by Andrew Sandweiss
Perched on wooden chairs, elevated above the chaotic ground floor, sipping on coca tea, keeping a keen eye on our luggage, the four of us prepared for the hours ahead. We had just arrived at Cusco’s Velasco Astete Airport on a 5 AM LAN flight from Lima. Only one of us had slept, albeit for half an hour, and we were, at the very least, tired. The four of us had managed to stumble off the plane, lug our suitcases off the baggage belt, and proceed up to the airport cafe around 6 AM. Mechanical failure on their aircraft meant that our companions–the other five reporters visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley–weren’t due to arrive until noon. Huddled together around a circular table, we prepared for the wait.
But spending five inactive hours inside a building, especially an airport, can offer much more than what the casual traveler sees. An airport is a portal: the connection between journey and destination. It is both the welcome and the goodbye of a city, a region, even a country. Cusco’s airport is no different. It is one of the last government-run airports in Peru. Lima’s is now run by Lima Airport Partners (LAP), while airports in the north are run by Aeropuertos del Perú and airports in the south are run by Aeropuertos Andinos del Perú. Yet Cusco, Peru’s second busiest airport after Lima, is still being run by the government organization CORPAC. Whereas the privately run airports have seen renovations within the last decade, Velasco Astete airport shows its age; windows are missing, escalators are broken, a cold draft runs through the building. The check-in area is far too small for the increasing number of passengers (up more than 15% in 2015 alone, according to CORPAC).
Walking around the airport does not take long, as our enforced stay soon made clear. Following check in, the pre-security area consists of a low ceilinged open space surrounded by a few retail outlets. There are two cafes. A convenience store loudly advertises its hot dogs and pizza bread.
Despite this, the airport does reflect the surrounding cultural heritage, as one might expect given the Cusco region’s significant reliance on the tourism industry. A large circular mask adorns the entrance to the airport. Upon arrival, tours and taxi drivers aggressively hawk their services to the tourists. Artisanal shops line the inside wall of the departure area. There is no mistaking that this is Cusco’s airport.
The airport’s connection to its home city is made most apparent in its location. It is completely surrounded by the expanding city, a growing issue in terms of scheduling flights on the airport’s single runway and small terminal. Thus, the Peruvian government has proposed the construction of a large international airport in the uplands near Chinchero. To be built by 2020, this airport will offer direct flights to the US and beyond. Its location on the altiplano above Cusco will provide more space and a new terminal with modern services and design.
But I like the Cusco Airport. Despite its run-down appearance, its limited services, and its overcrowded nature, it is truly a part of Cusco city. It is unique to Cusco; the other, privatized airports have lost that connection, they are all plastic copies of one another. Velasco Astete airport, on the other hand, is different. It reminds me of the laid back, almost cavalier operation of Peru’s airports before privatization. It comes out of a time when traveling was easier, tourism was quieter, and people would still sit down to have a cup of coffee before security.
And for five hours, the four of us huddled around a circular table on a balcony overlooking the main floor of the airport. The altitude sickness and lack of sleep were encroaching on my consciousness, and I was fortunate enough to have this quiet sanctuary to rest and heal as my body adjusted to the new environment.
The rest of our group arrived, quickly exiting the terminal for our waiting bus. I was relaxed–the coca tea had gone down well. My previous lack of activity countered the altitude sickness. My five hours had prepared me–enabled me–to better enjoy the trip into the Sacred Valley and the transition from journey into destination.