Young Towns: Walking in the Rímac District of Lima
By Heather Emond
My hands twitched on my camera the moment I saw the shoes dangling several feet above me. A few mangled, dirty sneakers were tossed casually over the mess of Prayer candles at a market power line that shot down the road.
Countless movies had taught me that shoes on wires were anything but light-hearted: their placement signified a profound act of proprietorship, a demarcation as solemn as a frontier or battlefront. As with so many incidents, since I started traveling, my approach had been ‘accidentally-on-purpose’.
I had strayed into gangland territory.
Welcome to Lima
I was in Rímac District in Lima Peru, home to one of the many bright and sprawling ‘pueblos jóvenes’– or young towns — that can be found in and around the Peruvian capital.
Lima is, among travelers, generally considered to be something of an afterthought.
Bohemian Europeans flock into the city’s hostels for one or two nights on their way to the mountains of inland Peru and Bolivia; the majority are, of course, destined for Machu Picchu and the North Yungas ‘Death’ Road.
Business and upmarket tourism, on the other hand, are conducted in the vicinity of the stunning Pacific coast, in the chic, westernized neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro.
Clinging to the Hillsides
These landscaped districts are worlds apart from the dusty, precarious shantytowns that can be found on the edges, creeping into the desert and clinging to the hillsides of the city’s underdeveloped spaces.
Unlike so many of the people I met daily in my hostel, my reason for coming to vivid, irrepressible Lima for a whole two weeks, was simply to see Lima. I was fortunate enough that circumstances had allowed me to arrive just before Easter, so in the week that followed, I was permitted to photograph the city back-to-front, without much effort.
That I later found myself staring up at the shoes on the power lines in the young town of Rímac, was the result of my spontaneous acceptance of an offer to go for a walk.
Locating the Rímac District
Rímac’s young town occupies a unique position. It is situated to the north of the UNESCO-inscribed historical city center, a mere stone’s throw away from the Plaza de Armas and the Government Palace.
The near-seamless contiguity of the political and religious seats of power, with a poor village that began life as an illegal settlement, is so conspicuous that it could easily be a metaphor to describe contemporary, urbanized power relations.
In other words, such a set-up would seem unbelievable if it were not for the fact that you can walk there and see it all with your own eyes.
The river Rímac — which is currently being redirected into a canal as construction continues on the Via Parque Rímac Project — flows between the downtown area and Cerro San Cristóbal — an iconic hill adorned with a cross, that draws tourists and locals alike.
Tourists are generally advised to take a taxi or official tour bus to the summit that rises 400 meters above sea level. It is not unheard of for tourists to be targeted by local pickpockets or worse; I was frequently advised by longer-term residents to fork out additional money for a safer, more reliable option, to avoid such a scenario.
The vantage point offered by Cerro San Cristóbal is irresistible; even in the winter months, when the panorama is hazy. It’s one of the most effective ways to grasp what a truly huge and dense city Lima has become; it is by some accounts, now the third-largest city in the Americas (by population).
Locals are drawn to the young towns of Lima like Cerro San Cristóbal for religious reasons — especially during Holy Week, or to light a prayer candle ahead of a special occasion. These prayer candles are available for purchase in situ and are sold by a clutch of inscrutable vendors who haunt the hilltop with their carts and their complicated charts, that explain which candles correspond to which zodiac signs and genres of luck.
I was also told by one guide that Lima natives often make offerings of sweet things at the summit; anything from a fizzy drink to ripe fruit. This is an older tradition that is derived from the ancient Incan beliefs of the land and the worship of Mother Nature. The goddess Pachamama is traditionally toasted by spilling a portion of sweet chicha on the ground.
Over the Bridges
Rímac district can be reached on foot by a number of bridges. My companion and I crossed over at the Puente de Piedra, the oldest bridge in Lima.
A number of solemn police officers stood watch at regular intervals, and anxious Rímac locals drew close as we passed over. I held my bag tight in case of pickpockets. My companion had subtly prepared me for this, insisting I wear a patterned scarf to serve as a screen for my bulky DSLR camera.
Our intended destination was a flower market that is located far enough into Rímac that even many Peruvians do not like to go there.
Passing over the bridge is as much a psychological transition as it is a physical journey. The atmosphere feels different on the other side: not exactly hostile or unwelcoming to tourists; rather, unconcerned with tourism in general.
Quieter and More Intimate
It is quieter and more intimate; the crowds begin to thin and the ceaseless, lethal traffic that encircles the city center falls away. Many residents of the young town rely solely on the auto-rickshaws that cough their way up the warren of streets crisscrossing the steep hillside.
All in all, it reminded me of the feeling you get when leaving a busy financial center to go walking in the suburbs. All of a sudden, you can glimpse into people’s backyards and darkened kitchens, except the effect in Rímac is immediate and all the more surprising.
We walked past some of the key sites of Rímac district, that entices curious tourists beyond the river. The first is the large, pinkish edifice called El Paseo de Aguas, not to be confused with the crowd-pleasing water walkways located in the Parque de la Reserva.
Beyond this, we came across the Plaza de Toros de Acho, the oldest bullring in South America, which can hold more than 13,000 spectators. The bullring was deserted as we walked by; dogs rattled the gates, growling and barking at us.
Mercado de Rosas
After a terrifying crossing at Avenida 9 de Octobre, we reached the Mercado de Rosas: A cool oasis of calm, this vibrant indoor flower market was by far my favorite among the ubiquitous markets Lima has to offer. From bouquets of roses to esoteric seeds; painted daisies to exotic orchids, the sheer variety of flora on display is staggering.
The air is thick with perfume and the scent of water mixed with earth, a freshness sorely lacking in the thirsty streets and parched hills of that quarter of the city.
Lima is renowned for its parks and known abroad as the garden city. Somehow I found it comforting to know that this hub of industrious horticulture is thriving just beyond the river on the doorstep of Rímac’s young town.
The Myths of Rímac
In the 1960s, the anthropologist William Mangin, writing in the Scientific American journal, explored the daily reality of life in Lima’s young towns. He criticized the opinion widely held at the time that such settlements were at once unbearably degrading and yet also radically organized, poised to unleash a communist coup at any given moment. The social paradigm of the young towns, Mangin argued, was surprisingly stable and well-executed.
Today, it seems that popular myths about young towns persist. Yes, there are shoes strung on power lines, and young men glare from street corners at outsiders who scuttle past; and it can certainly be unsafe for tourists who stray too far without paying attention.
More pressingly, as mega-cities in South America continue to grow, the durability of shantytowns like this one is unknown. But the daily realities of life are always so much more complicated than hearsay received second-hand in a hostel breakfast room or tour bus.
From collective efforts to provide for the many street dogs to organized shantytown tours that provide the funding for lateral development projects, the communities of Lima’s young towns can flourish in unexpected ways.
Walking in Rímac was, for me, a journey into some of the oldest, most peaceful and intriguing streets in Lima; and that is why I always think it is best to explore a place for myself — no matter what others may say about it.
Heather Emond has been traveling throughout North and South America for a number of months; she’s currently based in Antofagasta, Chile.