Present-day Lima was never the center of any great empire but rather a verdant valley where a series of cultures flourished alongside the shrine of Pachacámac, which by the Inca’s time housed one of the most respected, and feared, oracles in the Andes. Huaca Pucllana, in Lima’s upscale Miraflores neighborhood, was a ceremonial center built out of adobe bricks by the seafaring Lima culture from around A.D. 200 onwards.
The valley later fell under the influence of the Ayacucho-based Huari culture and was integrated by 1300 into the Ychma kingdom, which built most of the monumental architecture at Pachacámac. Inca Túpac Yupanqui conquered the area in the mid-15th century and built an enclosure for holy women alongside Pachacámac’s stepped pyramid.
The first Spaniard to arrive in the area was Hernando Pizarro, who rode with a group of soldiers from Cajamarca in 1533 to investigate reports of gold at Pachacámac. They found nothing, but his brother, Francisco, returned two years later to move the capital here from Cusco. Francisco Pizarro was drawn to the spot because of its fertile plains and the natural port of Callao. (Both Pizarros had come here in January, in the middle of Lima’s brief summer, and must have thought it was a sunny place!)
Pizarro laid the city out in typical checkerboard pattern, with the main square butting up against the Río Rímac (“talking river” in Quechua), a natural defensive line. He christened Lima Ciudad de Los Reyes (City of the Kings), and a decade later it was designated the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty in South America and eventually seat of the continent’s archbishop. Universidad San Marcos, America’s first university, was founded here in 1511, and the city was completely walled by the 17th century.
Most of the Catholic orders established themselves in Lima and built more than a dozen baroque churches and convents. Even the Spanish Inquisition for South America was based here (its headquarters is now an interesting museum). By royal decree all the commerce of the entire viceroyalty—essentially the entire west side of South America—had to pass through Lima, fueling a construction boom of elegant homes and promenades, such as the Paseo de Aguas on the far side of the Río Rímac (these days a downtrodden neighborhood).
The city was quickly rebuilt after a devastating 1746 earthquake that destroyed 80 percent of the city and slammed the port of Callao with a 12-meter tsunami. Lima’s prominence began to fade after the independence wars of the 1820s, when it lost its monopoly over South American commerce.
Even in the early days of Lima, neighborhoods of black, mulatto, Indian, and mestizo workers began to crop up around the city, and the expansion continued after the city’s walls were torn down by President José Balta (1868–1872). During the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), Lima was sacked by an invading Chilean army, which carted off church gold and most of the national library’s books to Santiago de Chile.
There had always been a main avenue leading through the countryside to the port of Callao, but as the city expanded, other principal avenues were built outside the center, and the city’s first electric train was inaugurated in 1906. For four centuries Lima had been a small city and even in 1919 only had 173,000 inhabitants. Over the rest of the 20th century, Lima’s population would swell 44-fold to its current population of nearly eight million.
As in La Paz, Bolivia, and other South American capitals, Lima’s population exploded as the country transitioned from a rural economy to one based on large industry. Impoverished campesinos immigrated here from the countryside and built ramshackle slums, called pueblos jóvenes. Since the mid-1990s, these slums have turned into full-fledged neighborhoods, albeit poor neighborhoods. Regardless, they no longer lack water and sewer service and have Internet and big grocery stores.
Lima’s poverty became intense during the 1980s and 1990s, when a series of countryside massacres committed by both the Shining Path and the Peruvian army sparked a crushing migration to Lima. The new immigrants worked at whatever they could find, and many ended up becoming street vendors (ambulantes), causing the center’s main streets to become completely congested.
After being elected in 1990, President Alberto Fujimori put an end—albeit through corrupt techniques which now have him exiled in Chile—to the rampant inflation, rolling blackouts, and car bombings that were terrorizing Lima residents. In 1992, he captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán. Túpac Amaru, the country’s other main guerilla group, staged a final stand in Lima in 1996 by taking 490 hostages during a gala at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. The standoff ended four months later after a Peruvian special forces team freed the hostages, killing the 14 guerillas in the process (only one hostage died—of bleeding from a gunshot wound).
Even before the terrorism years, much of the commerce and most of the wealthy families had abandoned the center of Lima and established the upscale neighborhoods and corporate centers of Monterrico, Miraflores, and San Isidro, where nearly all of the city’s best hotels and restaurants are now located.
Though still a bit grimy and unsafe to walk around in at night, the center of Lima is making a comeback. Street vendors were banned in the mid-1990s, and now the Plaza de Armas has been renovated with new riverside promenades and a spate of nice restaurants. Businesses like Caretas, the country’s leading newsmagazine, have moved back to the center. Compared to the mid-1990s, the center of Lima feels pleasant and safe.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition