I didn’t know what to expect from Lima, Peru’s bustling capital. On the one hand I’d heard that there was nothing interesting to see there and that it was full of belching traffic, petty crime and crooked taxi drivers, the latter a particular pet hate of mine. However, having been to several Latin American capital cities that internauts would deem to not be worth the while, I’d learned not to judge a city by what those on online forums say, as often they provide the greatest insight into the day to day life of a country.
Although I wasn’t blown off my feet, Lima was certainly worth the few days I spent there, what with its array of extremely informative museums crammed full of centuries-old artefacts, an excellent offering of dishes, especially to my recently-acquired taste for seafood, and a set of affable and talkative locals. Add to that some horrendous pub sports performances, a schizophrenic girl chatting me up, jumping on and off local buses, some rather promiscuous artwork and a strange moment of déjà vu and all in all I had an interesting experience.
Landing at the airport, getting through immigration was very fast and the taxi driver from the hostel was waiting for me at arrivals. Despite usually being averse to taking taxis, the email from the hostel offering a transfer for 20USD must have caught me unawares, though to be honest I thought I was arriving at 7.30pm and in the darkness, not a full two and a half hours earlier. Anyway, the journey to the hostel took about 30 minutes, during which I had a good natter with the driver about what foods to eat and where to visit. Follow the link for information on getting in and out of Lima.
Where to stay
Upon arrival I opted to stay in a dorm in a hostel in the centre of the city so as to be closer to the sights, and I’d also garnered that Miraflores, the main touristy district, was in actual fact a middle-class area full of Western restaurants with western prices. 1900 Hostel is pretty much the only hostel to stay at in the centre, and it set me back 27/S (at time of writing there were approximately 3 Peruvian Soles to every US Dollar) in what were the first of many impressively clean and comfortable beds in Peru.
The hostel was running lots of activities and shortly after arriving I was dragged into a salsa beginners’ class for an hour in the bar, which was fun. Also fun to watch was a French break-dancer who thought he was cool (and probably was) trying to get into a countrywoman of his via the dance class. Whether he ended up doing so, I don’t know.
Following a couple of beers I got roped into a pool tournament and was paired with an Iranian café-owner, and I proceeded to play the worst game of pool of my whole life, missing pretty much every shot. I’d like to blame the big table, massiveness of the balls, bluntness of the cues and slight slant on the table, all of which clearly had an effect on all participants as we were all as shocking as each other. But a builder doesn’t blame his tools. We then moved onto a game of doubles table football, and I thought I’d turned the tables on my earlier poor performance when I scored with literally my first touch, but that wasn’t a sign of things to come and we were humbled 10-1. Perhaps the worst British-Iranian sporting duet in history.
On the way out of Lima I stayed at Kokopelli Hostel (32/S with a discount for having stayed in hostels of the same name elsewhere), and I must say they are quite impressive. Apart from being clean, with friendly staff and common areas conducive to socialising, what sets them apart is the fact that the beds in dorms have a curtain, gifting you a little more privacy than usual. On my last night in the country I had been chatting to an English girl and a Peruvian guy in the bar until a couple of young Peruvian girls waded in. I was happy that they initially took an interest in me, engaging me in conversation. Slight mistake, as one of the girls had some kind of schizophrenia and basically told me her life story and how badly her ex-boyfriend had mistreated her for the next fifteen minutes. Then, suddenly, a pair of boisterous Argentines rocked up and quicker than I could say ‘schizophrenic’, the pair of girls turned their backs on me and went and chatted to the new arrivals. However, I was lucky to only be staying at the hostel for one night, as one of the receptionists, Alexandra, was extremely beautiful and kept fluttering her eyes at me, and I might have made a rash decision to not take my flight and spend the next few weeks simply looking at her. Not weird, as when I made my departure, her eyes followed me all the way out. Better to have loved and lost, they say.
