Monday, January 12, 2009

Lima

When I was planning this vacation I heard from many, many sources to not bother spending any time in Lima. Almost without exception anyone who had been to Peru said it wasn't worth bothering with. Books and articles boasted about the food but also warned of crime, poverty and dirt. So when I was stuck in Atlanta scrambling to create an alternate plan, I was upset that we would now have two full days to kill in Lima. I emailed a former co-worker who has spent extensive time in South America to see if he had any suggested insights. His response? Get out as soon as possible. Wow, thanks for the advice. While I absolutely agree that there are far better things to do and see in Peru than Lima, I would recommend spending a day there because we saw some great things and I have to admit - the best food in Peru is definitely found in Lima.

Ironically, and frustratingly, our replacement flight from Atlanta to Lima on the 27th was nearly three hours late. And the flight was overbooked due to all of the people who missed the flight on the 26th for reasons very similar to our own. Which means we arrived at our hotel near the airport at close to 4 am. We were tired and irritable and there were several misunderstandings. The hotel sent a driver to pick us up. It was nice to have someone there waiting and while $11 sounds cheap, after spending some time in Lima I now know that was actually a pricey cab ride. I paid the driver. As we checked in there was some confusion about whether or not I had already paid for the room and the night desk person agreed to sort it out in the morning. I told her I paid the driver for the cab. No one took issue with this. However, the next morning, I was told I needed to pay for the cab and was again questioned about paying for the room. I looked up some emails and explained I paid the driver and ultimately they said it was all fine and agreed to call us another cab to take us to our next hotel in Mira Flores.

