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Lima Evolving

Coliena Rentmeester Jewelry designer Ester Ventura, in her shop in the Chorrillos neighborhood

Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

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 gum–flavored 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.

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