A July 1997 trip
to Lima by wanderluster
Quote: Suddenly single at 35, I was free to explore the rest of the world! Eager to embrace a foreign culture and language, I chose South America for my first adventure. My brother, 21, a stranger when I left home, decided to join me. Lima was our intimidating introduction to Peru.
Situated on the Pacific coast in the center of the country, Peru's capital city is home to 8 million people. Decades of political unrest and violent street crime have made Lima rather unsettling for tourists to visit. Few foreigners ventured here in the 80s and early 90s. By 1997, we still felt largely unwelcome and intimidated.
My younger brother and I had four days to spend on our own before joining our GAP group.
Yet we didn't hide in our hotel. We explored on foot, hired taxis, and rode a bus to visit museums, ruins, Indian markets, a zoo, and we even attended a local cockfight!
* Don't use tap water to brush your teeth.
* Check the seal on bottled water before you purchase it, even at nice restaurants.
* Stash your hotel business card in your pocket whenever venturing out on foot/taxi.
* Make time to visit the fascinating museums highlighting Peru's history, archeology, burials, torture practices, religious art, ceramics, and gold.
* Befriend a local to get the scoop on local events such as soccer games, cockfights, or bullfights.
* Visit Miraflores' Parque del Amor but don't swim in the ocean (however tempting), as all beaches are condemned due to contamination.
* Stay in the Miraflores district of Lima. This upscale seafront neighborhood is considered the safest for tourists and has plenty of three-star hotels.
* Visit the Artesanias Indian Market in Miraflores for excellent selection of high quality crafts, soft sweaters, and musical instruments.
* Take a taxi to the Centro district to admire Baroque, Colonial and Moorish architecture on beautiful church and government buildings.
* Don't wander aimlessly without hiding your camera, map, and money.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful throughout Lima, except in residential neighborhoods. Distance from the airport to Miraflores hotel district or Centro downtown is just 6 miles, but expect a 30-minute adventure.
In our eye-popping taxi ride from the airport to Miraflores, I counted 9 near misses with other vehicles or pedestrians as we swerved, lunged, and jumped curbs to pass on sidewalks to get around traffic. Impatient blaring of long and short honks added to the noise and stress.
But, if you think taxi rides are scary, try walking or crossing the streets. Frightening...especially when you get lost.
City tour buses will take you around Lima for US, stopping at major historical sites and museums. Information and pick-ups are available at most hotels.
There are three city bus lines that stop at most corners when you flag them down. Downside? No signs to indicate their destination. You gotta ask (in Spanish).
Avoid the van-sized combis buses...unsafe and accident prone.
The first night we were traveling with another girl, and the hotel didn't have her reservation. So we had to wait one hour while the staff tried to find us a triple room. I didn't mind the wait, as it allowed us to mingle with the other guests and people watch. Time flew when I struck up a conversation with a couple who had just returned from hiking the Inca Trail.
We were led down a garden corridor between two buildings and entered our triple room from outside. The room was large, had three single beds, a couch and a decent bathroom. Sandwiched between the buildings, the triple room was much quieter than our double room subsequent nights.
Our double room was located upstairs on the second floor, and overlooked the busy street, Avenida Comandante Espinar. Traffic noise was a bit of a problem all night long. Even earplugs barely diminished the constant honking of taxis, cars and trucks. It woke me up by 6am each morning. My brother, who can sleep through an earthquake, wasn't bothered by the street noise.
I liked the arched doorways and iron windows. There was a small televison in the room and distilled water in a common area down the hall. Bathrooms had showers, although the water wasn't real warm.
On the main floor, there was a decent restaurant which extended outside. The patio was a nice place to sit in the afternoon, have a drink and people watch. We ate breakfast here each morning–one of the few places you could order eggs, something other than the traditional, tiresome pan (bread). Our last morning, they noticed we hadn't been down for breakfast by 9:45am and called me. Would I like breakfast in the room? Okay...so they brought me pan (two hard rolls), orange marmalade, thick papaya juice and café. Chris was surprised when I woke him up holding a breakfast tray, as he hadn't even heard the phone ring!
Down the street a few blocks was a bank where we exchanged money. No casual stroll. We felt nervous and edgy knowing we were being watched by men on the streets–three blondes in Peru.
