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Living in the City of Kings: Lima, Peru


Some people are deterred from visiting Lima, Peru, when they hear Lima’s nicknames, like “Most Polluted City in Latin America,” or my husband’s favorite, “The Giant Muffler of a City.”

These folks will never see the morning-glory vines snaking down the Costa Verde, where paragliders float above the Pacific Ocean and shoppers sip Pisco Sour in the cliffside restaurants. They miss out on the criollo-style food in the open-air markets in Barranco. They never venture into the Chinatown streets of Lima, where there are whole streets dedicated to selling jewelry, or sewing material, or leather goods. And they’ll never witness the historic district, where 16th century wooden balconies, stone fountains, and colonial mansions continue to impress onlookers.

Living in Lima, Peru, for a year, I learned how to scratch the surface of this gritty capital and find an urban sprawl that was endlessly fascinating. It’s true that Lima is somewhat dirty and polluted, but there are also cafes, restaurants, bars, peñas, museums, ancient huaca temples, parks, plazas, historic monuments, and so much more to explore and enthrall.

Appreciating the Diversity

I lived on the edge of Surquillo and Miraflores, two districts of Lima that are visibly distinct neighborhoods. On one side of my street, there were leafy flowerpots guarding bright green lawns around brightly colored houses. On the other side of the street, there are small, dark holes that would barely pass as doors, spaced out between crumbling concrete walls and scattered trash.

Miraflores Houses

Miraflores houses - the smart side

This intersection of two very different neighborhoods represents the dichotomy of socio-economic classes in Lima. But it also shows how Lima is not just one “dirty” city. Lima is so diverse – there are so many Chinese immigrants, for instance, that chifa (Peruvian-style Chinese) restaurants are plentiful throughout the city.

The Surquillo Market

From my house, I could walk along pleasant suburban sidewalks to my office, or I could take my life in my hands and ride a combi, or small bus. I also could walk to an open-air market, the Surquillo Market, where fresh veggies, strange fruits, nuts, meats, spices, and goods are all for sale. On the weekends, a broad boardwalk opens up through the market, plied with vendors selling tamales, empanadas, and other Peruvian delicacies.

On a warm November day, I ambled through the market and ordered a maracuya juice drink. The maracuya fruit is something akin to cantaloupe, but the flavor is much more intense. It is so unique!

Exploring Miraflores

I could also easily walk down Larco Street, to Parque Kennedy (named after John F. Kennedy), past shops, cafés, restaurants, and an art fair. The street culminates at Larcomar, the cliffside shopping mall where you can find everything from a Starbucks to an arcade.

The seaside cliffs in Lima, called the Costa Verde, are perfect for para-gliders. Breezes off the Pacific Ocean come up the cliffs and provide sufficient updrafts for a delightful spin. I had the chance to go paragliding one sunny December day, and it was not nearly as scary as I had anticipated. All fear dissipated as I drifted above the Costa Verde and gazed as far south as Chorrillos.

Tasting the Cuisine

But one of the first things to impress me about Lima – indeed, about all of Peru – was the cuisine. Peruvian cuisine was completely unknown to me when I was living in the United States. Peruvian cuisine has been gaining recognition on the world’s supper table of late, but still, many foreigners know nothing of what makes Peru’s gourmet so distinct. Take ceviche, for example. Some people know about Mexican-style ceviche, but Peruvian ceviche decorates the lime-marinated fish with cancha, dried corn kernels, as well as pungent purple onions and cold sweet potato. This may sound like a strange combination, but I would often find myself savoring each bite.

Una Peña

A hidden gem, unbeknownst to many foreigners to Peru, is Peru’s rich African culture and history. The Afro-Peruvian tradition lends itself to delicious criollo food, dance, and – as anyone who’s heard Susana Baca’s voice knows – music. Creole music, dance, and food come together in peñas, or nightclubs, where the only hard liquor is Pisco and the wooden dance floors are slick with sweat from marinera dancers. While nibbling on yucca fries hot from the oven, I watched the romantic marinera dancers perform to the tune of drums, guitars, and deep-throated crooners – and I fell in love with the Afro-Peruvian peña.

The Historic District

If you’re going to spend some time in Lima, make sure to spend ample time exploring Centro Historico, the historic district. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lima’s historic centre contains the Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Governor’s Palace, and several monasteries, churches, and colonial mansions radiating out from the main plaza.

The district has been carefully renovated and preserved so that its looks much the way it did during the 16th century, when Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores ruled Latin America from this capital. The canary-yellow buildings, archways, stone streets, and leafy palms of the history district are why Lima has the nickname “The City of Kings.”

Make sure to visit the San Francisco Monastery, the Santa Catalina Convent, the Governor’s Palace during the changing of the guard, and the Cathedral to see where Pizarro was buried. Then walk down Av. Jr de la Union, and browse the shops and restaurants. Once an important colonial street, Jr de la Union is now unmistakably modern, but some of the facades retain some colonial-era flair.

The street ends at Plaza San Martin, another historical plaza. Grab a Pisco Sour at the Hotel San Martin or wander the side streets for a quieter bar.

Getting Around

Getting around Lima was intimidating at first, but I soon learned the ropes. The combis have their routes marked with color patterns on the side of the buses, and the drivers shout out the route at each stop. Hop aboard and then pay the fare to the driver’s assistant. There is also a Rutas Recommendables chart online, where you can plot your route. Another option is to take the El Metropolitano, a relatively new metro system. It can take you directly from Miraflores to the historic district. An alternative is to hail a cab, which are plentiful. Be sure to negotiate the price before you get into the cab. For these transportation options, it’s best if you know some basic Spanish. It is not recommended for foreigners to rent a car or try to drive in Lima – the traffic and signage are horrendous.

Budgeting for Life in Lima

The Peruvian sol is worth roughly one-quarter the Pound Sterling, or one-third the US dollar. You’ll need Peruvian soles to pay for small items, like cab rides and eating out at local restaurants. Otherwise, you can use a credit card or USD cash for larger expenses. USD is a parallel currency in Peru. A meal out at a nice restaurant will roughly the same as a meal out in the UK or US. But meals at a menu, a local restaurant, will cost considerably less – about S/. 7 for a full meal, including an entrée, appetizer, and sometimes a small dessert. Groceries at Plaza Vea, a major supermarket, will cost approximately one-third to one-half the prices in the UK.

Transportation will cost significantly less than in the UK, especially if you use public transportation rather than a cab. A cab ride across town may cost S/. 10 or $5, whereas a combi ride will usually cost S/. 1.

You can open a Peruvian bank account or use a bank account in your home country to withdraw cash. You can exchange USD or Euros at nearly any bank, hotel, or on the street-corners with money-changers. Most major credit cards are accepted, and ATMs are plentiful.

Final Thoughts

Living in Lima is not for everyone, but if you can handle the traffic, speak a little Spanish, and love Peruvian cuisine, Lima can be an excellent place to visit – and linger for a while!

Kaitlin McMichael liked Lima so much she’s still there. Check out her company’s Lima Peru Tours.

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