Lima Unseen: San Juan de Lurigancho

Lidija Mavra is a relatively recent arrival in Lima, having moved from London to the Peruvian capital just a few months ago. A researcher and social entrepreneur, Lidija was keen to explore the city beyond the relatively safe confines of districts like Miraflores and San Isidro. So she ventured further afield, often to places that many of her international and middle class Limeño friends wouldn’t recommend…

It was 2am on Saturday night and the sea breeze was rising, ruffling the perfect creamy canopies of Antiqua, a nightclub overlooking the shores of Barranco. Outside, the bouncers were disdainfully holding off a troupe of eager-eyed hipsters who weren’t on the list. Inside, designer-labelled Limeños were dancing in their cliques, the guys waving around bottles of whiskey and the tightly strapped in girls either languidly draped over the bar or hopping as best they could to the electro beats on their eight-inch heels.

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As I pondered which cocktail on the overpriced drinks menu to go for, my friend Maju stumbled out. “I’m so fucking bored I could chew my arm off. Want to go to a real party?” She came in closer for a tipsy whisper: “It’s an ugly and dangerous place, pero vivo, great for dancing…”

She didn’t need to ask twice. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against cliques, whisky or languid poses. It’s just that, three months into Lima and safely ensconced in the bubble of Miraflores, I had begun to feel the itch to see and explore somewhere new. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start whining about how I want to see ‘authentic’ Lima, assuming this is everything other than reasonably affluent, slightly bohemian enclaves – clearly these, too, are part of the city’s reality. But one only has to take in the view from the Malecon to the glimmering hills in the distance to know there are many other worlds out there.

I asked Maju if it would be safe for me, an obvious foreigner, to go with her. She assured me that all would be well: “It’s a super machista area, which means that as two girls on our own we wouldn’t be safe, but we’ll be fine as we have him.” She pointed to her boyfriend, Alonso. I took a step back to study him. A lanky giant with a long, beaky face, he smiled benignly at me and quietly hiccupped into his 10th cerveza. He looked like he could barely walk, let alone defend his women’s honour.

Quick Tip:  If traveling to or from Lima Airport, it is strongly recommended to use the luxury Airport Express Lima  bus to get to or from your hotel. Safer and cheaper than a taxi with no baggage limit as well as Free WiFi and USB chargers onboard, it is ideal for travelers.

San Juan de Lurigancho: “It really is quite dangerous”

Ten minutes and five taxis later, we finally found one willing to brave the 40-minute drive to the outermost northern district of Lima, San Juan de Lurigancho. “It really is quite dangerous,” Maju reiterated as we piled in, “so lock your door and don’t look out the window. Put your phone in your pants and your money in your bra. If they try to rob or rape you, just keep calm.” I stared at her. “Are you kidding me?”

The car zoomed off.

Toppling down the dry, vast hills and spreading out in the valley towards the river Rimac, San Juan de Lurigancho was carved out by migrants making their way to the capital from different regions, notably the Sierra (or mountain areas). Today, it is the most densely populated district in Lima, with some two million residents, hubs of industrial activity, and continuing pile-ups in the asentamientos humanos – informal settlements precariously balanced on the rocky slopes, where Lima’s poorest continue to eke out a living and keep the city going with their vital but often informal, ‘invisible’ labour.

Leaving the glittering shores of Costa Verde far behind, we plunged into these streets of broken lights and crumbling, wildly colourful building facades, veering round deserted corners where the wind swirled clouds of debris high above the heads of the odd solitary passers-by, walking quickly with hoods over heads and bodies hunched against the cold.

As the aged car surfed the uneven roads and queasy curvas, I did my best to hold down my three Cuba Libres while Maju harassed the driver to take a different route, as she had to take cash out. He made the mistake of saying that she should have thought of that earlier and he would have to charge us more. The car swerved violently, almost pitching us into the river, as she lunged forward to shout in his ear.

Que cosa? Señor, what don’t you understand – we have a gringa in the car with us – a gringa – so we can’t just stop anywhere, and you didn’t give us a chance before as you sped off so fast. We have to be responsible for her; if any of the local ladrones see us, ellos van a robarnos como mierda. Ellos van a robarnos como mierda!!” Literally: “they’re going to rob the crap out of us.” With this reassuring refrain, the taxi jerked to a halt in front of an ATM embedded in a glass capsule on a completely deserted back street. Maju ran in. Just as she finished taking money out, a group of five baseball cap-wearing wraiths appeared out of thin air and rounded in on her.

