Whilst staying in Lima, I have experienced the hectic, noisy madness of the area of the city known as the Historic Centre and have loved it for how much it has to offer the urban explorer. Whilst in sharp contrast to the better known tourist districts of Miraflores and Barranco, it is a must for travellers looking to experience the heart of Lima in all its unique, messy glory.
Lima has the highest population of any city in Peru, with 10 million inhabitants, and the Historic Centre is the most densely populated district of the city. This, combined with non-stop traffic, makes wandering the streets an experience in of itself. Often times the traffic lights and signposts appear to be taken as optional and an ‘every man for himself’ rule is applied to traffic and pedestrians alike!
The Markets and Chinatown
Nowhere is the hectic nature of the Historic Centre more evident than in the street markets and Chinatown. The Mercado Central, located on Jr. Ucayali, is a former carpark taken over by a huge labyrinth of stalls selling everything imaginable all under one roof. On the lower levels you’ll find a full range of produce stalls, from meat and fish to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as numerous tiny stalls offering an excellent, and cheap, hot lunch. These stalls are clearly a favourite with the locals which is always a good indication of the quality of the food. Make sure to get a cup of fresh juice from the ladies at the fruit stalls – just check that they’ve made it using purified water first. On the higher levels you will find a seemingly random selection of household items, shoes, stationary and clothing. It’s an interesting place to visit but pick your entrance wisely, the entrance by the meat and fish vendors is not recommended!
Walking back onto Jr. Ucayali will take you into Chinatown. This is much like most Chinatowns in cities across the globe however, while walking down the main street, be sure to look down at the stone tiles that pave the ground – here birth, marriage and death notices are carved into the stone; a piece of history of the local Chinese population. Numerous restaurants offer reasonably priced menus in the ‘Chifa’ style – Chinese style cooking using Peruvian ingredients. For around 15PSN you can enjoy a delicious bowl of wonton soup and a large serving of meat and fried rice, known as ‘chaufa’.
The street markets occupy the surroundings area, especially on Jr. Cusco, Jr. Puno and Jr Paruro. At first glance the markets are chaotic and a little daunting with stalls piled into every available space, mobile vendors selling from boxes and shopping carts, items piled on blankets in the street and an endless stream of people moving in every direction, shouting and waving their wares in your face. Eventually, however, you notice the order in the madness; everything’s organised by category –the electronics section with piles of monitors, motherboards and keyboards; the kitchenware section where you see a woman crouched on the ground, waving wooden spoons at passers-by while shiny pans swing on hooks outside a shop; the party section, fully of tutus, masks and piñatas and much much more. This is an area rarely visited by tourists, so expect some staring (and potentially the occasional ‘gringo’ comment!) and be prepared to haggle hard for anything you are buying. Haggling is expected and, for tourists, they will certainly start at a much higher price than normal.
The Main Square, Museums and Churches
Any tourists that do venture into the Historic Centre tend to head for the Plaza de Armas (the main square). Here you will find the Catedral de Lima, the Palacio de Gobierno, and the Palacio Municipal de Lima (the town hall), all of which are beautiful buildings. Aim to arrive before noon to catch the highly entertaining changing of the guard at the Palace. This 30-minute process starts with tunes from the royal concert band, involving an exceptionally enthusiastic trombone player(!) and is followed by the official changing of the guards at noon. The unusual thigh burning march performed by the guards is reason enough to put this on your to-do list! Next to the Palace is the Cathedral, a stunning building combining intricate wooden balconies and exquisitely carved stonework. Entry is 10PSN however the inside can usually be sneakily viewed through the large open doors. One thing Lima, and Peru, has in abundance is beautiful churches and cathedrals, the majority of which are constantly in use for prayer and worship and, consequently, are free to respectfully enter. Excellent examples of this can be found just off the Plaza de Armas on Jr. Junin and Jr. Ancash; the Inglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo and the Inglesia de San Francisco respectively. The Inglesia de San Francisco also contains a museum and catacombs which you can explore for 10PSN.
On Jr. Ancash you will also find the Casa de la Literatura Peruana, a stunning converted railway station exhibiting the history of Peruvian and Latin American literature and the print revolution. The exhibits are solely in Spanish however there are plenty of visual displays for those struggling with the language barrier and the beauty of the building, with the original ticket offices and ornate stained glass roof, is reason enough to call in.
Back at the Plaza de Armas there is the Palacio Municipal de Lima which holds the Pancho Fierra Municipal art gallery, a non-commercial institute dedicated to contemporary art, which rotates different, free, exhibitions throughout the year and is well worth a visit. Outside the gallery there is an events board for the town highlighting cultural events for the month; this is an excellent way to find out about local theatre productions, art shows and talks. I was lucky enough to catch a production of Swan Lake at the beautifully ornate Teatro Municipal de Lima (on Jr Ucayali) performed by Ballet Municipal de Lima (Peru’s Classical ballet company) after seeing it advertised here. Tickets for most productions and events are sold at TeleTicket desks found in Metro and Wong supermarkets (closest one on Jr. Cusco)
For a little peace and quiet head South on Jr. de la Union past the large shopping centre plaza and into the Parque de la Exposicion. This large park boasts an impressive water fountain and is full of green space to relax in. It also holds the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), a stunning museum full of Inca and pre-Inca ceramics, funeral items and jewellery, colonial art, furniture and photography. At 30PSN entry it is an expensive option however entry is halved for teachers, students and the elderly and entry is free for all on Thursdays after 3pm and the last Friday of every month from 5pm-10pm. I would highly recommend a visit. Just past the Parqe de la Exposicion there is also the Parque de la Reserva which contains the Magic Water Circuit, a huge and stunning water fountain complex. Wednesday to Sunday a water and laser show is performed each evening and, at 4PSN for adults and free entry for children, it is an excellent way to spend an evening. These parks offer a small respite from the chaos of the streets of the Historic Centre and a chance to sit back and watch the world go by.
The Famous Pisco Sour
Finally, no visit to Peru is complete without sampling the famous Pisco Sour and, in the Historic Centre, you can visit the birthplace of the cocktail. On Jr. Carabaya, close to the Plaza de Armas, you will find the Hotel Maury, famous for its invention of Peru’s national drink. The cocktail is a combination of Pisco (a brandy style liquor), lemon juice, egg whites, sugar syrup and bitters and is delicious. It’s hard to find a bar in Peru that doesn’t serve Pisco Sour but the bar in Hotel Maury is probably the best place to get your first taste of this famous drink.
In summary the Historic Centre of Lima is a chaotic mix of old and new, regal and humble, with the constant noise in the streets suddenly silenced inside the numerous churches and the hectic pace of the markets forgotten in the peace of the parks. The streets are filled with glorious architecture so take the time to look up at the ornate wooden balconies which jut out over the streets and at the intricate stone carvings atop the doorways and windows of the public buildings. Often the beauty of this district is seen only when you really stop to look.