Monday, June 6, 2011

Peru – Lima, Two Travelers in shock

Inca sun disk
We are in South America at last!
For many years, we've wanted to travel to this part of the world – it is a new continent for both of us.

We arrived in the comfort of a Copa Airlines jet. We boarded in Managua for a short hop to Panama City where we connected to a longer 3 hour flight to Lima. We have to admit that this form of travel is definitely more comfortable than the mini buses and chicken buses that we used over the past 3 months and Copa served us a nice snack and lunch including wine and beer. Not too shabby.

We arrived in Lima at a time when the airport was quiet, as most transcontinental flights probably arrive at night. Within just 30 minutes after touchdown, we cleared immigration and customs... Wow this almost beats the highly awarded Changi Airport in Singapore!

Are we really in Peru?
For once, we pre-booked a place to stay with airport pickup: We've become wary arriving in the capital of a Latin country and just wanted to play it safe... I guess we are behaving like tourists now, eh? And Don't dare calling us old or bourgeoisie now. We drive through almost all of Lima, check into our guest house in the San Isidro neighborhood. We've made it: we are in Lima... and we are in shock. We were simply not prepared for what we had seen so far and kept thinking that we are in the wrong movie or that the Copa pilot had taken a wrong turn when we left Panama City this afternoon.

This place is not at all what we expected to find: it's...... too nice!
Everything is so clean!
The streets have no potholes, sidewalks are plentiful and not cluttered with junk, and the cars look like they have not been salvaged from a junkyard in the US. There are zebra striped pedestrian crossings, working traffic lights, and unbelievably they are actually respected here. Buildings look like those in a middle class neighborhood in Western Europe and there are even skyscrapers with all glass facades...

Have we arrived in Miami?
No, this is Lima; at least that's what all the sign boards say... Wow!

Enjoying breakfast at our Hostel
Our shell shock lasted for pretty much all the four days that we spent in Lima. Although it got a few doses of reality check as we ventured out of our neighborhood – apparently the most upscale in town. Ironically we are staying in a Youth Hostal, but not like what you would expect. The only youth was one child with her parents, the rest of our neighbors were probably in their mid 40's. The hostal got very good reviews and we can agree.
She just can't stay off these walls
It's called Malka and is super clean, friendly, convenient and has a wonderful kitchen and hang-out area – complete with rock climbing wall, ping pong, TV with dvd player, and a huge breakfast. We had a private room and there are a couple of dorms. Ours cost 24 USD. We will definitely return there once we head north again (especially since we left them with a 5kg bags of books and clothes)!

After our first night, we woke to blue skies, something unusual, as we later learned. Lima is built in a desert that runs parallel to the pacific coast. And although it hardly ever rains, it's quite damp from the constant coastal mist that blankets the area. We hear that the sky on an average day looks like Styrofoam: bright white.

Note the wheels. At night,
everything goes home or
gets gated up.
Before we went out to explore the town, we stopped at iPeru, which is not another fancy gadget created by Steve Jobs (although we wonder if he still gets a 30% cut every time someone is using it).
iPeru is the official tourist bureau. Gee did we get loads of information here, after about 30 minutes we walked out with dozens of good brochures, maps and bus info sheets that she printed out for us. Jessica, the friendly information agent even gave us brochures that are especially created for different interest groups: adventure, nature, culture.... The even places some magnetic bookmarks into a nice bag to carry our goodies home in. We are right back in our culture shock again: this country is amazing!

This is still Lima, although
it looks like Moscow now.
Our excursions took us to the Museo de la Nacion, which has definitely seen better days. There are only a few cultural exhibits in a building that reminds us of a communist fortress. It mainly shows ancient ceramic pieces, carved gourds and some silver work from around the country. There was a also a section with modern print work. But it looks like a lot of pieces have been moved to the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia since our guidebook described many things that we would find there which weren't there now! But there is also a very graphic photo exhibit of various massacres and victims of warfare. It was dedicated to preserving the memory of the effects of war, so by confronting one's dark past, it will not be repeated again. It especially depicted the attacks during the Shining Path's lengthy anti-government crusade: this movement terrorized the nation. Don't visit this exhibition if you can't handle pictures of death and destruction.

We are lucky: a sunny day in  Miraflores
We used the good weather to walk around the coastal neighborhood of Miraflores, which definitely is not the place where the middle class are living: A fancy mall, JW Marriott Hotel, and lots of expensive looking condominiums line the coast.

