Lima – a love-hate relationship

18 Nov

It gripped us around the throat and slapped us hard in the face. Our first impression of Lima, Peru’s massive capital city, were not favourable. Our bus crawled painfully bumper-to-bumper through lanes of traffic jams for nearly 1.5 hours to reach the central bus terminal. Black smoke belched out from the cars and buses around us and an endless cacophony of car horns told of people’s daily frustrations. With large proportions of the city’s 8 million inhabitants crammed into shanty towns and dilapidated buildings on the outskirts of the city, the grey, unattractive urban mass sprawled in every direction. The blue skies we’d had elsewhere in Peru, had been replaced with a blanket of clouds and a chilly drizzle swept across the city from the coastline on which it sits. We noticed homeless people sleeping on the streets and shady characters hanging around on corners and, without thinking, we’d picked up our bags from the floor and were holding them tightly on our laps. If it’s true that first impressions count and you can make your mind up about someone or somewhere within the first 10 seconds, Lima would need to go on a charm offensive to win us round.

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Central Lima isn’t the safest place to wander around, especially after dark, so we decided to stay in the super-modern and tourist friendly area of Miraflores. We instantly felt like we’d arrived in a new city as we looked around at impressive skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls and international restaurants. Located about 8 kilometres from downtown and right on the sea front, Miraflores offered a range of backpacker hostels as well as more upmarket hotels and apartments. Unfortunately, as with most capital cities, prices for accommodation were much higher in Lima compared to the rest of the country and were no way near as good value. It certainly seemed like you got what you paid for. If, like us, you’re on a tighter budget, you’ll almost certainly find that your room is smaller than average, the sheets smell ever-so-slightly of mould, noise from the street or other guests will keep you up half the night and the only heat you’ll get from the electric shower is from the small shock it delivers every time you go to turn it on!!

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The last time we’d been at the coast was just over two months ago in central Chile, so we were desperate to see and smell the ocean once again. As we walked along the coastal pathway from Miraflores to the bohemian district of Barranco we weren’t disappointed with what we found. We enjoyed great views down from the cliff tops to the beaches and admired the surfers braving the Pacific ocean waves.

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There were pretty parks along the walk which had been designed by someone who had creative flair and Dan was inspired to be a piece of living art.

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In addition to the other tourists, we shared the path with dog walkers, locals exercising on bikes and roller blades, and families out for seaside strolls – we could have been in any progressive European city.

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A popular activity along the coastline is paragliding and it makes for a jaw dropping spectacle to see individuals launching themselves off the cliffs and soaring alongside the high-rise apartment buildings. At one point we looked up and like a flock of seagulls there were 6 different paragliders swooping gracefully around our heads.

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The historical ruins of Huaca Pucllana can be explored without leaving central Lima. The complex in the heart of Miraflores is made from Adobe mud bricks and was started in 400 AD, nine centuries before the construction of Machu Picchu. Tours of the site only started in 1984 and a large area is still being excavated to discover the layers of history associated with this ceremonial centre. On top of the site, it’s possible to get an idea of how intricate the pyramid-shaped site would have been. The surrounding view of downtown Lima is also an eye-popping contrast of new and old, modern and ancient, side-by-side.

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We decided that we couldn’t leave the city without exploring the historic centre so we boarded a local bus and sat back while the driver battled with the never-ending stream of traffic. As we sat on the bus an endless number of street vendors jumped on at every set of traffic lights and shouted their pitch, selling anything from chocolates to batteries. One man even got on with a bag of sweets and was selling them individually for a few coins – getting rich would take him a lifetime we thought!! At first we felt annoyed that our relative peace had been shattered by these walking sales people, but as time went on we came to respect their entrepreneurial spirit and let them entertain us with their quirky patter. In a country where there is no welfare state and half of the population lives below the poverty line, people do what they can to survive.

