Cusco has undergone an invasion of tourists in recent years. Minty Clinch mingles with the new conquistadors.
My head reeled as I stepped out on to the streets of Cusco after nearly 40 years, and not only because of the altitude. To my surprise, the Plaza de Armas, formerly closed and glum, was vibrant with life. The trees in the middle have gone, cut down illegally on a Sunday by a mayor accustomed to getting his own way. The locals miss the familiarity and the shade, but the open perspective dominated by the great 16th-century cathedral is undeniably impressive.
In the Seventies, Andean Indians set out their wares under the arcades that surround the square. Whenever a stranger passed, Quechua chatter gave way to begging. Before the sponsored gap year, foreigners were rare and on low budgets, unable to help much with the struggle to survive in a very cold climate.
In the 21st century, Cusco is witnessing an explosion of posh lodgings, gastro restaurants, well-designed museums and boutiques that will charge a couple of hundred dollars for an alpaca hat. For this it can thank Hiram Bingham, the enterprising Yale academic who "rediscovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. In Cusco, 70 miles away, the ripple effect signalled the end of four centuries of inertia: over the next century, the former Inca capital emerged as the hub for the greatest tourist honeypot in South America.