Lima's new street spirit

The Peruvian capital was once considered the most dangerous in South America. Mark Rowe discovers how things have changed on a new walking tour of the city

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Back in 1988, I scurried through what was regarded by guidebooks as the most dangerous capital city in South America. Lima was fearful, seemingly under siege from the Shining Path, a Maoist-inspired terrorist group. Widespread poverty and rampant inflation reinforced the anxiety. The begging was the most persistent I'd ever encountered. I dutifully followed Lonely Planet's security tips, put chicken wire in my backpack, marched at a furious pace everywhere and trusted no one.

But I still liked Lima. Peru's capital was a vibrant city of indefatigable, witty people, a multicultural place, whose grandeur, while almost wholly faded, clung on in grand colonial and municipal buildings and wide, sprawling plazas. The Unesco listing, achieved in 1988 for the city centre's colonial core, seemed justified to me. So when I heard about the city's first-ever walking tour, I was eager to see how my memories stacked up. Run by a local tour agency, Viracocha, it aimed to show off not only the colonial charms of the centre, but all of life in Lima, from swanky suburbs to middle-class, artistic quarters and life on the side of the street that is anything but sunny.

Richly endowed with silver, copper, gold and other coveted metals, Peru holds a lot of aces. "Lima has got more money, so more people have cars – we now have a traffic problem," I was informed by my guide, Alex, a fiftysomething Limeño. "At the same time, the city is safer, so why shouldn't we walk?"

Alex was genial, hugely opinionated, and very proud of his city. "You can get crime anywhere in the world. Rio [de Janeiro] and Bogota are far worse than Lima – you won't get mugged on the promenade here. The 1980s and 1990s were hard. We had hyperinflation, terrorism, curfews and a brain drain. But the country is changing rapidly."

The key to that transition, as Alex explained, has been partly political – the routing of the Shining Path, greater democracy, that bulging mineral wealth – but also due to the equally lucrative tourist industry and its many attractions. From Machu Picchu to the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca and the Amazon jungle, Lima is a handy gateway.

I'd met Alex in Miraflores, a middle-class suburb five miles south of the centre. Local amateur choirs sing here at night, and artists set up their easels, painting caricatures of tourists along with pastel landscape images and silhouettes of Andean women in bowler hats. I was struck by the number of plump cats in the park. "This is where people drop their pets when they lose interest," Alex explained. "But everyone feeds them. They don't go hungry."

Miraflores comes to a halt at a dramatic cliff edge that sweeps above the Pacific Ocean. Below, windsurfers pushed out into the waters, while a paved promenade was busy with shoppers, tourists and joggers. From here, Alex and I worked our way north. We passed Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Colombian adobe-mud ceremonial centre that takes you by surprise, both with its staggering visual presence – painstakingly precise brickwork furnished into the shape of a mini city – and its location. You practically bump into it after turning the corner of a middle-class street.

In the wealthy gated suburb of San Isidro, I was struck by the chorus of birdsong. Tanagers, parakeets, saffron finches and fetchingly blue-eyed doves flitted between the trees. A charming passageway ran through an olive grove, with improbable views across manicured lawns to several mock-Tudor houses. I assumed this was a surreal, well-to-do echo of the Old World – but surely Peruvian footballers have better taste than their English counterparts?

Alex suggested we pause for a snack at the Tanta café, run by Peru's leading chef, Gaston Acurio. I opted for a small aji de gallina, a traditional chicken dish, thinking back to my previous visit to Peru when I'd subsisted on chicken and rice, topped with a fried egg, relieving the repetition with the odd dish of pasta and butter.

"Peru has rediscovered its food heritage," Alex told me. "Food is the best thing about this country. We grow most things. Now the rest of South America looks to us." I digested Alex's subsequent claims that the rich of Rio and Buenos Aires fly to Lima for the ceviche – raw fish cured with lime, chilli and pepper – with a large dollop of scepticism. Nevertheless, the restaurants of Miraflores bore testament to the fact that the naked fried eggs I experienced last time round have had their day, replaced by seafood drawn from the Humboldt current, which runs up the country's Pacific shoreline.

From here, the walking tour took to the road, partly because of the city's size but also because Alex is keen for visitors to secure an insight into the daily grind for Limeños. We hopped on a microbus and hurtled down Avenida Arequipa towards the centre. We passed a man pushing a cart piled with iron bars and bottles he'd collected for recycling; over there, a teenager sharpened nails and knives, while a woman did a roaring trade selling small packets of fresh fruit to office workers.

We tumbled off the bus in the central Plaza San Martin. When I was last here, in the 1980s, I remember the queue to report muggings or thefts to the tourist police stretched almost around the square. Political protests still take place here, but the sense of paramilitary power that I remembered has dissipated, as it has around the raucous Plaza Mayor, home to the presidential palace.

"Life is slowly coming back to the centre," Alex said. A long line of elderly men stood outside a newspaper office – crossword solvers, Alex explained. For a fee they fill in your crossword, giving you a chance to win a daily prize. Narrow town houses – bookshops on the ground floor, shamans on the second – stood tightly squeezed together on narrow lanes. One place caught my attention: L'Eau Vive, a restaurant run by nuns, where "Ave Maria" is sung after diners finish their desserts.

The Foreign Office is still strident in its warnings to British travellers. The latest travel advice warns of particular dangers for women, and that "street crime, including muggings and thefts, is a significant problem in Lima".

Unequivocal no-go areas remain in Lima. Alex advised against walking any further north than the train station and not to cross the river Rimac. So we took a cab back to my hotel. Cars swerved manically across four lanes, then defied all laws of physics by funnelling into a single carriageway. "The traffic looks bad, but it's OK," Alex tried to reassure me. Peru may be changing but, refreshingly, some things never change.