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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Lima, Peru - "The Jewel of the Andes"

Peru was the last country I visited in South America after touring Rio in Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a land of fascinating political, cultural, and physical contrasts. It is three times the size of California and of roughly the same shape. It has its Pacific coast, Andes Mountains, and sixty percent of its land is jungle, part of the Amazon.
Lima, often called "the Jewel of the Andes," is Peru's capital with one-third of its 30 million inhabitants living in or around it. The city gives its worst impression on the drive in from the international airport. There are potholed and dirt roads, decrepit buildings, and impoverished people. There are curious circular mini-towers at intersections, with women cops amusingly directing traffic anarchy. But once in center city, I was pleasantly surprised to discover plazas and colonial municipal buildings and cathedrals with grand statues and manicured gardens - immaculately kept public places in stark contrast to those I encountered in Rio and Buenos Aires that were blighted with decay and graffiti. The startling contrasts of Peru are perhaps exemplified by its recent politics. From 1990-2000, the country was ruled by President Alberto Fujimori an ethnically Japanese man who claimed to be a native Peruvian. When threatened with being jailed for human rights abuses, he fled to Japan and declared he was really native Japanese and had lied about his Peruvian roots. Peru is currently seeking his extradition. Peru's current president is Alejandro Toledo who went to school in California, attended the University of San Francisco and Stanford, and married a Jewish girl from Palo Alto. He's a Quechua Indian and the first native Indian to govern his nation since Francisco Pizarro's "conquistadors" arrived in Peru in 1532 and beheaded the last Incan king.
We stayed in Lima in the Sheraton Lima Hotel and Casino (e-mail: reservas@sheraton.com.pe). The 19-story luxury hotel has 431 rooms, an outdoor pool, a spa, and, as its name implies, an elegant casino. There's a fine dining restaurant, a 24 hour coffee shop, a lobby bar, and a basement mini-mall. Rates are quoted from about $111/night but the cost is really vague since most visitors come on package tours. And it is perhaps because most tourists arrive on such packages that the hotel did not have a concierge. That lacking and the fact there were no English language newspapers to be found were the only faults I found with my accommodations there. The Sheraton is also the closest luxury hotel to the historical center of Lima with the city's other first class hotels found in the coastal and more residential areas of Miraflores and San Ysidro.
Lima is easy to traverse by taxi. But their taxis have no meters. You can ask at your hotel what price to expect for travel to and from a destination and bargain accordingly or you can use hotel cars. The Sheraton and other luxury hotels have their own stable of cars and drivers. The Sheraton in fact will provide you with a cell phone so you can call for a pick up when you're ready. The hotel's cars will more than double the cost of any trip but they're safer, more convenient, and if you leave some purchase in the car, you're likely to get it back.
Most of the city's great buildings are laid out around the Plaza Mayor. The Plaza, built in 1651, has a central bronze fountain. It is the site where Peru declared its independence in 1821. On the north side of the Plaza sits the Palacio de Gobierno, the official residence of Peru's president. Behind the gates, standing by the ornate entry doors, are uniformed guards in 19th century garb, perfect for touristy photo ops at the "changing of the guard" at 11:45 a.m. daily. But Peru clearly has not forgotten the terrorist problems it suffered in the 1970-80's when the group "Shining Path" or "Sendaro Illuminar" plagued the country and put much of it - particularly the archeologically significant Cusco-Machu Picchu area - on a "no travel" list. The front gates of the presidential palace are guarded by armed soldiers in bullet proof vests with clear plastic head-to-foot shields.
On the east side of the Plaza is the Archbishop's Palace with a dramatic balcony and next to it, La Catedral. The gaudy baroque church, originally built in 1625, and remodeled after earthquakes in 1746 and 1940, is most famous for its intricately carved wood choir stalls and as the burial place of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro.
Lima's colonial city hall or Municipalidad is on the south side of the square and, just a few blocks from the Plaza, there are several churches worth a peak, particularly the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and San Francisco. Lima has an abundance of both Dominican and Franciscan churches whose sects vied for influence as they busily attempted to wipe out the indigenous Quechua culture. As we toured one Dominican convent, our guide informed us that in colonial Spanish lands, conventos were for monks and monasterios were for women. Like I said, Peru is a land of contrasts.
A long pedestrian street connects the Plaza Mayor with the Plaza San Martin, a larger square built in 1921 to commemorate the nation's independence. There's a statue of General San Martin, the liberator of Peru, in its center.
