Colonial Lima shines again

“This 'City of the Kings' was, until the middle of the 18th century, the capital and most important city of the Spanish dominions in South America.” – UNESCO

LIMA, Peru — The pollution can be stifling and a clammy Pacific Ocean mist called “garua” still hangs in the air, but this old pearl of a city, long a destination that many international travelers tried to avoid, has in recent years restored much of its downtown colonial luster.

Capital of a Spanish viceroyalty and known as the “City of Kings,” Lima entered a period of rapid and largely uncontrolled growth after World War II. Its population then exploded during the rural insurgency of the Shining Path guerrillas in the 1980s and early 1990s, growing from about 500,000 in 1940 to 8 million today. Most of the new immigrants live in extreme poverty.

As a result, downtown Lima suffered from inattention and abuse. Smalls armies of the urban poor and homeless camped out downtown, using the streets as urinals and tarnishing the attractiveness of the city’s colonial architecture, with its museums filled with Inca and pre-Inca gold objects and other archaeological wonders.

Due to congestion, dirt, decay and crime, international tourists often would fly into Lima and immediately head to the posh and newer neighborhoods and commercial centers along the coastline, or fly directly to Cuzco and the Inca city of Machu Picchu. Few would linger in downtown Lima.

Now, a number of factors have combined to restore relative order and cleanliness to the city’s downtown core. Vast public housing projects have been built outside of downtown, services have been provided to residents of outlying slums and the police have adopted sometimes harsh measures to prohibit vagrancy and panhandling.

Neighborhood recreation center.
(Courtesy City of Lima)

The most important milestone in Lima’s renaissance was UNESCO’s designation of Lima as a World Heritage Site. The first designation came in 1988, for San Francisco Convent, and it was extended to the whole colonial downtown area in 1991.

The UNESCO designation was more an encouragement to preserve heritage sites than a recognition that Lima’s past city administrations had actually done so. But when rumors surfaced a few years ago that the UNESCO designation might be withdrawn if more wasn’t done for the center, the city got serious about preservation and restoration.

Today, police patrol the Plaza San Martin and the Plaza Mayor, the two most important downtown squares and the heart of Spanish colonial rule on the continent from the time that Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535.

The current mayor, Luis Castaneda, and his predecessor have spent millions of dollars in public funds to paint and illuminate historic buildings, plazas and shopping areas, restore crumbling buildings and parks, pave streets and create pedestrian walkways, often with the collaboration of private businesses that also benefit from the restoration work.

“Lima no longer is a city to just pass through,” said Diego Uceda, a city councilor who is also chief of the city’s tourist commission.

Other parts of Lima have gotten facelifts too. Since the mid-1970s, much of the residential and commercial life of Lima has gravitated to the Miraflores and San Isidro districts on a bluff along the coast, where high-rises, luxury condominiums, five-star hotels and the huge Larcomar shopping mall overlook surfing areas below.

There are plans for a massive mixed urban renewal project in the Santa Cruz section of Miraflores. It would demolish auto mechanic shops and dilapidated commercial establishments, as well as the old San Martin army barracks, and build a mixed residential-commercial-tourist complex including a five-star hotel and convention center, a museum and world-class eateries.

“We want to reinforce the residential spaces, but also to build private commercial zones and create a gastronomical tourism circuit” to take advantage of the new attention being paid Peru’s traditional dishes, said Carlos Ramirez, assistant manager of urban planning for the Miraflores municipal government.

While historic Lima now shines and tourists flock to its attractions, the biggest changes to the city as a whole have come about because of a multi-million dollar public works program begun several years ago by Castaneda.

Nicknamed “el mudo” (the dumb one) because he seldom speaks in public, Castaneda has pushed through projects that benefit not only the middle classes and the wealthy, but also the millions of working class and poor people who live in the outlying areas and who often lack basic services such as sewer, water and lighting.

Castaneda has built parks, replaced decrepit transit centers and cleaned up industrial areas, and built virtually no-cost “solidarity hospitals” in cooperation with groups of volunteer doctors to bring badly needed medical care to the poor. There are now regional recreation centers in the slums, where people can swim, picnic and play for free or at a nominal fee. The public works project with probably the most impact has been the construction of 2,500 concrete stairways in hillside slums that allow residents to ascend to their homes from streets below.

City councilor Luis Enrique Tord, a historian, professor and author, calls the citywide public works program a “monumental effort.” Castaneda’s approval rating hovers at or above 75 percent, a unheard-of figure in any major Latin American city.

While no one argues with efforts to clean up the historic center of Lima to attract more tourist dollars, two of the city’s signature projects have attracted criticism as well as acclaim.

A $135 million project to build a citywide public-transit system with fixed routes and user-friendly stations built around a fleet of natural-gas powered buses already has run six months beyond its completion date, with miles of Lima thoroughfares torn up and impassable.

The project, with two-thirds funding from international development banks, is due for completion in early 2010, but that doesn’t keep local residents from grousing. One taxi driver called it a “disaster.”

But, “It is the emblematic work of the city,” said Roxana Rocha, a city councilor. “In 25 years there has been no government that has done anything about the transport mess.”

In addition, the Magic Circuit of Water in Lima’s Parque de la Reserva, featuring 13 illuminated water fountains, including one with a 200-foot tall geiser and another with a laser-operated light-and-music spectacular, has become the city’s newest and most popular tourist site for both nationals and foreign visitors.

Since its completion in 2007, 7 million visitors have entered the park. In a desert area where water and finances can be scarce, Limenos at first scoffed at the expenditure of resources. Criticism seems to have subsided, though, as more and more Peruvians visit the park and wonder at the fountains and the light show.

So why, in a city often neglected for decades if not centuries, has this mayor taken it upon himself to conduct such works? The cynics say it’s because he plans to run for president in 2011, a good possibility. A third of all Peruvians, after all, live in Lima.

But Castaneda, speaking recently to a group of visitors and reporters at the inauguration of a public art display, said the reason is simpler than that.

“Cities should be friendly places,” he said.