Ciudad de los Reyes

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lima, well, where do we even start? The capital and primate city of Perú, former Spanish colonial gem, and 2nd largest inhabited desert city. Being my first solo trip to a flagship city of a developing country, I had no clue what to expect. Though, I knew that were I to rely exclusively on Western stereotypes, I’d be in a permanent state of paranoia and have no fun at all.

Anyways, the city is surreal; a total shocker. From violent-prone dusty shanties (affectionately known as “pueblos jóvenes”) marched up on hillsides; to exclusive skyscraper-lined beachfront communities that seem to be plopped straight from Rio; to quaint Spanish colonial barrios reminiscent of Cartagena or Guadalajara. With nearly 8 and a half million people packed in its metro area, Lima asserts itself and its sheer size makes its presence known.

I stayed in the Peruvian Gold Coast, La Costa Verde and the string of pearls that is the Yanqui-friendly San Isidro-Miraflores-Barranco axis. The axis, featuring some of the safest and most sought-after and developed neighborhoods in the city is where most of the Westerners stay, and unsurprisingly also the place where the bulk of the “action” is. Miraflores, the jewel of the axis, is the premier, most westernized nabe in the city.

Aesthetically-speaking, it is somewhat of an odd mix, with seemingly out of place waterfront, cinderblock skyscrapers towering over cute Spanish colonial edifices. Heaps of American chain restaurants (and citizens, too) call the place home, lending it a rather global and impersonal feel, at least on the main drags. Despite this, though, many Peruvians, particularly those of upper-middle class stature are fond of the place, flocking to live in its myriad coastal high-rises. It has a nice vibe.

I found Lima interesting for several reasons with the most significant being its colonial core (known as the Centro Histórico). Coming in at over 300 blocks, it is the largest in the Americas; undoubtedly something that might have a little to do with the attention the Spaniards gave the place. During colonial times, Spain designated the place the capital as one of the 2
South American Viceroyalties. As a result, Spanish immigrants (read: conquistadores) and design both poured into the city.

Having such a storied history has provided the city with lots of cute, off the radar museums. With the company of my 2 museum-loving Australian hostel mates, I visited 3. The first was
MALI (Museo de Arte de Lima), a beautifully renovated compact space on the edge of downtown. Housed in a sparkling white building that would not look out of place in Madrid, we visited the 3 exhibitions open to the public: one about medium-format photos taken of the European celebrity and royal elite; drawings portraying indigenous and mulatto lives, along with propaganda posters designed to educate them; and pre-Columbian artifacts. All were exceptionally good! Additionally, there was also an interesting scale model of Lima where people were encouraged to spray/paint messages somehow related to government on it.

The downtown was out of this world, though. Gritty as hell, it (surprisingly) has some of the best architecture I’ve ever seen, particularly in the church department. Street upon street of sad-looking, but impeccably detailed Spanish colonial and Republican-era masterpieces decked out in pastel colors. These streetscapes, with their lovely vistas and cantilevered balconies, seem to go on forever. My favorite part of the Centro Histórico, though, were the grand, European-style public squares and plazas anchored by fierce, horse-mounted Independence heroes. The elegant Plaza San Martín was my favorite, with its cast-iron surroundings and central location that allows it to serve as a focal point for Limeño civic life. What’s even better is that many of the buildings have interior courtyards, hidden behind gigantic, street-facing doors that allow sunlight to hit the building.

The quality of the architecture there is so good that you’d be hard-pressed to (sadly) have associated such grandiose architecture with Lima I found the city. A grossly overlooked city that is actually be an architectural heavyweight, with a punch big enough to take on whichever city in the Americas it pleases.

An especially cool area was Barranco, a traditionally black seaside neighborhood that has taken on a bohemian identity of sorts. Full of recycled palatial mansions, embassies and estates, and badly decayed and graffitied (which I like, though) former governor’s mansions, the place has been rediscovered by the artist crowd, lending the area new art galleries, gastropubs, and beer gardens. Not bad, not at all. Once you get away from the smoggy central areas, the weather is superb: sunny 80 degree afternoons are the norm. I even got a nice tan, rendering my normal “café con leche” (as Argentines dubbed my skin color last year) skin color into something resembling orange chicken. Actually, on the beach (the beaches there are among the best in Lima), you feel as if you’ve been transported to a different place all together. Like, Brazil or something..must be its tranquil Afro-Peruvian vibe and laid back attitude. In all seriousness, perhaps what I liked most about it was the relative safety. After a while, not having to look over your shoulder every moment was particularly liberating.

