Lima, Peru - Colonial Metropolis
Lima is the capital and largest city of Peru. Well over 8 Million people live in Lima out of 26 Million Peruvians. Francisco Pizarro whose remains lay in the Cathedral founded the city in 1535. Lima is a modern city located on the Pacific Coast in a desert. Even though it hardly ever rains here, the city is usually engulfed in fog. People here are very friendly and despite all the warnings I never felt the need to pay special attention to my belongings and I never felt threatened.
Lima is a good place to try some Peruvian cuisine, although after touring the country for two weeks I felt the need for some Ribs at the local Tony Roma’s. Peruvian food can be very good, but you need to get used to some of it.
Lima is also known as the “City of Kings” (La Ciudad de los Reyes) because the foundation was planned for January 6th, Epiphany. Well here is the funny thing. The guy who defeated the Inca built the city. In Quechua Inca means King. So the guy who defeated the Inca unknowingly dedicated his city to them.
You will probably arrive at the Jorge Chavez International Airport. When we stepped out of the customs area, we were greeted by a large mass of people. We were waiting for our pick up, which wasn’t there yet. The whole experience was very disconcerting, as we had not yet learned to avoid the many vendors. In this case it was taxi drivers who immediately saw us as potential fares. It is good to know, that the official green taxi car drivers are allowed inside the airport, while the security guards keep all others outside. So if you are going to hire a cab driver, you should do that inside the airport. Official drivers wear green or blue badges. They have fixed prices so you won’t have to negotiate at your very first day in Peru.
After a couple of phone calls, my fare finally arrived. Thank god my ATT phone was working here.
Another very important aspect to consider: When you fly into Lima at the end of your vacation, make sure you have at least one or two days before boarding the plane to your home country. Our flight from Juliaca to Lima was cancelled. Lan Peru assumed no responsibility, due to the bad weather. A lot of people had connection flights to their home countries with other airlines. As I understand it, this frequently happens in winter. Our machine was grounded in Cusco and never made it to Juliaca.
I strongly advice against renting a car and driving it. Taxis are very cheap in Peru and the traffic is a nightmare. Road marks and street signs seem to be for decoration only. Traffic lights rarely exist and pedestrian lights are unheard off. Drivers have no regard for speed limits and pedestrians. If you cross the street by foot, be extremely cautious. Drivers will speed around corners and honk their horns when they see you. They will never slow down. If they have to swerve around you, they will insult you. I would not want to have to drive in this kind of environment. People cut each other off, swear and honk a lot and are generally very rude drivers. No one will ever let you enter a busy street by waiting.
You can rent taxis for half a day or even a full day and not pay much more than it would cost you to rent a car. You will not have to worry about traffic and you can focus on the sights. The driver usually feels obligated to show you the best sides of “his” town. Don’t worry, it may seem as if they drive reckless, but I have not seen more accidents than in other countries. They know what they are doing and are exceptional drivers.
There are official taxis and unofficial taxis. Most travel guides recommend using official taxis only, since it is safer. Most of our rides were with the unofficial kind though. We usually went to the front-desk of our hotel and told them where we wanted to go. They then called the cab drivers and negotiated the price for us. It is essential to always negotiate the price upfront since they don’t have meters. Make sure the price is for the total fare and not per person! If you just had a very short ride, it is not customary to tip. If you had the taxi for a sight seeing trip you should give around 10%.
Things to see
Now that we found out how to get around, lets do some sight seeing.
About 40km (25mi) south of Lima lies the ancient city of Pachacamac. The best way to get here is by Taxi. The site is very large and is best explored by car (Taxi). You can pick up an English-speaking guide at the entrance or go by yourself.
The city was originally built around 200AD. Since then the site has grown considerably and become one of the largest pre-Inca sites in Peru. The main buildings were constructed between 800AD to 1400AD.
In the 15th century the site became part of Inca territory. The Inca expanded the city once more and build some of the most impressive structures. Among them were Mamacuna and the Sun Temple. The Inca followed a policy of peaceful integration. New territories were allowed to keep their religion and beliefs. The site thus maintained its status as a religious shrine.
With the arrival of the Spaniards came the fall of the city. The inhabitants were putting up some resistance but eventually had to loose. The Spaniards ravaged the city for its Gold and Silver.
The two most impressive structures are without a doubt Mamacuna (the Princess Temple) and the Sun Temple. At Mamacuna, women were educated on how to serve man and become good wives. Only women inhabited the entire structure, which served all important functions to educate young girls on how to worship their husbands. Huh, my head is spinning with the imagination.