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Central Lima is a living, breathing, bustling area with fine colonial buildings and plazas. A faded and crumbling glory of prosperous past times was ever-present, and it was clear that very few of the streets had been spruced up for the tourist masses. Rows of attractive, brightly coloured houses, with overhanging balconies, were now used as regular shops selling everything from clothes to furniture and often throbbed with loud sound systems at the door. Local cafes and restaurants were rammed with working class people drinking coffee and having cheap set lunches. Indigenous local women carried enormous loads through frenzied streets past shoe shiners and homeless people sleeping in doorways. There was a real buzz about the centre that we hadn’t expected to find here. We were slightly overwhelmed but also completely fascinated by all of the interesting sights, sounds and smells.

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The spacious Plaza de Armas is the historic centre of the city and is dominated by the impressive cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace with its ornate wooden balconies.

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The city was founded in this central location by the Spanish conquistadors in 1535 and they were quick to develop Lima into one of the richest and most important cities in the whole of Latin America. The Spanish rule lasted uninterrupted for just over two decades until the early 1800’s when rebellion was ignited and in July 1821, after years of bloody fighting, General Jose de San Martin marched into Lima to proclaim Peruvian Independence from Spain. After a brief period of prosperity, where the county benefited from exporting rich mineral deposits, much of the 20th Century was characterised by more political ups and downs than an aerobatic plane. Despite the social turmoil and hardships experienced by Peru’s citizens, we got the impression that locals were still very proud and positive about their heritage. As we sat on a bench in the centre of the plaza eating our bakery lunch, several Limenos, as the residents like to be called, stopped to welcome us to the city and some excitedly anticipated our response to their question of ‘What did we think of their city?’

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The Palacio de Gobierno, or government’s palace, also sits on the plaza and is the home of the country’s president. It wasn’t possible to look around the palace but the guards kept us amused with their stiff, legged, slow motion walk as they changed positions without a single smile between them, despite the funny faces we pulled in an attempt to distract them.

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Just a short walk from the plaza, the San Francisco Monastery is one of Lima’s best preserved colonial churches. It’s possible to take a tour around the monastery to see original frescos, to hear the history of the moorish style inner courtyards and to marvel at the wooden panelled library which is filled with thousands of antique texts but it was the underground catacombs which really appealed to our grotesque side. It’s estimated that in the region of 70,000 burials have taken place at the monastery and the cavernous crypts are still packed with a spine-tingling amount of bones.

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After this gruesome encounter, we knew there was only one thing for it – we needed a drink – and whilst in Peru’s capital, we thought a Pisco Sour would be quite fitting. We’d heard that the Grand Hotel Bolivar on Plaza San Martin was the place to savour a stately Pisco but although we were impressed with the elegance of the hotel’s interior we found the bar to be a little stuffy and dated, with waiters in penguin suits looking down their noses at us ‘scruffy backpacker types’ and not to mention the big price tag (ouch!) so we found our way to nearby Parque de la Cultura where a small festival was taking place and local vendors sold traditional food and drink. Two large Pisco Sours later and we were content.

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Food and the social side to eating is a large part of Peruvian life, and we regularly stumbled across small fiestas, celebrating any kind of event, with lots of eating, drinking, singing and dancing. The diversity of the country means there is an enormous variety of fresh local produce. Fine dining restaurants are currently popping up all over Lima and in the same breath cooks specialising in regional cuisine sell from street stands to the masses. Joanna Marracelli, a chef and blogger from New York, has no doubt that Peruvian cuisine is “Poised to become the next big thing in the international gastronomic world” with Lima headlining the gig as the “culinary capital” of the continent. Joanna is travelling South America with her partner Laurent Lhomond and they are combining their biggest passions of food and photography to create and publish a book with good enough to eat photographs and mouth-watering recipes from around South America. If like us you’re interested in trying new and delicious foods, especially from Peru, click on the following links to check out their blog, Infused Exposures.

