How Lima's buzzing barrios revived the city's arts scene

A culinary renaissance has revitalised the Peruvian capital, leading to buzzing beach barrios and industrial spaces reborn as creative hubs.

By Michael Parker-Stainback
photographs by Karolina Wiercigroch
Published 10 May 2020, 08:00 BST
Lima's revival has kicked off a wider cultural renaissance that today makes the city one of ...

Lima's revival has kicked off a wider cultural renaissance that today makes the city one of the Americas’ edgiest, most compelling destinations.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

I’ve gone deep into the Lima buzz in Barranco. Crowds pack tightly around tables at Isolina, arguably the neighbourhood’s top dining spot (among too many contenders), celebrated for sublime tastes that come from working-man recipes, haute technique and impeccable, locally sourced ingredients. 

The packed dining room embodies a Lima revival that has transformed a capital city once dismissed (even by some residents) as dusty, early-to-bed and provincial. Acclaim for Lima’s influential chefs and adventurous food scene is now legion. And perhaps that energy — creativity, newfound civic pride — has kicked off a wider cultural renaissance that today makes Lima one of the Americas’ edgiest, most compelling cities.

Wannabe scenesters, crowding the door, jockey for hostess attention. Everyone — from scruffy-bearded, uncombed kids to imposing señoras in neoindigenous finery, and silver-fox gents with shaggy manes wearing poet-worthy turtlenecks — is immersed in deep conversation, emphatic gestures flying. The restaurant’s soft woods and dim lights do little to abate the roar. Sidelined to a bar stool (party of one; no reservation) but with a commanding view of the pageant, I feel the pulse of a great Latin American city; a place where human connections are paramount and chit-chat morphs into something deeper and richer. 

The leafy garden restaurant at Larco Museum in the Pueblo Libre District.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

“For years, people thought Lima was the place to change planes for Cuzco,” quips manager Rafael Parra over an early-morning coffee in the misty, romantic garden at Casa República Barranco hotel. “But the city has started to take pride in what it is; now we need people to come.” The busy yet tranquil hostelry (as well as plush rival Hotel B, on the same ceremonious yet shabby-genteel street) is another part of the Barranco buzz: people are restoring grand, historic structures and filling them with edgy, eye-catching artworks, kicky boutiques and galleries, plus spectacular dining rooms.

The neighbourhood lies 7.5 miles south of the city centre, clinging to Pacific cliffs on the far side of upper-class San Isidro and Miraflores. In previous decades, those districts constituted most Lima visitors’ entire theatre of action. But recent years have seen Barranco — originally a seaside resort for the capital’s best families — take on a key role in a city that’s now stirring.

“There’s a particular style that’s very Peru that you don’t see anywhere else … When you mix Incan minimalism with the heavy, ornate Spanish baroque, it’s very interesting.”

by Mario Testino

The MAC Lima contemporary art museum — the district’s cultural gateway, on Avenida Miguel Grau — beckons. Beyond walls given over to striking, colourful murals, I duck into loft-like galleries and high-impact exhibits that often result in some head scratching; here, at what is a forum for many of the hemisphere’s most avant-garde proposals, it’s dialogue, as well as controversy, that’s being provoked. A few blocks in, Barranco’s walkable, tree-lined streets and quaint town plaza reach an urban zenith, with families, old folks and newly minted bohemians crowding onto sidewalks to see friends, watch the ocean, smooch, or stop for a drink. A hop down Avenida San Martín toward Chorrillos leads to more of the city’s most fascinating art spaces, including the historic, sacred collection at the Pedro de Osma Museum, and high-gloss photography on view at MATE - Museo Mario Testino. The mix is chic, but real, alive and authentic — not too posh, just yet.

Here are 14 ways to experience Peru, from the Andes to the Amazon

Graffiti at Monumental Callao, an area of Lima dotted with street art, performance spaces and food stalls.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

“We came here to be artists,” says flower-seller Gabriela Sánchez Morbeli, as she assembles a pretty, affordable bouquet. “The only work in our pueblo was to be a cop.” Gabriela reached Lima and now she and her grown-up children are singer-songwriters, picking up gigs. “Here we have freedom to be who we are,” she says.