While we were stuck in Atlanta, I contacted a travel agent in Lima and asked her to help us to book a hotel and a tour. Our first hotel was never meant to be a place from which to sightsee. I selected it for its close proximity to the airport and nothing more. It wasn't close to anything and I don't believe it would have been wise for us to wander around on foot from there. The hotel the travel agent booked was in Mira Flores - the most affluent area of Lima. The hotel was cheap and clean (other than the nasty cockroach we discovered in the bathroom) and like all hotels we stayed at in Peru, provided breakfast. It was very close to Kennedy Park which is the main plaza in Mira Flores and had lots of restaurants to choose from. Due to our early morning arrival, we missed the breakfast at our first hotel and were starving by the time we checked in at the Bellavista. It was already 1 pm and we were being picked up between 215 and 230 for our afternoon tour so we asked the woman at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation and where to exchange money. She was vague in responding to our first query telling us all of the food was good and pointed us in the general direction. As to the second, she instructed us to look for the "boy" who is "famous" at the end of a certain street. Uuuuu, what? We had no idea what she was talking about but found food without a problem when we turned up restaurant row where menus were pushed at us and we were promised the best pizza in the city by competing restaurants. We did not want pizza for our first meal in Peru and needed to be finished in an hour and accepted the menu of a place that promised we would be done in an hour and had typical Peruvian food, despite the pizza and pasta neon sign.
I am so glad we chose that place and I wish I could tell you the name because it was one of our best meals in Peru. We both selected the same cilantro rice with chicken and it was delicious! Unfortunately I never saw anything like it the rest of our trip as potatoes were generally more plentiful than rice.
I also discovered at that first restaurant that my brand new hydration pack was leaking all over my back. We tried to find the source of the leak but strangely, it only leaked when it was in the pack. Good thing I won't be needing it for the trek to Machu Piccu, right?
We returned to our hotel and soon enough we were picked up by the tour company for our trip to Pachacamac - the pre-Incan ruins outside of Lima. This tour company had quite the system but it was a bit confusing for the uninitiated. We were picked up by a bus that drove us to a little park where there were numerous vans and mini-buses and people were called off one bus and shuttled to another. The guide who picked us up had us sitting on a park bench waiting for our bus to arrive but did not explain that was what was happening and we were getting nervous as buses closed their doors and drove off until someone approached us and herded us into a mini-bus. What I liked about this tour is they didn't just show you the one thing on the itinerary. As we drove along the coast and admired the cliffs and view of the city fading behind us, the bus pulled over at a turnout and gave us some time to get out and take photos and wander along the scenic cliffs for a few minutes. We were on an English speaking tour but we may have been the only Americans and possibly the only native English speakers. The tour guide was animated and tried to get people to interact but our group of 15-20 people just stared out the windows and talked amongst themselves. This was definitely a Lima thing as everywhere else we went in Peru people were friendly and chatty and we met some really great people. It was just those tours in Lima where people kept to themselves.
Pachacamac was a 20-30 minute drive from our meeting point in Mira Flores and I found it fascinating. Our tourguide emphasized that these ruins are pre-Incan from the Huari empire although the Incans did maintain and use the site after they took over. Unlike the Incan ruins which are made of stone, these ruins are made of adobe. It was a little strange that instead of walking the wide road around the ruins and up to the sun temple at the top, we took the bus and simply got in and out at important spots. Others in our group complained when we had to walk up a short hill. So strange. The tour was pretty fascinating and it was interesting to learn that Peru - according to our guide - has historically not put money into preserving or restoring these ruins and that most of the work was done by Japanese archeologists. One of the more fascinating things about walking around the area is that it was a burial ground and once you are aware of this you see bones everywhere in the dirt!
After Pachacamac, we took a slightly different route away from the coast back into Lima and stopped for a short walking tour through the Baranco neighborhood - which we read was an artist's district. Baranco is an area we wish we had more time to explore. It was so brightly colored and vibrant I wish we had gone back there for dinner one evening.
At the end of our tour we booked a city tour for the next day. That evening we had dinner in a cafe in Kennedy Park and tried Inca Kola for the first time. I loved it and drank it pretty much the rest of the trip. We also had delicious desserts with our meal - Erin had flan and I had dulce de leche with meringue which was very sweet and rich but still delicious. After dinner we wandered around Mira Flores and examined the wares at the little market in the center of the park.
Before returning to the hotel that night we both decided to get some cash. We had already discovered that although Peru has its own currency, most places gladly take dollars . . . but not always at the best exchange rate. So I went to an ATM to pull out some Peruvian soles and ended up with . . . dollars! So strange. But then we spotted the "famous boys" the woman at our hotel was talking about. They have vests with dollar signs and "Euro" printed on them and they gave us a much better exchange rate than our first hotel had that morning. Now, I later read in my book that you have to be careful with these "boys" (who were actually older men and even one woman) because some will short change or give you counterfeits. But the ones we used in Mira Flores were in a busy, well-lit area and used a calculator to show exactly what they were giving you and it all worked out well.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and waited for the bus to pick us up between 915 and 930 am for our city tour. As we both lamented how we had packed all the wrong things for exploring a city (as opposed to trekking through the mountains as originally planned), we met a German family of a father and two daughters who was also waiting for the same city tour. It was pretty hilarious to watch this German man fall into all of stereotypes about his people from the way he was dressed to his obsession with the time. He declared them late at 915 when they hadn't arrived. I tried to explain they had given a time range but his impatience continued despite the fact they arrived promptly at 930 to collect us.
We had a different tourguide for this tour and again she tried to get people to interact but again, I believe we were the only native English speakers on the tour other than two possibly American kids who were there with some family or exhange family from Brazil. I think the tour was half over before our tour guide discovered we were not part of the German family. Our tour of central Lima was also confined to the bus for a great deal of it but we also had the opportunity to wander around some of the main plazas and explore some churches. I found our guide fairly entertaining. A few of my favorite explanations were "you may call them Spanish, we prefer Conquistedors", well of course they do since the Spaniards pillaged and destroyed the Incas! She told us that people in Lima never carry umbrellas because it never rains. She also explained why all the buildings are painted so bright and cheery - it is gray all the time and if the buildings were gray everyone would commit suicide. Very matter of fact. She was also slightly obsessed with the two Japanese girls in our group who we later had lunch with.
We briefly explored the Plaza San Martin and then the Plaza Mayor with the cathedral where Erin got in trouble for using her flash. It is pretty funny how there are never signs anywhere about what you can and cannot do but if you do something wrong, someone swoops in to reprimand you. There weren't any of the usual signs about no flash photography and everyone else was doing it so we joined in. Oops. While we were waiting to meet up with the group again after the Cathedral, a woman and her two daughters approached us and asked to take a photo with us. It was cute and when I saw them going up to other white, American looking tourists I wondered if they were trying to scam people in some way but couldn't figure out what way that could be since they didn't steal from us, didn't try to sell us anything and were generally very sweet.
