Uncovering Lima, Peru’s Latest Treasure
"More dry than the Sahara," that’s what our Lima Tours guide kept repeating to us as we followed her intrepid lead as she happily urged us higher and higher up the Huaca Pucllana. A pre-Incan pyramid of adobe bricks, Huaca Pucllana is located smack in the middle of Miraflores, one of Lima’s more upscale residential neighborhoods. Imagine a pre-Columbian pyramid on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and you’ll have a similar sensation of coexisting between the modern and the ancient world.
For too long, visitors to Peru have landed in Lima, the country’s capital and largest city - and headed directly to Cuzco or Machu Picchu. And while there is no denying the allure of these Incan repositories, more and more LGBT travelers are discovering the charms and wonders of the city founded in 1535 by Spanish conquistador Pizarro who christened it "City of Kings." Now it’s time to make way for the queens - because the world’s gays are flocking to the city that is often referred to as the "Gastronomical Capital of the Americas."
As the second largest desert city on the planet (after Cairo, Egypt), Lima has a subtropical climate but is mild and comfortable, thanks to its proximity to the ocean. This sprawling, polyglot city located on a desert coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean is the fifth largest city in Latin America (after Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro) and home to one in three Peruvians. And just as those other four Latin American metropolises have widened their embrace of LGBT people, so is Lima becoming an LGBT destination.
Nearly ten million people live in this city whose history has been shaped by a series of powerful earthquakes that razed the city in 1687, 1746, and as recently as 1940. For years, upheaval had become second nature to Limeños - and Peruvians, in general - thanks to earthquakes and Maoist insurgent organizations, but finally it appears that fiscal and political stability has arrived - along with an influx of international tourism.
As a country, Peru has more than 10,000 years of history - and over 5,000 archeological sites. Apart from Cuzco and Machu Picchu, there’s also the Nazca Lines, vestiges of a culture that existed more than 300 years before Christianity, which were discovered in 1927 - and have since confounded and intrigued archeologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, none of whom have been able to definitively determine the reason for the Nazca markings’ existence.
One of the ten most biologically diverse countries in the world, Peru is divided between the coast, the highlands, and the jungle, and holds the world’s record for the most species of fish, butterflies, and orchids (over 3,500 varieties). There are nearly 1,800 glaciers and fifty mountains that tower 20,000 feet or more - and more than 2,000 miles of Pacific coastline.
All quite fascinating, right, but what’s it like for LGBT people? In keeping with the Catholic Church’s heavy-handed (and oppressive) attitude toward LGBT people, Peruvian LGBT life is still heavily (and adversely) influenced by the church, as well as a machismo culture - and yet, conversely, same-sex sexual activity has been legal in Peru since 1924, and, since 2009, gays have been allowed to serve openly in the military (something that still can’t be said about the States).
What this means for most LGBT Limeños is an abundance of house parties, usually in the more tony neighborhoods of San Isidro and Miraflores, often followed by drinks (and sometimes dancing) at a series of bars and nightclubs most often located in Miraflores. One night, we found ourselves at Carlos Bruce’s bar/lounge cum nightclub, Picas, where a stunning array of Limeños spilled out onto the open-air patio, while a bongo drummer kept beats to a European house soundtrack played by a Peruvian deejay. Owner Bruce was in the midst of the national elections, where he was a candidate for vice president, and yet nonetheless, he sat with us, regaling us with tales of his confrontations with Lima’s Catholic archbishop who opposed Bruce’s stance on same-sex marriage.
The amalgam of music, politics, fashion, and sex that night was representative of Lima’s nightlife (and in keeping with LGBT social life all around the developed world) - and yet what makes Lima more fascinating than many other cities of its size is a surfeit of exemplary (and reasonably-priced) restaurants on the cutting edge of culinary innovation.
Eat your way through Lima might be the catchphrase we’d use to best highlight this city’s gustatory pleasures. From typical Creole cuisine to fusion and nouvelle Andean, Lima’s culinary style encompasses the multiple waves of immigration (and conquistador) in its history, commingled with Peru’s bountiful, indigenous produce. The result is a smorgasbord of restaurants and chefs, judiciously and creatively applying European and Asian influences to develop what might be called Nuevo Peruvian. Every Limeño, for example, has a personal favorite Chifa, the ubiquitous restaurants that serve an amalgam of Chinese-Peruvian food. And the abundance of trattorias in Miraflores is a testament to the history of Italian immigration to Lima.
Where better, then, to find the true heart and soul of Lima than in the kitchen? Most people the world over are familiar with Peru’s national drink, pisco, the potent elixir derived from the distillation of fresh, fermented grape juice - and ceviche is so much a part of Peruvian heritage that there’s a holiday in its honor. Yet newcomers to Peru are likely to find themselves smitten by the profusion of delicious, indigenous produce, such as lucuma (a fruit with the taste and consistency of butterscotch, often used in desserts), cherimoya, the exotic granadilla (passion fruit), which Peruvians suck clean for its gelatinous sweetness, and the cactus fruit (or prickly pear), which Peruvians call tuna and is similar to a watermelon crossed with a banana, with the tint of a pomegranate.
Wherever we sat in Lima, from a juicerie in Miraflores to a restaurant in San Isidro or a private home in Miraflores, what happened at the table was an outpouring of generosity and hospitality - and what became increasingly evident about Lima, Peru was how much its citizenry welcomes those who make the effort to experience its manifold treasures.
In the 16th century, when the Europeans discovered the richness of Peru, they coined the phrase, "It’s worth a Peru" as a means of expressing the breadth of riches they encountered - and it’s fitting that the same phrase, "It’s worth a Peru" serves to exemplify all the treasures that await the traveler who heads to Lima.
(Lima Travel feature continues on next page: Getting There, Where to Stay...)