With the exception of a handful of neighborhoods, Lima is a city where you don’t let your guard down. One must always exercise a good bit of caution while walking its streets, though that applies for just about anywhere in Latin America. To me, the biggest downside to this was how unpleasant it made photography; take a single picture and put your camera up. No time for composing a really good shot, as you definitely don’t want to draw a whole lot of attention to yourself. Oh, and the neighborhoods flanking El Centro Histórico (and even parts of it proper, like Plaza Dos de Mayo), Callao, La Victoria, Rímac..lugares para evitar.

That said, with the exception of one guy supposedly following me (and I say “supposedly,” because a taxista yelled it out to me), I had no problems whatsoever. If anything, my main concern was towards the crazy drivers and rife pollution there, as described in a Facebook status message I posted while there: “Doesn't know what in Lima will kill me first: will it be the maniac, NASCAR-like taxistas who race down every imaginable street with zero regard or respect for pedestrians, or the atrocious quality of the pollution-clogged air?”

All things considered, I’d say Lima is a surprisingly underrated and underappreciated city. And while it is indeed a city with its fair share, or perhaps even its more than its fair share, of dangerous, no-go areas –seen especially in the rainbow-colored hillside shanties – such situations are neither rare nor are they unique in Latin America. That said, don’t come here expecting a Parisian-style, overly romantic (or even scenic, really) city; much of Lima is utilitarian and more suited for everyday living than it is for early evening strolls with your significant other.

Too, one must get used to the unpredictable feeling, that well, being the city it is, anything can happen once you are removed from the Westernized axis (and things can happen there, too) or decide to wander the many downtown blocks not manned by stone-faced AK-47-wielding soldiers. Furthermore, the city’s sheer size can be disconcerting and the lack of any real mass transit makes it a bit hard to navigate for tourists, but give it some time, and you will come to like the place. Sadly, based on the reactions I got from other tourists, I get a feeling that Perú's already much maligned capital would very well receive no tourists at all if direct flights to Cuzco existed, allowing people to pass it up all together.

Surround yourself with quality, trustworthy people, and spend time taking it easy: hanging out in
rooftop bars; enjoying the delicious, fresh food that awaits you just about everywhere there; admiring the splendid architecture, and like me, you’ll certainly come to appreciate Lima. Like I didid.

Viva El Perú Glorioso

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This year I did something new: I spent my “spring break,” in the South American nation of Perú, bypassing well-trodden and commercialized Caribbean and Mexican beach destinations.

Perú is a magical place, rich in history and cultural traditions. It is a place where the past is very much in the present. Its people are diverse and hail from just about every corner of the world, yet they are one in the sense that they are flush with a strong national identity. This is, after all, the sacred Incan homeland, and a place where Spanish assimilation and mixing efforts, for the most part, failed.

Arguably a continent in and of itself, Perú has something for everyone: flourishing gastronomy scene, superb colonial architecture, astonishing natural beauty, and vivacious night life, to name but a few. Really, though, it has just about everything one could want from a single destination. From ongoing Pre-Columbian archaeological dig sites and fabled Incan lost cities; walled colonial cities built in volcanic stone; picturesque sun-scorched
deserts totally devoid of rain; to remote, still unexplored Amazon jungles, inaccessible by road & the origin of its namesake river.

But it doesn’t end there. Included in the countries whirlwind topography are snow-capped mountains belonging to the world’s largest mountain range; tranquil, rolling green valleys with hills and farmland reminiscent of Western Ireland; and forlorn, hamlets perched along the ragged Pacific Coast blanketed in fog. Whatever it is you desire, you’d be foolish to say that Perú doesn’t have it…and lots of it.

