South America, Peru

Learning to Love Lima: My First Impressions of the City

April 20, 2014

As I’m sure that anyone who has been will tell you, Lima is not an easy city to love.  I was well aware of this fact before I arrived, so if anything I had fairly low expectations of the city.  However, unless you are travelling to or from the country overland, any trip to Peru almost inadvertently starts here, and – despite what I’d heard from others – I wanted to give Lima a chance.  I wanted to form my own opinions about this sprawling metropolis, which is home to over 9 million people.

We arrived in Lima just hours after a major earthquake (measuring 8.2 on the richter scale) had struck the Pacific Ocean, and triggered a tsunami which hit the coast of Iquique in northern Chile.  Shocks from the earthquake were felt up to 290 miles away, and as a result further tsunami warnings had been issued up the coast, including in Lima.

This not only worried me, but also my mother.  My mum, although she’s travelled quite a lot, has not really travelled very far outside of Europe, so she worries a lot when I’m away from home, in a country – and therefore an environment – that is both unfamiliar and alien to her.  Fearing that her daughter could be in danger only hours after bidding her farewell, was not doing wonders for settling her nerves.

This, coupled with the stories I’d heard regarding the dangers of wandering around Lima’s streets (robberies and muggings are not uncommon), meant that I was very wary about simply leaving the hostel door.  Even the owner of our hostel advised against roaming the streets of downtown Lima after around 6pm, and Lonely Planet’s recommendation for one of the best establishments in which to try the local dish, Ceviche, came with the warning,

“This is a rough neighbourhood; take a taxi – even in the daytime”

Moreover, any business or residential property of any importance that we happened upon, seemed to come with its own security guard – all of which were armed.  Even standard residential properties in Miraflores (which is reputedly the safest district in Lima) were surrounded by fortifications, many of which were electrified.  Yes, people take precautions to protect themselves and their property, but a reason must have arisen to prompt them to take such extreme action.  I’ve never seen security guards or fortifications like this used anywhere else in the world, and rather then offering me some sort of reassurance in my own safety, it instilled an enormous sense of fear and uncertainty in me.

Now, let me just point out that I’ve travelled through South-east Asia for 6 months on my own, and as a solo female traveller I never felt unsafe in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, or Vientiane. But I’d been in Lima for less than an hour and already I felt unsafe.  How could I possibly grow to love a city that I was scared to even walk around in?  One of my favourite ways of getting to know a city is to have an aimless wander around its streets, with a map in hand only to refer to in order to give myself a rough idea of where I am.  Having that luxury instantly taken away from me was ruining any chance I had of loving – or even liking – Lima.

There was a flip side to this very dirty coin though.

For the majority of the year a low mist descends over the arid valley in which Lima sits.  This forms a solid grey blanket of cloud – what Limenos call ‘garua’ – which lingers over the city, a phenomenon which is only made worse by traffic-related air pollution.  Lima’s only respite from this usually is in the height of its summer (December to March), and as this is not a great time to visit the rest of Peru – as it’s also the wet season, not many people find themselves in Lima within these months.

Many people – apart from us.

Ok, so strictly we were there in April, but only just.  So we were fortunate enough to catch Lima bathed in sunshine.  Generally the cloud would roll in mid-late afternoon, but until then we were treated to a horizon of summery blue skies.

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Furthermore, being a fan of both Beetles (the automobile variety) and cats, I was overjoyed to find that Lima’s streets are awash with many of both.  I learned through a friend that the Volkswagen Beetle used to be built in Brazil, which then explained the reason behind the plentiful numbers of them around the city (Peru shares a large chunk of its eastern border with Brazil).

As for the cats within the city, most of them seem to reside in and around Parque Kennedy in Miraflores.  No-one really knows why or how they came to be here, but the cat population within the park has apparently existed for 20 years.  Historically a sole woman used to travel from nearby Surco, five times a week, in order to feed the cats.  Nowadays there is a group of volunteers who take it in turns to feed, give vaccinations, provide veterinary care, and raise money in order to help with the protection of these animals.

