Crowded into the mouth of the arid Rimac river valley, with low sandy mountains closing in around its outer fringes, Lima is a boisterous, macho sprawl of a city, full of beaten-up cars chasing Mercedes and 4WDs: this is a place where money rules, with an irresistible, underlying energy. A large part of the city’s appeal is its fascinating mix of lifestyles and cultures: from the snappy, sassy, cocaine-influenced criolla style to the easy-going, happy-go-lucky attitude of Lima’s poorer citizens. Somehow, though, it still manages to appear relaxed and laidback in the barrios and off the beaten track, and the noisy, frenetic craziness of it all is mellowed somewhat by the presence of the sea and beaches. Even if you choose not to spend much time here, you can get a good sense of it all in just a few days: Limeño hospitality and kindness are almost boundless once you’ve established an initial rapport.
Considered the most beautiful city in Spanish America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and long established as Peru’s seat of government, Lima retains a certain elegance, particularly in colonial Lima Centro. The city still brims with culture and history, though it may not be obvious at first. Top of its attractions are some excellent museums – the best of which should definitely be visited before setting off for Machu Picchu or any of Peru’s other great Inca ruins – as well as fine Spanish churches in the centre, and some distinguished mansions in the wealthy suburbs of Barranco and Miraflores. Add to this some outstanding restaurants and hedonistic nightlife, and you’ll find there’s plenty to explore in Peru’s distinctive capital.
As a transport and communications hub, Lima also makes a good base for exploring the surrounding region, and the immediate area offers plenty of reasons to delay your progress on towards Arequipa or Cusco. Within an hour’s bus ride south is the coastline – often deserted – lined by a series of attractive beaches. Above them, the imposing fortress-temple complex of Pachacamac sits on a sandstone cliff, near the edge of the ocean. In the neighbouring Rimac Valley you can visit the pre-Inca sites of Puruchuco and Cajamarquilla, and, in the foothills above Lima, intriguingly eroded rock outcrops and megalithic monuments surround the natural amphitheatre of Marcahuasi. To the north, meanwhile, the oldest stone pyramids in the world sit abandoned in the desert of Caral.
Several destinations in the foothills of the Andes are within relatively easy reach of Lima. The impressive sites of Puruchuco and Cajamarquilla are typical of ruins all over Peru and make a good introduction to the country’s archeology.
First occupied in the Huari era (600–1000 AD), CAJAMARQUILLA flourished under the Cuismancu culture, a city-building state contemporary with the better-known Chimu in northern Peru. It was an enclosed city containing thousands of small, complex dwellings clustered around a higher section, probably nobles’ quarters, and numerous small plazas. The site was apparently abandoned before the Incas arrived in 1470, possibly after being devastated by an earthquake. Pottery found here in the 1960s by a group of Italian archeologists suggests habitation over 1300 years ago.
Today the site is a vast and almost overwhelming labyrinth of cracked and weathered adobe-built corridors, rooms and small plazas, and feels almost as if it was only recently deserted after a massive earthquake.
An 800-year-old, pre-Inca settlement, PURUCHUCO is a labyrinthine villa. Nearby is the small but interesting Museo de Sito Puruchuco, containing a complete collection of artefacts and attire found at the site (all of which bears a remarkable similarity to what Amazon Indian communities still use today). The name itself means “feathered hat or helmet”, and recent building work in the locality discovered that the Puruchuco site was also a massive graveyard, revealing greater quantities of buried pre-Incas than most other sites in Peru. The villa’s original adobe structure was apparently rebuilt and adapted by the Incas shortly before the Spanish arrival: it’s a fascinating ruin, superbly restored in a way which vividly captures what life was like before the Conquest.
Very close by, in the Parque Fernando Carozi (ask the site guard for directions), two other ruins – Huaquerones and Catalina Huaca – are being restored, and at Chivateros there’s a quarry dating back some twelve thousand years.
To the north of Lima, the desert stretches up between the Pacific Ocean and the foothills of the Andes. A couple of short trips north of Lima are becoming increasingly popular as long-weekend breaks. One of these is a horseshoe loop connecting the Chillón and Chancay valleys via the beautiful town and region of Canta in the foothills of the Andes. Another route, further out from Lima, heads up the Huara Valley from Huacho; although the road can be traced all the way to Huánuco, most people only get as far up into the Andes as Churin where their efforts are pleasantly rewarded with a visit to the hot springs. Futher north again, yet still feasible as a day-trip from Lima, the recently discovered pyramids of Caral are considered to be the most ancient ruins in the Americas.
Stretching out along the coast in both directions, the Panamerican Highway runs the entire 2600-kilometre length of Peru, with Lima more or less at its centre. Towns along the sometimes arid coastline immediately north and south of the capital are of minor interest to most travellers, though there are some glorious beaches, mostly to the south, with next to no restrictions on beach camping. The best of the beaches begin about 30km out, at the impressively hulking pre-Inca ruins of Pachacamac, a sacred citadel that still dominates this stretch of coastline.
Top image: Lima © Christian Vinces/Shutterstock