We departed Cuzco early in the morning following the Inca Trail, taking the hour-long flight to Lima on Peru’s Pacific coast. Following the hardships and relative lack of indulgence on the Inca Trail, we were looking forward to visiting the second metropolis on our tour, and supposedly one which is more leisurely than the sprawling frenzy of La Paz. None of us expected what awaited us as we arrived in Lima. Sure, there were motorways connecting the many different districts, as well as high-rises visible even from the plane on the flight in. The unexpected feature of Lima was evident as we cruised along the coastline towards our hotel in Miraflores. The city was blanketed in a thick layer of what seemed like smog; this was truly an enormous departure from the clear skies and fresh air of the Andes.
It turned out that what we had pessimistically assumed to be smog was actually fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, blanketing the city’s coastline. This is the result of the Humboldt Current. This ocean current travels from the cold upwelled water of southern Chile and contacts the warmer tropical waters further north; this results in the humidity condensing to form persistent clouds and mist. In turn, it is this ocean current which is responsible for providing incredible biodiversity as plankton and other organisms are forced to stay near the surface where nutrients and oxygen are present. This contributes greatly to the major role of seafood in Peruvian cuisine.
After settling down in our hotel, we spent the remaining morning walking around the Miraflores District. Enjoying a quick lunch, we came across Parque John F. Kennedy in the heart of Miraflores. The park honours the American president who initiated the Alliance for Progress, strengthening economic ties between the USA and Latin America. Perhaps most striking of all, Parque John F. Kennedy is a haven for 80 or so stray cats. No one is quite sure how this cat population originated. As we had lunch on the edge of the square, cats would lazily migrate from café to café, seeking scraps or attention. The cats are actually a source of argument between locals, with some contesting that they create health and aesthetic problems, and others choosing to leave food for these strays. Several organisations have been established to vaccinate and neuter the cats, as well as to disinfect the square. As such, they do not pose a tangible health hazard to locals, and merely represent a curiosity of this tree-lined square.
We decided that our afternoon would be best spent on a half-day tour through Lima with Lima City Tours with their founder, Jhony. Our tour began in Miraflores, one of the most affluent districts of Lima. Lima is known as the Garden City, and no other district can rival Miraflores when it comes to the number and size of parks. The district government has greatly expanded the green spaces along the coastline, with a special emphasis on El Malecón, a ten-kilometre stretch of parks situated above the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Our stroll along El Malecón began at Parque del Amor, which has the monument El Beso (The Kiss), sculpted by Víctor Delfín, as a centrepiece. Lovers and newlyweds flock to this park, containing numerous sculptures and mosaics relating to romantic love. An undulating mural by the sea is marked by romantic quotes by Peruvian and Latin American poets.
El Malecón is also a hotspot for paragliders. The steep cliffs over the Pacific Ocean accompanied by the strong gusts towards the Ocean make it a perfect site for paragliding. Winds permitting, tourists can take a brief flight with trained paragliders. From Parque del Amor, the port district of Callao is also visible. Callao itself is made up of sub-districts, the most famous of which is La Punta, which is mostly an upper middle class district made up of old buildings. La Punta has avenues lined with colonial houses, and is home to the port which allows you to travel to nearby Palomino and Cabinzas Islands for an experience of the coast’s ecology.
From the coast, we moved further inland to the district of Barranco. The word barranco, which means “ravine” in Spanish, describes the district’s topography: restaurants and studios overlook a ravine leading down to the sea. Unlike the upscale and luxurious Miraflores, the bohemian Barranco is the home and workplace for many local artists, musicians, and designers. Barranco is home to many colonial houses, termed casonas, as well as flower-lined squares and streets. The district also houses many restaurants, cafés, and Peñas, nightclubs which offer Afro-Peruvian and Criollo musical events, becoming a hub of activity as night falls. The region is divided by a stony path cutting its way down to the coast; over this path, the Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) can be found. Legend has it that one’s wishes will be granted if the bridge can be traversed while holding one’s breath. Being the gastronomic obsessives that we are, we of course wished for a fantastic meal at Maido that very same night!
Interestingly, Barranco is also home to some of the best graffiti art in South America. In 2015, the district even organised a competition, evocatively named “Las Paredes Hablan” (The Walls Speak), whereby public wall space was dedicated to painting the winning entries of the competition. These murals can be found along a winding staircase leading up to the central square of Barranco. The visually vibrant street art really does add to the unfettered feeling of the artists’ district.
From Barranco, we were then brought to San Isidro’s famous olive groves. Today, San Isidro is the financial centre of Lima, comprising high-rises and bank headquarters. Tucked in among the skyscrapers, however, is the calming Parque El Olivar, an olive grove park. The olive plants were brought to colonial Peru from Sevilla, Spain. Only three of the olive trees survived the journey across the Atlantic, but these were duly planted in Lima and thrived. This park, quite some distance away from the central Plaza de Armas, was developed into an olive farm. The growth of Lima was accompanied by increased housing surrounding the olive grove, which today is home to more than 1000 olive trees, some even popping up in the yards of local houses. In fact, to this day, olives from the park are still harvested and can be pressed into olive oil for a truly authentic taste of Lima.
