Lima, the city of the Viceroys

August 05, 2015

Somewhere along the line, Lima got a bad reputation. Maybe it was in the 80’s and early 90’s when the Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac Amaru revolutionary groups subjected Peru to armed struggle, provoking an even more virulent reaction by the state security forces. In those days, Peru was a clandestine battleground: I used to sit at my hostal at night and listen to the bombs go off. One restaurant where I ate a late lunch was robbed and dynamited 3 hours later by the Tupac Amaru. After midnight there was a shoot-on-sight curfew, and the general atmosphere of insecurity made downtown a good place to have your watch snapped off your wrist or your earrings ripped out of your ears. Lima was dirty and nervous, and the few tourists who went to Macchu Picchu typically flew through Lima as quickly as they could.

Now Lima has retaken it’s place as one of the great Latin American cities. Lima is as flat, dry and sprawling as La Paz is dense and mountainous. However, Lima is a coastal city, and very much a beach city. One of its main arteries runs directly alongside the Pacific Ocean, and is lined with restaurants, clubs, public beaches and many many surfers, even in winter. Lima was the capital of Spanish colonial South America, a place of wealth and culture, and that’s reflected in its majestic city center, whose giant cathedrals and rhythmic galleries of 17th century buildings have been denoted a World Cultural Heritage Site.. This was the city through which the vast wealth of Peru and Bolivia flowed to Spain, in such great quantities that it caused inflation, war and ultimately economic ruin for Spain. Hard to root for the Spaniards on that one: they methodically destroyed Inca culture with an ignorance that still leaves visitors frustrated nearly five centuries later. They did leave a beautiful city, though.

Out in the wealthy barrios of Miraflores and San Isidro, nearer to the beach, architecture is modern and clean. Side streets are sleepy and conceal their houses behind walls or iron fences, while the main thoroughfares are filled with restaurants, shops and sidewalk cafes. Lima’s food is one of the best cuisines in the world. Its seafood dishes are exotic and exquisite, and various ice-cream stands produce amazing tropical sherbets. Lima also has its own lively music, leaning heavily on Afro-Peruvian rhythms. It has a thriving literary culture, including Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. Limeños of all economic classes tend to be gregarious and friendly. They dress well and love to dance. Blundering once more into mass characterization, I would describe Limeños as cheerful, rapid, warm and a little bit crafty. 

Peru is booming right now. Its official growth rate has been among the highest in the world for many years in a row, and that’s not counting the thriving coca industry. Yes, Peru, too, is in the business, although since it has a real economy, the effects of that business are more marginal than a place like Bolivia. Still, it’s undeniable that some of the snap you feel on Lima’s streets originates in the jungle of the Huallaga river valley and other coca-growing regions. (One unofficial figure I heard is that it’s about 18% of the economy.) Coca aside, if you want to experience a lively, cultured South American city, Lima should be at the top of your list.

But I’m not here to party: I’m here to buy alpaca sweaters, and since Peru has the two most important alpaca spinning factories in the world, and Lima is its sophisticated port city, I am now at ground zero of the alpaca business.

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