In The Shadow Of The Andes
Tue, 11/06/2012
Travel Writer
From the shadows at the edge of Cusco’s central square, the peaks of the Andes are visible in the background. Photos/Elena Fihma
From the shadows at the edge of Cusco’s central square, the peaks of the Andes are visible in the background. Photos/Elena Fihma

If you’re not familiar with the international Israeli travel circuit, then it may come as a surprise that Cusco, Peru — fabled city of the Incas and gateway to Machu Picchu — has one of the liveliest Jewish scenes in South America.

What’s more, that scene is almost entirely itinerant, composed of visiting Israelis and the businesses that cater to them. Lima, the capital, has a settled Jewish community with synagogues and museums; Cusco has Hebrew-language tour guides and hummus on the menu.

Around the world — and particularly in Southeast Asia and South America, where the shekel goes farther — 20something Israelis travel in packs for months at a time, seeing the world as a rite of passage after completing military service. But wherever they go, they tend to seek out one another, according to numerous veterans of the Cusco travel scene.

That explains why the Cusco Chabad holds what is famously the largest Passover celebration on the continent: nearly 2,000 people, with two separate seders and a staggering amount of kosher food trucked in from Lima.

On any given Shabbat, more than 100 people — most of them young Israelis — pile into the modest Chabad building for services. Some are there for religion; many others are looking for community, hoping to meet friends and find a taste of home a continent away. As in Dharamsala, India, and Bangkok, the Chabad in Cusco is what is known in backpackers’ parlance (and on legions of blogs) as a “traveler Chabad,” drawing waves of young voyagers and few if any locals.

That explains why a visitor to this Spanish colonial city can see Hebrew signs in shop windows, Hebrew-language menus in restaurants, and businesses with an obvious Israeli slant (though the scene is too new and transient to have yielded any real institutions thus far, and Peruvian Jews say the eateries are generally not certified as kosher).

“It’s still a little shocking to see a sign in Hebrew,” said Daniel Bloom, a veteran world traveler from Melbourne via Israel whose blog, Married with Backpacks, chronicles his yearlong trip around the world with his wife. “Even though it was expected, it was surreal. It’s so far away from Israel, and Israel is a tiny country.”

Of course, young Israelis are not the only Jewish travelers in Cusco — far from it. Elena Fihman is a Lima-based Jewish tour operator whose business, Peru4Jews.net, has guided tours of American, British, Russian and other foreign Jews to Cusco for nearly a decade. Most of her tour participants are substantially older than the Israeli backpackers, she said, and they enjoy the youthful flavor of the scene.

“They wish they could travel like the young people,” said Fihman in Spanish. The Israelis “absorb the flavor of each place, eat whatever, sleep wherever.” In contrast, her older clients require more comfort and predictability.

But the attractions of Cusco are compelling for every generation. Soaked in exquisite shades of mossy green, crowned by the snow-peaked Andes, the city enjoys an enviable natural beauty as well as a well-preserved colonial core.

Hundreds of years of Inca and Spanish colonial history are layered on top of each other, sometimes quite literally: stone walls near the Plaza de Armas were started by indigenous masons, then finished by Spaniards. And more than one church was built on pre-Columbian foundations (the best-known example being the imposing Cathedral of Santo Domingo, a monument to the conquistador era that began life as an Incan temple).

Like many very old cities, Cusco has an intimate-feeling historic center with narrow streets, ancient buildings and palpable history amid the postcard racks. It also has a sizable modern section and a lively expatriate scene by South American standards.

Paradoxically, many people breeze through the town too fast to really take it in. They come for the only-in-Peru trekking — the Inca Trail, a world patrimony site, books up months in advance — and the whitewater rafting. They snap a few photos of the lacy colonial buildings, sip coca tea to ease the altitude headaches, and head to the ruins.

But religiously observant travelers, notes Fihman, are obliged to pause for Shabbat.

“When you spend Shabbat walking, you get to know Cusco much better than a typical tourist who doesn’t have free time,” said Fihman. “You’re not going to spend money, you’re not going to do any shopping. You’re going to watch the street scenes, the artisans, the weavers.”

There are indeed a lot of artisans in Cusco, and for some (those who skip the white-water rafting, say), shopping is a high point of the visit. Cool Andean nights practically beg for one of those hand-knit alpaca sweaters; shops full of colorful embroidery and silver jewelry have derailed more than one would-be day-tripper.

However the day is spent, at night most visitors end up in the quaint San Blas barrio, where whitewashed stucco buildings tilt at picturesque angles on steep cobblestoned streets. With all the red-tile roofs and icons of the Virgin Mary, San Blas feels not far removed from the pueblos of Andalusia — except for the cloud-topped mountains nearby.

Once the art galleries close, the plazas of San Blas fill up with Israeli revelers and tourists from all over. The air is thin, the sky black and starry, and live guitar music wafts from inside the bars.

A group walks by, chattering in Hebrew. Is the altitude going to your head, or is it the Pisco sour? It’s all and none of the above — just another night on the global Jewish travel circuit, in the shadow of the Andes.