Inka Trailblazing – Part 1: Lima, Peru
Growing up under the suffocating damp cloth that we English refer to as ‘the sky’, the first thing that struck me as we lay foot in Peru was the sheer expansiveness of the Andean firmament. The sky loomed over us like a bulbous, gaseous dome, as if the whole country was encased within a giant crystal ball, our travels ahead of us, like the prophetic visions of a fortune teller. Although, in retrospect this feeling was most likely a result of the jet lag we were experiencing after a long journey, measured better by the number of glasses of wine we drank on the way rather than minutes or miles.
Personally, there always seemed something particularly conceited about travel writing. The idea that you can enter a country of which you have no experience and after spending only a few weeks, offer profound and illuminating insights about the place as if you were born there. I don’t claim to have gleaned any significant understanding of Peru, of the daily struggles that the citizens face, the meaning of their values, customs, culture. I did notice a few things of course which, have stood out in my mind, but I don’t claim that these observations afford me any authoritative voice on the actual, raw experience of the Peruvian people. If anything they most likely offer a window into my own internal world rather than that of Peru, which is of course to main reason to travel.
In a moment of almost poetic serendipity, our arrival in Latin America coincided with the death of definitive South American author Gabriel García Márquez., and with his death, also died any romantic allusions we were harbouring concerning the magical realism of the continent.
Lima perches upon the pacific coast line like a dirty ocean pearl, smothered in the grimy exhalations of the sea breeze and exhaust fumes. The day to day reality for most Peruvians is one of grit and poverty. When the Spanish left the country in 1866 it seemed like they really left it, discarded like a once cultivated garden for nature to reclaim and reinstate it’s own laws. The streets are lined with old women and young children, perched at your ankles to sell you whatever they can in exchange for your dollars and guilt, whilst they subsist on a daily diet of soot, carbon monoxide and ethanol fumes. If only they spent the equivalent time breathing through a filtered cigarette, I’m sure their fragile lungs would be thankful.
However this is Latin America, and what would exist as only sparse, deprivation or perhaps desperation in other parts of the world, becomes imbued with dynamism and flair… ‘if poverty is the only rhythm we have, then hell, we’ll dance to it’. The result is a sort of destitute, saturnalian revelry which is not depressing, yet not celebratory either, and confirms the suspicion of many economists, that there is indeed potential in these places for development.
The question then becomes, why is this potential, this dynamic human drive and energy not been realised? One possible answer that became more and more salient as we wandered the streets of Lima and Cusco is because the volcanic ground swell of human energy was being suppressed from the top down, by a government adhering to the Victorian adage of ‘children should be seen and not heard’.
The police in Peru have a distinctly military presence, and upon seeing them, you are instantly imbued with the fear that there must be a strong probability of imminent danger and unrest. For me this infused the air with a subtle yet poignant electrical tension, an unnerving Molotov cocktail of rejoice and fiesta mixed with the ice of suppression and supervision.
Perhaps this was a symptom of coming from the green, hobbitesque pastures of England, where the local bobbies are not permitted to posses guns and are trained in the art of de-escalation. As the Peelian (google Robert Peel) principle goes; the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
Still the presence of the police did not spoil the party and the streets of Lima brimmed with magnetism, noise, foul odours, music and life unabated. We circled Lima Cathedral and it’s neighbour the Church of San Francisco, which gave new meaning to term sanctuary as we escaped from the blistering sun, into the dark and solemn cloak of the cool church air.
Churches intuitively make sense in hot countries, where they offer refuge from the unrelenting heat. The Inkas worshipped the Sun, perhaps out of fear as much as gratitude, yet the Spanish created huge ecclesiastical refrigerators which allowed the indigenous people to escape their former deity both physically and spiritually.
The crowd in the church of San Francisco were divided into two parts, those there to worship and reflect and those there to see the creepy skull and crossbones littered throughout the place. We were firmly in the latter camp :-X
The city of Lima is in many ways a misnomer, it is in reality an umbrella term for a number of different towns, clumsily stitched together to create the illusion of metropolitan power and grander. With a combined population of over 8 million it is on a par with London, minus the personal space, and as a result of such density, any notion of 100 years of Solitude seems to be realistic only in the magic of Gabriel García Márquez’s imagination.
In keeping with it’s estranged global cousins London and New York, there is an ever growing wealth gap in Lima. Although much of the city is plagued by poverty and general urban decay, venture to the purifying coastal airs of Miraflores and you will be presented with glistening glass skyscrapers, gourmet restaurants and people who choose to expend calories not in the acquisition of new calories but for recreation.
Between this dichotomy of abject poverty and egregious wealth there lies the up and coming bohemian district of Barranco. Although at face value it appears to be a trendy utopian refuge for those who are not swayed by the seductions of capitalism, at closer inspection, especially of the prices on the local cafe menus, it seems Barranco’s main purpose to serve the artistic whims of the wealthy few who can afford to indulge in such frivolity. Not that this negates any of the charm of the area, which is adorned by romantic wooden panelled buildings, publicly playable pianos, and nostalgic municipal artefacts such as typewriters and streetcars, built in a time when utility and culture where considered mutually reinforcing. If Instagram had made a town, it would look something like Barranco.
Next stop Cusco!
The Important Stuff:
The main historical sights are all situated together in the north of the city (Cathedrals, Chruches etc).
The two other areas worth seeing, Barranco and Miraflores are further away at the south of the city.
The best way to get around Lima is by Taxi, it will cost you about 6/12 soles (more at night). Not too dangerous, use common sense and only hop into registered taxis.
Our tips: Visit the Churches and stuff in the morning as they are close together (Church of San Francisco and it’s cousins) and you will need energy to deal with the hustle and bustle. Slowey saunter on down to the beach near Miraflores and enjoy the pacific. From here you can wander up to the leafy shade of Barranco for lunch in a trendy hipster place (don’t miss the converted streetcar cafe (barranco is small, you’ll find it)). From here you can head to Miraflores directly north to see how the other half live, and then you’re not far away from the Huaca Pucllana ruins, where there is an overlooking restaurant that’s actually pretty good, or you can head back down to Miraflores for a buffet of gourmet restaurants at very reasonable prices. If you’re on a budget then you can still find good value for money here. The huge water fountain park (aka, Magic Water Circuit) is in the middle of the city at the Parque de la Reserva located between the Churches and Miraflores. The water fountain shows are at: 6:30 pm / 8:00 pm / 9:30 pm / 10:30pm, so plan your meals accordingly.