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Boisterous Lima

Lima, Peru

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Lima – once a little rough around the edges – has cleaned up its act recently, and now is a great time to visit an elegant city packed with colonial relics and 21st century amenities. But don't come with false expectations, Lima is still a far from exotic destination. Life here is for real: it's a boisterous, macho city and, especially in Lima Centro, money rules. As the population has exploded in recent years, shanty towns and neon-lit suburbs have sprawled across the desert and the rapid growth has brought traffic problems, pollution and pickpockets. But don't let this put you off - there's a real energy here and for every bar with pretensions to American high society style, you'll find a humble cafe where the hospitality is warm and genuine.

In Lima Centro, one of the highlights is the Museo de la Inquisicion, housed in the building that was HQ for the Spanish Inquisition for two and a half centuries of terror: there are creepy dungeons and even a torture chamber. If you're still eager for eeriness after this, make for the San Francisco monastery and its Catacombs Museum. The vast crypts weren't rediscovered until 1951 and contain the bones of some 70,000 people. If the thought of so much death is makes you maudlin, admire instead the majestic San Francisco church, with its Moorish plaster relief decorations. Built in the 17th century, it's withstood several earthquakes, unlike Lima Cathedral which has had to be rebuilt several times!

The spectacular Torre Tagle Palace is the pride and joy of Old Lima, a superb eighteenth century mansion, complete with decorative façade and the traditionally Limeno little and large twin wooden balconies. It's a glorious fusion of styles: an Andalucian porch and patio is teamed with very Peruvian carvings on the pillars and ceilings and the painted tiles are a blend of Spanish and Limeno styles. Among the relics inside are a set of old scales for weighing merchandise and a carriage complete with mobile toilet - the wealthy have always traveled in comfort! At one time the mansion was an outlaw stronghold, and the government authorities need written safe-conducts to enter. These days it's home to Peru's Ministry for Foreign Affairs - notice the security guards toting machine guns on the roof and veranda - but open to all.

In Rimac quarter you'll find Casa Aliaga - possibly the oldest mansion in South America. If you arrange to visit in advance you can see the sumptuous reception rooms. Stroll up the elegant, tree-lined Alameda de los Descalzos, where the colonial elite used to take the air. You'll pass twelve zodiac statues imported from Italy to lend some old world sophistication to the young city. Take the tempo of the city in the Plaza San Martin, scene of many political rallies. This is supposedly the symbol of the sophisticated egalitarian spirit of the country's liberators, but commerce is still the dominant note: mime artists, shoeshine boys and street photographers compete with the soapbox politicos. Leading off the square is La Colmana, home to a vibrant street market that pulses with life all day long.

South of Lima Centro is the suburb of Miraflores, a slick, ostentatious mini-metropolis with skyscrapers, ultramodern and very exclusive housing and Lima's ritziest shops. Modern Lima is showcased in the 1990s clifftop Larco Mar development: an ambitious shopping and dining complex with great views over the Pacific. If the hustle of the city gets to you, go for lunch in one of the clifftop restaurants and sit with a cool beer. But Miraflores is also the place to get a taste of Lima's ancient past. The vast pre-Inca adobe mound of Huaca Pucllana still dwarfs the surroundings. This 'sacred place', is thought to be constructed in the shape of a frog to symbolize the rain god, who could speak to his priests via the tube going to the heart of the cavern.

At night head still further south, to Barranco, one of Lima's most attractive quarters and home to numerous bars, clubs and cafes that buzz with energy after nightfall. The music scene in Lima is pretty special. Salsa and Afro-Peruvian music is the best you'll find in all Peru. The salsa scene is booming with 'salsadromos' - nightclubs dedicated to salsa - springing up everywhere. Look no further for a lively night out and unbeatable atmosphere. If it's folk music you're after, the penas are the place to be. Some specialize in 'criolla', a unique and vigorous blend of Afro-Peruvian and Spanish influences. Whatever you choose, if you're going to keep pace with the Limenos you could be out until dawn.

In Lima, the noisy, crazy frenzy of a city hauling itself by its bootstraps is mellowed by the influence of the ocean and beaches. This city has an almost electric energy, but somehow the people remain relaxed and welcoming.

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