The sun temple is a step pyramid. It is constructed of 6 large steps (or walls). On the top of these walls the temple was built. It is the largest structure at Pachacamac and was built by the Inca as well. In contrast to most Inca structures, the temple is built from Adobe bricks. Those are bricks made of mud and straw.
The Pyramidal Temple was built by the Ishmay culture (1100A.D. to 1500A.D.) The Pyramid was reached by a large ramp from the main square in front of it. Behind the pyramid were stores for food and other offerings.
Pachacamac was a really nice detour and should not be missed. It will take less than one hour from Miraflores to get here and about 2 hours to visit.
We waited a while for an English-speaking guide and then chose to do the trip by ourselves. Our taxi driver could not stand it and called his boss on the cell phone. The boss spoke English and gave us some background information for each structure. On our way back to the city, the driver chose to take a couple of detours to show us some interesting places. He was such a nice guide and found ways to communicate, even though we both did not speak each other’s language. We had a lot of fun with him and laughed a lot.
Convento de San Francisco (Saint Francis Monastery)
Lima is home to one of the most exciting and spectacular Monasteries. This church was built between 1546 and 1672. Since Lima became a World Heritage, money has been available for the reconstruction of this church. Pigeons and portrait photographers occupy the paved square in front of the church.
Understandably many are drawn here by the morbid fascination of the catacombs. These were used as the cemetery for the whole city until 1810. By then Lima was already quite large. Corpses were put on top of other corpses and once decayed, the bones were either thrown into a well or sorted and stored elsewhere. During our visit we saw bones sorted by body part in large compartments. One particular interesting large well holds the bones arranged in circular patterns (see picture).
Fortunately this church has many more things to offer. The library for instance holds 25,000 books and 6,000 parchments from the 15th to 18th century. Most of them are still in very good shape.
The refectory displays a large painting of the Last Supper by a Flemish Jesuit Priest, painted in 1697. The dish of the last supper is Guinea Pig, as in most of these paintings in Peru.
The Church is famous for its celing paintings and the many artworks that can be found all across the Monastery are marvelous. The flowers in the garden mix beautifully with the white and yellow walls. Old paintings and colorful tiles decorate all the hallways.
Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas is now named Plaza Mayor. Due to recent renovation projects, it has become another jewel of Lima. The Cathedral, the Presidents Palace and the Municipalidad de Lima enclose three sides of the plaza.
The Cathedral has been reconstructed many times after earthquakes. Next to the entrance is a small chapel that holds the remains of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador. The Cathedral is far less impressive than the San Francisco Monastery.
The Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno) stands on the site of Pizarro’s palace. At noon, you can watch the changing of the Guards ceremony. Unfortunately, el Presidente was going to give his New Year's speech when were there, so this area was closed to the public. You can visit the palace (free admission), but you probably have to book a tour.
The Municipalidad de Lima (City Hall) is the residence of the Mayor of Lima. Its trademarks are the colonial style wooden balconies, elaborate interior and fine library.
Miraflores is a district of Lima. Here you can find Hotels, Restaurants, Cafes, Shopping malls, Embassies and more. It is a more upscale area and relatively safe even at night. When you visit Lima, you should consider staying in Miraflores or Barranco. Barranco is even more beautiful than Miraflores with its colonial and 19th century buildings. It is home to Artists and Writers.
Most other areas should probably be avoided at night, although areas close to the coast between La Punta and Chorrillos should be rather safe.
In Miraflores there is a strong presence of Tourist Police, who make it very safe to stroll around.
If you want to go shopping, consider the Indian Market (see map). Prices here are unbelievably low. We had done some shopping before, but wished we had waited until we could visit this market. Here you can get fine handicrafts, souvenirs, paintings and much more.
Walk down Av. Larco all the way to the ocean. You will arrive at Parque Salazar (Number 12 on the map). This is a very upscale shopping center with many good restaurants. We really liked the Tony Roma’s. Here you can dine while you are on top of a steep cliff overlooking the pacific coast.
Museo de Antropologia, Arqueologia y Historia (Museum of Anthropology, Archeology and History)
This museum is located in the suburb of Pueblo Libre. Exhibits include some amazing pre-Inca arts like pottery, stonework and textiles, a couple of mummies, skulls, gold and much more. Some artifacts found at Machu Picchu can also be found here and artifacts of Spanish conquistadors. You can easily spend 2-4 hours here and learn about the ancient burial rituals and other skills. Unfortunately most written explanations are in Spanish, so you may want to consider hiring a guide.
We only scratched the surface of what is to see in Lima. There are many other things to explore. Here are just a few of them.
Article and Images by Andre Gunther.
Check out his Peru Photo Gallery.