A lost city shrouded in mist and mystery. Islands that lazily swim in the lake. Squadrons of macaws flying like enchanted magic carpets.
If your heart doesn’t start racing at the thought of seeing these wonders, check your pulse. You may be dead.
I was surprisingly alive and raring to go, considering I’d just arrived in Peru after over 24 hours of flying. (Singapore-Tokyo- Houston-Lima)
The natives of Lima were having a marathon of their own, followed by a fiesta that Sunday morning. So the roads around the grand Plaza Mayor were closed to vehicles.
This is the heart of old Lima: The new world, discovered by Francisco Pizarro. Centuries after he conquered a country of over 1.2 million km with a tiny Spanish force of just 62 cavalry and 106 foot soldiers, the spirit of the conquistadors still fills the square.
Impressive stone edifices, painted in the yellow ochre preferred by the colonials, stand with sentinel splendour on all four sides. The buildings have ornate wooden balconies from which, centuries ago, senoritas stole a glance at handsome carriages and their even more dashing occupants. In the centre of the square, is a bronze fountain topped by a winged angel. It is a symbol of the new world that was to be plundered in the name of the Spanish Crown.
On the car-free streets, the marathon runners had now made way for dance troupes from various districts of the city. They traipsed, twirled and twisted to the music in their colourful costumes as they escorted a venerated Catholic idol.
When you have a religious procession that seems more like a fiesta than a sombre march-past, it says a lot about the country. At that moment, I knew my trip in Peru was going to be like a goodie bag full of pleasant surprises.
With this happy thought, I stepped inside the Cathedral. It was a little more austere than some resplendent cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe and Latin America. The two things I still recall were the exquisitely carved wooden choir stalls and the simple tomb of Pizarro, located to the right of the main entrance.
My next stop was the Monasterio de San Francisco. Outside, pigeons proudly strutted about with puffed up chests like pompous school headmasters. Caricature artists and their easels dotted the square.
Resisting the temptation to look weirder than I normally do, I went inside. A pretty courtyard beckoned. As I went through the rooms I remember seeing a chapel with a beautifully carved Panamanian cedar ceiling. The monastery also houses a considerable collection of religious art, by masters like Rubens and Zurbaran. None of the serenity and beauty so far prepares you for a visit to the Catacombs. Suddenly you see lots of skulls and bones. Though they are arranged in an artistic pattern, they are a chilling reminder that this used to be Lima’s main cemetery until the 18th century.
Naturally, I was in a hurry to get out into the sunshine. Walking the narrow lanes of the city centre, you see savoury and sweet treats as Empenada (the Latin equivalent of our curry puffs) and Churro stalls vie to seduce your taste buds.
There are also some excellent shops selling affordable Stetsons and Panama hats. Even though the prices may have surely gone up now, it’s a great bargain for an Asian hipster to mix and match with funky fashions.
Two things appear with unfailing regularity as you navigate Old Lima’s bylanes: Freckles on the backs of tank-top wearing tourists and the sign, CHIFA. This is the term for Chinese eateries, considered by the locals to be the best cheap food. Not to be outdone by the adventurous Chinese diaspora, the Indian settlers also signalled their presence through a photo shop run by an Indian family in a building named Casa Hindu.
I avoided the call of the familiar and went for a taste of the exotic. I tried an old Peruvian place, Restaurant Cordano. Here everything except the food looked like it had emerged from a time warp. The food wasn’t memorable. But it’s worth a visit if only for the quaint decor and the staff that resemble set extras in a Spaghetti Western.
Old Lima has enough to hold your attention for a day. But just like a cliff edge on which you stand before you bungee jump, the view can only hold your attention for that long. The real adventure lies in plunging headlong. Lima is the perfect springboard for discovering Peru’s numerous treasures. I called an aviation company in Nazca to book a flight to see the Nazca lines. They also helpfully offered to book me into a hotel near the airport. That sorted, I booked my bus ticket to Pisco. The town that gives its name to Peru’s national drink. A white grape alcohol named Pisco.