Impressions of Lima
Lima, Peru, claims the distinction of being the only ocean-front national capital in South America. Its beaches are wide and beautiful, stretching for miles along the blue Pacific coast.
Separating Lima’s beachfront from the city proper are steep cliffs averaging about 30 feet in height, running along the coast. The dense, busy city is perched on a plateau at the top of the cliffs, just above the beach.
It is a striking contrast. Despite Lima’s massive size, the feel of the city along the beaches is pristine and almost resort-like.
We had only a brief, overnight visit to Lima. It was a layover on an air itinerary that took us from Quito, Ecuador, to Santiago, Chile.
Yikes! Ground Transportation!
On the heels of our happy recent adventure renting a car in Bogota during a similar brief layover there, we decided to try our luck again in Lima.
Before boarding our flight in Quito, we logged onto the internet and booked a rental car for pickup at the Lima airport.
Rather than a taxi, we decided, we would use the rental car to drive into Lima city center, spend the night, and then return the car to the airport in the morning in time for our flight to Santiago. That was the plan.
Our first hint that the plan might not work as smoothly in Lima as it had in Bogota was the massive crowd of people waiting to greet the arriving passengers in the main terminal at the Lima airport.
This was followed by a fairly long wait for the the man from the rental car company who was to pick us up there — our fault, not his, because we had given him an incorrect arrival time.
We felt a kind of culture shock in the Lima airport, after the relative calm of Quito. Lima, we could see, operates on a much larger scale.
Also, it was long past dark when we arrived at the Lima airport. In Bogota, in contrast, our layover was during the day. Here in Lima, we would need to find our way into the city at night.
At last our driver arrived, and things began to look up. But our feeling of progress did not last long. Rather than a rental car van, our driver was using what seemed to be his own car. It was a sport utility vehicle with no signage of any kind. His personal effects were disbursed around the front seat and dash.
Our sense of foreboding increased as we left the airport grounds and began driving endlessly, or so it seemed, through the streets of Callao, a gritty port city the Lima airport is located. Traffic in Callao was chaotic. All of the residential buildings and businesses in the sprawling neighborhoods are fronted with high fences topped with barbed wire. Everyone in such neighborhoods seems to be locked in, as protection against some criminal menace. It was grim and unpleasant.
We wound our way through Callao, turning up this street and down that. We began to doubt the wisdom of our decision to rent a car and attempt to drive in such a place. And still our driver kept going. He was actually quite friendly and courteous, but he spoke very little English, and our Spanish was limited, and so we rode mostly in silence. It was difficult to communicate with him our increasing sense of misgiving about this business arrangement. We did, however, spot taxi cabs here and there on the street, and so the prospect of changing plans and grabbing a cab to our hotel began to take shape in our minds.
Back at the airport, during our wait for the rental car company driver, we inquired with the taxi stand and were told a taxi into Lima would cost $50.00 U.S. Since we had to return to the airport in the morning, that would add up to $100.00 U.S. for the two of us. This seemed extravagant, and so we had stuck with the rental car plan.
But after 10 or 15 minutes wandering the streets of Callao, with still no indication as to where the rental car business was located, miles away from downtown Lima, we were yearning for a taxi and a driver to take us to our hotel. At that point, the price seemed unimportant; we would have paid the $50.00 fare happily.
At the intersection of two nondescript streets, in the pale yellow glow of the streetlights, our driver pulled to the curb at our request and helped us flag a taxi. We were worried he might take offense or be disappointed about losing our business, but in fact he showed no sign of being upset by our abrupt change of plans. A taxi pulled up just after we stopped. Our driver negotiated the fare with the cab driver. The fare, he told us, was $5.00.
We were incredulous. We were only a couple of miles from the airport terminal, where the going rate for a cab into the city was $50.00. More importantly, we also would enjoy the luxury of being driven safely and competently by an experienced Peruvian driver to our hotel in the heart of the city. We had a great feeling of relief. Driving these streets would have been very stressful and difficult for us.
As it turned out, the place where our taxi picked us up was only a short distance from the major coast road. The narrow confusing streets of Callao quickly gave way to the wide boulevard which runs about five miles into central Lima. Still, we were delighted to have a driver negotiate the roads on our behalf. Even on wide, modern roads like this road along the coast in Lima, drivers in Latin America have an organic style of driving, weaving in an out of lanes and giving only scant attention to the lane markings or turn signals. Somehow it all flows, and the drivers are able to anticipate and manage the flow, like soccer players running down the field, but it is not a skill we North Americans possess.
Even more challenging was the maze of streets our cab driver took once we left the coast road and climbed up the cliffs in downtown Lima, on a winding path we simply would not have found on our own. The cabbie expertly navigated a complex itinerary through the busy dark streets of Lima, culminating in a U-turn that brought us at last to the elegant driveway in front of the J.W. Marriott hotel.
More than ever we were convinced us we had made the right choice in taking a cab rather than attempting to drive ourselves. Whatever map we might have attempted to use to find our way to the hotel, whether a paper map or a map on our cellphones, would never have proven adequate to guide us to the hotel. We would have been doomed to wander the streets of Lima for a long time indeed, begging for directions in our primitive Spanish and not comprehending whatever instructions we might have received.
We were so glad and relieved to be delivered safely and expeditiously that we impulsively doubled the cabbie’s fare — we paid him $10.00 U.S. instead of the agreed-upon $5.00. He smiled broadly. People in Peru, we were thinking, are gracious and warm, much like their counterparts in Ecuador.
