Lima sprouts from the arid Atacama Desert, which, seen in the morning light, is a vast brown expanse tinted with pink. I look through the window of the plane as it slices through the thin layer of mist and touches down at Jorge Chávez International Airport. Lima is a modern metropolis with skyscrapers designed by internationally known architects like Hans Hollein and Arquitectonica. The city sprawls along new roadways lined with gigantic shopping malls, cineplexes, and Starbucks. But despite these developments, the peculiar mood of Lima persists: its unexpected rhythms, its air filled with the weight of humidity, the scent of its lush flowering trees, its extreme contrasts between affluence and poverty. Limeños adore their city, so I am not surprised when I hear an immigration officer tell the family of four ahead of me in line—an Americanized Peruvian couple taking their children to meet their country—"You are crazy! How can you have stayed away from this place for so long?"
When I was a young woman, I left Lima to study in the United States, and today I live in New York City. But Lima is in many ways still my home. Over the past 40 years, I've never failed to make an annual pilgrimage back to the city that influenced so much of my youth. I go to get warmth from those I love and left behind—these trips have become the essential glue of my life, connecting the cultural differences that make me a gringa and a Latina. A city of 1.2 million when I was a teenager and more than 8 million today, Lima is where I acquired a taste of what a real metropolis could be. My parents and I lived in Tacna, a much smaller coastal city to the south. We came to Lima to eat in the restaurants, visit friends, buy books, experience neon signs, and indulge our senses.
I have seen Lima through dictatorships, terrorism, blackouts, revolutions, and its many peaceful moments. The history of Peru has been a troubled one, beginning with the brutal destruction of the Inca culture by the conquistadores in the 16th century, continuing through the republican period up to the present. Various governments have left their mark on Peru in ways that showcase the stark contradictions of the country's political life. Its history is filled with presidents like Manuel Ignacio Prado, who disappeared from office with the nation's war chest, and Fernando Belaúnde Terry, whose plan to cut roads into the Amazon jungle turned into a pipe dream, abandoned for lack of funds. In recent years, Alberto Fujimori, the well-known Japanese-Peruvian president, is an example of the extremes of Peruvian politics. Democratically elected and popular with the working class, Fujimori succeeded in controlling terrorism and presided over years of economic stability, only to later fall into the infamous Latin American trap: he turned himself into a dictator by cracking down harshly on left-wing opposition groups and by changing the constitution to allow himself a third term. After fleeing to Japan in 2000 to avoid arrest on charges of corruption and human rights violations, Fujimori is making a bid to return to office. The current president, Alejandro Toledo, whose popularity rating has been as low as 8 percent, shows no sign of rallying the support needed for reforms. Elections are around the corner, and there are no strong candidates in sight.
As the largest city in Peru, Lima is the country's promised land, and a sense of unlimited potential drives the city, though population growth has stretched its ability to cope with the heartbreaking poverty of the majority of its people. Many newcomers have settled in the sprawling pueblos jovenes, or young towns, hastily-thrown-together living quarters that cling to the hillsides as if tossed there like handfuls of pebbles. Still, after several years of relative calm and prosperity, Lima has become one of Latin America's great capitals, and in spite of the city's staggering urban evolution, its intangible essence remains—the important things haven't changed.
Avenida Arequipa, one of Lima's most notable thoroughfares, is my preferred route into the city. The purple-tinted jacarandas that divide it are still there, but the street itself, like almost every part of Lima, has been through many transformations. Forty years ago, this was Lima's most elegant residential boulevard. Though just a few blocks from the city center, it was considered a suburb: Avenida Arequipa was lined with mansions that stood on the large lawns like gigantic wedding cakes. The architecture—Neoclassical to Tudor to Spanish—was a testimony to the imagination of people who had amassed their fortunes mining Peru's vast reserves of gold, copper, and silver. If there were gates, they were decorative; Lima then was a quiet, gentle city. The postwar period brought terrorism, violence, and long periods of unrest, and Avenida Arequipa was walled off by security guards. During recent, better times, some families have sold their homes to capitalize on the high price of real estate, and commercial buildings have sprung up in their place. The last time I was there, one mansion disappeared overnight: its owner, eager to profit but under pressure from a landmarks preservation group, had the building imploded.
