Within minutes, I know this is no walk in Lima’s historic centre. My guide Magali Chariarse, aka Maggie, is making me ride a sensory carousel.
Small joints around the main plaza have signs in a language I don’t speak—sangucheria, chicheria, picantería—but they sound delicious even if I just roll them off my tongue. We snake through street performers at Jirón de la Unión, a pedestrian street and erstwhile hangout of 18th-century aristocrats. Lanes look like movie sets with their yellow, green, pink neoclassical and art deco facades. Baroque 16th-century churches watch over blessed Limeños. A grandmother with a toothy grin offers a cup of mazamorra morada, a viscous purple dessert made from corn with hunks of peach, apple, and pineapple. It has hints of lemon and cinnamon, but I can’t say that it tastes like anything else I’ve eaten. My points of reference have little use in Lima, a mark of just how far my 30-hour flight has got me from home in Mumbai.
Maggie stops at Norky’s, a pollería with two open-air grills. Thirty fat chickens speared on poles, marinated in the Peruvian chilli pepper aji, garlic, and a secret ingredient, roast above coals. I wipe the crisp-skinned pollo a la brasa off my plate and think about (another) dessert. But Maggie wants to give me a taste of the macabre. We descend several metres under the 17th-century San Francisco church a kilometre away, to see 75,000-odd human skeletons. In its chilly, dark depths lie pits with skulls, femurs, and tibiae, curiously arranged like rangoli patterns. “My apologies to the squeamish,” she says to our group, though she herself looks delighted. “Churros next, anybody?”
Downtown Lima has had several past lives. When Spanish conquistadors conquered the Peruvian Incas in 1532, it was Plaza Mayor, the main square, which they picked as the centre of their empire to rule all of South America. The catacombs are a five-minute walk from the Plaza, which is surrounded by the Government Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Cathedral of Lima, and the City Hall that pops in canary yellow. Box-like wooden balconies on the square’s facades stand out with their curly, intricate carvings. Policemen patrol the square on Segway. Families and couples occupy benches under palms, some with bottles of Inca Kola, a yellow-coloured soda invented here by a British immigrant in the early 1900s. Maggie offers me some—it tastes like liquid bubblegum, an acquired taste.
One morning, I meet Gonzalo Torres, Peru’s popular theatre actor and comedian, who, for the past 12 years, has been sifting through Lima’s cultural heritage for his TV show, A La Vuelta de la Esquina (Just Around the Corner).
“Let’s go to San Cristobal hill, to see all of Lima,” he offers.
Present-day Lima sits high on cliffs along the Pacific coast to the west, where surfers love to tackle large swells. The lighthouse in the sea-facing hood of Miraflores makes it to postcards. But the eastern shantytown, rising from San Cristobal like crooked teeth, not so much. As we drive from the neighbourhood I am staying in, San Isidro, past its luxury hotels, offices and malls, the shininess of Lima begins to wear off. In Rímac district, we take an autorickshaw and trundle up the steep roads cutting through the shantytown. A cross sits atop the 1,340-foot-high San Cristobal, and I am charmed by the eagle’s-eye view.
Lima spreads out before me like a miniature scale model, mostly devoid of any vegetation. Far north, I spot the yellow buildings of Plaza Mayor; a train gliding in and out of a tunnel; closer to me are a 252-year-old bullring and two cemeteries, one from 1808. Most of the view is filled with what began as informal living arrangements in the 1940s, and now this is how almost half the city lives. This is Lima unvarnished, the city that its middle classes walk in.
Back in the car, Gonzalo tells me how being a Peruvian teenager in the 1980s meant living in constant fear of the terrorist organisation, Shining Path. “I was privileged. Yet sometimes, I’d come home to find the electricity tower blasted off, and I’d study under kerosene lamps for days.” In the ’90s, Peru was further weakened by its authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori. “I hadn’t seen my own country; I had no idea what the Andes were like,” he says.
Perhaps this is what makes Gonzalo so hungry for discoveries. If there was just one place he could show a visitor, he says he’d take them to Huaca Pucllana. In an upscale barrio of Miraflores, adobe brick ruins of squares, patios and pyramids, dating back to A.D. 500, sit smack in the middle of residential buildings. That you can walk amid pre-Hispanic—even pre-Incan—Peruvian civilisations while running your errands, is bewildering. I notice adobes arranged like bookshelves to withstand earthquakes; some of them bear the unmistakable, 1,500-year-old hand marks of the people who laid them.
In the late ’70s, Gonzalo’s best friend lived in a building facing the Huaca. “We’d ride our bikes past this ancient ceremonial site; it was a huge mound of sand overrun by squatters.” Slowly, excavation began, and ceramics, textiles and tombs were discovered. “For all you know,” Gonzalo says, nodding at a building, “you might be digging in your rose garden and find a mummy of a weaver.” He loves this place deeply because it shows Peru its place in history much before the Spaniards came. “The Huaca is charmingly lit up at night, and the restaurant in the premise has stunning views of the site.”
