Lima and Caral (14 – 17 November 2013)
It was time to visit an historical stronghold in South America. After having spent three days in the modern metropolis of Buenos Aires and the sleepy town of Colonia del Sacramento I was ready for something more exciting.
My flight to Lima started early in the morning. Although I wished I could have slept more it was a good thing I started early since it was a long journey to Lima with a flight change at Santiago.
The flight to Santiago took me across the Andes and I got a fantastic view of the mountains from the plane window. It was quite lovely. The flight to Lima from Santiago on the other hand was enlightening. I sat on the left of the plane and the Pacific Ocean was visible outside the window. I looked to the other side of the plane and managed to catch a glimpse of the Andes outside the windows on that side. So Chile is that thin.
As the plane started descending into Lima, I eagerly looked out of the plane window to look at the city I was going to spend the next few days in. The sight was rather sad. I had never seen a city that dusty looking, but I would of course later learn that Lima was right in the middle of a desert.
By the time I walked out to the lobby of the Lima airport it was already about 6 pm local time. My guide in Lima R was already there waiting for me. I had booked a Lima tour through G Adventures. This tour was supposed to be an add-on to a longer trip but there was nothing to stop me from booking it as a standalone and so I did. I wanted to be accompanied and brought around as much as possible since I was not confident at all visiting the city all on my own. Moreover having a guide is always nice.
The ride to my hotel took about an hour. The hotel I was booked in was the Casa Suyay in the district of Miraflores which is a more affluent area of the city. I was quite surprised that the vehicle sent to pick me up was a bus. An actual bus all for me. It felt a bit wasteful, and in the jammed up roads that I had to travel through it also seemed like I was making the traffic situation worse.
My city tour started the next morning. The sky was overcast and everything was grey. It was hardly ideal weather for a tour but according to R this was normal. It gets foggy just about every morning and that was the overcast sky I perceived. Lima is in the middle of a desert and it apparently never rains. R said that that was why all the houses in Lima had flat roofs. The people in the area rely mainly on the rivers that flow through the city for water. The plants on the other hand also rely on fog moisture. I noticed that the fog would clear up near lunch time and then return later in the afternoon. I wonder if the people of Lima get enough sun at all.
I was driven through some of the affluent areas of Lima and shown the handsome houses there. But my destination that day was really the centre and historic core of the city. R and I alighted at the Plaza San Martín, a good place to start our tour. The monument in the middle of the square was dedicated to José de San Martín, the man who gave the square its name and Peru its freedom from Spain. This man fought the Spanish army and proclaimed Peru’s independence.
The lady carrying the sign on the monument has a llama on her head. Legend has it that she was supposed to have a flame (also llama in Spanish) instead but the sculptor thought that it was the animal that was asked for. It all sounds very unfortunate but I am sure there is a much better explanation for it.
The most important tourist attraction in Lima I think is the Monastery of San Francisco. I was brought there as part of the city tour and I was most impressed with it. The complex contained a monastery, church, library and catacombs. The buildings were a beautiful blend of European and South American styles. I was sorry that photography was not allowed in the buildings.
The city tour lasted about 3 hours and although I was sorry to see R go I was quite happy to walk around on my own in the historic core for the rest of the day.
I decided to have lunch at a restaurant near the Plaza Mayor that looked quite touristy. But everything near the Plaza Mayor looked touristy so I did not have much of a choice. I could not resist the temptation to order a guinea pig (known as cuy locally) and against my better judgment I ordered only half an animal.
There was very little meat on the poor animal and I thought I was mostly eating its skin. The flavour was alright although the dish itself might have been done better. It was an experience I do not think I will forget simply because I once wanted a guinea pig for a pet. I have not been able to look at a guinea pig the same way since.
R recommended me some museums to visit in the afternoon. I managed to visit the Museum of Congress and Inquisition. I have heard so much about the Spanish Inquisition and finally here was a museum dedicated to the history of that blight on the Catholic Church.
Before I left the city centre, I managed to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Convent of Santo Domingo. One problem with going on a tour for me is that I tend to spend less time visiting each site than I would have if visiting on my own. I always feel weird making someone wait for me. That was what happened at San Francisco. Santo Domingo gave me the chance to properly appreciate a Peruvian religious complex. Although it was not as spectacular as San Francisco, Santo Domingo was lovely in its own way.
The architectural style of Santo Domingo is basically European but more colourful than its counterparts in Europe. The steeple however looks a little Asian to me somehow.
Based on my research it was possible to reach within walking distance of my hotel by taking Lima’s El Metropolitano. R discouraged me from taking it. He seemed to think that it would be too inconvenient and I should take a cab instead. The stubborn me however chose to ignore his advice.
It was during the late afternoon rush hour when I got to the Metro station. I did not remember seeing that many office buildings in the area and yet the streets became terribly busy at that time. The same happened during lunch when people miraculously appeared from out of nowhere and then mysteriously disappeared again after lunch. This to me just means that the historic core of Lima has not been entirely given away to tourism and that is a good thing.
The Metro is really a subway system but with buses. There is a lane on the road designated only for these buses and make stops at designated stations just like in a subway system. Riding the Metro was a convenient way to get around to some places although it did not have an extensive system. Nevertheless, it got me safely from the city centre to Miraflores.
It was still bright when I reached Miraflores and I decided to take a short walk before dinner. The district is part of a more affluent area of the city and apparently one of the city’s safest. However it lacks the beautiful buildings of the historic centre. The Church of the Miraculous Virgin was however one building that stood out in the district.