What to do
Walking was a theme of my time in Lima and I took in Plaza de Armas (all central squares in Peru share this name), pretty much a bog-standard Latin American square full of benches and small trees with churches and government buildings surrounding it. As it happened, best buddies Barack, Vladimir and other relevant leaders were due in town the following day for an APEC (Pacific Trade) convention, which meant the closing of the main square for maintenance, and as such, licks of paint were applied here and there, bushes trimmed, the floor intensely cleaned and homeless people and beggars removed so that the international community would get a veridical taste of Lima.
Next, I chanced upon the Monasterio San Francisco (10/S) being open for visits and wasn’t disappointed. We had a guided tour of the grounds for about an hour, which included looking at piles of bones, grouped into arms, legs and skulls etc. for space, or perhaps ornamental reasons, as well as several paintings, the most famous of which is a Peruvian take on the Last Supper where slight gastronomical details are altered to give it some local flavour. No doubt Jesus would have bitten your fingers off if offered roast guinea pig and fluorescent yellow cola as his final meal. Jokes aside, Peruvian cuisine is mightily impressive.
Later that afternoon, I headed to the National Archaeological Museum (10/S), reachable via any bus that drops you on Avenida Brasil and a subsequent 15-minute walk, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d visit. There are lots of rooms, mainly focused on the history of different civilisations throughout the history of Peru, with plenty of exhibits, artifacts and masses of archaeological stats and measurements for those who are able to decipher their meanings. Of particular interest to me was the section on how children’s skulls had rocks tied to them in particular ways so as to elongate the head, or the way that bodies were mummified in a seated position and always facing the sunrise. I had never delved deeply into Peruvian history, so it was also useful to discover that the term Inca doesn’t encompass the whole history of Peruvian peoples but the civilisation that somehow managed to dominate a huge stretch of the Andes from North Argentina to South Colombia, whereas previously tribes were confined to much smaller areas. This of course before the arrival of the Spanish, whose conquest was apparently not down to their war strategies, but the alliances they formed with dissenting voices among the peoples the Incas had subjugated.
I would end up back at the very same museum the following day, but not because of archaeo-thusiasm. By taking any bus from the centre which has ‘Bolivar’ written on it, I’d headed toward the Museo Larco (30/S). However, because of the APEC convention, it was open only to Michelle, Mrs. Putin and co, so we were directed down a snaking blue line which would lead us to what was termed the ‘National Museum’, which I thought was something other than what I had visited the previous day. I experienced déjà vu upon entering, but went round again anyway with the American guy I was with, and actually spotted an exhibit on the Peru’s colonial history that I hadn’t seen the first time.
To make up for the inconvenience occasioned to us, one of the receptionists had given me a green sticker with a smiley face that would apparently get me into the Larco for free when it was open to the public. So when I returned almost 5 weeks later with a faded sticker on the back of my Caffé Nero loyalty card, and said receptionist was nowhere in sight, I was concerned I might have to shell out 30/S. However, knowing that in Latin America you don’t get if you don’t try and that charming smiles go a long way, I waited out the new receptionist’s hesitation and fluttered my eyelids at her until she gave me another sticker with a smiley face, this time brown.
Museo Larco, the most-visited paid Lima attraction, is very much in the mould of the archaeological museum, but with a little more focus on history, and also includes a beautifully colourful garden and a mahoosive collection of artifacts stacked into a store room. The museum is divided into two sections, the first focusing on Peruvian history and archaeology, reinforcing what I’d learned in the National Archaeological Museum. I couldn’t find the second exhibit so rather shyly went to reception to ask where I might find the…
The receptionist politely completed the sentence with the words ‘erotic room’ and waved me in the right direction, and off I went to what can only be described as pottery porn. Lots of enlarged genitalia, a range of sexual positions and teapots and jugs with what you might term firm handles.
The next day I had local bus adventures, starting by taking the 301 to Miraflores, which like most buses, cost 1/S for a journey anywhere around the city and is very frequent. Although destinations are plastered along the side of the bus, if unsure ask the conductor on the bus or someone wearing a yellow jacket at the stop and they’ll assist you. Miraflores is the chic area of the city, with lots of nice shops, restaurants and buildings, and is where you’ll find most hostels. You can get WiFi in the majority of public parks and the area is completely safe, though there are hordes of people near Parque Kennedy trying to change currency with you, most of them apparently official workers. I must admit that strolling along the cliff tops in Miraflores is enjoyable, what with pretty flowery parks along the way, though the walk is long, so I’d suggest renting a bicycle, as this will also allow you to ride down to the coastal path at the bottom.
