Lima’s main station, Desamparados, doesn’t see much traffic these days. The railway still passes through the back of the terminus but only a small number of passenger excursion trains use it each year. There are no trains at all in February.
Happily, the beautiful station building (1912) has been given a new lease of life as a centre for Peruvian literature. So you can visit the old terminus and discover more about the country’s most famous writers.
Pride of place goes to Peru’s Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, and you can find an extensive display of his work in the centre of the old concourse directly under the marvellous stain-glassed roof.
The old platform at the rear of the station has been thoughtfully converted to an outdoor reading area and there is a little café there as well.
One of the walls is decorated by an attractive colourful mural. It featured the only train I managed to see in Lima.
We flew into Lima on Iberia via Madrid and we got a fantastic view of the vast coastal city from the air just before we landed. Lima has a population of just over 9 million making it (on a city-only basis) the third largest in the Americas after Sao Paulo and Mexico City and just ahead of New York. Almost a third of Peru’s 32 million citizens make Lima their home.
We arrived in the early evening just as the sun was starting to set and it looked absolutely spectacular. February is Lima’s summer and the heat hit us as we got off the plane. Even though we arrived at 7pm it was still 25 degrees. It was reasonably humid but there was no rain forecast. In fact Lima is one of the world’s driest capitals and precipitation is quite unusual.
The airport is named after Peruvian aviator Jorge Chavez who was the first pilot ever to cross the Alps. It comprises of a single terminal for both domestic and international flights and it seemed a little overcrowded. Nevertheless, immigration was simple and pleasant. There was none of the form filling you get in most places; simply a check of the passport, a stamp and a friendly smile. Customs, again without any form to fill in, was equally painless. The impression I got was “we want you here and we are going to make it as easy as possible”.
I had arranged a local driver, Stefano, through a contact on the Flyertalk website and he was waiting for us with a big smile on his face as we emerged into the arrivals hall. It took us just 20 minutes (we only had hand luggage) from exiting the plane to climbing into the back of his car. Not bad at all.
We set off into the city and Stefano explained that the airport was actually in Callao which is not in Lima proper. Callao, he added, is very dangerous and it is best not to linger there. Then, as we entered Lima itself, he told us that the city was divided into over 40 districts. Some of them, he explained helpfully, were even more dangerous than Callao but others, including Miraflores where we were heading, were quite safe.
Hearing all this and also taking into account my first impressions from looking out of the car window at life on the streets, I thought the Lima seemed to have a bit in common with Mexico City. At least, both countries have a similar GDP per capita and both cities are a similar size.
The Friday night traffic was absolutely horrendous. It took us over 1 hour and 40 minutes to get the 15km from the Airport to Miraflores. En route we chatted to Stefano (who was about my age) and covered a whole variety of topics –
On Politics – he told us that there was still too much corruption in Peru but things were getting better slowly. He told us that although he was now imprisoned, he thought that Fujimori hadn’t been such a bad president; he had achieved a lot for the country and had been instrumental in the defeat of Shining Path terrorists.
On the economy – he told us that it had been getting better over the last 10 or more years, but was still based too heavily on the supply of minerals and especially on supply to China. He was worried about a slowdown in China affecting Peru.
On football – he told us that Lima had 4 main teams and he supported Universidad San Martin. He favoured Manchester City in the UK but didn’t really give me a reason why.
It was after 9pm by the time we arrived in Miraflores. We suddenly emerged from the congested city streets onto a cliff top road. We got a brief view of the ocean before we headed inland along tree-lined streets full of restaurants and bars to our hotel.
We checked in, left the luggage in the room and went off for a brief walk around. We walked as far as the Park Kennedy (famous for its stray cats) which is the central hub of the district. We popped into the local Metro 24-hour supermarket on the way back to buy a few provisions for breakfast. We were quite shocked at how expensive things were, certainly a lot of stuff was not dramatically cheaper than in the UK.
