A while back we went to visit friends who live in “Alto Cusco”. “Alto Cusco” is an informal name for the houses and neighborhoods that have sprung up on the sides of the hills and mountains around Cusco. “Alto Cusco” typically refers to the neighborhoods up from the San Sebastian area but there are similar neighborhoods all around Cusco.
These are poor areas. The people we visited call themselves “humble”. “We are humble people here” they say. There are few paved roads up the mountains and even the paved roads are barely useable because they are so steep. Twice on the way up our taxi got bogged down to the point where we had to jump out, lighten the load. If you’ve never seen a gringo in his best Sunday suit push a Suzuki taxi up a hill, this was your chance.
A few streets have regular utilities but for the most part the houses in “Alto Cusco” have no running water – our friends don’t have any. Water trucks come by in some parts and people store water in buckets or cans. There are many neighborhoods in Peru like this, such as the Pueblos Jovenes outside of Lima. All of the houses are “informal”, meaning the people don’t have title to the land, they just come and settle. None of the houses meet any sort of code, here in Cusco the next big earthquake will be an unmitigated disaster. There is actually a government agency in Peru that is tasked with issuing title to people who have settled in informal neighborhoods but in reality the progress in bringing those neighborhoods up to any reasonable standard of living is slim to none.
Spending a few hours in “Alto Cusco” doesn’t make me an expert on urban poverty in Peru any more than spending a few hours in a Nairobi slum makes me an expert on Africa.
But it’s a crying shame.
What passes for government in Peru – local and national alike – is a pathetic excuse of incompetence and greed. I’m not much of a “big government” person but you can’t expect individual families to build roads and utilities, just as you can’t expect the people in the country not to come to the cities in search of a better life when the government makes no effort to improve the economy or the way of life in the countryside.
On the way down from visiting our friends in “Alto Cusco” we passed a man walking up the hill on crutches. His left leg was amputated above his knee. Like most of the people who live in “Alto Cusco” he walks up and down the hill to get what he needs from the town below. There’s no public transportation and taxis barely make it there – if the people can even afford one. It’s probably a 45 minute walk up the hill for a healthy adult, this man does it on crutches probably 3 times a week if not every day.
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Just to follow up. I visited Alto Cusco in 2006 when a friend bought 1000 sq meters of land atop Alto Cusco for 5000 dollars, which she borrowed from family. As you said, there was nothing there, and to get to her land, there were no taxis. Just a long slog uphill. Her income is minimal, as you likely know of schoolteachers. Something like 12 dollars a day for full time work. About six years ago, because of appreciation, she sold 150 sq meters for enough to begin construction of a house. I began helping out from the US two years ago, and her beautiful house is finished, on 850 sq meters. Now the land values have risen from 5 dollars a sq meter to 150, and with the house, she is now equity rich, owning everything outright, although she still has no liquidity. Sewer went in last week, it is electrified, and water will come before the end of the year. She has a view of Andean peaks and the city below. The humble people, as you mentioned, (including her neighbors, long time residents living in an unfinished adobe house with a corrugated tin roof, own probably more than a sq kilometer according to her – a million sq meters), are very fortunate, as is everyone up there. I left there after a short visit, and graders were working on the road leading down to San Geranimo. It has been a long time coming, but between throwing their presidents and mayors in jail, things are slowly happening.