Monday, April 19, 2010
Lima was founded in 1535 and became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. It was the most important city in South America for three centuries. It hosted the Viceroy, the Inquisition and the Royal Audience. Its colonial architecture with exquisite wooden balconies and indoor patios with fountains can be still appreciated in the downtown area that has two main squares: The Plaza Mayor where the cathedral and the presidential palace are located and the Plaza San Martín, a few blocks away, where the famous Hotel Bolívar is.
With its explosive growth and the Andean migration during the 20th century, Lima grew out of proportion and very disorganized. Dictatorships and terrorism made it a non-friendly tourist destination. For decades Peru was synonymous with coca traficking, the Shining Path and Alberto Fujimori, the Japanese-descended president that Peru had for over 11 years, who is currently in prison.
Lima has dramatically improved in the last two decades but contrasts and chaos are still part of its culture. From the majestic Plaza Mayor you can see poor homes built on the slopes of a close by mountain, all in one view.
It may not sound credible but in Lima pedestrians do not seem to have the right of way; motor vehicles do. So pay attention even though you may think you are a good multitasker (talk on the phone, read the paper and cross the street at the same time).
Lights at the corners do not assure anybody that cars will respect them carefully. Stop signs that warn us with their octagonal red presence can be perceived as complete corner decorations in this buzzing metropolis.
In this chaotic city, cars and buses drive with abandon. Of course, there are policemen and traffic lights but drivers approach the streets as being in a Formula One race. Lanes become just lines on the road; the fact that the road is divided in parts doesn’t mean that drivers will choose one of them. I have been in taxis when the whole road is empty and drivers go in the middle of two lanes. A road can be divided in four lanes and you may be in one of the seven (yes, seven) cars that want to share those four lanes across the road. Cars cut into each other with total sense of confidence and entitlement. An inch of space between cars is an accepted occurrence. You will feel your heart is pumping quite fast when you are at the mercy of your conductor.
Driving in a car in Lima can really man you up.
If someone cuts you off and you yell at the driver who did this, you’ll get immediately yelled back at. I heard a driver saying: “Lima is the only city in the world where the people who made a mistake while driving insult you.”
In this circus-like spectacle, pedestrians have to act with special care. Motorbikes, trucks or cars will try to get the right of pass without a second thought. While walking in the city you need to develop a seventh sense so you don’t get hit. Forget about the rules of the road in the U.S and you’ll be fine. (Video courtesy of Laura Nalin)