Despite all accounts, I was finding Lima very clean and friendly. Granted, we were simply hitting the prime tour spots and there were police all around and people constantly picking up trash and we were with a tour so really, Lima was putting its best foot forward for us. But ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised. Especially with the lack of piegons. While we did see a few milling about in Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Martin, they were definitely outnumbered by everyone else which certainly cannot be said in major plazas and squares in other major world cities such as New York, Rome and Paris to name a few I've visited. Not to mention Piazza San Marco in Venice which has basically been turned over to the piegons. After I inquired, our guide informed us that Peru has piegon vultures that eat piegons! She explained that they have a piegon problem and they have to take care of it. I was shocked and explained a few measly piegons is not a problem. Now I want to see what can be done about importing these piegon vultures to New York! Of course, a quick google search revealed nothing on piegon vultures so now I'm not sure they are real . . .
After the Plaza Mayor we made the short walk to the Monestary of San Francisco which I found fascinating. The architecture was beautiful and I loved the inner courtyards with the open walkways. The floors are tiled and they recently discovered that behind the many paintings adorning the walls are frescos! One of the stairways has a beautiful wooden cupola overhead that had to be restored after an earthquake. But most impressive of all was the library. We were only able to step into a small portion of one end of the convent's library but it was amazing and slightly tragic. I found this photo of it, although we were told no photos. The giant music manuscripts (which I tragically cannot remember the name of) in the foreground alone are probably priceless. The books were covered in dust and you could see that the pages would disintegrate if you dared touch them. What you cannot see in the picture is that there are not only skylights allowing natural light to fall onto the books but open windows! These ancient tomes are exposed to light and air and all of the elements. I couldn't help but think of the time I was allowed into the ancient book room at my University's library and had to wear special gloves to touch anything. And those books were nowhere near as old as these. Such a beautiful room.
The other thing I loved about the monestary were the catacombs below. I do not know why I find catacombs so fascinating. Erin and I visited the catacombs in Rome as well and they stick out as one of the top things we saw there.
After we finished up at the monastery we had more of a driving tour of the city as the Germans fretted about making it to their next appointment and ultimately asked to be dropped off near a highway so they could get in a cab. We, on the other hand, were in no hurry to finish the tour as we had nothing left to do when it was over and debated whether to tack on another tour for the afternoon. Ultimately we decided against it and chose to explore Mira Flores on our own. The bus dropped us - along with the Japanese girls - off at a restaurant not far from our hotel in Mira Flores after driving us past the coastal parks which gave me some bearings as to where we were. Lunch - as usual in Lima - was delicious and Erin enjoyed some amazing ceviche and I had the tasty sea bass. Our Japanese friends were friendly and allowed us to sample their food as well and we enjoyed getting to know them a bit over lunch despite their limited English.
After lunch we headed out on our own toward the Park Amor which we were shown out the window of our bus. Apparently this park was famous for all the couples making out all the time so the city decided to erect a statue in their honor and dedicated it on Valentine's day one year. Despite it being mid-afternoon we were able to spot a number of couples taking advantage of the park benches and doing their best to imitate the sculpture at the center of the park. I waited, but found no love. Just a particularly creepy spider.
We walked along the coast for a while killing time by taking photos and trying to figure out what to do next when we stumbled onto a mall that felt like it had been yanked out of Southern California somewhere. We had our one and only major communications meltdown trying to order gelato. There was a system where you pay the cashier, get a number and then pick your flavor. We figured that out without too much delay and then struggled to convey to the cashier we wanted two cones. I paid 12 or so soles for the two which seemed about right since the posted price was 5-6 soles. We then walked toward the gelato case and the woman said something to us so we turned around. I looked at my receipt and discovered that while she had charged me for two cones, she gave me a receipt for only one! Much confusion ensued as I tried to explain this - ultimately with pointing and writing the numbers down. Then we finally got our gelato that was . . . good, not great. Mine was melting so fast it was hard to enjoy it.
As we wandered the multi-tiered, cliff-side mall debating whether to try and see a movie, feeling extremely conspicuous in our tourist attire, we stumbled onto an exhibit from the gold museum. We had thought about spending the afternoon in museums but were told most of them were closed and my guidebook indicated there had been some sort of scandal a few years ago where most of the pieces in the gold museum were fakes, we we scratched that idea. But being bored and outside the entrance, we decided to check the exhibit out. And I am glad we did so. It was a limited exhibit on the gold making of the Incas and focused on a few key pieces. There were headsets and numbered exhibits and I thoroughly enjoyed it and much of what I learned came in handy as we explored Cusco and Machu Piccu.
Ultimately, even after the exhibit we still decided to see a movie and saw Australia. It was a challenge to ignore the Spanish subtitles because my brain is trained to read all words in front of my face even if I don't understand them, but that was not the most annoying part of the movie. Even though we were there just to kill time, I found the movie ridiculously long. It was essentially two movies in one. I don't think it was bad, just longer than necessary. But it did its job and by the time it was over dark had settled in and it was time to walk back to our neighborhood, eat dinner and turn in. We wanted to try a Chifa restaurant that were hyped by our guides - a Chinese/Peruvian fusion food - but couldn't find one so I settled for ordering a Chinese-ish dish at a Peruvian pizza place. It was delicious. For dessert we bought churros from a street vender I had been eyeing and what I wouldn't do for another one of those churros. The grease soaked straight through my napkin and it was filled with heavenly dulce de leche and despite the fact that Erin found it too sweet, too greasy and/or too rich, I found it heavenly and would go back for another one if given the chance.

So that was Lima. Not as terrible as everyone claimed but really, everything could be done in a single day. I would just recommend packing something other than trekking or jungle attire for wandering around to blend in a bit better. And maybe a little bit of makeup . . . you should be warned, in the photos below neither of us had any makeup on. My apologies in advance. Also, in reviewing my photos I now understand that I need to buy some new t-shirts since every vacation I have taken in the last 2-3 years features me in these same 3-4 t-shirts. Enjoy. There is lots more to come!

5 comments:

Annie said...

your photos are great! i still can't believe you took over 1800!!! holy cow!

Tiffany said...

I love the detail about the German tourists. I had a very similar experience my first time in NYC with an elevator full of German tourists.

The pictures are amazing!

zaimee said...

pictures are gorgeous. love the "I'm a pepper" T-shirt. I think I need one of those.

jean said...

Nice trip. One thing I like about traveling is the unexpected stuff on the way. It everything's on the itinerary, would be of less fun.
Also, a good tour guide can make a lot difference to the tour. :)

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