Lima Cats

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

“The greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals”

So, in spite of its rough reputation, there are a few stones in Lima, which continue to sparkle.

The longer I spent in the city, the more comfortable I became and the more I began to appreciate what Lima has to offer.  Whilst it’s not somewhere I think I’ll ever love, there are parts of it that I like a lot.

The Beautiful Colonial Architecture of Downtown Lima.

Following a conversation with an awesome pair of Aussies from our hostel, we found ourselves joining a free walking tour of downtown Lima.  Originally started by innovative individuals, there are now a network of free walking tours available in cities throughout the world.   Up until this point, I’d never been on one, but now I would thoroughly recommend it.

Ours was run by a couple of young guys with a wealth of knowledge about the city and its history, one of whom had an excellent command of the English language, and would impart information to us in both Spanish and English.  They guided us safely to central Lima via the city’s efficient metro system, and navigated their way effortlessly around the areas confusing network of streets, in order to introduce us to downtown Lima’s primary attractions.

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Monastario de San Francisco

Downtown Lima

The tour culminated at the Monasterio de San Francisco, where the guides took a group photo of us all on the steps (which would later be uploaded to their Facebook page), and we willingly tipped them for their services, before paying our 7 soles to explore the Monastery and its expanse of catacombs.

The Colourful Streets of Barranco

If you want to check out some of the city’s street art, come to Barranco.  It’s the district on the east side of Miraflores, where we were based, so it’s easily walkable from there, with the aid of a good map.  Or you can hop on any of the city’s colourful minibuses that hurtle down the avenues, with a cobrador (ticket taker) hanging out the door and shouting out the stops.  We caught one back from Barranco for the cost of 2 soles (42 pence), and the helpful lady cobrador even alerted us when we’d reached the correct stop.

In the 60’s Barranco was the centre of bohemian life; the small corner of the city where its artists resided.  As I entered this part of Lima, I could instantly feel that much of that creative energy has carried through to the present day.  Yes, it was a little bit edgy, a little bit rough but it felt vibrant, down to earth, and full of history and character.   Whilst Miraflores was a pleasant enough area in which to be based, it is a modern commercial district, and therefore lacks the old town charm of Barranco.

The Culinary Scene

Gastronomy has always been an essential aspect of life in Lima, however it was only in 2006, when experts at the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusión formally declared Lima to be the “Gastronomy Capital of the Americas”  that the city really became recognised for its cuisine.  There’s a huge range of national and international cuisine available, and if you don’t come here on a budget then the world is your oyster.  However the one dish you must try during your stay is Ceviche, widely acknowledged as the ‘Peruvian National Dish’.  Ceviche is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and seasoned with ají or chili peppers, along with chopped onions, salt and coriander.

Although our budget wouldn’t stretch to eating out every day, we did book ourselves on a Lima Market Tour, Cooking Class and Pisco Sour Lesson, which included a top-notch 3-course meal at an exclusive restaurant down on the pier (also the location of our cooking class and Pisco Sour lesson).

Cooking Class & Pisco Sour

The market tour beforehand was also a wonderful introduction to the ingredients used in many of the country’s local dishes, and a perfect way to sample some of the freshest and tastiest fruit around.

Market, San Isidro

Watching the Surfers Ride the Waves from our Vantage Point at Love Park

Whilst it’s not located in a very attractive part of Lima, Love Park itself is decorated with colourful mosaic-tiled walls reminiscent of Gaudi’s Park Guell, and is a peaceful, relaxing beach-front location from which to watch the surfers down below, riding the waves as they roll into the shore.

As it’s name suggests, the park is indeed full of young couples with their arms draped around each other, but their presence is endearing, and only compliments the romantic ambience of the park.  We spent a couple of hours here on our first day in the city, and it was a pleasant break from the traffic-filled streets just minutes away.