I visited half-a-dozen of the more than fifty museums in Lima. The Museo de la Inquisicion in center city was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in South America from 1570-1820. Its displays of the original dungeons and torture chambers are not much more than carnival side-show exhibits. I explored several art museums - The National Art Museum, the Nation's Museum, the Gold Museum, the National Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, the Italian Museum, and the Larco Herrera Museum. The National Art Museum is a ten story, modern concrete building. But only three stories are dedicated to art, and mostly Incan and pre-Incan art. The other floors are offices. All of Lima's art museums have redundant collections of pre-Columbian artifacts - gold jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, and clothing. If you have time to visit just one collection, I thought the best was in the Museo Larco Herrera which not only houses the world's largest private collection of pre-Columbian art but displays the works exceedingly well with English and Spanish placards in the order of their evolution from the civilizations of the Mochica to the Chimu to the Incas (2000 BC - 1500 AD). You can even hire a more informative English speaking guide there. The Larco also has a unique and fascinating display of ceramic erotica from those civilizations. After a few museum visits, pre-Columbian pottery became a blur but the Gold Museum, besides its ceramic collection, also has a collection of military artifacts, particularly weapons and uniforms, from samurai warriors to recent dictators. The uniforms of General Pinochet of Chile, Francisco Franco of Spain, and Cuba's Castro are there. The display is frenetic, expansive, and not well organized or catalogued, but I found it nevertheless fascinating.
As we drove to Lima's coast, we passed through the upscale residential areas of San Ysidro - home to boutique hotels, country clubs, and several embassies. We passed the Japanese embassy and I was astounded at its size - a city block. That amazement ended as we rode past the U.S. embassy which seemed to cover several square blocks. I don't know if we need an embassy in Peru that large but I guess in diplomacy size matters.
On the way to Miraflores, a beautiful coastal enclave, we stopped at the Huaca Pucllana, an area that our guide described as the pre-Columbian temple and burial ground of the Chancay people who lived in Lima before the Incan civilization, from 1000-1500 A.D. But Pucllana seemed more of a "replica" than a restoration. As far as exploring ancient ruins is concerned, Lima is not the place.
The Larcomar beachside shopping mall is set on a coastal cliff in Miraflores. It is directly across the road from the modern Marriot Hotel and has several interesting shops and restaurants overlooking the beachfront. Lima's beaches are beautiful but also rocky and polluted. To find a swimmable beach, I was advised to travel 50-60 kilometers to the north or south of the city.
From Larcomar you can see a pier just to the north. The restaurant on the pier, the Nautica Azul, is a perfect place for a romantic or picturesque dining experience. You can enjoy the national drink there, a "pisco sour" and ceviche (chopped fish). Pisco is the local liquor made from grapes and a pisco sour tastes quite like a whiskey sour. You might also want to try Inca Koka, the local "coke" soft drink. Inca Koka looks like carbonated yellow Gatorade and is horrendously sweet. Do try the pisco. Bring along some insulin if you want to drink Inca coke.
Before dusk one night, we strolled across the street from the Sheraton Hotel to the Italian Art museum, a distinctive neoclassical building that was a gift from Italy commemorating Peru's centenary of independence. The museum has a few worthy 19th and early 20th century European paintings but certainly no grand collection. You'll also find some contemporary Peruvian work there as well. But if you haven't the patience for another museum, do trek into the park next to the Italian museum. It's a gathering place for young lovers, cuddling on every bench. There are several curious and dramatic gazebo structures, one a miniature replica of a Lisbon palace. There's a pond with ducks and pheasants; an amphitheatre for public performances; and lots of statuary honoring who-knows-who. There's even a small lake with swan-shaped paddle boats for rent. It's the perfect place for a calming escape from the hustle and bustle of a big city.
While there are interesting sites to see in Lima, the city is not a tourist mecca but rather the hub for excursions throughout Peru - to Cusco, Nazca, Machu Picchu, and many more places.
Peru is home to a long Pacific coastline with great fishing and surfing beaches; to Lake Titicaca - at 12,500 feet, the highest lake in the world; to mountain villages set in the clouds; and to ancient civilizations that leave you marveling at their accomplishments - from mountaintop Machu Picchu to the Nazca Lines drawn in the earth - pictographs only distinguishable from the air. Although many of Peru's heritage sites are today great tourist attractions, much of its hinterlands still remain as unexplored destinations for amateur and professional archaeologists. Archaeologists are still excavating Caral, a place as old as Egypt's pyramids, built in 2600 BC, and considered the oldest city in the Americas. And, it is estimated that only 30 percent of Peru's ancient sites have been uncovered.
When we arrived in Lima in late October, it was springtime. The skies were grey. We were told that Lima hardly ever has blue skies and is perpetually shrouded in a coastal mist. It fit that description the entire time we were there. If you arrive in Lima in June or July, temperatures will be colder but those months are also the best times for visiting the mountain cities of Cusco and Machu Picchu. And those were my next destinations. If you read my column next month, they'll be yours as well.