Cusco's Plaza de Armas: Predator or Prey?

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a beautiful main square ringed by colonial arcades and towered over by two 16th century religious structures: La Catedral and La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. During Inca times it was called Huacaypata and has always been the heart of the city. As I sat on one of the park benches I realized that I had been in Cusco long enough to be able to spot the different types of characters who inhabit the Plaza de Armas. Like a big game hunter taking stock of his quarry and tracking their behaviors, it occurred to me that most of the wildlife in the Plaza could be separated into predators and prey.

My favorite predators are the shoeshine boys. The typical shoeshine boy is about 11 years old, with dirty and sometimes tattered clothes and carries his well-worn shoeshine kit on his shoulder. His success in the wilds of the Plaza depends on his persuasive skills and in some cases, his acting skills. The technique that never fails to make me smile is the Oh my God, look how dirty your shoes are look. A shoeshine boy will approach a potential customer, point at their shoes and give them The Look. The Look usually makes a potential customer glance down and re-evaluate the appearance of their shoes. Shoeshine boys can be very persistent and I’ve often seen their prey give in and pay the one sol, just to stop their pestering.

Most of the Plaza’s street vendors-cum-predators have something to sell…usually to tourists. There are the vendors selling paintings, all of which seem to have been painted by the same pastel-crazy, watercolor artist. Some of the paintings border on hallucinogenic, like the orange and purple-hued interpretation of Machu Picchu I saw recently. They will approach you with a leather portfolio of paintings and drawings: “Hola amigo, you like paintings?” When you keep walking past them their standard line is “Maybe later? or “Looking is free.” The same dialog accompanies ladies selling alpaca woven goods, like mittens, caps, sweaters and sashes. If your goal is not to be bothered by these vendors, it is imperative not to look at their product and by all means never touch the goods or you’ve earned another five minutes of hard sell.

Some of the more subtle vendors will start off with “Hola, my friend…what country?” before they launch into the sales pitch. On three separate occasions, I’ve been approached by a different painting or woven goods vendor who, after determining my country, began to list every recent U.S. president, in reverse-chronological order. “United States of America…president is Barrack Obama…previous is George W. Bush…before Bush…Bill Clinton…before Clinton, other Bush…before Bush, Ronald Reagan…” One young woman got all the way to Herbert Hoover before she needed some help.

Lots of the Plaza’s predators are simply touting their establishment, like spiders beckoning prey into their webs. Young women hand out cards and offer the services of their massage parlor. Some tout their tour agency and others try to convince you to eat at their restaurant. Most of the restaurant touts rely on the promise of a balcony seat overlooking the Plaza or a fresh plate of ceviche.

Another Plaza predator is the brichero, or his feminine counterpart, the brichera. The brichero wears nice jeans, has long hair and speaks passable English. His goal is to befriend tourists and backpackers in bars and clubs around the plaza and sponge as many free drinks as possible.

It's important to remember that predators can't survive without prey. Businessmen and tourists are the prey of the shoeshine boys and generally tourists fall victim to the painting and woven goods vendors and those who tout their establishments. Backpackers, who travel for months at a time, usually have more time to succumb to the charms of the Brichero(as). The package tourist is an example of prey than moves in packs. Like a herd of wildebeest on the African savannah, they get shuttled around together in large air-conditioned buses and even when out of the bus, never stray more than 10 feet from one another. They beat a well worn path from the Plaza de Armas to Saqsaywaman to the Qorikancha to Machu Picchu to their hotel. To get at the package tourist, you need to work with their tour agency for access and be prepared to give them a share of the spoils.

In the Plaza de Armas, as in all balanced ecosystems, both predator and prey need one another to survive.


  1. Loved this piece on the Plaza de Armas. I have visited Cusco 2x in the last year. Most recently as a volunteer at a women's clinic in La Rapa called Cervicusco.
    I paid 15 soles for a shoeshine. When a little girl selling finger puppets told me how taken advantage I was I became infuriated. I returned to the Plaza the next day determined to find my shoeshine thief and at the very least DEMAND another shoeshine. I did find a young boy. I did demand another shine. I did threaten to turn him into the police. It was after he shined my shoes for free that I realized I indeed had the wrong kid.

  2. Thanks for posting Susan...too funny!

  3. Good read. Change the name of the square and we could be anywhere in South East Asia, or possibly SA, I think.