Our Hostel and the Wonderful People we Met There

Whilst accommodation when you’re travelling really only needs to serve its purpose  – provide you with a comfortable bed for the night, and a warm shower in the morning – there are times when your experience at said hostels or guesthouses can really make or break your experience of a destination, and Ekeko Hostel in Lima was definitely one of the former.  Right from the moment we arrived, fresh off a 14 hour flight from Gatwick (via Madrid), to the moment we left, the fantastic staff went out of their way to help us.  They took the time to talk to us, they gave recommendations, arranged taxis, invited us to share their food, and helped me to practice my abysmal (in relation to the level of competency that other Gringos in the hostel seemed to possess) Spanish.  As a result the hostel had a friendly, relaxed vibe that immediately felt like home.  Whether we were preparing food in the large kitchen, eating breakfast at the long dining table, utilising the wifi to plan our travel itineraries on the comfy living room sofas, or chilling out in the sunny courtyard, there would always be someone around who wanted engage in conversation with us.

Ekeko Hostel

This is how we met the Aussies, Cameron and Cassie, who we spent a couple of nights at the hostel with, sharing Mango and Cusquena, and entertaining tales from the road.  Oh, and Jenga.  The king of late night hostel games between fellow backpackers.

Although we didn’t manage to fit any visits into our 3-day schedule this time around, I’ve also heard great things about Lima’s museums and art galleries, especially Museo Larco in the San Isidro District (who also offer nightie visits with dining), and MATE in Barranco, which is an art gallery owned by photographer Mario Testino.

So, whilst Lima will never be one of my favourite cities in the world, I did find that – even given the small amount of time I allowed myself there – it was a city that was starting to grow on me. Whilst I experienced a taster of the city’s infamous cuisine, I’d very much like the opportunity to sample some more.  I’d also love to dedicate a day to exploring Lima’s art galleries and museums, and I’d love to return to Barranco.  Despite its reputation, and if you can see past your initial impressions of the city, Lima does have a lot to offer, and I look forward to the next time I find myself passing through this bustling coastal metropolis.  Being one of the major gateways to other Peruvian towns and cities, there will undoubtedly be a next time.

Have you ever visited Lima?  What were your thoughts about the city?

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This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.

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18 Comments

  • Reply Lauren April 26, 2014 at 2:15 AM

    I actually don’t know too much about Lima (until now with your lovely blog post!) so I didn’t know it was so rough. I really want to visit Peru for the cultural and historical sites, and I’m sure I will one day find myself in Lima, so it’s good to know all of the positive things you liked about the city! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  • Reply Sammi April 30, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    One of my oldest friends lived in Lima for a year or so with her Peruvian fiancé. She got mugged once and said the guys who did it made sure a) not to hurt her and b) to leave her with her ID! She never really mentioned about it being rough other than that experience, and I know when he was working she was wandering around alone- though it helped her learn Spanish!

  • Reply Marissa June 15, 2014 at 6:04 PM

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiences in Lima as I had not known very much about the city before. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Emma June 15, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    That market tour looks incredible… Such a fascinating place, that you don’t hear all that much about! Great post!

  • Reply Adelina | PackMeTo June 17, 2014 at 6:52 PM

    Oh wow, I had no idea things were that rough in Lima. Going to South America in general isn’t high on my travel list yet. The photos you’ve shared though are gorgeous. Thanks for sharing your true thoughts. Something to think about if I ever set out below the equator.

  • Reply Anna | slightly astray June 18, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    I actually never heard about how dangerous Lima is! I’m glad nothing really bad happened to you and you were able to enjoy it by the end :). And I’m glad to hear that the stray cats are well fed and given vet care!!