All seemed well with the world. Our error in thinking we should rent a car and drive in Lima had been corrected for us at virtually no cost, other than a bit of anxiety on the streets of Callao. Problem solved, we thought, nipped in the bud, an inexpensive lesson learned. The entryway into the J.W. Marriott hotel was beautiful and welcoming, and the valets who greeted us were genuinely friendly.
Our blissful feeling upon arriving at the hotel crashed abruptly when we discovered, as we disembarked from the taxi, that one of our four pieces of luggage was missing.
The missing bag was a backpack that has been in our family for many years, the one we affectionately call the Bloody Red Backpack. It was gone.
We instantly realized we had left it in the rental car driver’s vehicle after switching into the taxicab, back there on the street in Callao.
On this year-long world trip, each of us is carrying just one suitcase and one backpack. We are not the greatest of packers, but we have made an effort to bring minimal belongings.
Our goal has been to travel simply, unencumbered by a large wardrobe or excessive possessions. We each have a couple of shirts, three or four pairs of underwear and socks, two long pants, one pair of shorts, etc. In our backpacks we carry paperwork, a lightweight inexpensive laptop computer (mainly for keeping this blog), e-book readers (Kindles), charger cords for our cell phones, etc.
We also made a point to bring older bags. We did not want our bags to look too new or attractive. There are a variety of things the guidebooks recommend to minimize the risk of theft for travelers, such as not wearing jewelry or a fancy watch. One of the tips we have followed is to carry old — not bright new — luggage.
One of the two backpacks we are carrying is the Bloody Red Backpack. We no longer remember how exactly it came to have that name, but both we and our kids have called it the Bloody Red Backpack for years. We have brought it along to countless beaches, hikes, campgrounds and weekends away. It has a few loose threads that sometimes stick in the zipper, and lately it has developed a small hole in the bottom. The red color has faded with time and usage. It is trusty and old. It is road-worn. It has character, like an old jacket or a comfortable pair of broken-in hiking shoes.
The Bloody Red Backpack was missing, left behind in an unmarked vehicle driven by the rental car employee. In a flash, our feeling of joy at arriving safely at our hotel was replaced by a sense of anxiety, especially given the completely unfamiliar setting — a strange city and the late hour.
We were sure we had lost the Bloody Red Backpack forever.
Marriott to the Rescue
There was a very nice woman at the check-in desk at the Marriott who spoke good English. We explained about the lost backpack, gave her the telephone number of the rental car company office, and immediately she called and was speaking with someone there.
She reported to us that the backpack had been found in the rental car driver’s vehicle, and that he had turned it into the office, where it was being held for us. We could stop by in the morning, on the way to the airport, to pick it up.
None of this would have been particularly difficult, perhaps, in our own country. A hotel employee can place a local telephone call, in the native language, as a routine matter. But to us in Lima that night, this felt like a grand solution to an insurmountable problem. We did not even know how to make a local telephone call, much less make ourselves understood on the telephone in Spanish.
Celebrating On The Town
Our room at the Marriott was the most luxurious of any place we have stayed on our voyage. We had only about six hours to sleep there, but we slept well and woke up refreshed.
Before retiring for the night, we walked out of the hotel in search of dinner. Directly across the street from the hotel was a modern shopping mall that was sculpted into the cliffs above the ocean. We descended by the broad stairs down two levels. Everything was modern and clean. Below us the Pacific Ocean was crashing onto the wide beach.
There were numerous restaurants and an outdoor dining area. After briefly surveying the options, we were more than content to order small pizzas and soft drinks from a Pizza Hut counter.
We were delighted with each other’s company, and we enjoyed watching the people around us. This was hardly a Peruvian meal, of course, but it was nonetheless a beautiful and memorable Peruvian experience.
Lima on March 1 – The First Day of School
The next morning, we hired yet another car with driver to take us back to the airport. This was not a taxicab but a “black car” (a Mercedez-Benz) arranged by the hotel.
The driver was very friendly and had studied English, and he was happy for the opportunity to practice speaking in English. He explained that this day — March 1 — was the first day of the new school year in Peru, and so it was especially busy. His own children, he told us, were heading to school that morning. (Peru, of course, is in the Southern Hemisphere, and so March 1 is equivalent to September 1 in the Northern Hemisphere.)
Using his English skills, our driver described many of the features of Peru, especially the natural beauty of its rivers, Machu Picchu and other sites in the Andes Mountains.
The streets that morning were absolutely clogged with traffic, especially near the airport. Pedestrians made better time on foot than the automobiles and buses. Once again, we were grateful and relieved to not be in a rental car facing the challenge of trying to drive a car in Lima.
On the way to the airport, in Callao, just after leaving the coast highway, we pulled up the curb outside the rental car agency. The office was closed, but as instructed we knocked on the garage door in the back. We were quickly greeted by a garage employee. He spoke not a word of English, but with some help from our driver in explaining who we were, he ducked back into the closed garage and emerged a moment later, carrying the Bloody Red Backpack. All was well.
We arrived at the Lima airport a full two hours before our scheduled departure time. But we needed almost every minute of the time to work through the process of checking in, paying a local airport tax, and riding a crowded bus out to our plane. It was the busiest, most crowded airport we have ever seen. We were glad to get to our flight on time.
From this experience in Lima, we learned (or at least can recall) several things.
First, we came to realize that Lima is a really huge city, on a scale comparable (at least in our minds) to cities like Cairo. The infrastructure in Lima — in particular the roads and the airport facilities — seemed to be lagging behind the burgeoning population.
Second, we recall fondly that despite Lima’s intimidating scale, virtually every person we met there was kind to us and proud of their city and country.
Third, we became more mindful of watching out for our bags, especially when transferring from one form of transportation to another.