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In a Gray Light, Lima's Softer Side Shines

Often overlooked, the frenetic capital can claim its place as a sophisticated urban center.


LIMA, Peru — Poor Lima. It has no fine beaches, no spectacular Inca ruins. And except for the dead of the South American summer--January, February and March--when the Pacific Ocean fog burns off, it barely gets any sun.

Poor teeming Lima. Its urban sprawl of 8 million has grown 13-fold since 1960. If you read the description of Lima in the "Lonely Planet Guide to Peru," as we did for the first time when already aboard our flight, you'll want to ask the flight attendant for a parachute.

Lonely Planet pulls no punches in its description: Poor. Crowded. Gridlocked. Noisy. Dirty. Polluted. Flat. Gray. Boring. Nerve-racking. Welcome to Peru's 467-year-old capital, a.k.a. "The City of Kings." Oh, and, watch out for thieves and pickpockets. They're everywhere.

OK, so Lima's no day at Zuma Beach. It's no wonder most travelers avoid it or fly in and out as quickly as possible to glorious Cuzco, the ancient two-mile-high gateway to the magnificent Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

But as photographer Steven Adams and I discovered when we went in mid-October, Lima is an excellent place for Americans to encounter Peruvian culture, shop for bargains and experience the mad human rush of a first-class Third World city. And you can do all three without putting your life, health or credit card in any danger.

Lima sits on the Pacific coast in central Peru, but its easterly location--it is 3,586 miles almost directly south of Philadelphia--may surprise you. Its 39 city-sized political districts include the mostly middle-class communities of Surco and tourist-friendly Miraflores, whose tidy residential neighborhoods, up-market mini-malls and bustling business districts could impersonate parts of Miami or L.A.

Lima has its rough neighborhoods and dangerous shantytowns, to be sure. But few Americans would feel uncomfortable in Miraflores. It has nearly any luxury or cultural necessity the softest First Worlder could desire, from Tony Roma's ribs and cell phone shops to ATMs and Internet cafes.

To be fair, Lonely Planet's guide does note--though without much enthusiasm--that Lima has some of Peru's most beautiful churches and best museums, including the "must-see" Mujica Gallo Gold Museum. And--somebody call Arthur Frommer!--it has fine dining and night life too. Of course, so does rusty old Pittsburgh, which is where Steve and I live and work for a daily newspaper.

We spent five days in Lima covering the travels of a globe-circling railroad entrepreneur from Pittsburgh named Henry Posner III. Posner's management company operates small railroads in developing countries, including Peru's Ferrocarril Central Andino railroad, the highest standard-gauge rail line in the world.

Twice a year the Ferrocarril, usually a freight line, hooks up with Trains Unlimited, Tours and runs a special over-the-Andes passenger excursion for British and U.S. railroad fans. Train enthusiasts pay upward of $5,000 to ride the rails in Peru and Ecuador for 18 days.

Before we took our weekend train ride, however, Steve and I had two full days to kill in Lima--or, as we joked after reading Lonely Planet's warnings, "two days to be killed in Lima."

When Posner visits Lima he stays in Miraflores at the Marriott or the Holiday Inn. We, however, did not cross the equator to pay the rates charged by those no-surprises chains. Before we left, Steve and I used to reserve a room at the Hotel Antigua Miraflores, a former colonial mansion on a quiet side street in central Miraflores.

The price--$80 for a roomy double--included taxes and service charges and a generous continental breakfast (featuring ham-and-cheese omelets) in a lovely dining room. Hotel Antigua is loaded with character--ancient tile floors, chandeliers, balconies, gardens and lots of local art. The rooms have spiffy new bathrooms, pine colonial furniture and American cable TV channels. Manos Amigas, the gift shop, sells handmade wool sweaters and crafts by 25 local artisans at prices designed to pay the crafters fair wages. Fine men's crewneck alpaca sweaters are as much as $50, more than double what you pay a few blocks away at places like the Miraflores Indian Market. There you'll find guilt-inducing low prices: heavy woven wool jackets ($30), alpaca sweaters ($17) and scarves ($9).

Before we hit the sack on our first night in Miraflores, Steve and I checked out the local night life. At 1 a.m. the side streets were quiet, except for the parade of prowling taxis that honked as they passed. In the shadows of one street corner, a teenage soldier in camouflage stood guard with a submachine gun. After those warnings about thieves, he seemed more comforting than repressive.

Dozens of bars and restaurants were still open--and, like nearly every shop and eatery we entered during our stay, devoid of patrons.

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