    • Reply Kiara Gallop June 19, 2014 at 5:07 PM

      Thanks guys for all the comments 🙂 Didn’t mean to scare any of you about the safety in Lima, I guess the guidebooks and hostel owners have to err on the side of caution in order to protect their readers and guests. I don’t blame them, and I am always wary in large cities anyway. I don’t want to put anyone off going, I just think it’s wise to be aware if dangers do exist, and hence you are therefore in a position to be able to take precautions.

  • Reply Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy June 21, 2014 at 5:47 PM

    I didn’t realize how rough Lima can be either, but it wouldn’t really deter me. It does look and sound wonderful though! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler 🙂

  • Reply Han Dekker August 28, 2014 at 5:45 PM

    Hi Kiara!

    I finally get to to take a good look at your website and I must say it´s very inspiring! Your articles are very specific, detailed and your pictures are amazing and very well selected. We are planning to travel to Lima tomorrow, so it´s nice to read about the city, it´s do´s or don´ts.

    After Sucre we spend time in La Paz and Rurrenabaque and now we´ve been in Peru for 2 weeks. It´s a beautiful country, although we like the people of Bolivia much better 🙂

    Thank you for the time we spend together. I´ll keep visiting your website.

    All the best.

    Han

    • Reply Kiara Gallop August 28, 2014 at 5:51 PM

      Great to hear from you Han, and thanks for dropping by my website and taking the time to leave a comment 🙂 I’ll send you an email so that I can write more and we can have a proper conversation. Say hi to Hanneke from me too 🙂

  • Reply ashlee November 26, 2014 at 8:18 PM

    I connected from another site – wondering how your figured out the onward travel requirements? thx

    • Reply Kiara Gallop November 26, 2014 at 8:42 PM

      Ashlee, do you mean the onward travel to Iquitos? (where we headed to after Lima) or are you just talking about onward travel in Peru in general?

  • Reply ashlee November 30, 2014 at 4:54 AM

    getting into Peru without proof of onward travel? (flying from the US to Lima and don’t have a return flight

    • Reply Kiara Gallop November 30, 2014 at 11:05 AM

      I’m a UK resident and I flew into Lima from London. I wasn’t asked for proof of onward travel, but I was only given a 1-month visa in spite of telling the immigration officer that I planned to spend 3 months in the country (UK residents are entitled to a 90-day visa on arrival but it is at the immigration officer’s discretion). I’d advise getting in touch with a US-based blogger who has travelled in Peru, just to make sure. You could try Alex in Wanderland. She’s got some great articles about Peru on there too 🙂

  • Reply Coquito March 16, 2015 at 9:00 PM

    Could you share the Facebook page of the guys that run the free walking tour of Lima? I will be taking a tour of Peru in about six weeks. This tour, however, only includes one evening in Lima, so I’m flying in two days ahead, on my own. I’m also looking at a one-day tour from Viator. Thnx!

  • Reply Bryony Clapperton (travelsandmore) September 16, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    Perhaps it was different travelling as a couple but I spent a week in Lima and never felt unsafe once. It seemed so much safer than a lot of other Latin American cities we had seen. I think the appearance of such a developed city can fool some people though.

    I loved Lima though! Cat park was a highlight and I’m not even a cat lover so glad you liked that. I loved Mirraflores and walking along the seafront at sun set. We had drinks in the restaurant at the end of the pier. Great to watch the surfers and the crazy Pacific waves. Architecture is lush. Glad you got so many fab pics!

    • Reply Kiara Gallop September 16, 2016 at 9:28 PM

      I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve read other bloggers’ posts on Lima since I travelled there and not one of them mentioned feeling unsafe. I think part of the reason was that Lima was the first place I ever visited in South America, so I was probably feeling a little on edge because I didn’t have a clue what to expect.

      However, warnings from both the hostel owner and Lonely Planet didn’t help, and neither did the imposing security fences and armed guards we saw around the streets of Miraflores – reportedly one of the safest neighbourhoods in the city.

      I think, had I spent longer in Lima or had I returned at a later point in my trip, things may have been different though 🙂

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