12/13/15 – We all have those traveler’s secrets. The places you somehow just stumbled upon or heard about through a convoluted string of friends of friends of friends, that make you feel like you’ve discovered buried treasure. They are the settings for the tales you tell over and over again when you’ve had a few too many glasses of wine and the rare moments that define a destination. And often, they are too good to share. They become the currency of travel – traded with with reverence, and only with the deserving.
Lima surprised me. Either I’ve just become inured to third world countries or it was very clean. And not just the wealthy districts dotted with Starbucks and Banana Republics either – even driving through gritty Callao on the way from the airport I was struck by the lack of trash by the roadside. In fact, the only place I noticed a conspicuous pile of trash was, pleasantly ironically, directly in front of a “no dumping” sign. Beneath its ubiquitous white fog, the city had physical beauty – barren cliffs careening into the ocean where surfers dotted the waves, unexpected quirks – a bevy of locals using the meandering clifftop walkways and parks to do yoga or take part in some sort of spartan training lead by a coach in full Hollywood-“this is Sparta” garb, and a healthy infusion of energetic urban charm. It felt like a pair of perfectly broken-in jeans – effortlessly stylish yet comfortably lived in.
But I know it’s not really these generalities I’ll remember from Lima. It’s something very specific – an unforgettable breakfast that I count among those treasured traveler’s secrets, and never would have had without the gracious help of a fellow traveler and friend with fabulous taste (you know who are – thank you!).
Like any good diner stateside, it had gently chipped formica tables and a line out the door on Sunday morning. But, among the atmospherically decaying colonial buildings of Lima’s old center, here you trade the pancakes for pan con chicarron, ethereal rolls stuffed with thick slices of roast pork and thin layers of fried sweet potato. The pungent red onions marinated in vinegar, chilis and cilantro were not something I ever expected to enjoy with a cup of coffee, but their role cutting through the rich sandwich filling was just perfect and seriously addictive. The crowd of work-a-day locals – college kids, grandmothers, harried businessmen on their cell phones – sat elbow-to-elbow in every available seat and I found myself in the rare and enviable position of being the only foreigner there, savoring the chance to drink in the decor of faux-wood wallpaper and shelves of Inca Kola that invariably go unnoticed by the locals.
Transported to the historical central square, my illusion of being away from my fellow tourists was rapidly shattered, but the strains of song drifting from the doors of the many old churches soothed the annoyance. Then I heard a totally different musical refrain – heavy drum beats, trumpets and cymbals. I hurried along the narrow streets, lined with graying pastel colonial buildings, following the music until I rounded a corner and suddenly found myself in the midst of a religious procession in full swing. Solemn old men hefted an icon of the Virgin on their shoulders as three older women, wearing white lace veils, purified the road before them with antique censers. Just as I arrived, the music stopped and they hoisted the icon to the ground. “What bad timing,” I had just begun to think when another band struck up a song a few yards away. A group of dancers, garbed in odd cloth face masks featuring mustaches and exaggerated features, began to dance wildly, flailing woven whips at each other as they dodged and stepped in time with the band. Another troop of dancers, men in all white wearing hats streaming with colorful ribbons looked on from the sidelines, waiting their turn. Engrossed with the unexpected performance, it was with a start that I realized it was past time to return to the hotel to depart Lima with my tour group. As I picked my way out of the crowd, I realized once more I was the only foreigner there – traveler’s bliss twice in one morning 🙂