Study the mechanics of a language, and you’ll do fine. Study the history and culture underpinning that language, and you can live as a local, much like students in Commonwealth’s Spanish classes do when they travel to Peru every June (minus a few pandemic summers). There, their Spanish language and culture studies come spectacularly to life in the alpaca textile boutiques of Chinchero, at the top of Machu Picchu, in a plethora of local eateries, on the beach in Huanchaco, and over countless other moments. Here, you can preview the Peru trip through one student’s eyes, as they reflect—with thoughtfulness and a hint of romance—on a recent Commonwealth adventure.
The three weeks spent in Peru over the summer of 2022 were transformative in my understanding of Latin American culture, my use of the Spanish language, and my personal growth as a member of the Commonwealth community. Just prior to boarding the airplane in June, I had sat for the grueling Spanish Language and Culture Advanced Placement exam. To my pleasant surprise, I received a four on the test. I was, however, about to embark on a vastly different, vastly more important, test of linguistic and cultural cognizance. It was a challenge in actual human interaction, an opportunity of—briefly—living in a culture I had studied with my class over the previous nine months.
All of our guides in Peru conversed with us almost exclusively in Spanish. It was rewarding to be able to comprehend what they were saying and to get such a thorough picture of the historically and culturally significant places we visited. It was also rewarding to be able to use the language myself, in ordering food or speaking with people in shops.
Simply as a trip, going to Peru was personally monumental in a few ways. I had never been to South America or outside of the United States or Europe, for that matter. The geography of the place, the environment, was quite different from my routine. I had also never seen the Pacific Ocean, and I am someone who is romantic about these things. I admit that looking out the window onto the world’s largest ocean basked in fog, with the waves rhythmically crashing into a cliff, was a moving experience, even just after disembarking from a flight.
The ways in which tourism impacted the different geographic regions we visited ended up being of interest to me. In Cusco, for instance, there was a Patagonia store and a Starbucks, aimed at pleasing the American and European tourists making the voyage to Machu Picchu. When we moved through the urban core on a bus, though, to day-trip to Incan sites, the city revealed itself in a state less postured for an American palette. Pickup trucks teemed with deeply colored oranges tumbling into baskets, whole sides of beef and pigs hung from the stalls of street vendors. We drove through small villages as well, with striking scenery on thin roads that hugged the sides of near-cliffs. The town of Machu Picchu itself was, in parts, similarly set up for consumers. The actual site of Machu Picchu (more recently under protection from ecological threats) was not, however, and remains one of the most stunning sights I have experienced. It was sublime to stand looking into the gaping canyon where I had just rode through by train to see mountains taller than I had ever seen and to witness an entire ancient city.
Cajamarca is immensely historically significant in Peru, being the site where the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, was killed by Francisco Pizzaro. On our first day in Peru, we had the chance to visit this very site. Despite this historical significance, Cajamarca was far less populated by tourists. There, larger chain stores were not present. Food and souvenirs were generally less expensive, and our status as tourists was more noted by locals. The main square of Cajamarca was brilliant, and it was a wonderful place to begin our trip.
As a contrast, Lima felt, to me at least, like a large metropolitan city that embodied more Spanish architecture than the older Incan art we had seen on a great deal of the rest of the trip. It was a moving experience, too, to see the striking art in the Museo Larco, the Museo de arte de Lima, and the museum that focused on the effects that terrorism had on the nation in the twentieth century. The Museo Convento San Francisco highlighted fascinating catacombs. I was thrilled to be able to walk along Avenida Larco in Miraflores, which we had just finished learning about as a major cultural center during some of the political turmoil in Peru in the late twentieth century. Lima was a place of reflection at the end of a vibrant and magnificent trip.