Most buses which pass through Miraflores will go on to Barranco, a kind of bohemian district, a term these days qualified by a few brightly-coloured buildings, a splattering of graffiti here and there and the presence of white people with dreadlocks gravitating around a hippy fair. The neighbourhood is cool, nothing to really write home about, but lunch with a starter, main and drink sets you back about 10/S, which is definitely cheaper than Miraflores.
Having refuelled I headed to my first visit to a ruins site in Peru, Pachacámac, in the outskirts of Lima. Apparently there is a bus taking you directly there from the centre, but as I was in Barranco, it was a little trickier. I ended up taking three buses, via rather muddled instructions from a combination of fellow passengers, bus drivers and old ladies in small shops. One has to go to Chorrillos, then Puente Alipio and onwards in the direction of Lurin. Inform the driver or conductor of the latter that you wish to get off at the ruins and they’ll tell stop outside the entrance.
Pachacámac Archaeological Site(10/S) is a series of pre-Inca ruins spread out across a large desert site and is comprised of temples and remains of a city. However, compared to other more famous archaeological sites in Peru, it’s quite limited. Nevertheless, I spent about an hour and a half firstly looking at the museum and then walking around the ruins. If you’re stuck on things to do in Lima, it’s decent as a half-day trip, but other ruins sites in the country are far more impressive.
In the evening it’s certainly worth going to Parque de la Reserva (2/S), named as such to honour the resistance of soldiers in the War of the Pacific with Chile, not necessarily for its history, but for what it has been transformed into. Sat just across the road from the National Football Stadium, the park is impeccably clean and green, and home to a series of water fountains creating different shapes, including a tunnel where everyone goes for selfies. After dark the fountains are lit up with colours and there are even moments when they ‘dance’ to orchestral music. As it’s very central and easily accessible it’s definitely worth a visit, preferably in the evening.
In between the above adventures, I squeezed in a free cooking lesson at the hostel which showed us how to make ceviche, essentially raw fish marinated in lime, onions, coriander and chilli, and often accompanied by sweet potatoes and sweetcorn. It’s Peru’s national dish, of better quality and higher renown the closer to the sea you are. Thus in Lima, which lies on the Pacific coast, there were ample fresh fish fillets to be found at the market where we were taken to buy the ingredients for the dish, and we ended up paying about 10/S each, plus a later tip of the same amount for the chefs, for what would provide us with a full plate of food. As it happened, us tourists were assigned the tasks of peeling potatoes, chopping onions and squeezing limes, while the two chefs dealt with the fish, slicing them in an interesting diagonal manner. Fish, lime juice, onions and spices are left sitting for about ten minutes, just enough time to ‘cook’ the fish but not make it too acidic, before serving with the potatoes and sweetcorn. It was delicious, and like the champion I am, I drank the tiger’s milk, the lime juice concoction left over on the plate.
For those landing in Peru it is most likely that your first destination will be Lima. Even if it isn’t, don’t be too hasty when passing by, as two or three days there are worth your while to take in interesting museums, including erotic pottery you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Food is good, and reasonably priced, though elsewhere in Peru, costs drop even further, while people are accommodating towards tourists and public transport very user-friendly. An obvious effort has been made to spruce up the city, and most squares are well-maintained, and parks are awash with rainbows of flowers. Obviously the city has more hustle and bustle than other parts of the country, but in all of the tourist areas, even downtown, there is a sufficient police presence and one can walk around at ease.
Lima was just the start of my Peru trip, and was probably the most urban it was going to get. There’d be lots of hiking to be done, a range of landscapes to be seen, and quirky stories to be told, so boarding my 22-hour ride over to Cusco I was quietly excited about the upcoming month or so.