Our tour today was ‘The Best of Lima’. I was immediately reminded of the opening to Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’: ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. I cannot sum up Lima as one city; there are several multilayered facets to this complex place. I’ll approach the task by following a linear narrative through our day tour, attempting to draw out some of the strands to what is an enigmatic place.
Lima is a city of 11 million souls, constricted geographically between coast and mountains and stretching in a band for some sixty miles. There is no subway and only one train line, so road traffic is congested almost to a standstill. Add to that the fact that traffic lights are mainly ornamental and it’s a place in which to be driven rather than drive. The average commute is four hours, straight jacket stuff for me. Companies hire fleets of buses for transporting their staff, who could be seen risking life and limb to board fleeing vehicles.
We left our ship anchored in Callao, one of 43 districts in Lima. The main income here is fishing, including manufacture of fish oil products and fertilisers. We drove south east through chaotic rush hour traffic, along streets with a mixture of low level housing, factories and business units.
Soon we came to a river and the Rimac area, clearly run down and in places a shanty town clinging to a hillside. Historically, this area arose in the 1980s when country living people fled terrorist groups flourishing in the troubled political climate and set up home in Lima. Litter lined the streets and conditions looked desperate. Some two million people lived shoehorned into the shacks here. There is no social care system so many spill onto the streets selling trinkets to passing cars. A recent influx of Venezuelan refugees has added to the congestion.
Passing through Rimac we found ourselves once more on the pan American highway. Our first destination was the gold museum and the nearer the museum we drove the higher in quality the infrastructure and housing rose. By now we were driving a much wider four lane highway and the traffic had eased .
The gold museum contains many treasures from the five previous Peruvian civilisations, culminating with the Incas. With only an hour to spend we could never do the place justice, deciding instead to focus on a few spellbinding gold exhibits and some 7th century ceramics.
Our journey next took us to the colonial area via the Rimac river. This is the old heart of Lima, focusing as in all South American cities on the Plaza de Armas. This is a magnificent public space, established by the founder of the city Francisco Pizarro, shortly after he conquered (indeed eradicated) the Incas. Many beautiful buildings flank an airy central plaza with trees and a fountain.a
The cathedral was initiated by Pizarro, who was murdered some fifteen years after his conquest and is laid to rest in a tomb inside. The nave is squat, leading to a high altar and magnificent renaissance style choir stalls.
The side chapels include baroque and rococo versions of shrines to the Virgin.
Pizarro is laid to rest in the first chapel in the right.
The nearby Convent of Santo Domingo dates to the 17th century and is still a fully functional religious order. It is clearly Spanish in design.
The cloister is airy and verdant, it’s colonnades lined by tiles from Seville.
The library contains precious hand written and early printed books.
The Chapter house contains art and liturgical objects.
After lunch, we traveled via Puebla Libre to upmarket San Isidro where company headquarters are located and buildings became expensive looking and modern. Now we were near the sea and the traffic was flowing on wide thoroughfares as we reached the most affluent region of Lima, Miraflores. This is the business area and a place popular for holiday rentals.
Here we made our final stop at the Love Park, inspired by Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona.
So what of Lima? I’m glad I experienced it. The central plaza is stunning. My heart goes out to those millions living in extreme poverty. And to those working hard to get by. This is a city to visit rather than one in which I would choose to live. The sheer draining effort of getting anywhere would drain the life out of me immediately.