Seeing the world, one country at the time

Soft Landing in Lima

The cold, raw humidity of Lima is surprising. The sun makes a feeble attempt at midday, but we realize that our wardrobe is severely lacking if we plan to hike into the Andes. The night before we had arrived at Lima’s airport, renovated beyond recognition since my last visit. A safe “Remise” taxi brought us to Alicia and Jorge’s house, where the driver waited for us while I rang and rang at the door of a darkened house, finally realizing that I only had her mother’s address, not hers! A very polite and confused Mrs. Campos appeared at the gate only to redirect us down the street, where we had a warm reunion and chatted until we were all falling over from exhaustion.

In two short days we have to get oriented and repacked (we also realized that despite having no warm clothing, we are leagues over our weight-bearing capacity, requiring a baggage dump at Alicia’s.) We hit the streets to buy our bus tickets south, only to find out that they are all sold out. I enter into panic mode, not having learned the wise words of Lao Tzu, that a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. We have a heavy dollar investment in a tour and I am stubbornly intent on arriving.

The noise in the streets is reminiscent of New York. Signs on every corner depict adorable children and plead “Silence”, “Let’s Respect One Another” and “Silence is Respect”, but they are ignored by the incessant honking of drivers, who are bleating “here I am!” as they pound their horns.
I notice a man selling magazines, which hang in plastic folders from his outstretched arms. We grab a taxi which makes my ’95 Pontiac Grand Am look like a luxury vehicle and launch into the chaos of the roads, where every car pushes and shoves its way into any open space. We’re spitting distance from the drivers squeezing in on either side.

After standing in line among the rectangular plastic bags and suitcases with sewn fabric covers that Peruvians typically travel with, we are holding the coveted tickets to Arequipa. Now we can do some sightseeing. We are in San Isidro, my old home. It is the nicest neighborhood and therefore, the least exciting for budget travelers. There is no zoning. It is a hodge podge of residences, offices and restaurants, all on the same street. There are security guards in every building and restaurant, and on many street corners. Neighborhoods pay fees for mobile bicycle guards and streets pay for private security.

We head downtown to the museums. Gas is $3-4 a gallon, (makes you thankful for $2.30 back in the U.S.) so taxis only get enough to take you where you need to go. They roll into the grifo, or gas station, on empty, then put in 30 cents of gas and off you go. After refueling, we eventually make it to the first museum.

Everybody has heard of the Incas, but some say that they are unfairly given all the credit, while numerous other pre-Columbian cultures are ignored. This is partly because there isn’t much information about who came before the last Peruvian empire. The Incas made sure they either absorbed previous cultures as their own, or destroyed them. The Museo de La Nacion is the best choice for a necessary overview of Peruvian history. Recent, modern renovations allow a clear understanding of other pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Waris, Chavin, Mochicas, Chimus and Pachacamacs.

It’s housed in a towering but drab concrete building. Inside, there are no guides, just someone who runs up to ask us for tickets, which you buy in a separate area. An exhibition of modern art resembling pre-Columbian art sits next to a list of all the pre-Columbian cultures and their respective time periods. A huge golden sun shines down over the lobby. Inti, the sun god, is the primary deity of the pre-Columbian cultures, and represented in their art. Everywhere are students taking notes and giggling at the sometimes risqué pottery.

Here we are introduced to the Spondylus, a spiny coral-colored shell used for jewelry , and Pachacamac, the god of earthquakes, a common occurrence here. It’s believed that a shake of his head would cause the world to fall. The most impressive section, the Sala de Tesoros, (Hall of Treasures), is filled with fine silver and gold objects, sometimes decorated with colorful feathers or with turquoise inlays. I won’t go into more detail. Enough books have been written about Peru’s ancient cultures to keep anyone busy for a lifetime. Suffice to say, these cultures had no writing but used quipus, or rope knots, and vast quantities of ceramics to record their history. These ceramics depict every aspect of life (sometimes almost too graphically).

The exhibition takes up only one wing on three floors. The rest of the building is a maze of suspended walkways with unclear or nonexistent signage and prohibited to the public. When I try to explore, security whistles at me, signaling that my tour is over. Museo de La Nacion should not be missed, especially at $2.50. From there we continue to the highly recommended Gold Museum, anticipating an even more spectacular collection.

Guidebooks and friends raved about the Museo de Oro or Gold Museum. Believing the hype, we forked out a small fortune ($10) to enter, unfortunately. The presentation was poor, the back drops worn and dull. Thousands of items were crowded onto each other and didn’t focus on highlights. Several items were above eye level, others had no lighting and very few had any sort of explanation. The sumptuous window displays of exclusive boutiques selling gold outside the museum were far more appealing.

If these were national treasures, why wasn’t anyone taking care of them? The answer lay in the ownership. This was a private collection, only converted into a museum in order to avoid paying property taxes. Recently, when the owner passed away and the sons tried to divide the items, it was discovered that most of the items were only reproductions, and that the owner had already sold off most of Peru’s patrimony. Obviously, this place is thriving on a former glory that doesn’t reflect it’s current diminished quality.

The most memorable items from the Gold Museum are the famous tupis, with eyes of turquoise and other semi-precious stones, the colorful Moche orejeras and narigueras (huge rings worn around the ears or through the nose by the upper-class and royalty), the mummies, and skulls showing evidence of brain surgery. My personal favorites were the gold bird beak fingertips, resembling those worn by Thai dancers. Even if the collection is mostly fake, the extravagance and quantity of gold is mind-boggling.

Upstairs is a vast and crowded collection of weaponry and military paraphernalia, which is impressive for its breadth and quantity. But this is the Gold Museum and you’re here to see the treasures of ancient civilizations, not Generalisimo Francisco Franco’s uniform. Nevertheless, this is Lima’s most famous museum and if it is ever renovated, it would be worth a visit.

At the end of our two wonderful days with Alicia, Jorge and Paloma, during which they spoiled us rotten, we’re ready for our next trip to Arequipa, the White City, and Lima’s rival. I want to find out what makes the Arequipenos so proud and fiercely independent.