In 1911, the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham announced to the world that he had found the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ – the ruins of Machu Picchu, located near to the ancient Incan capital city of Cuzco. This year, over two million tourists will travel to Cuzco to celebrate the centenary of the ‘discovery’ of the ruins (of course, local inhabitants were familiar with the ruins before Bingham’s arrival).
These tourists are greeted with an unparalleled range of cultural and historical sights. Even the physical structure of the city is in itself an architectural wonder: impressive Spanish colonial cathedrals and palaces are built on top of a foundation of 600-year old Incan stonework. In the central Plaza de Armas, locals clad in colorful traditional dress sell hand-made Alpaca wool scarves and sweaters. Travel agencies line cobblestone boulevards, offering adventure tourism galore including downhill biking, skydiving, bungee jumping, and hiking treks to Machu Picchu.
While each tourist chooses their own unique set of activities during their visit to Cuzco, many visitors share a similar experience of being accosted on the street by child beggars. The existence of child beggars at all hours of the day and night is just one single symptom of a greater problem plaguing the local residents of Cuzco. Despite the annual influx of millions of tourism dollars, more than half of all residents live in poverty (58.4% as of 2009). Even worse, the incidence of poverty shows no signs of abetting. From 2004-2007, while the national poverty rate in Peru fell by 9%, poverty in the Cuzco region increased by 4%.
Unsurprisingly, this poverty is most prevalent in areas not visited by tourists: the outskirts of the city, and the hundreds of surrounding villages that populate the pastoral Andean landscape. Many families in such villages survive on near-subsistence farming, reaping a meager crop of potatoes from the thin volcanic soil. Recent growth in urban employment within the city boundaries has not yet led to greater opportunity for the largely uneducated laborers of rural villages, and money from tourism does not trickle down to the villages. The region lacks sufficient healthcare infrastructure, with understaffed medical clinics offering sparse care to those with dire health concerns. An index of poverty statistics for the Cuzco region, as well as other regions of Peru, can be found at www.inei.gob.pe.
Ask any of the 2 million visitors about their experience in Cuzco, and they’ll likely give an overwhelmingly positive response. Sadly, the hundreds of thousands of CuzqueÃ±os living in poverty would have a very different story to tell.
Next week, MEDLIFE student volunteers will accompany local MEDLIFE staff and medical professionals to the Cuzco region to deliver primary care medical services to those in need. Each day the Mobile Clinic will travel to a rural village outside of Cuzco. Over the course of the week, our goal is to reach over 1,000 patients – individuals and families who possess few other options in finding solutions to their health concerns. MEDLIFE commits itself to becoming a positive agent of change in the Cuzco region by providing medical services to those who need it most.
We’ll keep you updated on the progress of the Mobile Clinic with photo and text updates on this blog! Good luck to our student volunteers from UC San Diego, the University of Denver, the University of Delaware, and Union College who will be travelling to Cuzco this weekend!