Lima is like a doting abuela who doesn’t let you leave without a second or third helping of its recipe of joy. We drive deeper into his residential hood Miraflores, along El Malecón, a 12-kilometre stretch of parks on cliffs. The colourful mosaic wall in Parque del Amor (Park of Love) makes me think of Gaudi. Couples walk below its gigantic sculpture of kissing lovers; paragliders swoosh above them like kites. Gonzalo points out Larcomar, a mall built to hug the cliff face, its restaurants and boutiques overlooking the ocean. We, however, are headed to one of Lima’s most famous cebichería, La Mar.
Once a mere gateway to Machu Picchu, gritty Lima has risen as one of the world’s most exciting food destinations. One of the faces behind this revolution is chef Gastón Acurio, who owns La Mar and numerous other restaurants in Peru and abroad. “We were a beaten, fragmented nation, not proud of anything Peruvian. In the mid-’90s, Gaston identified the potential in the food our grandmothers made—deep in the Amazon, the Andes, the coast—and brought it to restaurants,” explains Gonzalo. A classic ceviche appears: fresh catch of the day soaked in leche de tigre, a punchy marinade of lime, garlic, cilantro, and pepper. If the sun, the beach, and sunny floats had a taste, it would be this. The Nikkei ceviche, on the other hand, is like eating in a Japanese izakaya run by a Limeño chef—influenced by Peru’s Japanese immigrants, it has miso and soy sauce. The ocean-on-the-plate Mixto ceviche brims with octopus, prawn, anchovy and calamari. “Food is Lima’s new language,” beams Gonzalo, watching me wolf down tiradito laqueado: swirls of tuna floating on the tart, orange sauce of the passion fruit-like tumbo, topped with piquant radish and black sesame seeds. Lima speaks it well.
The next day I head south from the capital, to Cuzco. But as the Belmond Hiram Bingham train speeds further northwest from Cuzco, I feel a tad keyed up. Hurtling across hills and rice fields, I will be at Machu Picchu in three hours. It’s ineffable, it’s everywhere; everybody wants to see it. Then, there is this 1920s-style Pullman carriage, polished wood and brass gleaming in the sun, the streetcar musicians behind me—it’s like you’ve somehow snagged a date with George Clooney, and he sent you a ride.
Machu Picchu awes not because of that image you dog-ear in every travel magazine. It does so because it puts you right in the middle of a story about outrageous ambition, but never gives all the answers. Incan ruler Pachacuteq built Machu Picchu around 1450, choosing a site almost 8,000 feet high in the Urubamba river valley, straddling two peaks, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Nobody knows why exactly it was built—perhaps as winter palace or ceremonial site—and abandoned a century later. Past a traffic jam of llamas, I enter plazas, gates, aqueduct, and temples. It is stupefying to see these stone buildings stand without a drop of mortar. Stones weighing hundreds of tonnes are cut and wedged so precisely that they fit like a Tetris puzzle. Machu Picchu is earthquake-prone, and would have collapsed centuries ago had it not been for the engineering: stones in all the buildings are set so that they “dance” during tremors and fall right back into place. The Incas didn’t use the wheel or metal tools, so how the stones were transported and cut is a mystery to the modern world. Machu Picchu’s constructions—and the mountains around it—align with astronomical events like the solstices.
As I leave, I look at the clouds billowing over the city the Spanish never found; at Huayna Picchu where strictly 400 trekkers a day can attempt a vertigo-inducing hike. Hiram Bingham might have been looking for a city in the mountain, but if you look closely, they are one and the same.
The city of Cuzco makes me want to grab somebody’s—anybody’s—arm and say, “You have to go see it!”
In contrast to Lima’s cosmopolitanism, Cuzco feels like a period drama’s set that was never dismantled. Shaped like a puma, the city was the Incan capital and continues to peddle 500-year-old tales at every street corner. It is touristy, but there’s charm by the bucketload here. Cobbled lanes have buildings whose bases are 15th-century Inca stones, and colonial architecture on top—overhanging wooden balconies, cathedrals, arched patios. Quechua women in psychedelic skirts, bowler hats, and hip-length plaits roam Cuzco with pet baby alpacas, selling dried gourds carved with Peruvian symbols. I pine for every suede boot that flaunts Quechua embroidery, in pricey boutiques that also sell gorgeous alpaca ponchos. They aren’t the only reasons I am out of breath here; Cuzco sits almost 11,200 feet high in the Andes, and the air is quite thin.
