They say if you spend more than four months in Cusco then you are there for good. Australian traveller Camden Luxford has been there much longer than that and talks to us about swapping the backpacker life for an expat one.
I’m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
And what did you do there, then?
I flirted with a Science degree, waited a lot of tables, and scooted off as soon as I had the money behind me, at age 20.
How did you end up in Cusco?
By accident! I was back home living in Melbourne, fresh from almost a year in Europe (the second time around) and completely broke. A very close Hungarian friend was studying a semester in Mexico, and swine flu drove prices down, so I set off on another ill-advised, ill-financed trip. Wound up in Cusco. Never left.
Have you lived abroad before?
I was in the UK for almost two years on a working visa, and had short stints in the Basque Country and Corfu. Always in a more backpacker-type capacity, though; this was my first hardcore expat experience (taxes, business, apartment, pet, oh my!).
So what’s so good about Cusco?
It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful; the city itself is a layer-cake of Incan, Spanish, and Republican constructions, the Plaza de Armas is the most charming I’ve ever seen, and the winding bohemian streets of San Blas are a pleasure to wander in. Just outside the city, the Sacred Valley is full of spectacular mountain ridges and hidden little valley corners. It’s a spectacular part of the world and I never get tired of looking at it. And I don’t think I couldn’t ever finish exploring it.
And what don’t you like?
I don’t like the small town feel – the gossip, the envy, the lack of a cinema! Cusco’s got a dark side as well: lots of drugs and petty theft. Too much for such a small, pretty little place.
Which isn’t to say, by any means, that it’s a hotbed of crime. Just that there’s a little window onto the party scene for long-term stayers, and I’m ready to walk away from that window. All a little bit too seedy.
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
There are two Cuscos. There’s the Cusco of people working within tourism, with a large population of foreigners, and of people from the capital, Lima. I’m on the inner-outer, or outer-inner, of that one. Mostly on the inner, I guess. The other Cusco, the real Cusco… I’ll always be an outsider.
How do you support yourself?
I own and run a backpackers’ hostel, although it’s currently up for sale so I’ll soon be throwing myself on the mercy of student grants and the fickle fortunes of freelance writing and translating.
Any advice for wannabe Cusqueños?
Be realistic. The shiny tourist-brochure Cusco is not the real Cusco. It’s a wonderful place, but you may find it quite claustrophobic, especially during the three-month rainy season. Lots of people make tracks for the beach in that season, and I think that’s a wise move.
Oh, and be ready for the altitude to get you. Every, single time you come back from the coast.
Is the move permanent?
I’m coming up on two years in Cusco – the longest I’ve been in one place for quite a while, so it’s time to move on. I’m planning to move to Buenos Aires before the end of the year. I need a bit of big city life, for a while, and it’s a good place to complete the internship I need to finish my degree: I’m in the final leg of a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) / Bachelor of Commerce (Economics), which I’m completing by distance.
Finally, tell us about something typically Cusco (or Peruvian)
The dances! There are so many traditional festivals and they all involve elaborately costumed and highly symbolic dancers. It’s wonderfully colorful and endlessly fascinating. June and July are the peak months for this kind of thing. My favourite is Paucartambo in July – most people top off the days of drinking and dancing with a midnight drive to watch the sun rise over Manu National Park. Incredible.
Camden lives for long, uncomfortable journeys and dreams of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From hitch-hiking in Europe, through Asia by bus and boat, she has found herself in the Peruvian Andes, where she relishes the colours of the festivals, the warmth of the people and the hearty flavours of the soups. When she’s not exploring her new home, she’s studying politics by distance or writing for her blog, The Brink of Something Else.
Camden can also be followed on Twitter @camdenluxford
This interview first appeared in TWT in 2011.
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