Chapter 18: Miraflores, Lima
Wednesday, June 30
Altitude descent throughout the night brought its own challenges. My ears ached. The cramped space around my seat afforded little comfort and my legs also ached. I slept a little but was awake to see the daybreak and sun rising over the valleys of vegetation surrounded by the drier plateaux. Smoky mists hung over the valleys. We’d come through Nazca, after a night-time of thundering along the pass through the Cordillera de Los Andes, and were three hours south of Lima on the Panamericana Sur, smothered in a Pacific Ocean gloom. The bus stopped at a roadside truckers cafe. It seemed a fairly bleak place with lorries and cars hurtling along the straight stretch of road and shattering the fragile, nervous silence. On the opposite side of the road the land rose steeply up to desert and crumbling sand hills. Brick walls were layered with political slogans. A sharp smell of urine seeped through the place but at least the passengers had a chance to stretch their legs. I often imagined what a place would look like. The fascination continued to grow on this journey. The secret was to temper those raised expectations. My first glimpse of Lima was of a downtrodden southern suburb. The blanket white cloud and a wafer-thin film of dampness offering a permanent melancholy. We reached the bus station on Republica, opposite the National Stadium, amid scenes of traffic chaos. Blaring sirens and choking fumes filled the wide streets and darkened the side routes. I’d been lucky with my luggage on each journey. My backpack regularly reappeared from the lower compartment covered with only a layer of dust or dried mud at the worst. After successfully collecting my bag, Maila, the Dutch girl who accompanied me in the departing taxi in Cusco, reappeared. We were both going to Miraflores so, as we earlier agreed, it would be safer and more sensible to share a 20 soles taxi. She was understandably nervous and tired and knew the dangers of being in such a big town alone. The taxi driver wanted to drop me off first but we insisted on getting to the Loki Hostel for Maila’s sake. She had some exciting days ahead of her with a flight to Cuba after a weekend in Lima catching up with old friends. Maila was also very excited about the forthcoming World Cup match between Holland and Brazil. The main Peruvian television channel had transformed part of Lima’s central plaza into a mini football field with a large screen for fans. That’s where Maila wanted to watch the big game. After the Loki, the driver took a detour due to a road being dug up. He eventually found Condor House. I checked in and extended my stay to Friday night. The online hostel booking company took a commission from the first night. However, booking online made it slightly cheaper overall. The friendly hostel hostess showed me my ground floor room, a two bed damp dormitory. I found a decent place to eat for just six soles and later checked out the seaside streets, passing through the tranquil Parque del Amor with its stretched out lovers in statuesque embraces on long benches and wide topped walls. Miraflores looked a stunning location on a high cliff top above the sea shore. After a short visit to a nearby supermarket I returned to the hostel. There was a large kitchen knife on the dormitory’s bottom bunk bed. I didn’t know who I’d be sharing the room with! He or she could have been anybody. I was tired after no sleep but quite alarmed. I alerted a receptionist who broke out into laughter. He assured me the guy in the bottom bunk was a chef who’d just come off shift. I liked the hostel’s layout, especially the excellent kitchen where I cooked a pasta dinner. I later joined David and Christian on the patio for some beers. They were two extremely chatty Colombian guys with lots of time for the British but lots of frowns and dismissals for the French and Germans. I asked why. Perhaps they just hadn’t met the right people.
I awoke in such damp surroundings after a solid 10 hour sleep. There was even a light film of moistness on my shoes and all my papers were limp. I found a dehumidifier and memories came flooding back of my damp bedsit on Cathedral Road, Cardiff, where a litre or two of water could easily be sucked out of the place each day. I finally met my room-mate, a pleasant lad called Lautaro Gonzales Ruiz, a trainee chef from Chile. It was a consistently damp and drizzly morning. I walked through a warm mist into the centre of Miraflores where newspaper sellers had copies of the Guardian International for eight soles. I contemplated buying my first British newspaper on this South American trip. Along Avenida Arequipa for an hour to the centre of Lima, I experienced my most lively bus journey yet. With the windows open to suck in the lukewarm air the bus runner had half his body hanging out of the side door as he yelled for more people to board the wagon. We wedged into ever thicker traffic with the driver using a loud siren to clear the route, much to the passengers’ amusement. Loud club pop music from the early 1990s blared away. A Spanish overdub on Whigfield’s 1994 smash hit Saturday Night was a highlight as the bus rolled on to Tacna. I stepped off for the short walk down to the Plaza de Armas. The dark balconies and colonial look of the town really impressed me. It had flavour and character. Iron meshed windows obscured the many shops of serious endeavour and all sorts of stuff. I checked out the plaza’s World Cup stage and penalty taking spot before entering the cathedral, a magnificent building with a great altar, incredible choir stalls and vivid artwork. The quiet interior was of a marked contrast to the frenzy outside. Lots of soldiers guarded the cordoned off area outside the presidential palace as a horse trotted past and urinated right in front of them. I later visited the Mercado Central where I enjoyed a chicken lunch for just five soles. My taste buds were returning. The market roared with activity as I sat in a crowded kiosk with a friendly bunch of people. The girl who served me was so nice, expressive and helpful when I spoke Spanish with her. Following lunch, my Lonely Planet and a wary eye for the vicinity aided a safer stroll along the many streets to Cromotex where I bought my next bus ticket, for Trujillo, further up the Pacific coast. I walked back to the centre, passing the imposing looking Palacio de Judicia, and managed to get on a bus from Tacna to Miraflores. A woman with a sad story boarded the bus. She told us about the costs of medical treatment for her poorly young son. At 6pm I was back in the bright lights of Miraflores, with its modern high rise blocks housing hotels and banks. It looked like a posh and very wealthy neighbourhood. Back in the hostel the receptionist wanted to discuss how much I was paying. I insisted the hostel website I visited quoted a price of 14 soles when the proper price, with a booking fee, or if paying directly, was in fact 25 soles. I said it seemed deliberately confusing and stuck to my guns by wangling two nights for 14 soles each and my last night, in a less mouldy first floor dormitory, for 33 soles. Such issues required a give and take approach and the hostel staff seemed happy enough. I was trying hard to budget and had £3,200 for my remaining three months. It sounded more than manageable but I had to expect the unexpected. I also knew my travel insurers were still in the process of covering my hospital expenses. Anything could have cropped up. My stomach felt so much better. I had another huge craving for chocolate and devoured a small bar of the dark stuff after a cheap pasta dinner. Ana emailed from Cusco to check that I was alright. I immediately replied with my best wishes. From Trujillo I intended to continue up the coast to Huanchaco, as the guide books explained how the weather became sunnier and warmer the further north one travelled.