Nine blocks away was a great Artesian Indian Market. My brother freaked out when a friend and I decided to walk there after the bank. So he stayed behind while we went...admittedly it was somewhat spooky. And didn't become any less frightening the three other times we went.
Staff at the front desk were friendly and helpful. They provided advice about how much we should pay taxis, gave us directions, and told us to keep a hotel business card in our pockets whenever we left. They also arranged a city tour bus for us which picked us up a block away.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 19, 2002
Avenida Coman Espinar
Attraction | "San Francisco Church & Catacombs"
Despite it's stunning Baroque architecture, the main draw to this 17th century church is the Catacombs for most people. But they save that for last on the tour.
First you go through the church decorated with wood carvings, faience tiles, and ornate moldings; then the monastery to view a museum of religious art and finally their library where antique texts and parchments are displayed. We saw huge choir songbooks oddly displayed on floor stands, a strange little choir section, lots of art and original paintings including a well known Flemish painting of "The Last Supper."
To be honest, most of the art was lost on me, but I listened attentively when our guide led us toward the courtyard and showed us a wall where an antique fresco was recently found under another fresco. Plaster from the wall fell and collapsed as a result of an earthquake revealing this painting. The colors were fairly muted, but the sense of discovery was exciting. Apparently a new fresco had been painted over this one, much like we paint over outdated wall colors in our own homes.
We passed through the pretty courtyard full of plants, walkways and private nooks where monks use to spend quiet time before we descended into the dimly lit Catacombs.
Strange to think that the bones of 25,000 people could be buried here, yet the crypts weren't discovered until 1951. Excuse me, but what about the smell? The first people buried in these crypts were deceased church members who openly laid in dirt graves until their flesh decomposed. After two years, some lucky church official would descend and throw dried skulls and bones into a deep pit to make room for new bodies. Soon it became the dumping grounds for Lima's public. Some experts claim that the number of deceased here is actually closer to 70,000.
The weirdest part of seeing this morbid place was seeing human bones arranged artistically. Some archeologist thought that the Catacombs would have more appeal that way. So he placed skulls together in a center pile with same length arm bones radiating outward, and matching leg bones extending beyond the arms–like giant spiders. Not all the bones were arranged into designs. We saw piles of assorted bones in deep pits. Can you imagine relatives visiting? "Hey, is that you great-great grandma?"
The church and Catacombs are open 9:30am to 5:30pm, and cost $2 (US). City tour buses regularly stop here on the 3rd block of Ancash Street in downtown Lima. Without wandering too far, you can also see the President's Palace and visit another strange museum (Museo de la Inquisicion) which shows in vivid detail how Peruvians were horribly tortured during the Spanish Inquisition.
San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs
Intrigued when we later found out it was a pre-Incan site currently being excavated and open to the public, we hired a taxi to take us there.
I couldn't get over the fact that this enormous structure, visible above rooftops, was only discovered in 1969. How could that be? It encompassed the space of an entire city block.
But once we entered the site we learned that the recent discovery was not the pyramid, but the area adjacent to it on ground level. Here ruins of an ancient city silently existed underneath present day Lima until an earthquake cracked open modern streets and revealed them.
Currently being excavated, many of the mud-clay bricks, ramps and walls have been found intact.
An amazing feat when you realize it dates from the 4th century and has withstood countless earthquakes.
These ruins were inhabited by pre-Incas, Lima's earliest residents, who also built the pyramid to honor their god Pachacamac. Later when the Incas arrived, they adopted the religious beliefs, gods and sacred temples of the pre-Incan people which explains why the pyramid was not destroyed.
It was fascinating to walk around and imagine life in this ancient city. A young girl led us around doing her best to explain the site in very limited English. A faint yellow tinge was still visible on some of the mud bricks, indicating that these walls were once colorfully bright yellow. The girl pointed out the fruit from nearby trees that was used to create the yellow dye.
We saw ornamental bowls and pitchers decorated with statues and animal designs that had been unearthed on site. Very cool! (I can only imagine the thrill in carefully extracting a perfectly intact decorative bowl from the 4th century...when on a dig years ago I'd been excited about finding a few meager pottery shards from the 18th century!)