I shrank into the back of the car and froze. Alonso, bless him, had a sudden personality transplant and like a bolt unbuckled his seat belt to spring out and do battle… but it proved unnecessary. Miraculously, Maju’s natural flair for drama, combined with drunken temper, saved the day. She took one look at the youths and unleashed such a volley of abuse and violent hand gestures that they actually shrank back, startled. “Fuera, basura! What would your mothers say if they saw you mangy clowns out at this time of night, get the hell out of my way!” A risky strategy, but it worked. They melted away into the night in a haze of confusion and head-scratching beneath the baseball caps, as Maju triumphantly slid back into the car.

“I don’t think we’re in Miraflores anymore”

The driver deposited us with a huge sigh of relief in El Boulevard de Zarate that was literally just round the corner – a heaving Mexican wave of bodies dancing, arguing, playing guitar, eating and sharing bottles. We plunged into the chaos and made our way towards the first club of the night, little more than a doorway next to a more glamorous disco called Banana, which looked too posh for our liking.

Reggaeton-ratedThere was a brief skirmish at the door as Maju negotiated a free drink with our entry ticket (10 soles each). We made our way up some stairs and literally fell into the basin-like dance floor, which had some token stools and tables strewn about, but was essentially a space for everyone to get on their feet and shake their booties. The music was typical Latin style (merengue, salsa and reggaeton), as was the ‘animacion’ – we were greeted by a huge hoot of welcome by the resident MC, who was performing acrobatic miracles with voice and body that totally belied his 50+ years, generous midriff and Hawaiian print t-shirt.

“Maju,” I said, “I don’t think we’re in Miraflores anymore.”

She grinned at me and got stuck into a giant jar of cerveza that Alonso brought back from the bar. Within seconds, one of the local lads asked me to dance, backed by encouraging cheers from his buddies. I smiled nervously at him as Maju patted me on the bottom – “go, go, have fun, we’re watching you.” With this blessing, I slid onto the beer-flooded dance floor and didn’t leave for the next hour, as practically all the guys in the club (age range 17-25) asked me to dance. No-one batted an eyelid that I was obviously foreign, or made me feel in any way endangered – seriously, what is all the fuss about, I wondered, as the hottest (and youngest) one of the bunch zoned in on me and literally swept me from the arms of the one before. So this is where all the beautiful boys have been hiding. He had caramel skin, moody dark eyes and a very street-wise smile. He pulled me closer, grinding down with his leg between mine, knee slowly sliding up my inner thigh. Suddenly a VERY strange look crossed his face, and I realised that my phone had steadily made its way down my crotch. He must have thought I was wearing a chastity belt. Well, you’d probably need one in a place like this…

It was time to go.

“Please,” I said, as Maju and Alonso collapsed with laughter, “get me out of here before I do something illegal!” They tucked me between them and the three of us marched to the polar opposite across the road – a grungy rock venue resonant of an ancient British pub, with mouldy carpets, termite-eaten furniture and, thankfully, no pretty chivolos in sight. It was free entry, with the inevitable giant jugs of beer the only drinks on offer. We got a table and slurped one down, watched with curiosity by the couples and groups surrounding us. We listened for a while to the band on the three-inch stage – five long-haired, chisel cheeked and intense-eyed Peruvian rockers belting out Chilli Peppers and, er, Kylie Minogue classics.

The audience was older (age range 25-50) making me feel slightly more appropriate when one gentleman asked me to dance. He very respectfully kept his distance, occasionally taking my hand to wave it around – no steamy bumping and grinding here. He was super tolerant of my starter Spanish, and we chatted for several songs until he asked me who I was there with. I vaguely motioned behind me. “Quien?” he asked. I turned. Maju and Alonso had disappeared.

Great. Now what? My new friend very kindly offered to help look for my errant friends and made a sterling effort, turning over tables, chairs and the people sitting on them. When neither Maju nor Alonso were unearthed, he accompanied me outside to look for them. And we didn’t have far to go – we heard them well before we saw them.