Friday, July 2
Lima experiences months of continuous Pacific Coast gloom and then months of brightness. Each day of my stay produced dampness, akin to a spider’s web being all steamed up and slowly cooled down. I contemplated writing a longer article about Cusco but what a town I’d moved on to. The sun never shone over Lima but there remained a stoic expression on the faces of its people. Brazil were knocked out of the World Cup by Holland. I watched the game on the hostel television which relayed an orange coloured celebration from Lima’s main plaza. I made an online booking for a hostel in Huanchaco and worked out a tighter daily budget of 60 soles for the rest of my stay in Peru. I was going to move into a ground floor single room for my last night but it had no window nor light bulb! Therefore, I felt happier to move into the eight-bed dormitory on the first floor. It was so much nicer, warmer, and had an excellent bathroom and hot shower. Lautaro’s snoring on the previous night was pretty bizarre, a high pitched introduction followed by full on rumbling stuff to keep even a stoner awake. My new room was more in keeping with the plush character of Miraflores. I also met one of my new room-mates, Tamsin, a dark-haired lady from Hertfordshire. Tamsin was planning a long stay in Peru after becoming involved in rain forest consultancy work back in London. Before going out for lunch, I worked out that the banks were taking the equivalent of £5 in commission for every £100 withdrawal I made. This seemed consistent with all my cash withdrawals in South America. There were several cheap eateries along Enrique Palacios. I chose the busiest one where many of the nearby building site lads were just leaving. It remained a rather noisy joint but had decent food. Three very attractive waitresses had a reassuring control on everything. I’d somehow missed the Monumento de Francisco Pizarro the day before and thought about a return trip to Central Lima to check that out and other sites. But, I remained in Miraflores and decided on a walk down Avenida Jose Larco. I stopped at Parque Central to enjoy a live jazz band. There was a lively Friday afternoon feel to the streets. Following a controversial victory over Ghana, Uruguay were in the World Cup semi-finals. Some of their jubilant supporters were now on the Miraflores streets in their cars, whizzing by, tooting their horns and waving their blue and white flags. At the cliff top front of Miraflores dozens of paragliders were still up in the air as the bright lights of town shone out of the approaching night skyline. I enjoyed a decent walk around the block and came back up Diagonal, where the bars and cafes were quickly filling up with end of the week workers. I took an early dinner at Bembos with chicken and chips followed by lemon pie. The kitchen knife on the bed moment was still being recounted by the hostel staff when I returned. It was a rather funny episode, yet initially quite creepy and disconcerting!
Saturday, July 3
It was another old, wet dog smell of a day. Tiny puddles were sprinkled on the pavements like someone had squeezed the last drops out of a damp jumper or shaken a wet cobweb. There was a translucent film of moist mist all around. I’d had a good sleep. A cute and friendly, unassuming Sydney girl in the dormitory called Donna was returning home to Australia and we got talking. She gave me some hand wash, stomach pills and water disinfectant tablets. Donna was excited to be going home after a fun-filled five weeks in Peru. You often meet very pleasant and interesting characters in dormitories. I’d missed out on that in Cusco where my stay became a rather solitary one. Germany continued their fine form in the World Cup. I watched them demolish another South American hope, this time Argentina. I had a day to enjoy before my night bus so I took a little tour around Miraflores. I checked out the listings at Cine Planet, saw the ancient adobe pyramid at Huaca Pucllana and ate a hearty saltado lunch at Brisas del Mar. I enjoyed one last visit to the beachfront cliffs near the black and white lighthouse, the Faro La Marina, to watch the paragliders before darkness fell. After treating myself to a KFC snack I waited around the hostel as the receptionist Enrique checked some travel and weather details for me. He then booked me a taxi. Ernesto the taxi driver told me about his travel experiences in Japan. He wanted to see more of the world and asked me what I did for a living. I told him I’d been a newspaper reporter but left to pursue something new to write about. “Ah,” he said, “I can see you are on a detox trip.” Quite right, I was. The Cromotex departure lounge was quite empty, apart from a few elderly couples who kept chuckling at some saucy television comedy which made the British Carry On films look prudish. The bus was very quiet when we left the station soon after 10pm. With two seats to lie back across, I watched the passing street scenes of busy weekend festivity. I quickly relaxed as the bright city lights, stretched out wide to the north of the city, were softened by the warm air of humidity. What a soothing, Saturday night departure out of Lima.