Culture constellation

Barranco makes for a comfortable jump-off to Lima’s constellation of culture. First-stop: nondescript, workaday Pueblo Libre. South of Centro and north west from San Isidro. Larco Museum, established here in 1926, is a dazzling focal point of city pride. A spiffy showcase for 45,000 pre-Columbian treasures amassed by Peruvian archaeology pioneer Rafael Larco Hoyle, generations of artists, scholars and aficionados, eager to go deeper into Peru’s rich heritage, esteem it as a temple. Arranged on 6ft-high shelves, the museum’s vast collection of ceremonial vessels — crafted to contain everything from water to fermented beverages and sacrificial blood — overwhelms me in a thrilling way, as do chiaroscuro galleries showcasing jewellery, armour, ceramics, precious metals and rich, ancient textiles.

“There’s got to be excitement in art — and art museums,” says Larco spokesperson Samantha Encalada. We’re seated in the museum restaurant, an exquisite jewellery box in what must be Lima’s most impeccable botanic garden. Bougainvillea floods over stately hacienda walls; gnarled, age-old cactuses rise metres high; every corner harbours fascinating horticulture, winsome statuary. As a museum promoter, Samantha favours sensations over data, plus a focus on the overall cultural experience. Referring to outcomes from Peru’s violent 20th century and current political wrangling, she asserts that the “old-school Lima” of select elite families — taking cues from Europe and the US and all but hostile to the nation’s ethnic and artistic diversity — is giving way. A museum that began life as a solemn reliquary is now a dynamic cultural centre attracting wider audiences; part of Samantha’s charge is finding ways for Larco to bring marginal populations into contact with the emotion and joy the museum affords. “We’re expanding our vision of the Peruvian,” she says.

Street scene in Barranco, a neighbourhood that's home to an increasing number of boutiques and galleries.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

After so much refinement, it’s time to slide down into grittier Centro streets, around iconic Plaza San Martín. For hundreds of years they served as the city’s commercial hub, populated by handsome, colonial-revival office buildings, banks and the venerable, if tatty, Gran Hotel Bolívar. By the end of the 20th century, the quarter had been disdained in favour of more affluent, seemingly ‘modern’ precincts.

Now I see new signs of life. Retail space — home to haberdasheries or prim cafes in the old days — has been repainted with eye-popping urban art that presents everything from acid-hued national heroes and no-holds-barred political critique to Catholic iconography, now rehashed via indigenous vindications. A congress of young hipsters — artists, rockers, nonconformists and those that love them — are crowding out legacy drunks at old-school dives like Queirolo, and earsplitting rock ’n’ roll joint Piano Bar Munich. Adjacent streets explode on weekend nights with raucous beer halls and hole-in-the-wall dance clubs that come, thrill, bore, then go. It’s that sweet moment when people with an eye begin fixing up wonderful old places, installing creative venues; and developers have yet to spoil the party.

The night before, a walk (well, taxi ride) on the wild side had seen me venture into the neighbouring city of Callao, an artistic outpost in the Lima metropolitan area. A colonial-era sea port, 7.5 miles west of downtown, the area declined and hardened in the decades following a 19th-century industrial boom. Today, the creative work it nurtures gives rise to a vital, edgy and passionate scene that artsy travellers ought to see. It’s made impressive strides towards rehumanising what for decades was dismissed as the city’s roughest, most incorrigible slum, one whose residents were rendered invisible. 

Streets of Callao, an artistic hotspot in the Lima metropolitan area.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

This transformation began in 2015 with the creation of Monumental Callao, a community organisation focused on the visual and performing arts and design that provides a platform for local, often marginalised creators. The upshot has been a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation for the area’s history, architecture and residents. At its centre stands the Ronald Building, now known as Casa Fugaz: a five-storey, 1920s skyscraper that towers over the surrounding terrain. Restored to industrial-rococo perfection, its filigree and pomp find a cool urban complement in funky, ground-floor boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Upper floors house artists’ studios — for neighbourhood creators and a growing roster of international names in residence — that often receive the public; their elegant stone balconies and wide sash windows must surely inspire. The centre’s exemplary presence trickles into surrounding streets that invite daytime strolls.