In the years of my youth, men practiced the art of piropo—the half jesting, half serious flattery whispered to a woman—on this once quiet street. It was here that I heard my first "If you would only look at me, your green eyes would tint my life in pink, and sorrow I would never feel," followed by "Where you walk the flowers grow." I remember smiling and being reprimanded by my mother, who told me I should never smile, just blush. Now the street poets are gone—women in Lima today wouldn't abide this kind of harmless nonsense, and in any case, the restless traffic would be too noisy for anyone to hear such whisperings.
On my first day in town, I have lunch at Huaca Pucllana, built next to the site of a fifth-century Indian ceremonial center. It's a light-filled place that serves excellent Peruvian food, a fine example of the new Andean cuisine. I order cuy, or guinea pig, favored by locals for its mild, sweet flesh. Here, it is baked and served with a mixture of Andean root vegetables in a peanut sauce. After lunch, I delve into Lima's long tradition of arts and crafts. Peruvian artisans are known for skills passed down from generation to generation, and they are always experimenting with unusual designs and materials. Each time I come I look forward to a trek through the Mercado Indio, a labyrinth of small stalls teeming with possible discoveries. There is something for everyone. Rummaging through the piles, I spot wonderful handwoven ribbons, wooden trays inlaid with seeds from the Peruvian jungle, and hand-knit baby blankets. Later, I walk to La Paz, a great place for bargains, where I stop in at some of the many secondhand and antiques shops.
It is the week after Christmas, and the stores are empty. As a result, the storekeepers are eager to chat, always complaining that there are not enough tourists and that Peruvians do not appreciate their own cultural heritage. When I lift an old silver cup—Peruvian silver has a unique light-gray patina and is beautifully crafted—I am told the story of the family it belonged to for many generations and how rich they once were and how they needed to sell this cup to pay for a daughter's college education. Would I please buy it and help with this endeavor, the owner pleads. I wonder if the story is true, because at other shops I have been told similar tales. I don't buy the silver, and I finish the expedition at Helena's, a small confectionery shop where I treat myself to a Peruvian delicacy called teja, this one made of candied lemons stuffed with dulce de leche and dipped in sugar. I wash it down with Inca Kola, a bubble gumflavored cola that outsells all others in Peru.
Lima today is large and sprawling, hard to contain on a single map. But downtown has the feel of the old Lima I knew many years ago, with its crowded and noisy streets and its avalanche of peddlers who never leave you alone. Many of the colonial structures have been demolished, but there are some fine examples still standing: the Palacio Torre Tagle, for example, with its lacelike carved wooden balconies and stucco façade. Or the recently restored La Catedral: Baroque, solemn, and imposing, a relic of the time when the Spaniards used the might of religious architecture to seduce the natives into becoming Catholic. Next to it stands the presidential palace, a massive gray edifice just as elaborate as the cathedral, bearing silent witness to a history filled with violence and uncertainty.
Not far away is the Plaza San Martín, a once thriving financial center that has retained its original architecture. The buildings that make up its contours appear the same as they have for generations. In the 1980's, during the height of Shining Path terrorist activity, the businesses they housed moved to safer places outside the old city center. For me, it's hard not to notice that the Gran Hotel Bolivar, once the best in town, is now run down. The Bolivar Bar was the place to have a drink before lunch. Here is where I saw my first American—wearing cowboy boots and chewing gum. The somber Club Nacional, where oligarchs encountered one another, is the last vestige of aristocratic Lima. It sits in a corner guarding the heavy burden of a political past. Plaza San Martín is also where I saw my first neon signs, an experience that still connects me to the array of lights in New York City's Times Square. The one I remember best advertised an insurance agency. It was a brightly lit phoenix rising from the ashes, and this became my symbol for Peru. The sign is no longer there, and the company it represented has been absorbed into a larger one.
