“Lovely” Lima

We woke up early, feeling like a disgruntled employee.  We hadn’t slept a wink after our “rough entry” (see preceding post) into Peru.  Yet, on the bright side, we had the entire day ahead of us to explore Lovely Lima, my first visit to a South American capital.

Lima is the capital and largest city in Peru.  It has approximately 9 million residents in the metro area, making Lima the fifth largest city in Latin America (after Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro).  Like her Latin compatriots, Peru has the all to familiar history of an indigenous population taken over by Spanish Colonial rule.  On January 18, 1535 “la Ciudad de los Reyes” or the “City of Kings” was founded by Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador, who earlier defeated the powerful Incan ruler Atahualpa and overtook his empire.  The Spanish influence can be seen everywhere—in the lovely architecture of the buildings, cathedrals, and homes, as well as the Spanish language, religion and culture.

A perfect way to see a huge city like Lima quickly is by doing hiring a driver and doing a private tour.  After our experience last night, being mugged only forty minutes after being inside the country, we felt like a private tour was an excellent choice.  Our hotel, Hotel las Americas (a five-star hotel for a mere $75/night…remember this was ten years ago, but still!), arranged an English-speaking driver and guide named Pablo for our half-day tour of the city.

Note:  These photos are incredibly grainy and poor quality.  They were taken over ten years ago with my cheap camera and had to be scanned so I could include them in the post.  Please ignore the quality and use them only as a reference! 

Above is a picture of me and our driver/guide Pablo.  We felt honored to be in one of the nicest, cleanest cars in Peru.  Yet, we were also constantly aware that we could be seen and viewed as an easy target so we opted to not carry along anything valuable.

We first headed to visit the main square in town, Plaza des Armes/Mayor and then headed over to the beautiful, famous St. Martin Square.  The Spanish colonial architecture was stunning.

Photo below of the Plaza Mayor (or Plaza de Armas):  Lima’s administrative and political center which contains the Government Palace, City Hall, Cathedral and Palace.

The Government Palace:

The Cathedral:

A walk around the Plaza revealed the gorgeous, intricate architecture from the Spaniards.  This is where we first saw the famous balconies, a major feature of Lima’s architecture during the colonial period.

Photos of the amazing, spectacularly carved balconies:

Church balconies:

The Convent of San Fancisco (XVII Century):

The gorgeous gardens outside of the convent:

A perfect view of solitude:

St. Martin Square:

My black shoes were looking rather dirty and dingy as the shoe shiner pointed out.  I would normally never get a shoe shine (never have before!) yet for twenty cents, what the heck…when in Rome!

After the tour, we drove over to one of the main artists square where I purchased a lovely painting that is still hanging in my house today.  Here is a picture of the square:

The day was finished with dinner and a beer at one of the local restaurants nearby our hotel.  Our food was fine yet what wasn’t fine was the beggar woman walking directly outside our window nestling a baby in her arms and nursing, while her hand was out asking for money.  Of course, I felt completely awful to see this kind of poverty while we were inside drinking wine and eating a fine meal.  However, the restaurant owner was not the least bit sorry about the situation and instead he was furious.  Apparently, the woman was poor yet using the baby (who was most likely a borrowed one) to get more money!  This is a common trick found in Peru and the owner had seen her before.  He shooed her away before we could reach into our pockets and give her money but it still let an unpleasant feeling inside of our hearts.

Overall, my first impressions of Lima were a little bit negative.  I am sure that I was tainted by the mugging experience, however, I found Lima to be not what I had imagined it to be.  I was a little disappointed by the city because it was nowhere near as beautiful as I would have expected.  I had pictured a beautiful, romantic city yet found it to be dirty, poor and chaotic.  The architecture was stunning but it was hard to ignore the poverty, the pollution and the dirt.  (Now remember this was over ten years ago and it was my first visit to South America.  Perhaps I wasn’t using my thirdeye!  But these are just the perceptions I had written down in my journal thus I thought they were worth exploring).  We had learned during our tour that over 50% of the eight million people of Lima live in poverty (there is huge unemployment) and many live without running water.  Our guide had also said that he believes that Lima is almost 35 years behind Chile and probably 50-60 years behind the United States in terms of development.  Again, perhaps this has improved over the last ten years, but I am doubtful.  After traveling and seeing many places in the world, I’ve come to understand that poverty is real and it takes time to change things.  It also makes people desperate because they have to fight to survive.

