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.