It's become something of a tradition for me to try to sketch out my impressions of Lima each time I arrive here anew: see the 2005, 2006 ,2007, and 2009 editions.
Cetainly, the number of poster boards outside the municipal buildings showing "before" and "after" pictures of public works in the city has nearly doubled since last year. Quite a number of them involve the replacement of disastrously crowded t-shaped intersections with overpass interchange systems. This clears away the immediate chaos, (at least in the "after" pictures) but it's unclear whether they're part of any coherent overall plan. On the other hand, a number also involve the conversion of wasteland or chaos into green space. For me, this is crucial: public space is the underpinning of citizenship (maybe I can elaborate on this in a future post)
One of my life's ambitions is to gain some command of Lima's geography and negotiate my way along at least the main north-south routes by kombi and bus. On my last afternoon before taking the bus to Arequipa, I took a long walk from my hotel, near the church of San Francisco, to the Parque de la Exposición, which is about twenty blocks south.
I am now able to see how the whole central part of the city, at least from the Rimac river to the National Stadium, is a coherent piece of urban geography, packed with magnificent architecture, and riddled with historical sites, churches, museums, and locations from Mario Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique novels. It's worth remembering that, despite basically being destroyed a couple of times, Lima was the centre of the Spanish empire for several centuries. In the Americas, probably only Bogotá and Buenos Aires can compare as historical urban centres.
You'd hardly know it, though, as central Lima is fragmented by incessant traffic, crumbling paving, and general insecurity outside the central four to six blocks. The past couple of municipal regimes have indeed done a lot to improve the centre from a virtual no-go zone, but it's still a matter of islands amidst the chaos. The boardwalk along the Rimac river is a pleasant public space (if you ignore the color of the water), while 20 blocks away the metropolitan and fine arts museums are being refurbished, both sitting adjacent to the surprisingly green, beautiful and tranquil Parque de la Exposición. Yet, it's a bit of an adventure even getting from one end of the centre to the other: just getting across a couple of the intersections requires a diploma in jaywalking Peruvian style.
In my view, it's the lack of a mass transport system combined with disdain for the lot of a pedestrian, more than the general insecurity, which means that tourists in Lima tend to either hole up in enclaves like Miraflores, or hop from point to point by taxi. I've braved journeys by kombi a couple of times in the past, but you kind of need to know exactly where you're going -- otherwise you can end up in one of the undesirable spots concerned citizens warn you never to go to, with little idea how to get out. If you're a traveller who has come to Lima and made your way easily around different parts of the city as one can do in Santiago, Buenos Aires, and even to an extent in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro (all blessed with metro systems), then I'm impressed.
However, the achievement level in this task may be about to diminish, and it may even become routine for tourists and newcomers to negotiate the city much as they would elsewhere. For Lima will soon see the inauguration of El Metropolitano.
El Metropolitano is partly based in Bogotá's system of guided busways, the Trasmilenio. The pamphlet from the Municipalidad de Lima boasts that it will be the first bus system in the world to be powered entirely by natural gas (making at least some local use of the fruits of Camisea), and will incorporate such modern features as electronic ticketing, disability-friendly access ramps, security personnel and real-time schedule updates.
The publicity says that what is currently a two-hour trip will be cut to one hour. That's not hard to believe when you see the jams of smoke-belching kombis at rush hour. But let's put this in perspective: while the Transmilenio is a city-wide network, Lima's equivalent will have just one main line, running north to south (total 32km), with a few short feeder lines running in at each end (total 26km). In the inevitable comparison with Peru's southern neighbour, it doesn't quite match up: Santiago has a city-wide bus system and a metro.
At least it's a start, though. Little by little, Lima seems to be progressing from the sub-Blade Runner reality of its recent past, to the vibrant, liveable place its history and national prominence suggests it ought to be.