Another thing that bothered me about Lima was the level of security which gave it a menacing feeling.  There were armed guards at every corner and armed security outside and sometimes inside every nice store (even inside the grocery store!).  This was a constant reminder that crime and theft are common as the poverty exists and surrounds you.  The desperation of the people was upsetting and startling.  Beggars were everywhere asking for hand-outs (especially street children) and you constantly had to watch your back for pickpocketers.  It was a troubling feeling that made me very uncomfortable.  Little did I know at the time, that much of the world is this way.  It is a sad reality.  Yet, I had not ventured much outside of Europe so for me, it was a very eye-opening experience.

Photo above of Lima taken from our hotel in Miraflores, the upscale district of the city.

We returned to our hotel somewhat dissatisfied about what we had seen.  Looking back, it was a good lesson and would help change my outlook on the world and reinforce my ideas that you must give back.  We are so spoiled.

Stay tuned…next post is our visit to Cusco, heart of the Incas and launching off point for the world-famous trek along the Inca Trail.


Rough entry

Photo above taken driving in Lima, Peru – November 2001.

We left for our trip to Peru less than two months after the horrific events of September 11th. I’ll never forget that day as long as I shall live. Every American remembers where they were when the first plane struck the Twin Towers in New York. The horror that unfolded over that fateful day and the next couple of days of despair, confusion and pain will forever remain in America’s psyche.

It was hard to imagine getting back on a plane after everything that happened but I had no choice.  At the time, I traveled for a living and made two to three flights a month. Going to Peru was even a bit scarier for me as I’d never been to South America and the flight was longer.  Yet the hope of doing something great despite all the tragedy was worth it.  My father and I were going to hike the Inca Trail!  So I swallowed my fear, packed my bags and boarded the plane to Lima.

Luckily, were able to score a pair of Emergency Row exit seats giving us plenty of leg room for the flight.  After a few glasses of free (yes it was free in those days!) wine, I felt calmer and was able to relax.  Yet I couldn’t help occasionally glancing around the plane, nervously, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  It was hard to fly to a foreign country, let alone even be on a plane, after hours on end of CNN replays of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.  The visuals from hell where impossible to erase from my mind.

We landed without incident, safely in Lima, Peru around ten o’clock at night.  I couldn’t help letting out a huge sigh of relief to be safely on the ground.  I made it!  I thought thankfully to myself.

As we exited the plane, the Lima airport welcomed us instantly to the sound of Peruvian music and culture.  A full-fledge Peruvian band was playing lively music with wooden flutes and indigenous drums as we headed to gather our luggage and enter through customs.  My heart skipped a beat.  Here I was, finally in new continent to discover!  South America here I come!

We gathered our belongings, easily passed through customs (a bit of a surprise given we just experienced 9/11 hell and getting through any security at the airport in the States required lots of patience), and exited the airport to the lurking crowds.  People were everywhere-drivers, cabbies, families and friends-all holding up big white signs with names written in big letters.  We had no one waiting for us.  This would end up being one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made while traveling.  (Rule #1:  ALWAYS hire a respected driver from the hotel to meet you at the airport, before entering into a foreign country).

We walked outside to the masses of chaos, and found the line for the taxis.  Before entering the cab, we made sure that we knew the going rate to the city and that the cab had a meter.  Everything seemed fine.  My dad, being a curious fellow, decided to sit up in the front so he could get a better view of our new surroundings, while I sat alone in back (Rule #2:  Never do this!).

Like most “smart” travelers I had read the US State Departments Travel Advisory and Warnings documentation (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html) as well as the country profile for Peru, before leaving.  I had a copy of it in my packed suitcase.  Yet unfortunately in all the excitement of the trip and the nervousness of a repeat of 9/11, I forgot.  (Rule #3:  Always read the above documentation right before you are departing or better yet, even on the flight there).

