Lima is a big, dirty disorganised city. And the climate is sometimes miserable. Nevertheless, Lima is the social and economic heart of Peru, and any visitor who just passes through the city on the way to Cusco is missing an essential part of the country. It has some excellent museums, which give a perfect introduction to much of the history of the rest of the country. And the historic centre of Lima, a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, is a fascinating glimpse into the splendid past of what once was the most wonderful city in all the Americas, the City of Kings. Although somewhat decrepit, the centre has been much improved in recent years, and should definitely be visited.
Lima also has the best social scene anywhere in Peru, with excellent nightlife in Barranco and Miraflores, and some world-class restaurants, with prices to match. With all sectors of Peru represented in the city, from the wealthiest classes (with shops and services to serve them) to the poorest, living in dreadful slum conditions, Lima is a true Latin American city. Spending at least a day or two here will help the visitor understand the country better.
The area around Lima was inhabited before the arrival of the Spanish, and there are funeral mounds visible throughout the city, although there is not much to see today. Pachacámac, an important Inca and pre-Inca site on the coast, is located very close to Lima.
Lima was founded on January 18 1535 by Francisco Pizarro. As the original plan had been to found the city on January 6, the epiphany (the day the three kings arrived in Bethlehem ), the city was given the title 'The City of Kings'. The original city was founded on the southern bank of the Rímac River (the name Lima is derived from Rímac) and had fewer than 100 inhabitants. The site was chosen for its strategic importance for the invading Spanish army. Close to the sea, and thus to the Spaniards' ships, Lima also offered one of the easiest access routes into the Andes, where Pizarro's original capital, Jauja, was located. The city was also well irrigated by the various rivers flowing through it.
Peru was the centre of the Spanish Empire in South America, and was the home of the Viceroys who ruled over the entire land. Lima was the most important Spanish city in the Americas, with the possible exception of Mexico City, and had fine colonial buildings for the wealthy aristocracy based there. Unfortunately, a massive earthquake in 1746 destroyed much of the city, eliminating most of its beautiful centre. Around this time, the importance of Lima for the Spanish began to wane, and other cities in South America, such as Buenos Aires, increased in importance. Nevertheless, Lima retained its elegance, and most of the buildings destroyed in the earthquake were rebuilt, and can be seen today.
In 1821, on July 28, the Argentine General San Martín entered Lima and declared independence. The Venezuelan Simón de Bolívar became the newly independent country's first president, although he ruled only from 1824 to 1826.
Lima continued to play an important part in the economic development of Latin America after its independence, and the first railway in South America was between Lima and the port of Callao, opened in 1854. However, the city remained relatively small until the beginning of the 20 th century, when the population numbered little over 100,000. The urban sprawl that is today's Lima began around this time. The population on average more than doubled every twenty years, and continues to grow rapidly today. This growth was particularly evident in the 1970s and 1980s, as the shanty towns surrounding Lima sprang up to accommodate the mass influx of migrants from the Andes. These were mostly escaping from poverty and the violence of the Shining Path's war with the Peruvian government, which largely played out in poor rural villages.
Lima has not been designed to cope with such large numbers of inhabitants, as can be seen by the complete lack of urban planning. Traffic and pollution are a nightmare, and the centre, for a time, became a dangerous place. The upper and middle classes moved away from this area around the beginning of the 20 th century, and settled in the quieter areas of Barranco, Miraflores and Chorillos. In recent years, however, things have improved somewhat. Alberto Andrade, the mayor of Lima, started a campaign to clean up the city, and has moved the street vendors, who plagued the streets of the centre, to more organised markets. The streets have been cleaned up, and many of the buildings restored. Some businesses have moved back to the centre, after abandoning the area, and although parts of the city can still be dangerous, safety in the centre has improved significantly in the recent years.
The end of terrorism and the stabilising of the economy in the early 1990s, as well as the free-market economic policies of Fujimori, attracted much inward investment to Peru, almost all of it concentrated in Lima. Although this has done little to alleviate the poverty endemic in the city and the rest of the country, it has resulted in a sizeable middle class in Lima. Shops and services have sprung up to cater for them, and the city now has shopping centres, cinemas, entertainment complexes and bars to rival any city in the world. Although this cultural homogenisation has led to wealthy young Limeños trying to emulate their US counterparts, Lima still retains a significant chunk of its cultural identity.
The economic development of Lima has not trickled down to all strata of society, with the poor still desperately poor. However, some of the urban improvements of recent years have also spread to certain shantytowns. Although many still remain without basic services, such as electricity and water, others have improved significantly, thanks largely to the settlers' own determination. Villa El Salvador, in the south of Lima, has grown from a population of zero to 350,000 in less than 30 years, almost exclusively populated by campesinos from the Andes. Through organisation and resistance to early government attempts to have them removed, the community is now a shining example of what can be achieved even in the most dire circumstances. There are community centres, sports grounds, parks and libraries throughout the settlement, and education is paramount, with low levels of illiteracy. There is a large industrial park, and parts of the surrounding desert have been irrigated by the residents. Villa El Salvador has won numerous awards and has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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