“Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.
Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.
The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.
I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.
Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.
The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.
In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.
My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.
The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.
The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.
(c) Richard Senior 2014
9 thoughts on “A Perspective on Lima”
Beautiful photos and wonderfully written. I imagined it as if I were there and thankful there were no dead dogs in that imagery.
Thank you very much. That’s exactly what I set out to achieve with this type of post. Glad you liked it 🙂
Thank you 🙂 Reading and commenting on your recent post inspired me to dust off the draft I’ve had on my laptop for too long, so thanks for that as well
Oh that’s so awesome! And thank you!
I have been to Lima a couple of years ago and I did not like it. Maybe it is harsh, but if I compare it with my favorites from Latin America like Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Porto Alegre or even Quito, I must say I really did not catch the vibe. If you ask me, my favorite city on the whole American continent would be Toronto, and Berlin for Europe, just so you understand my taste a bit. But I like your remark on the quality of the Peruvian cuisine. This is totally true and I had a blast visiting a huge variety of not-so-expensive restaurants. This was truly surprising and I have to recommend it to anyone who likes to try something refreshing and tasteful. But don’t drink Inka Cola with your meal. It’s disgusting.
I agree there are better places in South America but I think it’s worth a day or two. I didn’t mind Inca Kola either, perhaps for novelty value, although I imagine it would be horrible with a meal. I’ve not been to Toronto yet. I like Berlin – I posted about it a month or so ago – but it wouldn’t be my number one.
never been to Lima but after reading this i feel like iv been there before 🙂 lovely read and great pics
Thanks very much 🙂 Glad you liked it