What attracted me was the waning colonial splendor, jaw-droppingly delicious food, fabled “lost” pre-Hispanic cities, and most importantly, the bargain basement deal I got to go to the place. Initially, I had low expectations, having only selected the country as a compromise; more or less “settling” for the place. Though, arriving with a blank slate and open mind, allowed for me to appreciate Perú for being Perú. It has a subtle-kind of charm and attraction, that while not evident while you are there, grows with time. If anything, my experiences there were/are in direct opposition to the popular (negative) sentiments that exist regarding the place.

Instead of the usual “third world misery," I found a place with lots on offer. It is a place where you can seek – and even realize – the extraordinary. It is a mystic place with seductive beauty. Crazy stuff, like fulfilling Indiana Jones-esque fantasies exploring ruins forgotten by time. And what did I do? Easy. Revel in the sheer beauty and immense intrigue presented by the place. Time was split roughly between two things: leisure, and well, those days with jam-packed itineraries that are typical of vacations. The latter meant exploring and immersing oneself into my surrounding environments – getting a better feel for the place, if you will.

But the real gems of this place to be the people! They are very helpful and genuine in their care and interest for you. In what seems to be fairly commonplace throughout the so-called “third world,” there is a strange correlation where the poorer a country is, the happier its people are – at least when not in war. Quite a varied bunch of people, too, with one being able to trace Peruvian ancestry to every corner of the world.

For a country not particularly prosperous (i.e., not having the necessary economic engine to lure foreigners), it is diverse, with large Indigenous, Mestizo, European, African, and Asian populations (as well as various mixes between those groups). For instance, Lima alone has 200,000 first generation Chinese-Peruvians, while the country has in excess of 1 million; or the 800,000 Italians, of whom the majority call Lima home. Most surprising and interesting to me was its Afro-Peruvian population, whose mere existence is debated back home. Limenos told me that anywhere between 15 and 30% of the population is in some way black (i.e. mulattos as well); quite impressive for a city of 7 million. And though it almost goes without being said, you have direct descendants of Incans, Quechas, and Aymaras, amongst other tribes, to whom Spanish is a distant second language, and Catholicism is non-existent. Add in the fact that a good chunk is not unlike their Spanish conquistador ancestors in appearance, and wouldn’t look out of place in Madrid or Barcelona, and you have one of the most diverse (Latin) American countries anywhere. Only Panamá City and perhaps Sao Paulo compare. The place does diversity well, and in Peru, multiculturalism is king.

The country’s festive mix of people perhaps lends itself best to the local cuisine. Arguably, Perú is as good as it gets when it comes to Latin American food. Widely revered as the gastro-economic capital of South America, it is a well-earned title. Just the sheer scope and variety of the foods is to be commended! Literally, every meal I had – with the notable exception of some underwhelming empanadas saltenas in Cuzco – was amazing. Favorites included
ceviche (diced raw seafood marinated with citrus juices and served with chunks of vegetables), pollo a la brasa (chicken slow-roasted on a spit; served with French fries and salad), and lomo saltado (sliced skirt steak tossed with pearl onions, red chilis and peppers, and French fries and rice).

Furthermore, oddly enough, there is a HUGE amount of “
chifas,” the name given to Chinese-Peruvian restaurants. In Lima, you can find at least two maybe even three, per blocks. They’re quite ubiquitous (and coming from somebody who is no stranger to quality Chinese food, delicious). Additionally, it is worth noting that the country is known for being, well, “ahead of the curve” with regards to “fusion” foods; the effortless synthesizing of, for instance, African, Spanish, Asian and Andean flavors has been going on for quite some time now.

To be sure, Perú is most definitely South America at its finest. The quintessential, if you will. A place where age-old peoples and their largely unchanged ways of life collide with those of former colonial master Spain’s. This is the Latin America of movies: festive people, colorful indigenous tribes, spicy food, ancient civilizations, and sprawling cities that escape grasp all included. With awe-inspiring, epic natural beauty, fabulous cultural diversity, and the best food in the Spanish-speaking Americas, as well as healthy doses of intrigue and mystery, Peru should be on everybody’s Latin American list.

shalom, y'all

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

For what it's worth, I'll be out of the country for a few weeks..expect little to no blog posting/activity during that time.