Our second day in Lima was in stark contrast with our indulgent dinner. Hoping to experience the true visage of Lima and of Peru, we signed up for a half-day Authentic Lima tour with the tour organiser Alternative Peru. This five-hour tour showcases a side of Peru which is off the beaten track, bringing tourists to areas far away from the touristic Miraflores and Barranco, where real-world Limeños live.
We were picked up from our hotel and ventured deep into Lima, far away from the familiar, well-paved streets of Miraflores. As we ventured deeper inland, the traffic became increasingly congested, and roads blended into dirt paths. Gone were the typical souvenir shops and tree-lined avenues; in their place, one-storey car repair garages, shoddy chifa joints, and half-built abandoned construction sites flanked the main thoroughfare leading away from downtown Lima.
Finally, we were greeted with a dusty mountain known as La Regla. Before us was a vast expanse of crosses and irregularly shaped buildings and monuments. We had reached Cementerio de Nueva Esperanza, the second largest of its kind in the world. This sprawling, century-old cemetery expands over a morbid, lifeless landscape, filled with niched remains occupying randomly placed walls, as well as irregularly located tombstones and crosses. On All Saints’ Day, thousands of Peruvians flood the narrow alleys between tombstones among a cacophony of music and taxi horns. More than an estimated million are buried here, and bodies are purportedly buried wherever there is an empty plot of land. This has led to a sprawling, unsanitary mass graveyard.
To us, this was a sobering, sombre scene. When it came to graveyards, all we had known was the lush churchyards with sparse headstones, or alternatively, the densely packed columbaria of Hong Kong. Little did we expect a graveyard could be so unregulated and sprawled randomly over a drab hillside. Our guide explained that the alternative options of private graveyards could be ten to twenty times more expensive than Nueva Esperanza and were considered unaffordable for many Peruvians; here, in Lima, it is more expensive to die than it is to survive.
From there, we visited San Juan de Miraflores, one of Lima’s human settlements, the equivalent of the Brazilian favela. These are often termed pueblos jóvenes, or “young towns”. They often house campesinos, peasants from other parts of Peru who have flocked to Lima in search of opportunity. These slums rise up on the hills and mountains surrounding Lima, looking down and separated from downtown Lima. In Lima, the rich and the poor are divided by the Wall of Shame, a three-metre concrete wall topped with barbed wire, thought to exclude the disadvantaged and impoverished from more affluent regions of the city. The heavy security installations were constructed in fear of the underprivileged from impeding on gated suburban communities. In many ways an expression of power, control, and exclusion, these barriers also reflect the insecurities of the wealthy in protecting their possessions, and prevent the city from forming a collective and unified identity.
Kids in muddied t-shirts and shorts ran through the grimy slopes of the slums. The smell of sewage was a constant reminder that there was no running water or electricity, let alone any form of infrastructure, in San Juan. Without governmental intervention, houses are shoddily built, often from scraps of sheet metal, tires and mudbrick scrounged from local junkyards. With little source of income, many slum-dwellers have become self-subsistent; livestock such as pigs and hens roam among stray dogs on the streets. The lack of running water is a major problem in these settlements. Once a week, a massive water truck rolls perilously along the narrow street, honking its loud horn. Settlers would leave their houses and bring giant barrels, which would then be filled by the truck. Paradoxically, the poorest have to pay up to six times more for their water compared to city-dwellers.
So what has driven this dilapidation? Many moved to Lima in search of education and employment; others moved out of fear of the reign of terror of Sendero Luminoso, a brute force in rural villages. Like many rapidly industrialising cities, the demand for housing has not been met by an increase in affordable or public housing. Those who have uprooted from their rural pasts to chase Lima’s promises were thus left without accommodation. Needing a place to live, they resorted to building illegal and temporary housing on the slopes of the outskirts of Lima. Any attempts to legitimise the housing in these slums (which could, presumably, at least enforce a minimum standard of living) are met with the risk of demolition and eviction. Only those who stay in the same dwelling for twenty years can claim the land as their own, and local municipalities have thus refused to provide the necessary infrastructure for these illegitimate housing. Many of these constructions have thus remained unregistered, and those who live in the slums commute to the city centre, often working temporary or illegal jobs.
