- Heather Jasper moved to Cusco, Peru, from Seattle in 2019.
- Despite crime and living through the country’s political turmoil, she says she prefers it.
- She explains how the Cusco community helped her escape the loneliness of Seattle.
When I tell Americans I live in Cusco, Peru, I often get a puzzled look. When I add that it’s the Inca capital you fly to on your way to visit Machu Picchu, their eyes light up. It’s beautiful, and I love living here, but it’s far from perfect. There’s been political instability and crime. But for me, Cusco has always proved worth the downsides.
I first visited here in 2013 and immediately fell in love with it. Cusco has a vibrant cultural scene with frequent public events. There are amazing restaurants that serve Peruvian and international cuisines. It has great hiking trails from the historic center. There’s an almost endless number of day trips you can take to fascinating archeological sites and beautiful lakes, waterfalls, and mountains.
In 2019, I moved here from Seattle. I’d taught middle school for 12 years and thought I deserved a break. It seemed like the obvious place for my sabbatical.
I could take any random job that would sponsor my work visa without needing to earn much. My one-bedroom apartment in Seattle cost about $2,000 a month, including utilities and internet. My first apartment here was a shared two bedroom and cost only $125 a month, though I eventually moved into a one-bedroom place of my own, which cost $200 and was easy to find on Facebook.
Four years later, it’s now $210 a month, with everything included. My kitchen is small, and the yard out front is shared with the three other apartments in my building. Big sliding glass doors separate my bedroom from a private patio, so it looks like my outdoor potted plants are in my room.
I arrived on a three-month tourist visa, which was extendable by another three months. Within a week of job hunting, I had three offers. Each company agreed to do all the paperwork to get me a work visa. Any of them would have paid enough to cover my expenses in Cusco, so I picked the job that seemed the most fun, working with a local tour agency.
I planned to go back to the US in May 2020.
In Peru, the COVID-19 shutdown was particularly strict. The borders and airports closed on March 16, 2020, and didn’t open again until that November. In May, a seat on an evacuation flight to the US was awarded on a case-by-case basis, for emergencies only. I didn’t even try to get on a waiting list.
At the time, Cusco, with a population of about 430,000, still had comparatively few cases and only four confirmed deaths. In contrast, the US looked like a disaster zone. So when I went home after the borders opened, I changed my plans and returned to Cusco. But paradise has its problems.
When Peruvian President Pedro Castillo was arrested in December, the country erupted in protests. The violent repression by the army and police left dozens of unarmed protesters killed, sparking more protests against the violence.
In Cusco, protesters blocked roads, isolating the city until supplies ran dangerously low. Food prices spiked. Cooking gas was almost impossible to buy, forcing some people to start communal soup pots on open fires in the historic plazas. Gasoline for cars was so scarce that the city announced that there was no fuel for garbage trucks.
When the news stressed me out, I’d walk down my street to watch kids playing basketball next to my favorite ice-cream shop. If I could eat an ice-cream cone and watch kids on a playground, things couldn’t be that bad, I reasoned. I didn’t go to the protests, so I was never in any danger.
I grumbled about food prices with everybody else but didn’t need to buy cooking gas in January. I felt more camaraderie with my neighbors, complaining about the price of tomatoes and gossiping about the political chaos in Lima.
The protests ended in February, but the underlying problems weren’t solved. Things have gone back to normal for now.
But I decided that I should have a backup place to go if things flared up again. Peru’s neighbor Colombia has a digital-nomad visa, so I decided to look into Medellín as plan B. I plan to visit Colombia in February. With the worst of the protests seemingly over, it doesn’t feel pressing.
The protests weren’t the first time my love for Cusco was tested.
I’ve lived in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Cusco is where I’ve experienced the most crime. In over 30 countries, this is the only place I’ve been pickpocketed on the bus. I’ve lived in a dozen cities and towns, but nowhere else has a thief broken into my home, stealing my computer and camera. I was home alone that night and, thankfully, didn’t wake up. Cusco is also the only place I’ve been drugged at a bar, though I wasn’t robbed or assaulted.
Cusco doesn’t feel like a dangerous place, and I chalk up these things more to letting my guard down. I shouldn’t have accepted a drink from a stranger. The break-in followed an attempted burglary at a neighbor’s house, after which I should have double-checked the locks on my windows.
In the US, the risk of mass shootings in grocery stores and at the schools where I worked scared me. I’m not trying to minimize crime in Cusco, but zipping up my pockets to avoid pick pocketing and not accepting drinks from strangers to avoid the risk of spiking feels more bearable than the constant threat of gun violence.
I was born in Seattle and have family there, but in my five years there before moving here, I didn’t feel I belonged. Seattle is much bigger than Cusco and has the “Seattle freeze” phenomenon of people not wanting to be your friend.
I felt the difference almost immediately after arriving here. After only five months in Cusco, I had more friends than after five years in Seattle. I already knew the camaraderie of a community of expats. Having initially made friends with Peruvians, many of my friends are fellow foreigners.
Being part of a community has a huge effect on mental health, and that is more important to me than almost anything else. I have been in treatment for bipolar disorder since 2008 and know to pay attention to changes in my mood. America’s loneliness epidemic scares me more than pickpocketing or burglaries.
Community isn’t the only thing that makes this a safer place for me. Like many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, short winter days strongly affect my mood. In Cusco, close to the equator, the sun wakes me up between 6 and 6:30 a.m. year-round.
I work remotely as a freelance travel writer and can set my own work schedule. I can make time in the afternoon to go for a hike by starting early or working late.
Nowhere is perfect. I’m considering the choice between a place where depression, anxiety, and fear of mass shootings are normalized versus a place where political chaos and theft are much more common. But it’s my day-to-day experience that matters more to me. The isolation I felt in Seattle, versus the community I have in Cusco, makes the choice easy. Cusco wins, every time.