Miraflores

Places exist twice for me. There is the scary place I haven’t visited, and the mild, unthreatening spot I build once I’ve been there. The first Lima was terrifying: a giant, Dinkins-era Times Square. Shining Path and shanty towns. The second Lima is much gentler than the version I made out of flicks through the Lonely Planet and sensational travelogues. Peru, like Vietnam before it, is a paper tiger.

The second Lima is really Miraflores, the posh suburb where they stick the tourists these days. I am over-excited to see gringos after a short spell in isolation, and have to leash myself to stop sniffing their backsides. (Enough with the dog metaphors? Okay.) Miraflores reminds me of Coyoacan in Mexico City: in Latin America, money is concentrated and very white. Elegant, brightly-painted houses are barely visible behind high walls and electric fences. White Peruvians drink cocktails while desperate kids sell boiled sweets outside. There are smart tennis clubs and countless casinos, and the shanty towns are far away.

In the Café J, industrial roasters and grinders form working décor, and the seats in front of the arty tables are sacks of Peruvian coffee. A world map covers one wall; I look at it and sigh for all I haven’t seen yet. A jazz trio plays Billie Holliday’s ‘You’ve Changed’. The singer, in a 60s Greenwich Village corduroy hat, gray beard, and ugly jazz shirt, does a surprising, accentless tenor.

At the Parque del Amor, a giant loveseat twists along the cliff, sweet nothings and love poetry spelled out in a mosaic tile for those who run out of ideas. ‘To Love is not a Sin’, it says at the entrance beneath a huge statue of a couple snogging on the ground, and Miraflores couples up obediently. Smart vendors patrol like Redemptorists, selling roses, as the young and the beautiful slurp at each other, each pair in their own little section of the winding loveseat. It could be depressing, but I find these snogfests cheering. So much short-term, Sunday joy.

Down below the breakers crash on the beach nicknamed Waikiki. Little black dots surf. There are hundreds of them, all in wetsuits, apparently not bothered that this sea flushes the toilet for eight million people. Never kiss a Lima surfer. Still, the beach is wonderful, even from the cliff top. Mario Vargas Llosa describes learning to surf (and flirt) here in the 40s and 50s: I picture him now, stately and rabbit-toothed, balancing on a surfboard in his pin-striped suit.

The weather is dismal, something I’d have known if I’d brought a guidebook. Lima is covered in sea-fog nine months of the year (and smog the other three). Though we are still close to the equator it is chilly as San Francisco in the summer. All the better for some dutiful museum slogging tomorrow.