Yet hope persists. While these are some of the poorest neighbourhoods of Lima, the people who live here are hardworking, positive, and hopeful. Climbing volunteer-built stairs through the centre of the slums, we visited a fair trade gift shop, housing a woman who fled from terrorists in Ayacucho. Today, her handiwork and stitching is collected by a local charity and sold as souvenirs at a fair price. We also met the woman who runs the local soup kitchen, swaddling her year-old daughter. Tears in her eyes, she spoke to us about buying cheap supplies of lentils and rice, cooking in large batches, and selling them to the neighbourhood for an affordable price. For lunch, we visited Señora Ninfa and her two children. Señora Ninfa is a local chef who came to Lima as a domestic worker, but left her job due to poor conditions and unfair treatment. She has since become a leader of the community, helping to provide breakfast for the children in the area before they go to school. Finally, we paid a visit to the local ludoteca, a primary school to educate children who cannot go to school, training them in practical trades. It is encouraging to see that local NGOs have become very involved in improving the quality of life for the less fortunate, especially through grassroots means such as education and establishment of basic infrastructure.
Leaving San Juan de Miraflores, we found comfort in knowing that the tour group organising our experience through the slums of Lima was far from exploitative. Socially, they sought to create a respectful image of the people we visit and not reinforce any negative stereotypes. Economically, proceeds raised from the tour will go to local NGOs and create employment and opportunities for those whom we visited during the day.
Following our tour, our guide dropped us off at Vlady, a café in Barrios Altos, east of the town centre in a relatively local part of the city, offering a variety of cakes and pastries. Our guide recommended the café as serving the best tres leches cake in Lima. Served in an unassuming rubber-banded plastic package, the tres leches cake was delectable; it was creamy without being too heavy, probably contributed by its fluffy sponginess, making it the perfect afternoon snack for the peckish. We then ventured back to Barranco for a coffee at Tostaduria Bisetti, located just off the main square in Barranco. Chicly decorated with a relaxed ambience, Bisetti has been in its current location since the 1950s, and is renowned for roasting and offering Peruvian coffee varieties. Our coffees arrived with exquisite latte art, and were a welcome respite from the instant coffee of the Inca Trail.
With time to spare between afternoon tea and dinner, we decided to go souvenir hunting in the Mercados Incas, or Inca Markets, Located in the heart of Miraflores on Av. Ricardo Palma, the market houses small stalls boasting Peruvian handicrafts and typical souvenirs, including traditional textiles, alpaca scarves and dolls, and strangely shaped bottles of Pisco. Here, you can put your bargaining skills to the test, as shopkeepers often demand exorbitant prices for their goods; shop around before agreeing to a price. The markets contain a few complexes, each with their own passages and stalls. There are plenty of options to satisfy your shopping urges!
Thankfully, the Inca Markets were located to one of the restaurants recommended by our tour guides, Punto Azul. Our shopping spree had left us craving ceviche, and Punto Azul was one of the better restaurants to satisfy our craving. Ceviche is widespread throughout Latin America, and is typically made from raw fish cured in citrus juices, spiced with aji peppers and accompanied in Peru by giant corn, onions, and sweet potatoes. The origination of ceviche is hotly contested, but historians agree that the dish originated during colonial times in Peru, though similarly cured fish dishes have been prepared since Incan times. Nevertheless, the dish has incorporated different local flavours and ingredients as it spread throughout the Spanish Empire, becoming a key component of many local cuisines.
At the casual and comfortable Punto Azul, we enjoyed a variety of seafood dishes, with the particular standouts being the Ceviche Punto Azul, sea bass slathered in a rocoto pepper sauce; thinly sliced salmon seasoned with peppers, capers and avocado in a citrus sauce; a seafood stew with peppers and tomatoes; and a seafood risotto. The freshness of the seafood used in their dishes did not escape our notice, and while the ceviche was not the best that we’d tasted in Lima (the honour goes to Maido), I’d nonetheless recommend Punto Azul for a reasonably priced seafood feast.
Lima gave us a peek into the extremes of life in this unrelenting city. One of the largest cities in Latin America, Lima is truly an economically and culturally diverse metropolis. While pre-Incan and colonial traditions and cultures run deep within Lima, the onslaught of modern times has brought about new challenges for the city and for Limeños. Nonetheless, Peru’s burgeoning economy and the creativity and ingenuity of Peruvians makes Lima a truly special city.