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Who knew? Lima, Peru, is South America’s secret new hipster hangout

 
It's a real-life event that sounds like someone’s idea of a joke: “Lima Fashion Week.”
 
What could that be? Ponchos and bowler hats, modeled by llamas?
 
As it turned out, more than 10,000 local and international trend-mongers attended last spring’s Fashion Week shows at the sprawling Jockey Club in Lima, the capital of Peru.
 
 
The Bridge of Sighs in Baranco is a suitably romantic stretch that offers expansive ocean views below.
 
Once there, they witnessed the creations of world-famous names like Kate Moss, as well as home-grown designers like Andrea Llosa, a woman whose frocks looked less like any preconceived notion of something Peruvian than like an art project from the German avant-garde.
 
While scores of models strutted through Lima’s streets for the city’s annual Fashion Week, so did their perennial soulmates — rock stars.
 
Gene Simmons brought to town his “Rock ’n’ Roll All-Stars” show, a motley crew of famous journeymen like Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Billy Duffy of The Cult, and a trio of musicians who’ve put up with Axl Rose in Guns N’ Roses.
 
The Bridge of Sighs.
 
Ground zero for this nexus of metal and fashion was the gleaming new Westin Hotel, a 33-floor, uber-modern structure where they stayed, and which has bragging rights as Lima’s tallest building.
 
More than just an impressive structure, the Westin can be seen as a symbol. Chicly styled, the hotel epitomizes Lima’s evolving cool, a trend that stands in stark contrast to the city’s old image as grimy, dangerous, and — as far as tourists go — not much more than a frumpy transfer point before arriving at the Peruvian locale they really wanted to see: Machu Picchu.
 
A fortuitous cluster of events has altered that image. First: a great decrease in crime. Lima, and much of Peru, suffered through terrible violence and corruption in the ’80s and ’90s — caused in key part by the Maoist/terrorist group the Shining Path. That organization has now been cordoned off to the remote jungle areas of the giant Cuzco province (60% of Peru is jungle). There, they concentrate on routine drug running rather than their old fanatical politics.
 
The Catedral de Lima dates back to 1774.
 
Lima still has a plenty of poverty, but key areas like the central historic district downtown have been gorgeously overhauled in the last decade. To boot, the city boasts no fewer than three hip districts, including Miraflores, San Isidro and, best, Baranco.
 
At the same time, Lima has lately earned international cultural and culinary regard. The former came from the appointment last year of the revelatory singer Susana Baca as the country’s first female cabinet member (minister of culture). The latter arrived through the efforts of chef Gaston Acurio, who, after running top eateries all over South America, recently opened his first New York establishment: La Mar, by Madison Square Park.
 
A perfect example of the dramatic and tricky evolution of Lima can be found in the personal story of Grimaldo del Solar, of the Afro-Peruvian band Novalima. Grimaldo grew up in the rough days of Lima. “It was a very dark time,” he told me in the band’s rehearsal studio. “You couldn’t go out at night.”
 
Plaza de Armas
 
For that reason, he and the other band members (all childhood friends) left the country as teens and dispersed to different European cities. They first began making music over the Internet and didn’t solidify the band until they returned to Lima 10 years ago. “It had become a totally different city by then,” Grimaldo says.
 
In the time since, Novalima has become one of the biggest bands in town, once playing to 30,000 downtown. I caught a wild and sweaty show they played at the coolest rock club in the city, Sargento Pimienta (Sgt. Pepper). It’s located just a 10-minute walk from the band’s studio, which sits in a lovely, walled-off arts complex in Baranco.
 
The district isn’t just a central point for Lima’s nightlife, it’s a great place to walk around and shop by day. The shops and galleries lead down to the “Bridge of Sighs,” a suitably romantic stretch that offers expansive ocean views below. For even broader vistas, you can drive up to the town’s peak, located on St. Christopher Hill.
 
While the second coolest district, Miraflores, is located just north of Baranco, you’ll need a car or cab to get there. Lima isn’t a walking city. Due to the constant threat of volcanoes and earthquakes (the place lies smack on a fault line), most buildings must be low-rise, sprawling the population of 9 million over a wide, squat and endless expanse.
 
Like Baranco, Miraflores features lots of great restaurants and clubs as well as fine views of the Pacific. You can get the most picturesque at Parque De Amor, featuring lovely tile work snaking around its curvy run. Like La Jolla outside of San Diego, Miraflores sits high on a hill above the ocean. But you can take winding paths down to the beach.
 
The third gentrified district, San Isidro, has its share of hip bars and boites, not to mention the aforementioned Westin, but its a bit more businessy.
 
Thousands flock to Lima's Fashion Show where model shows off hometown fashionista Andrea Llosa's latest designs. 
 
For a sense of Lima history, head to Plaza De Armas downtown. The buildings in the area, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts dark wooden balconies, contrasting the yellow-toned, Spanish/Moorish Colonial buildings which give the place a warm glow.
 
The impeccable restoration has perfected the monastery of St. Francis, one block northeast of the central Plaza. Consecrated in 1673, the church and monastery features 13 biblical paintings, including a Last Supper vision that subs in dishes Jesus would have only eaten in Peru (like, no kidding, Guinea pig). Still, the coolest parts of the church lie in the catacombs.
 
They feature the bones of Pizarro (the fantastically bloodthirsty Spanish conqueror), along with 70,000 others. Several areas feature skulls and bones piled into sculptures that could serve as the ultimate bad-ass Slayer album cover.
 
Anyone staying in Lima should carve out a few days to rent a car and take the three-hour ride south to Paracas — a resort town that functions as The Hamptons for rich Limans. It’s located next to a giant nature preserve, and while it’s mainly a place to chill, the area does boast three prime activities, two of which are pretty horrific.
 
For the first, you hop a boat out to the Ballesta Islands, which are less islands, per se, than two gigantic rock formations populated by birds in the Hitchcockian sense. There are one million of them. These islands operate as one of the world’s largest “guano” factories for fertilizer. Meaning it’s a humongous emporium of poo, producing exactly the fragrance you’d expect.
 
If that doesn’t do it for you, you can hop a nearby plane to the world famous Nasca Lines. These gigantic “line” carvings in the ground, created by the Nasca people for a reason no one has ever figured out, can only be seen from the sky. Since the pilots of the plane that glides overhead want to make sure everyone on board gets every nuance of the lines, they constantly tip the planes to point the wing in the right direction, for some truly hair-raising, and stomach-churning, patterns.
 
Let’s just say when we got back, I kissed the tarmac.
 
The one truly fun thing you can do here is to go on a dune buggy ride through the desert. They’ve got a sand desert here so looming, at times you’ll think you’re starring in “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s a blast to roller-coaster your way through the dunes, leading to a bacchanalian dinner they serve in a tent set up in a nearby crater. It’s all too “Sex and the City.” Consider it yet another sign of Lima — and its surroundings — as a center of something not enough people associate with Peru: Glamour.
 
 
Photography credits: Carlos Ibarra, Linden Gledhill
 

 

 
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