Most of the artifacts were displayed in a small museum, but some were placed in excavated structures throughout the complex. A skeleton of a small girl was lying in a horizontal position where she had been found, near caged animals including llamas, guinea pigs and strange-looking ducks that represented animal skeletons also found here. What else is hiding? Guess we'll find out as subsequent earthquakes continue to reveal Lima's past.
Archeologists are still attempting to determine if this area was a residential area or a temple site. Not fluent in Spanish, it was difficult to fully understand the explanations, but it was still worthwhile to explore! Judging from the quiet, unpopulated atmosphere and surprised scurrying of the attendant to find us a guide, I don't think many tourists visit. Too bad. It's a gem!
Located on the corner of Larco Herrera and Elias Aquirre in Miraflores district of Lima. Closed Mondays. Cost was $2 US.
Huaca Juliana Pre-Incan Ruins
Corner of Larco Herrera & Elias Aquirre
Attraction | "Lima Zoo (Parque Las Leyendas)"
On our last day in Lima, we decided to visit the zoo. The 10-minute taxi ride cost 7 soles ($2 US) from the hotel, and was a rather calm drive. Was it really less chaotic on the streets or was I just becoming accustomed to the hair-raising turns, curb-assisted wheelies, and near misses with pedestrians?
The day was warm and sunny, typical for Lima's dry desert climate and apparently a good day to visit because the zoo was crowded with locals. It was kind of cool wandering around a foreign zoo, reading signs in Spanish and seeing animals surrounded by palm trees and other tropical plants. Animals were enclosed in simple fences allowing us to view them at close range.
Most of the zoo animals were native to Peru, representing the three main regions: Coastal, Sierra highlands, and the Selva jungle. We saw different varieties of llamas, alpacas, condors, caiman, tropical birds, monkeys, and, strangely enough, an elephant that looked completely out of his element. The caiman appeared fake, rubbery-looking. He laid so still with his mouth wide open in a frozen pose. We stared at him, beginning to think he was just a prop until he suddenly closed his mouth.
I enjoyed seeing the tropical birds up close, as they had eluded me last week in the Amazon. We had hiked in the trees and heard them, but unfortunately rarely saw them in the thick, forested jungle. Same with the monkeys. Our guide would spot something, point, and poof!, they'd be gone before we could spot them. It had been frustrating trying to locate those animals and birds artfully playing hide and seek. (EEEee EEE! Oh, there's a monkey! Where? Right...ah, there. Where? There...see him? No, where? Look there. Where? Oh, no, he's gone. RRRgh!)
Here the birds were wonderfully visible-–bright, colorful, and so beautiful. I just wish I could've seen them in their native jungle environment. The great Andean condor had also eluded us in the wild, but here he was--up close. We could imagine his width in flight looking at his large wings. Llamas and alpacas had been plentiful throughout our Peruvian travels, even in the Andean mountains and remote location of Machu Picchu. But it was still interesting to see them herded together, showing the contrast of their different colors.
The zoo was rather small and took less than an hour to walk through, but it was a nice diversion. Fun to see where the locals go on their day off with the kids. And we felt completely safe walking around during the entire visit which was a nice change to much of our experiences elsewhere in Lima.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 19, 2002
Parque de las Leyendas
Avenida La Marina, cuadra 24, sin número
Lima, Peru 32
+51 1 4521316
Attraction | "Museum of the Nation (Archeology)"
Wonderful replicas of every main archeological site in Peru took up the length of entire tables. We marveled at the complexity of the Machu Picchu model ruins, increasing our excitement about visiting in person.
Exhibitions on four floors featured paintings, ceramics, costumes and jewelry from pre-Hispanic to present day Peru, illustrating the development of the country. But the highlight was a special exhibit on Sipan.
In 1987, one of the richest tombs in the New World was discovered in northern Peru. Inside an eroded pyramid near Sipan, archeologists found the royal tomb of Lord Sipan in all his glory.
Covering the skeletal remains of this Pre-Columbian ruler were a gold headdress, ear ornaments with turquoise animal mosaics, gold pectorals representing the sun, a peanut shaped necklace in gold and silver representing the duality of the world (day/night and good/evil), gold and turquoise jewelry, and formed gold pieces that fit snugly over the ruler's face. His right hand held a gold scepter shaped in a reversed pyramid, while his left held a staff showing the sculptured submission of a man to his king.
It took 150 days to excavate these funerary ornaments, and four years to restore. Beautifully displayed, the Moche pieces were striking to see, especially the richness of the turquoise mosaics against the gold and copper.