“Coca leaves,” recommends Alex Silva, my guide, when he meets me in my hotel, Palacio del Inka, an erstwhile Incan palace that later became a monastery. It is the story of most structures in Cuzco’s heritage area, he explains. History slips itself in casually, frequently. One of my dinners is in a similar building, which is also a museum of pre-Columbian art. It sits across another 16th-century hotel that now hosts nightly operas.
To do as Cuzcenians do, we begin our morning at San Pedro Market. Every inch is covered in stalls where Quechua women sell things I have never seen—sweet tanta guagua bread shaped like an infant in a swaddle the size of my forearm, snouts of cows, and frog soup. “A salad of cow hooves helps broken ribs and a bad stomach,” Alex assures, walking past people breakfasting at the bevy of stalls serving suckling pig. Before we head to the site of Qoricancha, he stresses, “If you don’t understand the religion of an ancient civilisation, you have understood nothing.”
Qoricancha was to Incas what the Sistine Chapel is to Rome; the richest temple of the empire that included swathes of present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. In addition to having gold-lined walls, altars made of gold, a temple dedicated to the moon and covered in silver, the mid-1400s temple was the Incas’ primary astronomical observatory, too. I have to fill in these details only with Alex’s stories, because what I see is the Convent of Domingo built on the temple in the mid-1500s. “Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro looted Qoricancha,” rues Alex. He suddenly grins, and takes me to the ornate, 17th-century La Catedral in the main square. Pointing to a painting of The Last Supper, Alex shows me how the Quechua artist cheekily replaced the lamb with the Peruvian delicacy—a guinea pig. The punchline however becomes clear when I take a closer look at Judas. He has the face of Francisco Pizarro.
My face and fingertips tingle all day. I know it’s the medicine I’m taking for the altitude, but it may as well be Cuzco.
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I have to ask the woman next to me as we land in the southern city of Arequipa, “Are those three volcanoes we’re heading towards?”
“Ah, si. Yes,” she replies and continues rummaging in her bag. She’s done this before.
I don’t know what I expected after seeing two extreme sides to Peru in Lima and Cuzco, but it didn’t involve a city with mighty volcanoes that had cute names like Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. Or a colonial centre hewn entirely from the white volcanic stone, sillar. Arequipa, my guide Helmut Huanqui tells me, is proud of its colonial heritage. “We love heated political debate, protests, and the Nobel-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who was born here. But most of all, we love Juanita.”
In a dimly lit room of Museo Santuarios Andinos lies the frozen body of a 12-year-old Inca girl. She was ceremonially sacrificed in the mid-1400s to appease the gods—14 such children have been found in Peru’s volcanoes alone. By sheer luck, the anthropologist who discovered Juanita on Ampato volcano in September 1995 is in town, and agrees to meet me. Johan Reinhard, an Explorer at National Geographic Society, vividly remembers the day of his life’s most significant discovery. “I was looping Ampato’s summit (20,500 feet) because I suspected it had Inca ruins. I wasn’t expecting to find a child,” he remembers. A volcano beside Ampato had erupted, which melted the summit’s ice. Johan’s companion, Miguel Zárate, found a curious bundle, and the moment Johan saw the typical Incan stripes on the textile, he knew. “Juanita is not a mummy,” he emphasises, “she still has her internal organs, and is a frozen child.”
A feeling of doom and thrill takes over as I walk through the museum galleries before Juanita’s. They piece stories of how the empire chose the healthiest, most attractive children and prepared them for sacrifice. I see Juanita’s crocheted alpaca wool bag decorated with macaw feathers, her shoes, and clothes. When the moment came, children were made to drink chicha, a maize drink fermented for a year. A priest delivered the lethal blow to the head, and the child was buried with its toys.
And yet, these details don’t prepare me for looking a 500-year-old child in the face. Juanita is shockingly intact and sits in a freezing glass box. I see her inky hair, hands poised on her knees; her arms are bare, and teeth slightly spaced out. I know she still has in her stomach remnants of coca leaves and corn she ate before she died. But the most sobering sight is the clear blow to the right side of her head, which half-closes her right eye.
Later, as Helmut and I lunch at Nueva Palomino, Arequipa’s beloved picanteria, I pause before drinking chicha. He smiles, but says nothing, instead tempting me with the claim that Arequipian food is nothing like what I ate in Lima. One bite of the fiery rocoto relleno, red pepper stuffed with minced beef, cheese, and potato, and I believe him. Traditionally, the city cooks a different soup every day of the week. I try chupe de camarones, a hearty shrimp stew with cheese, milk, eggs, and hot pepper. We walk out into Misti Street, and are soon surrounded by the volcanoes, with clouds arranged on their summits like coronets. But this time, I see them as keepers of more than one secret.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.