.
We then headed across town to get breakfast at Jack’s Cafe, an expat sort of place we’d heard about from other travelers practically from the moment we touched down in Buenos Aires. We hadn’t eaten there yet, but a few days before we had noticed huevos rancheros on the menu, so there was no turning Brett away.
On the way we passed through the Plaza, completely transformed from the day before – not a scrap of evidence of the packed-in craft fair or the countryside visitors from the day before. We’re not sure where everyone and everything went since it was still packed at about 10 p.m. the night before, but whoever cleaned up behind them did a pretty thorough job. Passing by the main cathedral we noticed groups of folks dressed in elaborate traditional and celebratory costumes, chatting and talking on cell phones and waiting to get inside – likely for some sort of elaborate Christmas Mass.
Breakfast was an amazing little bit of home – huevos rancheros with tortillas (tortillas!) and beans (BEANS!) and a bacon and egg sandwich on toast, plus a fresh orange-pineapple-banana juice, mint tea for me, and a café con leche for Brett. The place was packed with other gringos (as it usually is), all looking for a bit of home on Christmas morning.
After breakfast we hiked up to Saqsaywáman, an Incan complex on the edge of the city. The entrance fee to the ruins was a bit high (around $30 USD for each of us), but we got in a good uphill hike and amazing views of the city. We took a short walk over to the massive Cristo Blanco statue overlooking the city, then headed back down the hill.
Heading back through the Plaza we again encountered the costumed folks from the church, parading around the Plaza and south through the city. We’re guessing each group represented a community from within or nearby the city, and each had their own costumes, music, dances, and other rituals (some more straight-forward than others). It was the first of what was to become many experiences we’d have with parades, and it was absolutely fascinating to see.
After that we headed back to our hotel for lunch and a bit of relaxing, before meeting up with some other folks from the hotel to take a tour of the hotel’s community project – a series of centers for Cusco’s at-risk youth living in poverty. Long story (which you can read on the hotel website) short, the owners of the hotel also run eight centers across the city, where children can eat a good meal, shower and brush their teeth, receive homework help, read books, watch movies, play sports, etc. It was a great project to see, and fantastic to know that the money we were spending on the hotel was going toward the project (all profits of their two hotels go toward the centers).
After our tour we rushed off to an early dinner at Chicha, a sort of Peruvian fusion restaurant run by Peru’s most famous celebrity chef. (We didn’t know about the fusion part nor the celebrity chef part when we made the reservation, on recommendation of our hotel, but we decided to go with it anyway and were very pleasantly surprised!) We shared an incredible fried cuy (guinea pig) with vegetable-packed fried quinoa (think fried rice but with quinoa) and a delicious stew made with cheese, fava beans, and other veggies, plus two pisco sours (wine in Peru is SO EXPENSIVE!).
Dinner was early in time for us to get home and participate by video in Brett’s family’s annual gift exchange. The internet connection at the hotel was spotty at best, but we were able to catch about 80% of what was said and it was lovely to see everyone back in Portland. (Also, please note that we felt the need to take a picture of the screen when there was a Ninkasi on the screen. We really, really, really, miss good beer.)
After dinner we tried more phone calls, but the internet thwarted our attempts and we decided to call it a night, since the next morning we were headed out early to Puno.
Overall, it was a great Christmas – really meaningful to spend it in a completely different culture, even though it was difficult to be so disconnected from everyone at home.
Tonight’s our last night in Peru – stay tuned for more posts soon!