Lovely Lima

Trip Start Oct 25, 2007
Trip End Apr 17, 2008

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So many people had said that Lima is a dump. I should know better than to trust other people - I LOVED Lima! Each neighbourhood is very different, with its own history and atmosphere.

Take downtown, for example. The streets are lined with old, decrepit buildings, many of which have the romantic carved wooden balconies that Lima is so famous for. Houses are painted in all sorts of colours - dark blue, dirty orange, bright pink. The streets are busy, always full of people. Plaza de Armas in the heart of downtown has a magical air to it. I liked to sit on the steps of the Cathedral (more about those in a bit), close my eyes and imagine being transported back in time to the colonial ages when Lima was the biggest and richest city in the entire continent.

The steps of the Cathedral are known as "the kissing steps", I was told, because young Peruvian girls hang out there in expectation of striking up conversation with a foreigner, and most often they receive their first kiss on those very steps. How un-romantic.

There are many bookstores just south of Plaza de Armas. Never in my life have I seen bookstores so packed with books and magazines. They are usually dingy little places, sometimes with bad lighting, and the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with materials. Often there are stacks of books on the floor too, forming a labyrynth of corridors that one has to navigate through. In general, it seems to me that Peruvians read a fair amount - certainly a lot more than Ecuadoreans. Even the tiniest of villages has a bookstore, and the libraries everywhere are well maintained.

The streets are fairly busy, but at night they get absurdly crowded. People go shopping, strolling around the plaza with their children. Its like being in Times Square at lunch time. Throughout downtown and in other parts of Lima there are tidy little parks spaces everywhere. One park has water shows (think Bellagio in Las Vegas), another has a Japanese garden, a third is a rose park in its entirety (pitty this one was closed when I walked by it). Dowtown Lima also has some marvellous plazas with a very ancient feel to them - wide open spaces with colonial stype lamposts lining the square, benches and steps for people to sit on, a fountain or a monument is sometimes placed in the middle.

Trendy Miraflores is full of spectacular houses with even more spectacular gardens that even San Francisco's Presidio Hill district could be proud of. Many of them are not large at at - they are just designed to please the eye. The beachfront is lined with tall apartment buildings, not a single one of which did I find attractive. But such are the economics of life, I guess. Further inland Miraflores boasts many shopping areas, parks and a business district.

The city sits atop a cliff, and to get down to sea level where the beaches are, you have to either walk down a windy staircase or drive down one of the few passage ways that connect the top to the bottom. Being on a cliff does not prevent the fog from rolling in. Its similar to San Francisco (picture outer Sunset in June) so I felt very much "at home" for that reason.

The cliff is lined with a ribbon of a park, the length of which I could not walk as it might have taken all day. Its a pretty garden with walkways, monuments, look out posts, a lighthouse, a parasailing area, and a vast shopping mall that Limenos claim is the largest in the world (I doubt it). Parque del Amor, one of Lima's most famous parks, is located here. Any time of day or night you can observe numerous couples walking around or cuddling on the benches or grass. Cuddling is, in fact, too soft a word. Usually they are kissing passionately, groping each other in public shamelessly. Its not as romantic as it sounds. There is a lady that walks around all day and night and sells single roses. She approaches each couple in turn and asks the guy if he does not want to buy a rose for his lady; if that does not work she tells them that she has a small baby to feed (which she normally carries around with her) and won't they please buy a rose to help her support herself. So most ladies end up with a rose.

Connecting the walkway in one part of Miraflores, where the cliff cuts inland quite a bit, is a bridge. This bridge was recently fitted with tall transparent plastic walls on each side. Logically I thought it was wind protection - wrong. Apparently many people committed suicide from this bridge, plunging into the abyss and hitting the street far below... survival is not possible. So the authorities finally took action and put these walls up. I stood over the infamous suicide spot and looked down, and shivered from the height.

Barranco was the most romantic place of all. Its the neighbourhood where artists, writers, singers and other people of the arts live. Its houses are old and as colourful as the ones in Miraflores and downtown Lima, except it has an avantgard edge to it. The place is quiet during the day but really livens up at night, as this is where some of the best bars and clubs are located.

My hostel was in Miraflores, close to the beach and to the large shopping mall I mentioned. For some reason it was full of French speaking people. After my French Leutenant experience I met some decent people there, as well as some locals. One of the most knowledgable people about Lima that I spoke to was actually an Italian guy named Massimo, who loves to visit museums and learn about Lima's history in his spare time. Next time I am in Lima I am going to take him up on his offer to give me a full day tour of the city. I can't wait!

Lima also has some marvellous museums. Specifically, the Museo de la Nacion has amazing pre-Colombian pottery on display. I probably spent two entire days just walking through the different museums and art centers - colonial art, modern art, Italian art, pre-Colombian art, Spanish Inquisition museum... and I also left a lot for my next visit!

One thing I found bizzarre is that for a city of this size (9 million), Lima has no public transportation system. Transportation is organized by private companies in the form of combis and mini buses. These are usually 20 years old and with shot suspensions; they're awfully overcrowded and they compete fiercly with one another.

Each driver owns his own vehicle, employs a conductor and just pays a commission to the private company to monitor the timeliness of the buses. This monitoring takes the form of a person standing at sertain key junctions along the route, clipboard in hand, who marks off the arrival time of each combi or bus of that company, and communicates it back to the driver. However, twice I saw a conductor pay money to the monitoring person, so I'm not sure how objective this all is... Limenos are apparently fed up with this and are waiting for the municipality to put in place a real public transportation system.

The conductor is the most interesting person on the comb/bus. He/she is often leaning half way out of the side window, sometimes holding a sign with the general direction of the vehicle, and yelling out loud "todo Arequipa, todo Arequipa". He beckons to individuals standing on the sidewalk, asking them where they are going and hastening them to catch a ride. He bangs on the door as a sign for the driver to stop or go. Inbetween all this, he collects fare from the passengers and maintains order in the vehicle. Not an easy job, I saw some guys that were really good at it and others that wern't as outspoken and whose buses were less full. So it probably takes some 'talent' to do this...

I spent a lot of time in Lima because I was waiting for my replacement equipment to be shipped from the US, and unsurprisingly it got stuck in customs and so I had to wait 5-6 days longer than I anticipated. But now I've taken care of that so its bye-bye Lima and hello South!
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