Lima is a grubby, smelly, chaotic and schizophrenic city. We liked it very much. You’d be grubby, smelly and chaotic too if you were eight million people crowded on the shores of a great desert. As for the schizophrenia, that’s part of the charm. Lima is a city of neighbourhoods with different personalities.
Lima has almost five hundred years of history already. It was founded by the gold-thirsty Spanish colonists who wanted a port, and liked the maritime climate more than the chill of the Andes. Some parts of the colonial architecture are well preserved. Many more of the bits that aren’t colonial per se still look very old and very European.
Through New Zealand eyes there is an expectation that that sort of European history and prettiness will be combined with cleanliness and riches and welfare states. That’s not Lima. Central Lima has muck and graffiti and the occasional and unmistakeable whiff of humanity. It’s got that feeling of heaving chaos that you find in South and South East Asia. It’s also got a more visible begging population than anywhere so far this trip.
To be fair Lima also has its share of fancy. There’s a developed area called Miraflores that we skipped for fear of venturing into another gringoland. But we very much enjoyed our trip to Barranco, a seaside suburb with a quaint and bohemian air.
The most remarkable thing for us about Lima is that it’s there. Thinking of Peru at home we, like we suspect most New Zealanders, were thinking of llamas wandering green hills and Machu Pichu. Lima, a city with a population equal to Paris or London, conjured no real image for us.
In fact, the idea of urban Andean America was a bit sketchy. One of the discoveries of our trip so far has been the big cities founded long ago with a European heritage that have morphed so they feel at once recognisable and foreign. These cities have the share of poverty, but also a growing middle class whose living standards are probably not that far removed from poorer New Zealanders’.
We’ve left Lima now, headed for the llamas and the green hills. But we’re glad we went – when many travelers don’t – because it’s a very important part of Peru.