Lima Food Odyssey and An introduction to Peruvian food

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We didn’t have concerns about eating street food as long as the stall looked clean and we could see the produce being freshly prepared or cooked before our eyes. We sampled some a delicious portion of ceviche prepared with white fish, prawns, onions, garlic, chilli and a generous squeeze of fresh lime. Then we moved on to a couple of BBQ skewers of marinated beef followed by papas rellanas (Andean potatoes stuffed with ground beef, onions, whole olives, hard-boiled egg and spices). For good measure, we washed everything down with two more glasses of Pisco Sour and tapped our toes as the Spanish guitar was played faultlessly on stage.

It was getting dark when we left the festival and headed for the bus but we were soon distracted with a light display coming from nearby Park of the Reserve. We discovered that more than a simple light display, this park is home to the Magic Water Tour. Opened in 2007, this park is currently the world record holder for being the largest water fountain complex in the world.

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All of the fountains are lit with consistently changing colour schemes, many are interactive and one even has classical music played as water dances to the tune. To defend our reputations, we’re not usually the water fountain types – honestly – but in a tough and gritty city such as Lima, this park was so wonderfully fun and tacky, we couldn’t help but fall in love with it and run around with childish delight.

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Our favourite fountain of all was a circular fountain of randomly shooting water spouts and dry areas. Parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends all tested their nerves dashing in and out of the dry areas, some successfully and some being soaked in the process. In a city wracked with social problems, it was heart-warming to see people letting go and simply laughing until their sides hurt.

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Along with being a fun place to pass a couple of hours, the Magic Water Tour also had serious messages to convey about water resources in Lima, which it cleverly displayed in an underground tunnel linking two areas within the park. Unbelievably, Lima is the second largest desert city in the world, behind only Cairo in Egypt. As one of the driest capital cities in the world, sitting on the edge of the Atacama desert, Lima receives less than a third of an inch of rain per year, and relies on Andean rain water and glacier melt for fresh water, both of which are declining. Roughly 1.2 million residents of Lima are without access to running water and rely on expensive and unregulated private water trucks. Scientists have speculated that Peru will be the third most affected country by global warming behind Honduras and Bangladesh so the future looks uncertain unless measures are taken now. The mayor of Lima is working to provide more households with access to running water but to do this the city’s infrastructure will need a complete overhaul and more developed areas will need education on how to half their water intake.

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The coastal road leaving the city was spectacularly cut through the middle of a series of enormous sand dunes, which, apart from making us feel ever-so-slightly nervous, also reminded us of the everyday challenges faced in Lima. For us Lima is a city of extremes – on one hand a city stuck in the past, with extreme poverty, crime, pollution and near third world living conditions and on the other, a city propelling itself forward into the modern era, investing huge amounts into business and technology and where people live like affluent Europeans. We hoped the Government would continue to take steps to reduce this gap.

We’d made a truce with Lima during our days in the city. The finger marks from her initial strangle hold had faded and the memories of the slap were all but a tingle on the side of our face. When travelling in Peru it’s almost unavoidable that some time will be spent in Lima and once we got over the initial big city shock, we discovered that there was a historical, quirky, tasty and bustling heartbeat that we rather enjoyed.

2 Responses to “Lima – a love-hate relationship”

  1. joanna November 20, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    I love the shameless plug! Thanks guys! And funny enough, I am sitting in a cafe in Lima at this very moment (thinking about the fantastic lunch we are going to have today naturally). And after reading this post and enjoying your fabulous pics, Laurent & I are going to go goofy too and check out those fountains tonight (despite not being water fountain types ourselves!) By the way, the weather here has finally improved and the grey skies have lifted! Hope you guys are safe and happy in Venezuela!

    • latinchattin November 27, 2013 at 12:01 am #

      We only plug the best quality blogs of course! ;o) Hope you enjoyed the cheesetastic light fountains in Lima and made it back to your respective homes safely.

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