My mother always told me that if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all. I have sat on this blog for more than a year – yes a very busy year – but uncomfortable by what to say about Lima, Peru. Known as the City of Kings, Lima is located on the Pacific coast of the mid-South American continent. Like so many Latin American cities Lima is big, dingy and polluted; a mega-tropolis suffering from the nonexistence of garbage collection or decent plumbing for all. It is home to over nine million inhabitants; more than half live in the barrios that surround the core of the city – the slum settlements located on low-value public land. To put the sheer size of this city in perspective, more than one third of all Peruvians live here. The enduring impressions are of chaotic traffic, nonstop honking and miles upon miles of barrios. Plumbing is amongst the worst in any city in the world – toilet paper is not allowed to be flushed even in the newest parts of town.
Lima is set in a coastal desert – it’s main river having dried up centuries ago – the geology is mostly adobe – brown colored desert. Most of the year the city is covered by a thin fog layer which makes the sky perpetually white – it sees very little blue skies or direct sunlight with the exception of a couple of summer months. This sky is described by Herman Melville in his famous novel Moby-Dick as “like a white veil which drapes the city in melancholy – the strangest, saddest city thou canst see”. But hang around in the heavily policed and newer suburbs of Miraflores, San Isidro, or Barranco to which the upper and middle classes have retreated and you will be rewarded. These areas are safe and wonderful to visit. The beaches in Lima are amongst the most beautiful stretches of sand one will ever see on the pacific. The cliffs that separate the city from the ocean are 20 stories high.
Miraflores is a wonderful setting with world class shopping and restaurants. All of the people that we met in Lima and in Peru in general were amongst the friendliest and most genuine people we have met anywhere in the world. While in Lima we never traveled outside of Miraflores or the downtown core without our guide Amilcar, a man we met and hired outside our hotel who became our personal driver and guide. He would take us safely to the places we wanted to see and would unlock the doors to his Lima and the world class restaurants for which Peru has become famous. Almost a year later I still correspond with him; how many tour guides can you say that about? Peruvians are a fiercely proud bunch and easily offended so it is with that in mind that I struggle to say some of the things about Lima that I have already said, and the last thing on earth I wish to do is to offend the people who live and work in Lima every day. But it is what it is. This seemingly cursed city was founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who treacherously killed the last Incan King Atahualpa after the Incan people had paid a “king’s ransom” of gold. Since then, not many places on earth have suffered as many natural disasters as Lima has endured: fires have razed, earthquakes of epic proportions have shaken the city to the ground destroying most of the buildings, at least one tidal wave literally wiped out the first port taking all of its 5000 inhabitants to a watery grave. In spite of all of this there are still some architectural gems to be found – there are Incan and Wari ruins dating to before Christ in the area and fabulous examples of Roman Catholic cathedrals that rival anything in Europe;
Take the tour of the Monastery of San Francisco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which includes Lima’s first cemetery with catacombs below the monastery. The catacombs remained in use until 1808 when a city cemetery outside of Lima was founded. It is estimated to contain 70,000 burials. Bones line up along narrow hallways underneath the church, and one area contains several large and deep holes, filled with bones and skulls arranged above each other in circular patterns.
There is also the ruin of the Wari temple Huaca Pucllana which exists in the heart of Miraflores, the main pyramid still exists and the city has sprouted up around it. Ironically here in 2013 the culture and grittiness of Lima is being reinvigorated by the same natural resources that brought the Spanish overseas to wipe out the Incans in the 1500s. Mining in the mineral rich mountains is booming and the Peruvian capital city’s middle class is the biggest beneficiary. Miraflores, San Isidro, and Barranco are upper scale neighbourhoods teaming with young professionals. The restaurant scene is booming and Peruvian cuisine is all the rage. The city is home to several outstanding culinary schools rivaling anything in Europe and the talent is obvious at the local restaurants. For a real treat, book a table for dinner on the outdoor patio of the world famous Restaurante Huaca Pucllana. The 5 star restaurant is situated inside the ruins which get stunningly lit up at night – this is a must see – and the food is amazing. Also, one must not leave Lima without stuffing yourself with ceviche — raw white fish, or shell fish, hot chili peppers and onions all marinated in lime juices — the mouth-watering dish that is the star of Lima’s culinary scene. Many varieties exist and each restaurant specializes in their own version – eat it, at all the good restaurants, and wash it down with the excellent Peruvian beer Cusqueña. You will not be disappointed. So now that prosperity is back one wonders if perhaps the curse that seems to hang over this city will final let up? While all of the luxury that comes with prosperity is evident: the Mercedes Benz, BMWs, Rolex watches, upscale condos with views of the Pacific and young professionals with disposable income abound. Tourists flock to this city enroute to Cusco and Machu Picchu and some even to experience Lima itself bringing foreign dollars to fuel the fire. But peel back the onion and realize that what this city is in dire need of is an army of good plumbers…. how is that for a natural disaster?