“The majority of North Americans visiting Peru … fly direct to Lima, tour Cuzco, visit the ruins and return straight home, not believing that anything else is worth seeing.”

by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

Here, fresh coats of paint in bold, compelling graffiti-art depict noteworthy neighbourhood characters and the fierce creatures of a new urban mythology, and, not least of all, residents’ electric-hued demands for dignity and empowerment. You can’t leave unmoved.

Weekends mean great live music on the Casa Fugaz rooftop, often reggaeton or hip hop, at low cost to the general public; tonight, it’s salsa by Mambo Glacial. Even amid the revelry, talk turns to culture. Gil Shavit, Monumental Callao’s founder, is in the crowd, alongside an imposing posse of young musicians and rappers — guys who grew up in nearby, warring barrios but have buried the hatchet for music’s sake and are now collaborating at an on-site recording studio. Talent and a chance at stardom have electrified their relationships. Both the candid Shavit (a self-professed “not-squeaky- clean” veteran of Lima’s high-end real estate racket) and band members (who perform under stage names including Silencio, Jey Army and Salsa) surprise me with their spirit and sentimentality. “I don’t care how successful you are,” the founder declares, apropos of life lessons. “You have to have a heart, have to want to change things, have to love.” Fugaz administrative assistant Fabiola Rentería grew up poor, just a few blocks away. She has her share of neighbourhood horror stories but affirms the centre’s influence “taught us to show our dignity and work for our own successes”.

There are new signs of life in Centro Historico, once home to haberdasheries and prim cafes — now repainted with eye-popping urban art.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Back to the gig: what the headliners lack in polish (the lead singer is fond of from-the-bottle slugs of rum) they make up for in raw power: some 15 youths blasting horns, drums and rhythm, plus another singer — a master of maracas and hypnotic fancy dance. Fans, friends and visitors come together from all stations. From the roof’s edge, I take in the terrible, fabulous city, in widescreen, from the old Centro to the modern industrial port, Pacific beaches to Callao’s crumbling belle époque. Lima’s perennial fog-veil blurs a million lights, on shore and at sea; candy-pink fireworks explode from an anonymous quarter, no special occasion required. 

Insider tips

Uber in Lima is efficient but quickly grows expensive. If possible, organise days around a single neighbourhood’s must-sees and -dos; travelling by bus between Barranco, Miraflores and the Centro is nearly always faster than by car.

Peruvians may be a wee bit formal as first-nighters, but when you find a restaurant or tavern you really like, visit more than once. You’ll be a regular before you know it.

Q&A with visual artist Christi Zorrilla

What paths led you to the visual arts in Lima?
I was born in Peru, but my ancestors are from China. They emigrated to South America sometime in the early 1900s. Most of my young life I lived in the US. But, fascinated by the two strongest lines in my heritage, I came back to Lima to ‘learn Peruvian’. It included a season living in the forests between Loreto and Iquitos. No indoor plumbing, I bathed in the river — but I loved it.

You recently showed an artwork, Lazos Ancestrales 'Ancestral Ties' at Mac Lima. Can you share the thought behind it?
My piece was part of a collaborative exhibition among Peruvian-Chinese artists. All the works addressed movement between China and Peru, then back to China — a journey I’ve personally made. My artwork’s red network is composed of knots — an element of importance in China as well as Peru, related to the Inca quipu [ancient stringed recording device]. It also ties into my interest in textiles, a major medium in both cultures.

What's it like to live in Lima with Chinese heritage?
After a hundred years here, the community is strong and established, maybe even privileged. The city’s racial mix is one of its best parts. I like Lima. But I’m also going back to the jungle.

How to get there and around
British Airways offers the only direct flights from London to Lima. Average flight time: 12h35m. Although buses connect central Lima, Miraflores and Barranco a car is the best way to explore the sprawling city. Inexpensive taxis abound (negotiate fares before boarding) and Uber is well established.

When to go
Lima’s climate is temperate and dry, with negligible rainfall (less than 6cm annually). Winter (June-October) temperatures range from 15-20C; summer (November-May) temperatures from 16-27C.

More info
Perú Travel

How to do it
Chimu Adventures can arrange travel around Lima, accommodation at Hotel Casa República (Barranco), and airport transfers. 

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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