The story of how excavation unfolded was shown through life-sized replicas of the excavation site. We progressed through the different stages archeologists went through to unearth this massive site and saw the in situ position of each burial tomb.
We saw how the 1st ruler of ancient Peru was surrounded by 8 companions, warrior-shaped jugs containing food, and a thousand ornaments. Females laid above and below the Lord of Sipan, with llamas, a dog, a ten year old and a warrior chief to his left. All had their left foot amputated to show their devotion to the king. A young guard buried at the entrance of the large tomb had both feet amputated, ensuring his position.
Funerary ornaments from three other tombs found during the excavation were also displayed. Inside the priest tomb were gold masks with shell teeth, nose rings, and a large owl headdress with wings spread wide. Apparently the funeral was a lengthy process because one of the females sacrificed when the priest died had her flesh ceremoniously removed by birds.
A fierce looking feline figure indicated the military importance in the Old Lord tomb. An elaborate fox headdress, nine metallic nose ornaments, weapons, palm-sized gold spiders with a face in each center, and a single companion–that of a 16 year old–were excavated from this 40 year old military leader's tomb. Only one ornament had turquoise, but it was my favorite in the entire Sipan exhibit...a tiny thumb-sized gold warrior figurine wearing an owl headdress and turquoise armor. I can still see him vividly.
A splendid exhibit!
Museo de la Nación
Avenida Javier Prado Este 2465
Lima, Peru 41
+51 1 476 9875
We paid 10 soles, and entered an arena. The center ring where the fighting would take place had a dirt floor and was enclosed with chicken wire. Spectators sat in surrounding chairs.
We walked down an aisle, carefully avoiding droplets of fresh blood on the cement floor and settled into seats near the stage in the 5th row. The audience was primarily male, locals. Although there were some sharply dressed middle-aged women and younger females in their twenties casually dressed, most were young teens to middle-aged men in jeans. No other tourists were in sight. We definitely felt like outsiders and endured lots of stares.
Bids were placed before each round in an excited noisy frenzy. Men in tan shirts ran around the arena yelling "Hod it!" encouraging people to place bets. After each round, you pay up if your rooster loses or get paid immediately if you win. I only placed a bet one time–for 10 soles–but won!
After a few minutes, the show began. Two men brought handsome roosters into the ring and held them close to each other on the floor. Instantly they ruffled up their feathers and pecked at each other wickedly. Then the owners left the ring, a bell sounded, and the fight began. Poof! Mere seconds into the first round they were both dead.
I was surprised at how quickly the round was over, and wondered how they both died so quickly. The weapon? A 3" razor blade tied to the leg of each rooster. Imminent death results when either their beak or razor blade sinks into the opposing flesh. The round is over when the first cock dies and drops his head onto the floor. A bell sounds and the other is declared the winner.
The owners did their part to help get roosters riled up before they fled the coop to escape the flurry of flying feathers and bloodied frenzy. It worked. They attacked each other with shocking vehemence! They lunged beaks at each other's necks, flapped their wings and kicked wildly. Occasionally one lived after a round, but most of the time both died.
This was a sport?
After each round, the roosters were taken from the ring and carried down the aisle beside my chair. Blood was leaking out of the stab wounds profusely–gross and revolting–and I had to lean away to avoid getting splattered. Even Joe, an Australian sitting next to me, repeatedly noticed bloody feathers stuck to his beer bottle.
People really got into it. It was a crazy scene with feathers flying, people yelling, cheering and exchanging money. At 11:30pm it was over. Although curiously morbid, I enjoyed the opportunity to see a slice of Peruvian life not many tourists get to see.
Cockfighting in Lima
ask a local
After visiting the intriguing pre-Incan Huaca Juliana site, my brother and I decided to walk back to our hotel, located in the same Miraflores neighborhood. We outlined a shortcut on our map then stuffed it in my pocket, using the pyramid looming over the residential area as our guiding landmark. Confidently, we walked toward our hotel with plans to stop for lunch en route.