Near the center of town is the Museo de Arte, which holds a good collection of Peruvian art—from pre-Incan cultures, such as Chavin, Paracas, and Mochica, through the colonial period and to republican times. The Neoclassical building was recently refurbished; I especially love the rooms devoted to colonial silver. I recognize some pieces that belonged to three aristocratic Lima women who turned their own beautiful house into a gallery—the Galleria Porta. I visited them often with my mother and was mesmerized, watching them reveal their treasures slowly, one by one, while my mother tried to charm them into selling her something. I have several silver bowls and colonial spoons that came out of such expeditions. I am glad to see that these women kept the best pieces back and that those pieces found their way to the museum.
Later, I visit Las Pallas. Mari Solari, the owner of this hard-to-find store, has for 40 years dedicated her life to the promotion of Peruvian folk art. She travels to the remotest parts of the country to add to her remarkable stock. Her personal collection in the republican-era house where she has her shop includes a huge array of traditional weavings, magic charms and amulets, and ceremonial drinking vessels. Mari is happy to show the various rooms where these objects reside, beautifully displayed and guarded by a rare Peruvian hairless dog whose pedigree goes back to before the time of the Incas. More often than not I go home with amulets, carved gourds, retablos from Ayacucho, and carved candles. I have given amulets to friends in New York, and some of them have worked wonders, producing boyfriends and odd kinds of favors.
A little farther on is the shop where Ester Ventura sells intriguing gold and silver jewelry that incorporates seeds, weavings, seashells, coral, and pre-Columbian fragments. Her tiny space inside a small red house seems a jewel in itself. Later, a friend introduces me to a young designer named Claudia Stern; she makes the most unusual necklaces, bracelets, and rings from velvet-covered wire twisted in strange shapes and dyed an amazing array of colors, which she sells at a nearby shop of her own.
The magnificent recently restored mansion of Don Pedro de Osma y Pardo is yet another place to see a rich variety of art and artifacts. Built around 1900, the house was once a stage for the grand lives of Peru's aristocrats. Don Pedro's family came here during the time of the Spanish viceroyalty in 1801 and, like so many others at the time, made a fortune in mining. Intellectually curious, Don Pedro assembled a collection of more than 5,000 objects, ranging from paintings from the Cuzco school to elaborate silver and furniture. One of my favorite pieces is an anonymous 17th-century Cuzco painting called Virgin Sewing; it depicts a child dressed as a nusta, an Incan princess, wearing earrings, bracelets, and a garland of roses. This small painting is an exquisite example of the blending of European and indigenous culture.
Don Pedro's home has been left very much the same as it was when he lived there. Endless corridors lead to large, somber rooms with stained-glass windows and inlaid floors. I envision the portly gentleman making his way from the drafty house and across the formal gardens to the dining pavilion and entertaining his guests with French wines and French cuisine. Only recently have affluent Peruvians decided that it is fashionable to serve Peruvian food. Indeed, in New York I long for the kind of food that can be prepared only in Peru. I cook it at home for my friends when I can find the right kind of peppers, very fresh fish, tender summer corn. My favorite dish is made from yellow potatoes puréed with lime juice, spicy peppers, and a touch of olive oil, layered like a cake with crabmeat, avocados, and mayonnaise—a sort of Peruvian version of shepherd's pie.
