April 2015 – I sought ceviche, and unexpectedly received food for the soul in this teeming city of nine million.
Lima often serves as a pit stop of Machu Picchu. And that’s such a shame. Limeños (Lima residents) are the friendliest and most genuine I’ve met as a solo traveler, there’s a super cool artsy district and restaurants to discover. Yes, you’ll encounter dust, pollution, traffic jams, crumbling highway-side cliffs and extremes of social inequality. Yes, there’s sporadic social unrest and risk of snatch thieves. Tourists stick to glitzy – and boring -Miraflores, so they don’t run into the bad-ugly in this teeming city of 9 million souls. You’d have to brave traffic and pollution to discover hidden gems – stunning street art, craft beer breweries, fresh markets, restaurants- in Barranco, Surquillo, and beyond. Big plus – you’ll be surrounded by lovely smiling locals and nada tourists.
So – hire yourself a taxi (I haggled mine to 25USD for each 5-hour drive within the environs of the city) for two-days of meandering and discover off the beaten path gems. Most taxis don’t use meters in Lima – it takes a while to get used to the going rate, and its easier if you have a repeat route – drivers are amenable if you stay firm on a fair rate.
Cebicherias (ceviche stalls) await your discovery, celebrated by locals but unknown to tourists. Don’t stop at ceviche please. Peruvian-African (Criollo), Japanese (Nikkei) and Chinese (Chifa) cuisines arise from immigration and generations of adaptation, and star Peru’s incredible biodiversity. Over 2,000 types of potatoes, multi varieties of corn, supergrains, fruit, chiles and seafood. Rare fish from the Humboldt current and Amazon river. And don’t forget the micro-breweries and craft beer scene. Try this local dive (less touristy) foodie tour.
Cool Art and Craftbeer Scene Fascinating Markets, Cliffside Views and Charming Plazas
For an easy dip into the less touristy areas, stroll the pretty malecon coastal walk, south of Miraflores toward the Barranco district – checkout the buzzing plazas and art galleries here. Taking a 20 to 30 minute taxi ride to Chorrillos and Surquillo for interesting markets, rugged coastal views, churches and more pretty plazas. Market sights include rainbow arrays of fish, corn, super foods, potatoes and chillies. Read more about visiting markets including thrilling and massive Villa Maria seafood market, here.
There are stunning vantage photo viewpoints especially from the cliffs of Chorillos’ Horseshoe, where you can catch the Leaping Priest (a daredevil diver who collects money from the awed crowd). The Self guided tour Chorillos, Statue of Christ and Morro Headland.
Safety Tips for Roaming Lima
Wandering around the city can be risky even in relatively safe upper middle class Barranco. Crime is a problem in most districts, although Miraflores felt safer, with its busy avenues. A few times strangers kindly warned me away from streets where they’d been robbed, or advised putting away my camera that marked me as a target for snatch thieves or pick pockets. It helped that I looked like a Peruvian Chinese, they explained.
My best defense was to carry a nondescript bag (rather than a backpack or camera bag), carry a limited amount in cash – no cards – dress shabbily and stay on better-lit streets at night. Small bodegas (grocery markets), even in the Surquillo district bordering Miraflores, are as heavily gated as liquor stores in the South Bronx. It was funny-scary having to buying soda, chips and an ice cream cone through metal bars.
In your face poverty
The highly visible and widespread poverty and wealth gap in Lima is at first sight depressing. But living amongst Limeños for two weeks gave me a healthy respect their deep-rooted faith in hard work and patience in working for their children’s future.
There’s a huge gray market of lower class workers without benefits or social care, mainly domestics or gardeners for the wealthy. Others run small businesses from collecting scraps to peddling tabloids or fruit or drinks to drivers idling at traffic stops. There’s a desperate lack of opportunity. Peru’s manufacturing sector is almost nonexistent despite its rich resources – its gems and gold are shipped out to be worked into jewelry and shipped back in for sale; its cotton is made into clothing elsewhere
The slums at the outskirts of Lima, the Pueblos Jovenes (“Young towns”), at Manchai (click here for photos and article) is a visual jolt. Sprawling hilltop upon hilltop of ramshackle huts with zinc roofs, in the arid desert zones of Lima.
Lima is a dry city (aside from the Pisco sours)
Away from the coast, farther inland, it’s glaringly obvious that Lima is the second-largest desert city in the world. A dense yellowish haze coats the skyline and, more personally, the visitor. My tongue always felt gritty and my daily laundry water at the end of a day’s tramping was a dark gray morass. Signs of drought are evident even in the cliffs of Miraflores, next to one of the busiest highways leading to the airport.
“We used to see verdant trailing vines and even trickling waterfalls decades ago,” Luis, my taxi driver, told me. “Now, they’re a death trap with fallen rocks and loosening dry soil at the base.”
Lima faces an imminent water crisis. It’s already one of the driest cities in the world with 6.4 mm (0.3 inches) of rainfall per year. The Chillon River, source of water to millions, fed by retreating Andean glaciers, is down to a trickle. Scientists have been warning the government for a decade that the city ‘s water scarcity will hit the critical point by 2025.
On the roads: Torture by traffic, bad drivers, killer karst and potholes
An average trip by car in the city still takes 45 minutes, at a crawl of 17 km an hour! Only 60% of the 200,000 estimated taxis in the city are legal, while the number of unlicensed buses is anyone’s guess.
The awful traffic stems from 9 million people and insufficient mass transit. Lima Metro, the aboveground electric rail transit, has only a single line (five more are in the works). It cut an hour off one crosstown commute but penetrates only a fraction of the sprawling city.
Unbearable traffic noise (and accompanying dust and pollution) is something to keep in mind when picking your hotel location. To my dismay the street that I was on, Pedro de Osma, was the only southward artery for all traffic north of Barranco district, as months-long roadworks closed other routes. Ancient buses sounded as if they were revving up in my bedroom, as they roared along the nearby street swallowing and regurgitating passengers while belching out heavy fumes.
Accidents are so common it’s almost comical, fortunately the vehicles are in such need of repair they don’t go fast enough to inflict major damage. Drivers seem unaware of road safety, whizzing a hair’s breadth past each other or pedestrians. There are very few unscratched or undented cars on the streets and rear-endees looked almost bored getting out to negotiate a settlement with their rear-enders.
Roads outside the main districts are hazardous with potholes and unmarked lane endings and road works. In the poorer areas, busy corners lack traffic lights. I covered my eyes whenever my taxi driver played chicken with intersecting traffic for right of way. At night they’re poorly illuminated.
The coastal Circuito de Playas highway (which is unavoidable going to and from the airport) is scary where it runs below the cliffs of Miraflores. Piles of fallen karst, from pebble- to fist-sized, lie at the foot of the cliffs, separated from the highway only by a thin wire fence when I visited in April 2015.