I had dinner near the church and decided to try the ceviche. This is really just sour sashimi. Raw fish is simply mixed with lime juice and the acid of the juice somehow ‘cooks’ the fish. It felt like a bit of a gamble for me to have raw fish for dinner but I did it anyway. I had learnt from R that Peruvians loved chilli too, and so I asked the waiter to make my ceviche Peruvian spicy. Even though I was not sure if it was made Peruvian spicy for me I was glad to have sour sashimi that was a little spicy as well.
I think I still prefer to have my raw fish with only a little soy sauce and wasabi.
The following day was a long one and quite an exciting one for me. The G Adventures Lima tour included a second free option other than the city tour. I remember a cooking class was offered and R made it sound like it was going to be a lot of fun. However I prefer to have someone else cook, and clean up, for me. I therefore chose to do a day trip to see the ancient city of Caral.
The ride out to Caral was itself an eye-opener. Lima is a huge sprawling city and the areas not frequented by tourists were really quite messy. One feature that stood out was that most of the buildings in the city looked like works in progress. Actually they most likely were. According to R, many ordinary Peruvians living in Lima would buy a plot of land and then take their time to build their homes. Building homes is not cheap and so they had to be built in stages. The first storey would be built first, and then after the owners had saved enough money they would build the next storey, and so on. However, they would always leave their roofs unfinished. That way they could tell the authorities that their homes were unfinished and enjoy certain tax benefits. Very often only the façades of these houses would be painted and so Lima can be said to be a city of bare red bricks.
We also passed by many slums along the way. Many were just too poor to live in proper homes in the city and so built their homes with whatever scrap they could get their hands on and anywhere they could find space. Most of the time these slums were built on places where people do not normally want to live in such as the slopes of steep hills. Some slum areas can however be very colourful.
There are some however who lay claim to a plot of land in a barren area by placing some marker to mark their territory so to speak. Such markers may just be a simple makeshift wooden or straw box that look like an outhouse. No one lives in these markers of course. Once there are enough of such squatters the authorities will start providing utilities and a new urban district will be born.
It took quite a while for us to finally leave the city limits of Lima but that is to be expected since about a third of the country lives here. The long ride allowed me to learn a bit more about R. His parents were originally from the Cusco area but came to Lima to find a better life. R was himself born in Lima. By operating a food cart, R’s father managed to raise a family of a few children with his wife. I thought R was doing very well. However, R was already making plans to move to the Cusco area and continue his travel business there. He preferred being closer to nature and believed that Cusco would suit him better.
I learnt from R that although Quechua was an official language of Peru, people born in Lima hardly spoke it. R said that his parents spoke Quechua and would speak it whenever they did not want their children to know what they were saying. This was quite fascinating to me since it sounded almost like the situation in Singapore. So many Singaporeans have lost the ability to speak the dialects of their ancestors and the situation is getting worse with each generation.
There are actually Chinese people living in Peru and have been living there for a long time. Peru was one of those countries that amazed me in the past by the things they did and in Peru’s case it was because they once had a president who was of Japanese descent. Chinese presence in Peru is apparent from the Chinese restaurants that are quite easily found in the cities. The Peruvian Chinese restaurant is called a “Chifa” and according to R this came from the Mandarin term to describe having a meal “chi fan”.
The archaeological site of Caral lies some 200 kilometres north of Lima in the Supe Valley. After almost four hours on the road, we had to first cross a river before we could reach its compound. Had the river not been dry that day we would have had to stop at a place 2 kilometres from the site entrance and walk the rest of the way. Even though it is in a valley, the green belt was very narrow and the archaeological site itself was really in the middle of a desert.
Caral lays claim to being the second oldest urban centre in the world after Mesopotamia and the oldest in the Americas. Current studies of the structures on the site revealed that they had an average age of about 5,000 years old. I am not sure that the researchers at Caral can safely make those claims yet if the structures are only dated back to 5,000 years ago. R in any case believes that in time more evidence will be found to prove that it is in fact the oldest in the world.
For now however, visitors can enjoy the sight of six pyramids rising in the middle of the desert amidst sometimes gigantic sand dunes. Visits are guided and only in Spanish. Fortunately they allow personal guides in and so I had the benefit of R’s translation.
The local guide, who was in his 70s, told us that as a child he used to play on the pyramids in the area. Back then, everything was covered in sand and the sand covered pyramids looked no different from the sand dunes in the area. His former playground is his present office. Life can be funny that way.
I was very amazed by two things I learnt at Caral. Firstly, the ancient people of Caral packed their buildings with nets filled with stones so that the buildings could be firm as a rock and yet flexible enough to withstand earthquakes. Secondly, the ancient people used quipus too. I had always thought that quipus were an Incan invention until then.
My third morning in Lima was on a Sunday and I could feel the laziness in the air. I was not due to be picked up for my next trip till just after noon and so I decided to take a morning walk around Miraflores to finally see it properly in daylight. The fog was in as expected but at the same time surprisingly I could feel a very light drizzle. I thought it did not rain in Lima?
Lima was a fantastic introduction to a country I had always felt some fascination for. It made me even more curious about the rest of the country. My visit to Caral made me appreciate the fact that the Incans were merely the last of a series of pre-colonial civilisations that had thrived in the area that is now Peru. As we were driving away from Caral, I promised myself that I would return to Peru in the future to learn about the other peoples that had preceded the Incans and see the things that I had not planned to see on this introductory Peruvian trip.