Paragliders, but where are the mountains?
We enjoy the views over the pacific and the sight of paragliders that utilize the strong dynamic updraft that is created when the wind from the ocean hits the 30-some meter (98ft) high cliffs. That same wind is giving us chills, despite the jackets that we are wearing. We better toughen up; it's going to get much colder as soon as we hit the Andes.

In the artsy and hip neighborhood of Barranco, we get the first taste of Peru's national dish (at least one of them) Ceviche! How many of our dear Blog readers know that Ceviche originated in Peru? – How many actually know what Ceviche is?
Heaven on a plate,
 ceviche & calamari

Click here if you don't know. We can only hope that you soon can get to eat a Ceviche as delicious as we just had: this is heaven on a plate and rivals sushi as our favorite fish dish. If you happen to be in Lima make sure to eat at Cevicheria el Muelle you will guaranteed be eating among dozens of locals that frequent this place. It was one of the busiest places we found in our 2 hours of walking about.

Street musician in Barranco
We decided not to visit the historic city center at this time, as we had the perfect timing to arrive in Lima on the weekend of the presidential election – Which only happens every 5 years. Both of the candidates are not well liked and we fear that there could be protests. We've never seen an election like that where pretty much every person we talked to said that they dislike both candidates and have to choose between the lesser of two evils. The Peruvian law requires that only the two top contenders of a pre-election round can go into the final round. It so happened that the two finalists are from the far right and far left of the political spectrum. this starts to actually sound like American politics?!

Keiko Fujimori – yes, she's the daughter of the very Alberto Fujimori that now serves a 25 year prison term for human rights abuses which happened under his watch as president. Many fear that Keiko will use her presidential powers to pardon her father, who after many rounds of discussions was finally extradited from Japan, where he was seeking political asylum.

Then there is Ollanta Humala, a former Army General and close friend of Hugo Chavez. People fear that he is just a puppet of Chavez and might close Peru's borders, evict foreigners, curtail private business, and hugely expand the government. All in the name of equality for all Peruvians. He is especially disliked in Lima but gets great support from the poorer rural regions.

The booze is off limits:
Making sure that everyone is
sober for election day.
Our fears of protest were probably not justified, as there was a country wide ban on political rallies and protests in the days before the election. Lots of pre-emptive measure in force right now, and as we discovered an even more unusual restriction: the total ban on sale of alcoholic beverages from midnight Thursday to noon on Monday: restaurants, bars, supermarkets, hotels, etc. all were not allowed to sell any alcohol. Although we wonder if the top hotels really cleared out their minibars for the duration of the ban. But there must be good reason for the ban – which is constitutional – and since we didn't hear of major protest it must have done its purpose... but we will just have to wait a few days to taste that famous Pisco sour. Luckily we picked up a bottle of nice wine one day prior to the alcohol crackdown!

Parque Central in Miraflores.
The strong white light caused by
"Garúa" makes photo shooting
We really enjoyed our time in Lima although we did see that Styrofoam sky for the remaining 3 days in Lima. This layer of high altitude fog is called: "Garúa" and has apparently been the inspiration for many highly acclaimed literary masterpieces, such as Moby Dick: "It's the strangest, saddest city thou can'st see..." Although it's not quite that bad, it could get depressive over a long period – it's said that it lasts for nearly 6 months a year :-(

Our culture shock subsided a bit as we ventured out of San Isidro (the neighborhood of banks and 5 star hotels). Although we were still digesting the costs of everything in Lima. It seems that our daily budget will have to double.
A 6 block tourist tour created from
the remains of Barranco's tram line
Guesthouses cost more, buses are 2-4 times more compared to Central America, and at the grocery store many food items cost more than in the US... getting close to Swiss prices in some cases (no, we are not talking just about Swiss cheese, although they sell that too, at double the Swiss price). But optimists as we are, we don't let that bother us... we just wish we had postponed our weight loss program until we got to Peru ;-)

Lima is certainly worth spending a few days exploring when you visit Peru. Chances are that you will start or end a trip to Peru in Lima. We will be back when we pass through again on our way up north in about 6-8 weeks. So thanks to the election, we still have some sights to see!

But now it's time to discover the real Peru... We are heading south.