The pavements were full of people, a nice mix of locals and foreign tourists, and the atmosphere seemed really friendly, relaxed and safe.
I was surprised at just how many local “sangucheria” sandwich chain outlets there were. There seemed to be one on almost every corner. They were all large operations like American fast food restaurants and they were all very busy selling a range of delicious looking sandwiches. The prevailing smell in the air was salsa criolla; the mix of onions and cilantro that is associated with ceviche but seems to get put on everything.
I love the feeling of arriving in a new place and then having that first look around and I usually like to celebrate it with a drink. So, just before calling it a night, we passed by the hotel bar and enjoyed a quick Pisco Sour (made with Peruvian brandy and egg white); one of Peru’s most famous cocktails.
The next day, heading for the Centro Historico, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Metropolitano. This is Lima’s version of Mexico City’s “Metrobus”. It is a basically a Metro system that uses buses instead of trains. In this case the buses run down the central reservation of the main highway threading through greater Lima. The stations are accessible from bridges along the route.
With a little help from a friendly attendant, we purchased a smart card ticket from the machine and passed through the barrier and down on to the platform. The system, basically a single line of route, is relatively new but it works well. In a city where the rest of the bus system is pretty primitive and slow it is an absolute godsend. Nevertheless, it is extremely crowded and we had to stand the 20 minutes or so it took us to get the 10km to the historical centre of town.
We headed first for the Plaza St Martin. The square was laid out in the early 20th century and features many buildings in Beaux Arts style, particularly the imposing Gran Hotel. A statue at its centre commemorates Jose de St Martin; the 19th century liberator of Peru for who the Plaza is named.
We paused for morning coffee at the atmospheric Pastelaria San Martin (1930) and enjoyed the rather sweet but delicious Turron de Dona Pepe cake which went down well with a strong Americano.
The Centro Historico was laid out in the 16th century and comprises of a grid network of bustling streets. Many of the streets are now pedestrianised and they are mostly lined by the original colonial buildings. Particularly interesting are the ornate wooden balconies on many of the buildings.
We walked up Jiron de la Union and popped into the 16th century Iglesia de las Merced; a church famous for its wooden altars. It was, according to the guide book, the first place mass was ever celebrated in Peru.
The Centro Historico was bustling. It was a Saturday morning and a lot of people were out shopping and walking around. It was a very pleasant atmosphere. People seemed really happy and they smiled a lot. Peru’s racial mix is roughly 45% Amerindian, 37% Mestizo (Mixed) and 15% white and this was pretty much reflected in downtown Lima.
There were hawkers on the streets selling stuffed llamas and other touristy stuff but they were not overly pushy. In fact the whole time we were in the country we had no issues with overbearing people. Touts always seemed to quickly take no for an answer and taxi drivers generally took the (usually reasonable) suggested fares without any argument. If anything, people actually seemed quite shy.
Boys in Blue
Finally we emerged onto Plaza de Armas; Lima’s central square. The Police presence was something to behold. I don’t know if they were expecting a demonstration or something, but I counted more than 25 police in the square alone.
Many of them were standing around in groups and quite a few of them were holding riot shields. Nevertheless, they seemed friendly enough. Although we never saw quite as high numbers elsewhere, wherever we went there seemed to be always quite a heavy security presence.
We lingered in the square, dominated by the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral, for a while. It was full of people just sitting around enjoying themselves in the morning sunshine.
We walked on from the square, passing the enchanting little Museum de Pisco (a history of Peru’s famous brandy) on the way to the main Desamparados railway station. After our look around the station we entered the Parque de la Muralla nearby. The park, a very recent addition, is a modern linear space set out along the old site of the original city wall.
From the park you could see the city’s central river, a fast flowing brown affair, and on the opposite bank some of the suburbs in the hills beyond. The suburbs on the hill looked fascinating from a distance but I recalled that they might be one of the areas Stefano had mentioned as being dangerous.