Easier said than done. It's so easy to get turned around when all the dust-colored buildings look alike and street names don't match the map. But we were determined to find our way without asking strangers on the street, especially the Peruvian men who frowned directly at us in an evil sort of way that frightened us both. We averted eye contact and stopped attempting to smile, but continued to feel their cold stares follow us after we passed. It was unnerving. We stood out like crazy, two blonds in a Peruvian city where tourism had halted in the last two decades because of street violence and terrorism. Yikes!
My brother forbade me to take out my map, however discreetly. We continued to walk, pretending to look assured of our route. We'd spot an approaching person and whisper our judgement, whether or not we deemed that individual safe to talk to. No, no, no. Absolutely not. No, no, yes! Eagerly we watched a nun approach, but she turned before we reached her.
Hungry and admittedly lost, we finally came across a tiny café. "Think it's safe?" my brother asked in a low voice.
"Do we have a choice," I answered. "We could just wander around Lima forever." The sight of the huge pyramid was long lost from view.
We agreed to go in and eat lunch, continuing the charade while we determined who to ask for help. It was 3 o'clock by the time we sat down and ordered the plate lunch special. The food was pretty gross, but the service was outstanding. The café was practically empty, so we spread out our map on the table, keeping an eye on the nearby window and door. Where were we??
We asked the waiter to point out the location of the café on the map. He looked at it, then at us, shaking his head. "Not on map," he said, indicating a point way off to one side. Wow! We had walked quite a distance in the opposite direction. But at least we knew where we were now, and outlined a route so we could continue onward...
What a relief it was to see the familiar Artesian Indian Market which we knew was just nine blocks away from our hotel. We stopped to shop one last time before safely arriving at our hotel.
My brother's tip #39: "Avoid shortcuts. They take too much time in the long run."
A friend, traveling with my brother and I, became pretty stressed and angrily asked the officials what all the racket was about. She wanted to check their rates. The uniformed officials told her that the unofficial taxis are not safe, and whisked us into an official black taxi.
Once inside, our doors were slammed shut and the locks immediately fastened. Click, double click. The taxi driver double checks our locks and we're off. He hasn't said a word. His behavior seems nervous as he darts little glances back at us every once in awhile with a set face.
It's hot. Humid. The windows are only cracked open slightly. My brother casually says "Hola!" to someone staring from another car, and the taxi driver triple locks Chris' door and looks back alarmed. Apparently, we are not supposed to speak to people on the street, smile or make eye contact. Chris wants to test this. So he nods and smiles at another Peruvian teen staring openly at us. Our taxi driver lurches ahead with daring alarm.
The traffic is thick, chaotic, and noisy but doesn't seem quite as bad as Quito. At least there's no more headache-inducing diesel fumes. Our taxi driver, however, makes the ride quite adventurous.
I counted aloud "nine" near misses with other vehicles or pedestrians as they occured...
Zoom! All of a sudden he is dangerously swerving over into oncoming traffic and passing cars on the OPPOSITE side of the street! ("two"..."three!") Zounds!
Just when that excitement dies down, he plays chicken with approaching vehicles somewhere near the middle of the road, cars or buses--it doesn't matter--and darts back into our proper lane moments before metal crashes metal. Oooh, close call! ("four"..."five") I notice that I'm clutching the seat.
Hey! I don't think that car ahead of us is moving! Yet we are accelerating, yes accelerating, straight into the path of a stalled car! I'm closing my eyes now, and bracing for impact...whew, I feel the car jerk hard to the right and peek to notice we barely escaped that one. ("six," I mutter under my breath.)
Whoa, mister! What are you DOING? We just jumped the curb! Yes, we are driving on the sidewalk, careening past--almost into--surprised pedestrians ("seven, eight, nine") on the SIDEWALK just to get around an especially clogged section of traffic. This can't be legal, even in Lima.
Hmmm...If the official taxi is really that much safer, just what would our UNofficial taxi ride been like?!
Honking was constant. Not just from him, but from everyone else on the street. AT HIM, perhaps.
Honking is the way they communicate on the street, much like they do in other countries...short, long, staccato honks all mean something different. What I don't know. (After a month I still hadn't figured it out.)
After our 30-minute adrenaline rush, we arrived, unscathed, at the hotel. And not a dent or scratch on the taxi either. A miracle! We barely had time to grab our backpacks before he zipped away without a word. In a hurry, or just eager to lose us?
That was the only wild ride we had in Lima. The other taxi rides-–although far from calm–-were pretty typical for a bustling, congested South American city.