What in the world is in Lima?
Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in South America, and its main tourist drawcard is the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. Most travellers, when Peru is mentioned, tend to instantly think of the great ancient citadel, the Inca trail, and not much else. While I was planning my trip to South America, I was the same. Machu Picchu was definitely in my plans (it is in fact in my bucket list), as well as the city of Cusco. However, in order for us to get there, we have to fly via the capital Lima, and then take a domestic flight to Cusco. I’ve been told by a few people that Lima is such a dangerous and filthy place, that there is totally no point in going there. They say it’s the most unattractive place in peru, and we shouldn’t waste our time in South America there. Taking their advice, I didn’t plan to go and stay in Lima, apart from a quick 1-day visit on our way out to Brazil.
The Unplanned Detour to Lima
When my friend and I flew from Sydney across the Pacific to Santiago, Chile, we were so excited, as it was our first trip to South America, and Santiago was going to be our first city in our itinerary. We were already reading the guidebooks and those materials we researched on the internet on places to see in Santiago and nearby places like Valparaiso and Isla Negra.. It was going to be a wonderful trip in Santiago.
We got off the plane, and queued up at the immigration counters separately. I managed to get through very easily with my New Zealand passport. My friend, who was holding a Philippine passport, got held up. I was waiting for her on the other end, and kept on wondering what took her so long! The immigration official attending to her then called me and asked in broken English, “How come you go ok?”. I showed him my passport and said, “What seems to be the problem here?” Then he said, “Your friend, no visa! Cannot go in Chile!” We then had to argue with him in broken Spanish that the Chilean embassy in Melbourne told her that she doesn’t need a visa to get in with her Philippine passport, as long as she is not staying more than 90 days in Chile. Anyway, to cut the story short, there was no way they could issue her a visa (even a temporary or transit one) to get into Chile. I didn’t want to leave my friend behind, so we had to discuss what to do.
We definitely didn’t want to go back to Australia after planning to visit Rio, Buenos Aires, Machu Picchu. Our next stop after Chile was Peru, and so we decided that since we were not initially planning to spend time in Lima, we might as well turn this lemon into lemonade and explore the Peruvian capital. After all, we confirmed that we both don’t need a visa to get into the country anyway. We then found flights leaving for Lima that night from Santiago, so there goes our unplanned detour to Lima. (Note: be careful of the Chilean embassy in other countries especiallyin Australia, they might just give you the wrong information on visas and ruin your trip!)
The City of Kings
Lima, surprisingly, is known as “The City of Kings” (Ciudad de los Reyes in Spanish). This was because during the Spanish colonial era, the viceroyalty of Lima was the richest amongst all the Spanish colonies, and a lot of wealthy Spaniards were attracted to living there. Our first impressions of Lima were quite like what our friends told us. The road from the airport to our accommodation in the suburb of Miraflores reminded me of the slums in Manila, and the traffic was terrible, and the driver was also trying to beat Michael Schumacher’s record on the congested roads! After a long flight from Sydney and getting stuck in Santiago airport due to visa issues, it wasn’t what we really wanted. But then again, we were glad to have finally set foot in South America.
The next few days, we went around the Peruvian capital and found some gems in Lima that a lot of people have completely written off. Here are the top reasons why you should consider a detour to this diamond-in-the-rough city called Lima:
1.) Plaza de Armas/Plaza Mayor – This is the old town square of Lima, and is located right in the heart of the city. It’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and possesses a lot of historical and architectural significance to Lima. The square is surrounded by the Lima Cathedral, the residence of the Mayor of Lima, The President’s palace and the Archbishop’s palace. Local people like to spend their Sunday afternoons lingering around the square, and tourists come to see the beauty of the old colonial buildings surrounding it. The Lima Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace are an attraction on its own. They were built in the 1600s and then rebuilt in the 1700s when an earthquake struck Lima, and the cathedral collapsed. Outside the Presidential palace, there is a changing of the guards ceremony, which happens each morning at around 11AM. It’s worth having a look.
2.) Monasterio de San Francisco de Asis – This is the monastery of the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, and is located a block away from the Plaza Mayor. The Yellow-painted monastery holds a lot of artwork from the 17th and 18th Century Spanish painters and artists from the Cusco school. It also holds the catacombs, which was created in the 18th century when Lima was running out of space to bury their dead. Originally, the catacombs were for the rich and elite, who were given the privilege to be buried under a church. As the shortage of cemetery land worsened in Lima, the normal Joe on the street was then buried in these deep chambers.
3.) If you are into food, another great reason to visit Lima is to check out its Cebicherias. Cebicherias basically serve their national dish called Ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut sauce, topped with some local herbs and spices. It’s a beautiful dish to try, if you can handle raw fish or sashimi. The ceviche is only one of many varieties of food you’ll find in Lima. Peruvian cuisine is very rich, and is well represented in Lima.
4.) Museo Larco Herrera – This is a museum holding a private collection of Rafael Larco Hoyle, a local wealthy son of a sugar farmer who became interested in archaeology and started collecting pieces of Inca and Pre-Inca artifacts. The collection in this museum is extensive, and definitely worth checking out! There is an interesting display on Erotic Art of the Pre-Incas. It thought it was very fascinating! I do have photos of the artwork and the pottery, but in the interest of making this a G-rated posting, I’ll give the photos a miss this time..
5.) Miraflores – The suburb of Miraflores is by the shorelines of the Pacific Ocean, and is where most of the elite and wealthy in Lima live. It’s a very pleasant seaside suburb to walk around, and I actually based myself in this area. It’s 20 minutes by car or taxi to Downtown Lima. Most people recommend staying in this locality instead of downtown Lima due to the safety issues in the downtown area. I have been warned (even by the locals and the cab drivers) to be mindful of my possessions and where I go in the downtown area. Anyway, Miraflores has a shopping mall overlooking the Ocean called Larco Mar. It has a gold museum and lots of good places to dine and shop.
6.) Jiron de la Union – this pedestrianised street has a lot of shops and interesting old colonial buildings and churches. It starts from the Plaza San Martin and ends all the way to Plaza Mayor/Plaza Armas, and spans a few blocks. You can check out this small ice cream shop that serves Pisco Sour-flavoured ice cream (Pisco Sour is a local Peruvian spirit, a bit like rum or whiskey). The most interesting sight on the strip is the Iglesia de San Agustin (Church of St. Augustine). This old church stands out on the street. I was lucky enough to have been approached by this very friendly devotee of the church who explained to me in Spanish and some broken English (well, I kinda got most of it, I think) the history of the church, and the sacred items within it. There is this sacred cross that they believed would heal all illnesses, and people pray and touch this sacred cross.
Lima has its fair share of bad publicity and you do have to be careful about where you go. BUT it is not as dangerous as people say it is. Being Asian and walking alone on its city streets (not being part of a tour bus), people were staring at me as if I was a lost alien, but they were very friendly to me, and nothing untoward has happened to me. I was pleasantly surprised with the great architecture and interesting museums that Lima had to offer. There definitely is a great side to this otherwise bustling capital city, truly a gem to be rediscovered!
Til the next Fabulous Journey!