My hometown can be described as many things: fun, bustling, chaotic, exciting, huge, vibrant, overwhelming, insane, stimulating, astonishing, marvelous, overpowering. What it’s never described as? Beautiful.
Lima, the capital of Peru, is not known for its aesthetic qualities. Unlike the European vibe of Buenos Aires or the gorgeous landscape of Rio de Janeiro, the cobblestoned-charm of Guayaquil or the sleek modernity of Panama City, Lima is an entangled, concrete web of 8.5 million bodies and about twice as many motorized vehicles. It’s covered under a thick fog for most of the year and, to add insult to injury, the color of its buildings tends to reflect the same grayish quality of the sky. The city overlooks the Pacific ocean but, since it’s built on a cliff, the wide open sea can sometimes feel like a taunt instead of an invitation.
Guys, even one of our seminal works of literature is called Lima, La Horrible. And even though its author Sebastián Salazar Bondy wrote it more as an indictment of the national elite, he had a mouthful to say about the physical aspects of the city:
[Lima] has become a metropolis where two million people smack each other around, amidst honks, savage radios, human congestion and more contemporary madness, in order to survive.
He wrote that in 1964. Some would argue that not much has changed.
What has changed is the amount of people who visit the city. Growing up, a foreigner was a sight to behold and you would wonder if he had somehow lost his way en route to a better destination. Today, Lima is the most visited city in Latin American, welcoming about 5.1 million visitors who actually want to be there.
I went to Lima a few weeks ago for my brother’s wedding. That was pretty much the only reason for going. I tend to avoid visiting my country during Chicago summer because we get so little of it, damn it! And with so much world left to see, I always feel like it’s a missed opportunity to take time off to go somewhere I know so well. Or think I know well. The truth is that my hometown has transformed itself from an almost-ruined city on the brink of collapse to a major tourist hotspot. With that in mind, I decided to stop moping around the house and seek whatever it is that attracts people from all over the world.
I made it my mission to find beauty.
Lima’s most prominent museums have always been the ones that showcase our pre-Columbian past, but there’s been a spate of new and revamped art museums dotting the scene. I wasn’t able to make it to Museo Pedro de Osma or the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, but I did saunter out to the Museo de Arte de Lima one afternoon. The second floor was undergoing renovation while I was there but they did have a beautifully curated exhibit on Chavín de Huantar, one of Peru’s oldest civilizations.
The art museum that all the cool kids are flocking to? That would be Museo Mario Testino. The world-famous photographer is as Peruvian as ceviche, and the museum is dedicated to celebrating his work and those of other artists around the world. A small fee of 10 soles gives you the privilege to gawk at portraits of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and other much-maligned stars. There’s also an entire wing dedicated to Princess Diana, who Testino had the rare and somewhat morbid privilege of shooting before her untimely death. But my favorite pieces were by far the ones of Andean residents in traditional garb.
The museum is located in the middle of Barranco, which has the dubious distinction of being Lima’s Portlandia. I happen to love it because I’m an insufferable hipster wannabe but even the most yuppie among you will find something to like. The district has made an effort to keep its traditional architecture while peppering its walls with some pretty distinctive street art.
It’s also home to a host of great boutiques, including the massive Dédalo which is a home goods store, art gallery, café, cultural space, and Cool Mom epicenter rolled into one. You can spend hours roaming its aisles for handmade art and jewelry. Do yourself a favor and support local artists instead of buying the cheap trinkets from flea markets. They’re all made in China anyway.
Lima has always had a thriving literary scene, even during times of strife and dubious governments. There were a few dark decades where bookstores were few and far between, and a paperback cost more than most people’s monthly salary. Thankfully, times have changed and there are more options to indulge your inner César Vallejo.
Though small, the Casa de la Literatura Peruana is a quick walk from the Plaza de Armas. Hosted in the old Desamparados train station, the institute hosts exhibits, cultural events, a library of Peruvian literature and a café.
Back in Barranco, my sister took me to a jewel of a bookstore called La Libre. Also tiny, but with a lot of heart, the selection is carefully curated by their enthusiastic owners, who are more than happy to give you honest recommendations. I left with about five novels in my arms and a real wish that I could participate in their many readings and book launches that they hold throughout the year.
Ok, if there’s one thing that has stayed true throughout the years, it’s this: Lima is the best food city in Latin American, has been and always will be. Contrary to popular international belief, the absolute awesomeness of our cuisine isn’t part of our country’s resurgence. You guys are just finally catching up. I could write an infinite amount of blog posts on where and what to eat in Lima, but for now I’ll just leave you with my top three discoveries on this trip.
If you are looking for local products, head to Feria EcoMarket. Held every Saturday in San Borja and every Sunday in San Isidro, the open-air market is full of stalls from artisanal producers, neighboring restaurants and stores, and regional farmers. A few things I snatched while I was there included a 6-grain rice blend, honey, plantain chips, and dark chocolate.
For a quick lunch, go to Hijo de Olaya. This hole-in-the-wall has taken great care with their uber-cool decor and even greater care in their limited menu. The restaurant serves three types of ceviche, one chicharrón and one arroz chaufa. That’s it!…but that’s all they need. Their seafood fried rice was an homage to everything that’s mouth-watering about fish.
For a drink or two, go to Barranco Beer Company. A mix between a sports bar and a brewery, it’s a spot that will make any lumbersexual traveler’s heart swell. Their list includes stouts, IPAs, amber ales, and others.
Have I come to love my hometown a little more? Yes. I would say our relationship has gone from polite hellos to mildly flirtatious. Lima might not be the obvious choice when it comes to beauty. But at least it’s not a boring one.