Reflections of Identity: Forged by a Vibrant Indigenous Heritage, Lima Has Evolved over the Centuries through Its Unique Languages, Literature, and Lifestyles

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Billowing and curvaceous cliffs rise steeply from the narrow strip of the Costa Verde along the central Peruvian coast. From the Miraflores suburb, their dramatic height appears to make a presentation of Lima before the Pacific Ocean. Within the city, traffic congestion and smog are increasing, and there has been a proliferation of casinos during the the 1990s. As Lima expands, however, it has managed to retain the flavor and legacy of its past, and many of its neighborhoods preserve a distinct cultural personality.

During Lima's colonial era, it was a smaller, inland center, with a busy port. off the peninsula of Callao and principal buildings erected around a Plaza de Armas. The Spanish conquistadors selected a site near the banks of the Rimac River, and since the aboriginal pronunciation of the first letter of the river's name elicited an "l" sound, the word was understood as "Lima."

In Lima's city center, the Government Palace (the President's residence), the Archbishop's Palace, and the Cathedral prominently embrace the Plaza de Armas. The side streets reveal several restored colonial mansions, notable for their balconies and miradores, from which residents used to search through spyglasses for the arrival of galleons to the port of Callao. Convents and catacombs in the downtown area house the remains of such notable figures as Francisco Pizarro and Saint Martin de Porres. Downtown is also the location of the Museo de la Inquisicion, a colonial institution of long duration, operating between 1570 and 1820. Actual instruments and wax depictions of torture can be observed in this museum.

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While this historical center is not frequented by locals--"only tourists and those who have to work there," quips one limena, Carmen Tisnado--it is one of many places to go for gleaning bits of Peruvian history. Lima is replete with museums that should all be visited, beginning with two major sources of pre-Hispanic and pre-Inca objects: the National Museum of Anthropology, Archaeology, and History, and the private Larco Museum (especially popular for its themed wing of erotic Moche ceramics). Despite a name that seems to denote more recent accomplishment, the Museo de la Nacion in the San Borja district also features significant examples of ancient cultures. In the Miraflores district, the Museo de Arte (which spans 400 years of Peruvian art and also has pre-Hispanic ceramics) and the Museo Amano (which specializes in the little-known Chancay culture and also has remarkable textiles) are significant experiences.

In 2004, a new Parque de las Murallas (walls) was unveiled some three blocks from the city center. The ancient exterior walls of the colonial city were discovered during a major urban clean-up project. The upper promenade also provides a nice view of the city. The lower promenade presents the infamous statue of Francisco Pizarro astride a prancing horse and wielding a sword. The conquistador's bronze presence typifies Peruvian society's ongoing struggle with its own history and cultural heritage. Created during the 1930s by US sculptor Ramsey MacDonald, the statue was shipped to Lima in 1934 (a duplicate copy resides in Wisconsin). It was first installed in one of the inside patios of the national Cathedral, but church officials complained that it was inappropriate for their space. It was subsequently removed and placed outside, opposite one corner of the Plaza de Armas, where a colonial house was torn down to create a small plaza for its display. As public outcry over the glorification of the conquest heated up in recent years, the equestrian statue was removed and put into storage. But it soon reappeared in the rehabilitated park, surrounded by seventeenth century murals.

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Such is the dichotomy of a nation still struggling with its identity. "For many years we said we were a Christian and western nation seeking modernization," says anthropologist Cecilia Rivera. …