The half-hour ride from the airport to lovely Mireflores, a rich, upscale district of Lima was mostly uneventful.  It was dark and there wasn’t much to see.  I asked the driver in broken Spanish some questions here and there.  But he wasn’t really the talkative type.

We followed the main drag from the airport into quiet, peaceful Mireflores and reached a stoplight.  It was dark and there were no other cars around. I was getting excited to reach our hotel, and unwind.  Then, all of the sudden, out of nowhere….WHAM!  Glass flew everywhere, I screamed and thought I was going to die, while I saw a long, black-sleeved arm reach inside of the back of the car and grab my bag!  It happened so fast that I was speechless. 

After realizing that I was ok, my dad jumped out of the car (as I frightenly followed) just as the motor scooter pulled away with my backpack!  All we could see where two dark figures with a baseball bat and my backpack driving away.

Horrified, I burst into tears and noticed that two policeman were at our side talking to the driver quickly in Spanish.  There was nothing we could do.  It happened so quickly and then they were gone.

We arrived at our hotel, completely horrified about our experience.  I’d been inside the country for less than an hour and had already been mugged!

I called my husband at home, in tears, more so due to fear than loss of anything valuable.  I did a quick inventory of my bag and realized those thieves would be sorely disappointed for all they got was my make-up, a hairbrush, some personal medication and unfortunate for me, my beloved journal (which had all my thoughts and feelings about 9/11 written down in anguish, in English).  There was nothing of value to them whatsoever in my bag.  I’m sure it was promptly discarded into the Peruvian trash.

I couldn’t sleep a wink that night.  I was terrified by the experience.  What a rough entry!  Unfortunately that experience would taint my views on Lima and make me constantly uneasy and nervous.  Yet somehow or another, we weren’t going to let one bad experience ruin our trip.  I remembered to keep my eye on the price….the upcoming hike along the Inca Trail.  I also realized that I had learned a valuable lesson about traveling.  Never let your guard down.


Note:  After I returned home to the US, I re-read the US Government Travel Summary for Peru and saw to my dismay and horror that what happened to me was not a random act.  It said in big letters that there have been many reported muggings and robberies along the main road from the airport to downtown Lima, and be vigilant!  To my disgust, I realized that the entire deal was most likely a set-up, that happened at the airport.  The muggers waited and watched for us, easy prey, as my father got in the front seat of the taxi and me, a stupid American victim, in the back alone.  They probably followed us the entire way, waited for the right moment (a stoplight) and bang.

The good news is at least they didn’t get anything valuable except women’s toiletries!  The bad news is it shows how desperate people are in third world countries.

P.S.  I looked up the US Government Travel Website and here is what I found.  FYI- I went to Peru over ten years ago and this warning still exists today!  It is exactly what happened to me!!!!!

 “Violent crime, including carjacking, assault, sexual assault, and armed robbery is common in Lima and other large cities. The Embassy is aware of reports of women being sexually assaulted in their place of lodging. Women  travelling alone should be especially careful to avoid situations in which they are vulnerable due to impaired judgment or isolation. Resistance to violent crime often provokes greater violence, while victims who do not resist usually do not suffer serious physical harm. “Express kidnappings,” in which criminals kidnap victims and seek to obtain funds from their bank accounts via automatic teller machines, occur frequently. Thieves often smash car windows at traffic lights to grab jewelry, purses, backpacks, or other visible items from a car. This type of assault is very common on main roads leading to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, specifically along De la Marina and Faucett Avenues and Via de Evitamiento, but it can occur anywhere in congested traffic, particularly in downtown Lima. Travelers are encouraged to put all belongings, including purses, in the trunk of a car or taxi.” (from http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_998.html).

Obviously I made a stupid mistake and should have been more careful.  Furthermore, this kind of stuff can happen anywhere, even in Minneapolis where I live.  All I’m saying is that you just need to be cautious when traveling to another country, especially one where the population is much poorer than your own.   Lesson learned!!!!

Stay tuned…next post about “lovely” Lima.