Lima: Grey, leaden, sunless skies, cold, damp air, traffic and wintry expressions: Lima is not immediately attractive. We need to make an effort and see the sights, I decide, and where better to begin in South America’s culinary capital than with a food tour?
Happily, Francis Chauvel, the wonderful owner of our lovely guesthouse, is a dedicated foodie and accomplished scoffer of every Peruvian delicacy from cuy (guinea pig) to anticuchos (cow’s heart) and he shoulders his continent’s responsibility for ensuring we taste the best of its cuisine. Francis has eaten cat and pelican, so is not shy of trying unusual foodstuffs (and has the belly to prove this unwavering commitment).
There’s a big ‘mistura’ food show in town, but all the tickets are sold out and the touts are asking too much, so we head into central Lima, where, on the banks of the polluted trickle of the Rimac River, we find food stalls set up with national dishes. It looks delicious, but I’ve got stomach troubles and am feeling too queasy to eat sadly. Nevertheless, I get Francis to explain some of the foods on show:
Nearby, we find the cathedral and, more interestingly, the catacombs under the Convent of San Francisco, wherein 12,000 dead Limeños were laid to rest – or, later on, not so much laid as stuffed into subterranean wells and crevices as the Franciscan monks struggled to find space for so many deads.
In order to speed up decay, the bodies were packed with lime, so when archeologists explored the area, only the larger and more robust bones – like the skulls and femurs – remained. These, the archaeologists have creatively arranged in pretty patterns, such as with the skulls central and the femurs radiating out. Bizarre, but I admire their ability to see the artistic potential in an otherwise macabre profession.
A block further, in the Church of Santo Domingo, the odd skull theme continues. To one side of the central nave, we find a strange altar to two of Lima’s celebrated saints (San Martin de Pobres and Santa Rosa de Lima), with little statues depicting them and two elaborately decorated glass boxes displaying their skulls – their headless bodies are interred elsewhere.
From here, we should probably have visited the archeological and anthropological collections at one of Lima’s several famous museums, but instead, we head to the insalubrious port area, populated by knock-off merchants, car-jackers and other dodgy characters (of which Lima seems to have many). Here we find the truly marvellous Police Theme Park, with old police vehicles and life-size models of police. Superb.
Across the road, we descend into a decommissioned submarine, guided by a navy guy who works on one of the nation’s six submarines that are still operational. We tour the vessel, marvelling at the cute fold-away designs of everything from sinks to beds, touching the torpedo missiles and counting the beds: 60 men (women not allowed) live here for up to 60 days at a time, diving to depths of 200 metres.
I ask the capitane how he bears to live in such a small space with so many people for so long – don’t they kill each other? “No,” he says. “There’s a good camaraderie onboard and they rotate jobs on strict 4-hour shifts to prevent boredom. And besides, the guns are locked up.” He points to a cabinet, where the guns are indeed padlocked.
The next treat is the Magic Water Circuit, a park that 3 years ago was transformed into a fantastic fountain display. Lima is in the run-up to mayoral elections. More than 30 hopefuls have pasted their grinning mugs onto enormous posters that line every street, and the incumbent mayor is doing much to remind voters of his role in the fountains’ creation.
Credit where due, it is a wonderful park. Everyone loves a fountain, young, old, disabled – it’s a great, smile-inducing pleasure watching water dancing to light and music. It’s an affordable entrance fee (4 soles or about £1) and it’s fun.
Every hour in the evening, the park puts on a show, with lasers illuminating the fountains, showing dancers from a ballerina to Andean to salsa. It’s brilliant and only slightly ruined by the ending, which displays the smug mug of the mayor.
Our day’s fun culminates in dinner of anticuchos and corn drink with Francis – and we didn’t get mugged or robbed. Perfecto.