Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lima: The Arrival

After nearly 18 hours in transit and traveling 3,500 miles, we arrived in Lima's international airport to the pungent aroma of low-tide and diesel exhaust. Customs posed no serious problem, and we met our driver without issue. He took us into Miraflores, one of Lima's nicest and safest neighborhoods, to our hostel: Backpacker's Family House. It was around midnight by the time we checked in, so we quickly settled into our electric pink, though somewhat damp, sheets and went to sleep.

We spent our first morning in Peru bemoaning the sound of our hostel's door buzzer and the traffic on the street below us, but eventually we both crawled out of bed and went down to the front desk for our 'orientation.' Christian, the man who runs Family House, gave us a brief lesson on LimeƱo culture, showed us a detailed map of Miraflores, and pointed us in the direction of an excellent bakery - El Buen Gusto - for breakfast. We ate a simple breakfast of fresh bread almost every morning, but the bread at El Buen Gusto (by merit of being fresh-baked on sight instead of baked and then sold in the streets) was definitely the best we sampled.

We hiked the entire cliff side of Miraflores until the foggy haze of smog and cloud cover cleared around noon. We thought it would be fun to learn some more about the pre-Columbian cultures of Peru, so we visited the National Museum that afternoon. The Peruvian National Museum is a joke. It's a huge building, with incredibly high, barren ceilings, ugly walls, and next to nothing in the way of displays. If looking at a poorly cataloged and under-stocked collection of pottery is your cuppa, you may want to allot 30 minutes for this museum. Don't plan on spending a comfortable afternoon browsing, though. It doesn't even take a whole hour to see this place.

Rather unhappy with our encounter with a free museum, we took an over-priced (I won't say by how much, it's embarrassing) cab to the Museum of Peruvian Gold, a privately owned collection with an insanely high (though debatably merited) entrance fee. As the name implies, the museum houses a rather large collection of Incan gold artifacts, but it also contains the most impressive (but stunningly cluttered) collection of world-weapons I've ever seen. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a scandal after the previous owner died; investigations indicated that up to 85% of the museum's gold and metal artifacts were forgeries. This isn't linked to the weapons on display in the upper rooms, luckily, because I thought they were the really cool part of the day.

That evening, Christian made all of the guests Pisco Sour - Peru's national beverage. Pisco is a white grape brandy that tastes just terrible, but in the Sour it's really not so bad. It's very difficult to find Pisco outside of Peru, but here's a recipe for it all the same:

2 parts Pisco or clear liquor
1 part lime juice
1/4 part simple syrup
1 tsp. egg white

Mix Pisco, lime juice, syrup, and egg white in a blender until foam forms. Pour into a chilled glass and garnish with a dash of bitters on the egg foam.

(Trust me, it's better than it sounds.)

We spent the rest of our evening enjoying the company of the other people in our hostel and retreated to our room around midnight, just as the other kids were getting ready to go out for a night on the town. There's really no comparing how much Europeans and Latin Americans party with Brice and me. They totally and completely dwarfed us.

The next day, we went right into the heart of the city to Lima's beautiful Plaza de Armas. The plaza is the administrative and religious center of each city, usually complete with a fountain, cathedral, and small park. From the Plaza Mejor (another acceptable term for it), we spiraled out into the surrounding attractions. The Franciscan Monastery and catacombs totally stole the show. Archaeologists believe that the catacombs stretched out under the entire city, and even contained secret tunnels between the city's major buildings. But, during the most recent excavation, they were declared structurally unsound and sealed up without any further attempts to catalog, map, or explore them. No one knows exactly how many people or how much of the tunnels are left beyond the seals. Interestingly, when the scientists were trying to determine how many bodies lie in the tombs and crypts, they sorted the bones by size and shape. This led one twisted individual to replace them in a somewhat more 'creative' order than when he found them.

After a quick lunch of goat heart and steak kabobs, we started wandering around looking for the city's central market and China town. We didn't have much luck, so we finally broke down and took a taxi. Turns out we had been within 3 or 4 blocks of it the whole time. Lovely. Anyways, China Town is probably the only part of Lima that doesn't smell like a tidal pool. Instead, it smells like spices and fried wontons; much more pleasant. The market, and all markets for that matter, had the stench of day-old slaughterhouse hanging around it, but we only made it in time to watch them clean up for the evening, so I didn't have to suffer long.

We spent our final afternoon in Lima waiting for our bus to Cusco. It didn't depart until two o'clock, so we had a lot of time to kill. As Brice was kind enough to point out, hostels are a lot like Purgatory. It's just a bunch of people sitting around waiting for one thing or another. By and large, I think he's pretty much right. We decided that our time in Purgatory would be better served sitting on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, so we entertained ourselves playing coin games and watching surfers until it was time to grab a cab for the bus station. Though confusing at first, the bus station posed no serious problems, and we were seated in our over-stuffed, fully reclining chairs in no time.

I inadvertently booked us the most expensive service to Cusco (our next destination) with Cruz del Sur, Peru's premiere bus company. I never did that again (I don't have money to burn, you know), but I was really glad I had those seats by the time we got off that godforsaken bus 2.5 days later. But more on that next time.

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