Peruvian gastronomy can trace its roots back 2,000 years. The Chimú and Paracas peoples were great gourmets. The importance of food to these cultures is evident in their pottery and weavings, which feature images of fruits and vegetables and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean. Peru's biodiversity makes for an impressive range of ingredients. When the conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, they brought their own cuisine, with its Moorish and Roman influences, as well as citrus, grapes, pork, almonds, and much more. Peru, in turn, introduced to the world potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Peruvian cookery incorporated an influx of Japanese, French, Italian, and Chinese elements. Young chefs now train abroad and are taking their national cuisine to new heights. There are several restaurants in Lima that could easily hold their own among New York City's best.
One of these is Astrid y Gaston, in my opinion Lima's finest restaurant, set in an elegant house with polished wood floors and walls painted in a pleasing light palette. The tables are placed well apart, a welcome change from the confinement of New York's noisy dining rooms. Here, with my family, on the last night of my visit, I have a meal fit for the gods: sea urchins, taken from the Pacific the very same day, and chupe, a Peruvian chowder made with crab, yellow potatoes, and lima beans. My brother has a fish stew baked with herbs in a clay pot and accompanied by a purée of sweet potatoes. We also order duck, one of Peru's great delicacies, in a confit served over rice. As the grand resolution of our meal, we enjoy a cherimoya dessert that comes in three layers, each using the fruit in a different way.
When I arrive at the airport later that night, I find it bursting with people. Planes are going to unexpected places—a nonstop to Atlanta, three other flights to New York, Paris, Rio. I think of the first time I left Lima for New York, in 1960. The interamericano Panagra flight was the only one to the United States that day. Flying then was so exotic—when we landed I was given a certificate verifying that I had crossed the equator. Now, the world seems a smaller place, and Lima is closer than ever.
When to Go
The weather in Lima is warm year-round, though the dry season from June to August corresponds with an influx of tourists. If you do not plan on hiking the Inca Trail, you can enjoy the capital in any month.
There are direct flights to Lima from most major U.S. cities.
Where to StayEl Olivar
Small luxury hotel set in an old olive grove in a quiet part of Lima.
194 Calle Pancho Fierro, San Isidro; 51-1/712-6000; www.sonesta.com; doubles from $146.
Miraflores Park Hotel
Full-service luxury hotel.
1035 Avda. Malecón de la Reserva, Miraflores; 800/237-1236 or 51-1/242-3000; www.mira-park.com; doubles from $445.
Where to Eat
Astrid y Gaston
175 Calle Cantuarias, Miraflores; 51-1/242-5387; dinner for two $70.
8 General Borgono Cuadra, Miraflores; 51-1/445-4042; dinner for two $50.
Traditional Peruvian cooking and live Criollo music.
409 Avda. San Pedro de Osma, Barranco; 51-1/467-0421; dinner for two $40.
Great ceviche and seafood. Lunch only.
1337 Avda. La Mar, Miraflores; 51-1/222-5731; lunch for two $26.
Where to Shop
By appointment only.
103 Calle Saenz Pena, Barranco; 51-1/477-0921.
295 Saenz Peña, Barranco; 51-1/477-0562.
1157 Avda. Malecón Grau, Chorrillos; 51-1/467-1180.
897 Calle Chiclayo, Miraflores; 51-1/242-8899.
212 Calle Cajamarca, Barranco; 51-1/477-4629.
5245 Avda. Petit Thouars, Miraflores.
What to Do
Iglesia de San Francisco
This convent's church is notable for its catacombs.
Near Plaza de Armas.
On Plaza de Armas.Museo de Arte
125 Paseo de Colón; 51-1/423-4732.
Museo Pedro de Osma
423 Avda. San Pedro de Osma, Barranco; 51-1/467-0141.
What to Read
War by Candlelight
By Daniel Alarcón.
A World for Julius
By Alfredo Bryce Echenique.
Conversation in the Cathedral and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
By Mario Vargas Llosa.
Letter to a King: A Peruvian Chief's Account of Life Under Incas and Spanish Rule
By Huaman Poma.
History of the Conquest of Peru
By William H. Prescott.
The Great Peruvian Recipes
By Jorge Stanbury Aguirre.