‘Oh my god’. The American drawl of a yummy-mummy doing lunch with her toned buddy hits my ears. ‘I didn’t realise that she had children from a previous relationship’. They are on the sofa in Starbucks, turned in to each other; comfortable friendship. And familiar environment, I would imagine. I have been here for over an hour making use of the Wi-Fi and catching up on a pile of emails but these two were already chatting when I arrived and they look in no hurry to leave. All the time in the world, it would seem.
This is La Molina, a tidy suburb of Lima. The streets are organised and clean and lined with trimmed plant life. Houses are beautifully presented – not too grand – but fresh and architecturally balanced and considered with pleasing curves in all the right places. It feels a fairly safe neighbourhood, especially once inside the security gates that block the entrance to nearly all residential streets.
But it also feels a bit separate to the overall reality of Peru. Women come out of gym sessions in tight, new workout wear, men in expensive suits sit with colleagues for a coffee and chat, and young cool adults lounge with laptops and expensive Frappuccinos.
This is a place of professionals and expats, of ladies who lunch and rich kids who hang out, a place where I feel a scruff and where my backpack is an incredibly foreign and frowned on article (although people just stare, they’re far too polite to frown publically).
Miraflores, another district of Lima, heaves with people of all nationalities; professionals and backpackers side-by-side. It is gringo central with tonnes of hostels and standardised eateries catering for the unadventurous or those seeking something safe and comforting. Up at the top end by the central park, it doesn’t seem to possess the same self-assured affluence of La Molina, probably because a fair few of us scruffy travellers bring the place down a notch or two.
But don’t be fooled; it is pricey and upmarket compared to much of Peru. Miraflores is clean and Western and convenient. It has the edge of being beachside, of being a place of leisure with opportunities to paraglide and surf or whack a ball in the tennis courts. To actually live here rather than pass through the place highlights the inaccessibility for most Peruvians who earn on average S/.1,148 per month (although this is based on figures from Lima). To rent a two bed flat in Miraflores would set you back around S/.3,790 per month ($1,400 / £900), but you would get an immaculate, modern apartment for the price within a stone’s throw of the beach and bars and restaurants. Obviously not an option for most.
La Victoria and the Tacora area of Lima offers up a complete contrast to the wealth and style of Miraflores and La Molina. It fulfils the expectations of a tourist in Latin America, being undeveloped and rough around the edges with a hint of danger and disorder.
Battered, dirty buildings are cramped into littered streets that swarm with people, a heaving district on the breadline. Slums rise up on the sandy mounds that frame the area; brown, blocky buildings clinging to the hillside. Built slightly recessed to each other, the site can reach up to six or more houses high. There is no space between them; it’s overcrowded and hectic and looks somewhat precarious. A few people have painted their buildings in bright colours but predominantly it is a brown sea of chaos.
And downtown Lima, the so called centre of the city?
In some respects, it is much like other Peruvian city centres with pretty parks and plazas dotted about the place, but it is also considered a world heritage centre by UNESCO. Architecturally it has some impressive buildings and churches including the Convento de San Francisco, Catedral de Lima and Palacio De Gobierno. (See Peru This Week and Peru en RoUte for some photos of the historic centre and downtown Lima).
Traditional places to eat sit alongside McDonalds and KFC and Bembos. A mix of people wander the streets of Lima, some tourists, some everyday people getting on with their daily chores, some hopefuls trying to make money out of those passing by.
Overall, Lima offers what one would expect of a big city: lots to see and do, old alongside the modern, visible disparity of wealth, imposing architecture and a diverse mix of inhabitants. I got a week long peek at Lima, staying much longer in such a big place than I would usually do because it grabbed me. I avoided the usual tourist comforts of taxis and flagged down cramped collectivos and jumped on the Metro. I sampled bits of the culture and sights and all of it recharged my batteries.
An energetic city by the beach with a great climate? Yes please.