We continued with the walk reaching the Monasterio de San Francisco (one of the largest monasteries in South America) and then visiting its spectacular interior.
We then walked across the Plaza Bolivar where the building that houses Peru’s Congress stands and eventually we came to the central market.
Our trip around Lima’s biggest market, Mercado Central, was fascinating and exciting; a real sensory overload. It is housed in a multi-storey building but there are also stalls in the surrounding streets too. We wandered around for more than an hour. The aisles seemed endless and they stocked everything from pig’s heads to quinoa, from fresh fish to clothing and from dry goods to kitchen equipment.
Next to the market was one of the strangest Chinatowns I have ever visited. On one level it seemed quite authentic, but on closer inspection there didn’t seem to be that many Chinese people around. Many of the establishments seemed to be staffed by locals. Nevertheless, the place was busy with lunchtime shoppers and people sampling the Chaufa (Peruvian-Chinese fusion fried rice) offered at several of the many restaurants.
We resisted the temptation to have Chinese for lunch and instead walked back towards Desamparados. Opposite the station was El Codarno; a traditional Peruvian dining room. It has been trading since the early 1900s and doesn’t seem to have changed much in that time.
It was a lovely little place for lunch and we sat admiring the atmosphere and the pictures depicting the place through the ages whilst enjoying a delicious plate of lomo saltado (the Peruvian classic beef stir fry) with tacu tacu (refried beans and rice mixed) served by extremely friendly staff.
After lunch we continued to wander around the Centro, walking at one point through, though not drinking at, a Pisco Sour festival. We finished up with a visit to the stunning church of Santo Domingo and its beautiful garden.
Back in Miraflores we wandered around some more. The area was very well developed with lots of parks and green spaces. You could easily tell that this was one of the most affluent parts of the city and probably not that representative of the city as a whole. Still, it was a very pleasant place to walk around.
We strolled a few blocks down to the sea front and then stood on the cliff tops admiring the view out across the ocean and down to the pier and beaches far below. We stayed there for a while enjoying the relaxed Saturday evening vibe.
We headed back via Larcomar; a trendy upmarket shopping mall which has been ingeniously built into the cliff side at Miraflores. The ingenious design has won awards. It is hidden from the top of the cliff and you don’t know it is there until you descend into it. It is home to a lot of international names but there is a growing trend in new Peruvian brands too. The revolution in Peruvian food over the past 30 years is now spreading to clothing. Lima is fast becoming a fashion capital as well.
Just south of Miraflores, the suburb of Barranco has long been popular with writers and artists and has a bohemian feel to it.
The place grew around the turn of the 20th century and there are some beautifully preserved late 19th / early 20th century mansions around and even an old renovated tramcar.
It is not as upmarket as its northern neighbour but as there are far more locals than tourists it feels a lot more authentic in many ways.
We visited Barranco on our second Sunday and had a wonderful lunch of ceviche at the Buccanieri Café.
After lunch we had a walk through a beautiful park and under the so-called “Bridge of Sighs” down to the beach.
After a drink at a beach cafe, we walked back up again and then took the Malecon cliff road all the way back to Miraflores watching the hang gliders circling the cliffs high above as we walked. The sun was shining, it was warm and the views out to the Pacific were stunning.
We had only skirted the surface of Lima, but we found it to be a friendly, interesting and very welcoming city. I certainly wouldn’t need too strong an excuse to make a return visit one day.
Taxi to the Airport
Our journey out to the airport on Sunday morning only took 35 minutes. We took the scenic route along the coast and then seemed to take a short cut through a run-down area that had endless speed bumps.
When he learnt we were heading for Machu Picchu, the taxi driver seemed to be keen to warn us of the dangers of succumbing to altitude sickness. He mimed vomiting, dizziness and even going raving mad as he bounced us back towards Callao.
A few hours later we flew out of Lima on a LAN Peru A320 heading for Cusco (Elevation 3300m) and the Sacred Valley.