Capital cities always struggle in the public mind. They’re “swamps” filled with feckless politicians and their sycophantic followers. They reflect less the nation than its corrupted strivers and the greedy accumulation of power. Life is fast in such metropolises; people live harried lives or at least so this particular narrative goes.
Traveling around Peru, one hears similar critiques about its economic and political center, Lima. The crowded streets of the nation’s capital, one resident of Peru’s Sacred Valley told us, hum with the discontent of pedestrians always wary of being run over by the city’s fearful traffic. Even in its earlier incarnations, observers viewed it as a place apart from the nation. “Lima is more remote from Peru than London,” Alex Von Humbolt wrote in 1802.
Of course, sometimes stereotypes are based on a grain of truth. For example, the March resignation of then-President Pedro Pablo Kucyznski due to a vote buying scandal did not help Lima’s image. This summer, less than six months later, a major scandal involving bribes and rigged legal outcomes in the nation’s judiciary system added fuel to the proverbial fire. “This is big,” Juan Antonio Castro, legal counsel in Lima, told the Washington Post, “maybe one of the worst crises we have had in 15, 20 years.” So yes, Lima wasn’t, isn’t, and probably never will be squeaky clean.
To be fair, regardless of malfeasance or corruption, the Incas had little use for Lima. Like other ancient civilizations, the sun functioned as a deity to be feared, exalted, and ultimately absorbed. Better to situate the empire in the high altitude of Cuzco to the South, far closer to the sun and a point of departure for the royalty who travelled the Inca Trail on their way to the magnificent Machu Picchu. No, Lima’s grey winter skies—“Winter can be depressing,” notes one writer—were hardly suitable for a kingdom of the sun. Often afflicted by a thin layer of mist, Herman Melville viewed the thin condensation that shrouded Lima as a “white veil” that rendered it “the strangest, saddest city.”
In countless ways, Spanish conquistadors saw the world differently. Once disease, civil war, and European cruelty and armaments decimated the once-mighty Inca Empire, Lima’s central location on the western coast provided easy access to the Pacific Ocean. In 1542, Spain made it the seat of the Viceroyalty of Peru. From there the silver bullion mined from Potosí could be shipped to Spain, altering capital flows, international economics, and European statecraft. The mercantilist policy of the Spanish empire enabled Lima to hold a monopoly on colonial South America for over 100 years. Wealth poured into the metropolis.
Colonial Lima became “a city of churches,” as Catholicism violently replaced native religions—though not without a healthy dose of syncretism. Five saints, including the first from South America—Santa Rosa (canonized in 1671)—would emerge from Lima. The Inquisition found enthusiastic and brutal expression in the city’s culture. “Pious Lima, home of the Inquisition in South America,” reflects one historian. This religious past is easily discerned when visiting its historic center, which is pock-marked by Catholic churches.
Spain’s thirst for silver and gold meant its empire refused to remain static. It quickly expanded across South America. Viceroyalties in Bogata (1731) and Buenos Aires (1776) followed, each taking a share of the wealth that Lima once claimed for itself. Peru achieved independence in 1821, bringing Lima’s creoles the political power they believed to be their birthright, but as other nations emerged and colonial Spain crumbled so too did Lima’s commercial stranglehold. As in other parts of the defunct Spanish empire (such as the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires), European merchants rushed in and, by the late nineteenth century, established an economic and cultural presence. The production of beer and the sport of futbol serve as just two examples of the latter. Even today the nation’s two most iconic futbol teams hail from Lima, both growing from sports clubs established in the late 1800s: Alianza Lima and Universitario de Desportes. The former is seen as aligned with the working classes, the latter, with Limeño elites.
One of the world’s lesser known commodities, but valuable nonetheless, proved a savior to Lima in the 1800s: bird guano. The Incas had long valued it as a fertilizer; individuals caught interfering with guano production could be punished with death. Such severities eventually receded, but international developments only increased guano’s value. During the nineteenth century mining still occupied a central place in the Peruvian economy, but Europe’s agricultural production rapidly increased such that the fertilizer provided economic sustenance for the country, even if English businessmen dominated the trade. By the late 1800s, bird guano harvested in places like Paracas to the South served as the nation and capital’s economic savior. Bird droppings, often the bane of municipalities, ironically funded modernization efforts in Lima as the century ended. Paris served as its inspiration, as it did in Buenos Aires and other South American metropoles. Municipal officials added wide boulevards in parts of the city as a means to emulate those built by Baron Von Haussman in the Parisian capital.
Around 1875, railroad construction brought over 100,000 Chinese laborers to Peru, and many settled in Lima. By the late twentieth century, over one million Peruvians of Chinese descent inhabited the country, their influence visible by Lima’s numerous “Chifa” or Chinese-themed restaurants. The Japanese arrived in the 1920s and made their own mark; though not as prevalent as Chifas, sushi can be had in the capital as well. One might also point to the presidency of Albert Fujimoro (controversially pardoned by the deposed President Kuczynski) during the 1990s as further evidence of cosmopolitan Lima’s contribution to Peruvian society, though the secrecy and manipulations of his tenure undoubtedly contributed to negative depictions of the city and its influence.
