I don’t shy from professing my love for Peru; my feelings for Lima, though, have been lukewarm at best. This is my third trip to Peru in less than two years, and to be fair, I must disclose that I’ve logged less than 100 hours total in this colonial capital city; population 8 million.
Past visits were pre- and post pit stops before a riverboat journey on the Amazon and an early 2009 trip to Cusco, Machu Picchu and Puno. The bulk of my time in Lima has been spent shuttling between Jorge Chávez International Airport (one of my favorite airports in the world) and the safe haven of luxury hotel, Swissôtel in the swank San Isidro neighborhood. The extent of my urban explorations was a guided whirlwind afternoon tour of colonial Lima, with stops at Plaza Mayor, Mercado Indio and a restaurante muy turístico, Puro Perú. This sightseeing tour de force was meant as a quick Lima look-see, but traipsing around town en masse felt more like a dog and pony show, with minimal opportunity for organic cultural discovery.
The most telling insight of the day was of the city’s great socioeconomic divide. As we traveled from the well heeled Miraflores area, with its colonial mansions, cafés and upscale boutiques, through gritty neighborhoods riddled with trash, stray dogs and graffiti it was painfully clear that there was wide disparity between the haves and have-nots. Traffic was a major issue – in its sheer volume and recklessness – everywhere we went. Peru has the highest rate of deaths related to transit accidents in the region, and most of the fatalities take place in Lima, where pedestrians are victims in 7 out of 10 traffic accidents. That stat isn’t exactly a selling point for gal who likes explore destinations on foot until they blister. I left Lima on both occasions with a “meh” feeling and no burning desire to return. Admittedly, it’s hard to get a handle on a place in a short amount time, especially such a sprawling urban landscape, and my half-assed Spanish skills certainly don’t help. Still, I wasn’t putting Lima on the top of any travel planning wish lists anytime soon. Or so I thought.
When I started planning the itinerary for The Global Citizen Project, my 12 country, 12 volunteer project over 12 months plan to give back, Peru was a priority. I toyed with volunteering in places I know, love and have seen need in, like Cusco and Puno, but decided that this was an opportunity to give Lima a fair shake – and not simply for an overnight stint. Cyber-sleuthing led me to Karikuy and I liked that this organization worked to promote responsible tourism, social development and gives back to the people and communities of Peru. After seeing so many inflated prices and tour company scams when I was in Cusco en route to Machu Picchu, I felt it was important to help support the people and companies who aren’t trying to suck as many soles as possible from unsuspecting gringos and gringas.
I touched down in Lima last Thursday – without my luggage – but with an open mind. (American Airlines has since delivered my missing bag.) We drove about 10 minutes across town, under an icy blanket of early, deep winter darkness to Planeta, the neighborhood where Karikuy is located. Barely one week into my volunteer experience, I’m already charmed by my new, temporary neighborhood. Taxi drivers peg this former squatter settlement as an unsafe place, but I have not felt threatened since my arrival. I hear Planeta was pretty rough and tumble a decade or so ago, but today, it’s your standard issue middle class Peruvian neighborhood. And when in doubt, we call on the fierceness of Karikuy founder, Julio’s guard dog, Killer.
The Karikuy house is located on a gated street and has enough locks, bars and gates to stump even the ‘Hillside Burglar.’ Beyond the façades of security, though, is a vibrant neighborhood filled with children playing, corner stores and makeshift sidewalk cafés, and the most delicious (and reasonably priced) street food you can imagine. Churros! Papas rellenos! Hamburguesas! Even Sunday afternoon drunks and the sadness of a three-day wake and funeral bring color to the neighborhood.
Peru is a place I’ll return to over and over again, so for this project, it’s important for me to break from my usual see-it-all travel modus operandi to explore within the city limits. I’ve seen the extreme natural beauty of this country, but I’m enjoying the raw realities of everyday life in Lima; especially in Planeta. I’m not running to the wedding registry with Lima quite yet, but this South American city seems more worthy by the minute as an extended travel destination instead a layover or a one-night stand. It’s cleaned up quite a bit since my last visit. Traffic is still an issue, but seems slightly less chaotic. And like everywhere you go in Peru, people are warm and inviting. I’m curious to learn more about Lima over the next two weeks while volunteering with Karikuy, but maybe third time’s the charm. So far, it looks like we’re off to a promising start.
Charyn Pfeuffer is a writer for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.