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Colonial Lima shines again

This lovely old pearl of a city has restored, renovated and cleaned up its historic downtown.

“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 But when rumors surfaced a few years ago that the UNESCO designation might be withdrawn if more wasn’t done for the center, the city got serious about preservation and restoration.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.