Of course, race in Lima, as elsewhere, is a knotty subject. Mestizos make up a much larger portion of the population than in many other South American nations and, as in Alta California, due to intermixing the racial hierarchies established under Spanish rule now abound with fissures through which mestizo Peruvians might wriggle. Yet prejudices remain hard to shake, and the legacy of Spanish rule infused society with the belief in European superiority. Limeños hail from European stock more commonly than countrymen and women outside the city, where indigenous folks and mestizos make up a much larger portion of residents. When you find yourself in Andean regions this truth becomes even clearer. Despite their slight portion of the general populace, around 15 percent, whites dominate government disproportionately. Afro-Peruvians, often descendants of slaves, make up less than three percent of the population.
At the expense of democratic reform, President Augusto B. Leguia proved one of the city’s great modernizers. As he took office in 1919, almost none of Lima’s roads were paved; by the time he left office in 1930 roughly 90 percent of the city’s byways had been laid in concrete. During his rule, Peruvians witnessed over 11,000 miles of roads being laid. In the two decades following his authoritarian rule, road construction continued throughout the nation. Under a military regime that assumed power in 1965, the city added the Paseo de La Republica, known locally as “the big ditch” due to its location below the city itself.
Unfortunately, the same military regime cared little for aesthetics and built a great number of non-descript government buildings that gradually eroded older colonial structures. Granted one might argue such colonial structures served as negative reminders of imperial rule, but the more aesthetically inclined might also note that they did exhibit a certain stylistic flair that has gone largely missing in newer construction. As a result, in Lima you do not see the mix of modernistic panache, art deco cool, and colonial baroqueness that one finds in Mexico City. Partially as a result, “Lima … doesn’t say anything to you,” writes historian Hugh O’Shaughnessy. Walking about Lima, one can hear whispers of the city’s identity but they remain just that: soft murmurings. Its residents embody this mystery, such that “Lima’s inhabitants are kind but discreet, polite yet impassive, but above all in my experience enigmatic.”
Then again, if you make the effort you can develop a feel for the city and its people. The San Isidro section of the city, home to architecture that sometimes suggests the Spanish fantasy style of 1920s Southern California, offers a flash of personality. As do the murals and graffiti that accentuate the Barrancos neighborhood, where one can walk across the historic “Bridge of Sighs” and gaze down at the artistry on local walls while street musicians ply their melodious trade. There is also the more modern but perhaps also banal commercialism of Miraflores, where modern shopping malls help deliver twentieth-century consumerism to twenty-first-century customers.
Admittedly, the 1980s and 1990s proved difficult for Lima and the country. The rise of the Maoist ultra-violent Shining Path in the nation’s countryside drove migrants to the city. Peri-urban shanty towns grew on the city’s margins where poverty—defined by a lack of access to running water, sanitation, and electricity—left the nation’s poor to trade rural hardships for urban ones. The terrorist group often sabotaged the city’s electrical grid, throwing the capital into darkness, and then lighting torches in the hillsides that ringed Lima “to signal the shining future that revolution would bring,” as James Higgins writes. The revolution brought mostly death and destruction, but also the neoliberal reforms of President Fujimoro, who eventually neutralized the Shining Path as a threat while also worsening inequality for much of the city’s working class and poor residents. At the turn of the century, nearly half of all Peruvians lived below the poverty lines; soup kitchens served great numbers of the country’s people.
However, since then Peru has enjoyed some economic success. Home values doubled between 2009 and 2013, as homeowners enjoyed the benefits of one of Latin America’s fastest expanding economies. Foreign buyers have poured into Lima, mostly from Columbia, Spain, and the United States, but also from Australia, Canada, and the UK. Looking to buy a new home in San Isidro? Expect to pay around $2,676 per square meter or almost $250 per square foot. Miraflores will cost you $2,397 per square meter or around $223 per square foot.
Finally, one cannot discuss Lima without mentioning its culinary superiority. Food across Peru is delicious. You will never know the full scope of the potato universe until you’ve delved into Peruvian cuisine. The Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerns of the world have long touted Lima’s gustatory bonafides. Sublime ceviches, fresh seafood, and clever desserts abound, all at very affordable prices. Michelin stars cascade across restaurants in Lima; its more remote location along the South American Pacific Coast means that though the food rivals Paris and Milan, the crowds and prices do not. “‘Upscale’ is a relative term,” the New York Times’ Lucas Peterson acknowledged in 2017. “You can still gorge yourself on outstanding seafood for about $30 per person.”
Called Ciudad de Iglesias (City of Churches), Ciudad de Reyes (City of Kings), La Perla de Pacifico (The Pearl of the Pacific), and yes, even La Gris (The Gray), Lima remains an affordable international city that should be more than a brief stop before one ascends into Peru’s mountains or descends into its Amazonian rain forest. Enigmatic for sure, but compelling as well, spend some time in the Peruvian capital.
It was regional and local election time in Peru. The above videos provide a very brief insight into local politicos out in the neighborhoods campaigning. Bottom video by Soo Lim.
All photos taken by Ryan Reft
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