From San Isidro, we made our way to the historic centre of Lima. The historic centre has broad avenues lined by colonial buildings, housing various departments of modern day Peru’s government. The city is centred around Plaza Mayor, which is surrounded on four sides by the Government Palace, Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace of Lima, and Municipal Palace. The divisions of the square have persisted since Lima was founded by Francisco Pizarro, and served as a marketplace and bullfighting ring in colonial times.
The day we visited, however, a heavy police presence loomed in the square. Upon arriving in Lima, we had noticed graffiti and posters touting different candidates; it turned out that we had visited the city just after the Peruvian general election. The position of president was hotly contested between the Japanese-Peruvian Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, of Polish descent, and eventually was won by Kucyznski by less than half a percent. Fujimori, in particular, is notable as being the daughter of the disgraced ex-president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori.
The Fujimori era, lasting from 1990-2000, was a tumultuous time in modern Peruvian politics. When the elder Fujimori entered office, Peru was in the midst of hyperinflation and an economic crisis. Fujimori instated a series of policies loosening the grip on the private sector and facilitating trade, which in the short term led to a steep hike in water, electricity and gasoline prices, but ultimately settled to macroeconomic stability. Another of Fujimori’s other major challenges during his term was the Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, a Maoist militant group originating in the Peruvian countryside widely condemned for its brutality and violence, especially on elected representatives. Sendero Luminoso began guerrilla warfare in response to the election in 1980 and gained popularity and sympathy among the rural population due to the distrust of authority in distant and elitist Lima.
In response to numerous terrorist attacks, Fujimori brutally cracked down on Sendero Luminoso by training anti-rebel militia, resulting in the arrest and capture of leading figures of the movement. This nonetheless was at huge cost to the population; the trained militia carried out atrocities on members of the terrorist group, and many civilians were killed in the crossfire. Additionally, in order to seize the absolute power required to mobilise the military and Congress, Fujimori resorted to extreme tactics in carrying out a presidential coup, resulting in the shutdown of Congress, suspension of Constitution, and dissolution of the judicial branch. Fujimori also overrode the Constitution in order to be re-elected a second time, with many accusing him of voter fraud. His presidency was further marred by accusations of human rights abuses. Among the most jarring of these was a forced sterilisation of up to 300,000 indigenous women as part of a population control policy. Finally, Fujimori is thought to be very corrupt and has been charged with embezzlement. He has since been arrested, charged and imprisoned for crimes against humanity and corruption. He was granted a medical pardon in late 2017 and was released, prompting protests throughout Peru.
Even today, Fuijimori holds significant public support, and approval ratings of his presidential terms have risen since the early 2000s. His popularity lives on through his daughter Keiko Fujimori, who defends many of her father’s policies during the 1990s. In many ways, the divide between the supporters and detractors of Fujimori represents the huge ideological gulfs between the various subpopulations of modern day Peru.
Passing through the square, we also made our way to attractions such as the train station Desamparados, historically linking Lima to the central highlands, as well as literally passing through Cordano Bar, purportedly the first bar of Lima, shuffling past waiters and bemused customers. We eventually made our way to the Saint Francis Monastery (Convento de San Francisco). Constructed in the likeness of Spanish Baroque, the convent contains one of the most noted libraries in the world, holding, for instance, the first Spanish dictionary and a Holy Bible from the 1500s. The monastery is also known for its catacombs, located directly under the building. The catacombs served as a mass grave until the 1800s, and contain well-preserved skulls and bones, eerily arranged into concentric circles and dim displays.
We ended our tour in El Circuito Mágico del Agua in Parque de la Reserva in the district of Santa Beatriz. This park consists of a series of around 13 fountains, many of which are lit at night with continuously changing colours. The park is also home to the largest man-made fountain in the world, which is also the site of a regular laser and picture show. While rather indulgent and somewhat stupefying, the park, to its credit, is quite spectacular at night and did evoke a certain child-like naivety.
Our night ended with a tasting menu at the world-famous Maido, situated in the heart of Miraflores. Fronted by Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, Maido offers an inventive take on Nikkei, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. Peru has the second largest ethnic Japanese population in South America and this population has certainly made its mark on Peruvian cuisine. In Nikkei, much like Chifa, local ingredients and flavours are merged with Japanese cooking techniques to provide a culinary experience quite unlike any other.
As we entered the stylish restaurant, decorated with hanging ropes which together form a collage of the Japanese flag, we were greeted with exclamations of “Maido!” from the waitstaff. What followed was a culinary voyage through various beautifully plated Peruvian dishes with a Japanese twist, or vice versa, accompanied by ample sake; we particularly enjoyed sushi from the sea and sushi from the earth, various interpretations of sushi using locally sourced fish and meat; Rocoto Relleno, a Peruvian pepper tempura stuffed with ribeye and served over a mash of a local potato variety; and my absolute favourite (a shame it came at the end of the meal when we were all stuffed), melt-in-your-mouth wagyu short rib, apparently braised for 50 hours.
While most dishes were delicious, my personal opinion of the restaurant is that certain ones on the tasting menu were somewhat disappointing. I am certainly no food critic, but I left the restaurant not entirely convinced that Maido merits eighth place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants shortlist. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the overall gustatory experience of Nikkei, and would heartily urge anyone travelling to Lima to visit the restaurant.