They were having one of those raging rows that people who thrive on drama include as part of their weekly coupling routine. Alonso seemed to have expanded about a foot both horizontally and vertically, and was looming around the tiny Maju, flapping his arms and hopping from foot to foot like a demented ostrich. For her part, Maju outdid herself with vocal skills that made my teeth rattle. I still have no idea what the fight was about (and am pretty sure they didn’t either). The hordes of people around us were totally nonchalant, evidently used to the drama, although a few clapped when Maju emerged victorious. Alonso simply turned, folded himself angrily into the nearest cab, and buggered off.

burger-lima

“Um,” I tentatively put a hand on her shoulder, “Are you ok? What should we do now?” She whirled around to face me. “Well what do you think? Let him ruin our night? Que mierda! Of course not! We’ll just have to find another man. But first I need to eat.” I barely had time to wave goodbye to my slightly crestfallen friend from the rock bar before she pulled me over to a burger stand. It was just outside a large salsodromo, whose doorway had begun to produce a deluge of skinny-jeaned beauties who mowed me down in the stampede for food. Maju ordered a giant double meat creation stuffed with egg, cheese and skinny chips. I watched the burger lady make it and breathed in the tantalising smells… however, memories of the pet amoeba I had acquired in the Caribbean the previous year from eating street food stopped me from digging in. Maju looked at me in disgust. “No sabes que rico es? Don’t be such a fucking princess. Bite the damn burger!” I obliged… and it was tongue-meltingly delicious. Sorry, stomach.

After feeding, Maju seemed reinvigorated and semi-sober, which was just as well in light of her next suggestion. “Let’s go to my friend Josef’s house and ask him to take us somewhere. He lives 15 minutes away by taxi.” “But, it’s 4.30 in the morning,” I protested. “So what? This isn’t London, you know, you don’t have to put yourself in your friend’s diary three weeks in advance!”

Realising this wasn’t a democracy, I scuffled through the crowd with her and five minutes later was in another cab, rushing along wide, dusty roads decorated with shabby palms down the middle, and lined with row upon row of squat, semi-unbuilt houses. The silence left by the sudden lack of animated bodies was palpable; the streets were filled only by the sounds of our cab and Maju’s “we have a gringa with us” speech to the driver.

We pulled up beside one of the houses, which curved up precariously with exposed brick walls, a line of washing on the top floor giving it a jagged outline in the darkness, like a half-bitten egg. The door timidly cracked open, revealing a long, somewhat pinched, pale face that bent down to kiss Maju, and was attached to an equally long, exquisitely thin body that gently curved outwards at the chest. Josef.

He showed us his home, which he shared with his parents, aunt, uncle, and sister. Inside, the walls were bare cement and the floor likewise, with a small hallway opening out onto two musty rooms and a yard in the centre, where several ducks and geese were pecking in the dust. His room contained a bare metal bunk bed and yellowed, sagging mattresses, faintly illuminated by a single grey light bulb and an aged 1980s TV set.

Josef swept a heap of bras and hairclips off a battered chair with his nail-varnished, slightly shaky hands, and motioned for me to sit down. While Maju ran to the bathroom, he chatted with me shyly, asking me what my country was like, what music people listened to and if they were happy. He told me he was 23 and worked at a beauty salon.

When Maju rejoined us, she appealed to Josef to take us out somewhere. He looked nervously at her. “Oh ok, but, um, we have her with us.” “Yes I know and so what? It’ll be fine, just take us somewhere friendly with a working bar.” By a miracle of good timing, a mototaxi appeared just as we were leaving the house, and took us to venue number three of the evening (or rather, morning), appropriately named Sunset. 10 soles entry and – you guessed it – beer-only drinking etiquette, as I found out when I asked for water and got a dirty look from both Maju and the barman.

The place was a large, kitsch and slightly sagging disco, with corniced balconies on three floors spiralling around a central dance floor. It was emptying out, with the final few handfuls of people straggling round the edges. Age range… frankly, at 5am and the 100th jug of cerveza, who the hell cares?

We mooched at one of the balconies, as a couple of groups of lads slowly twigged that I was an outsider and edged closer, observing me without making any moves. “Look at them gawping,” said Maju, “it’s like they’ve never seen a gringa before.” To be fair, they were probably more mesmerized by the bizarre combination I came packaged with – our twitchy transvestite friend and small feisty Limeña with wild hair, who thought it would be hilarious to start shouting: “roll up, roll up! Two soles to look at her, five to talk and ten to dance! Tips accepted for extra touching!”

Eventually, one of them – a petite guy who conveniently came up to me at boob height – approached and tentatively extended his hand for a merengue. We were the only ones on the dance floor, with the entire population of the disco watching us from outside the ring. The guy cooed encouragingly when I got it right, and waggled his finger when I got it wrong, training me like a circus animal. After that, several others came to have a go, thankfully all decent and lacking the sexual charge of the first place, despite the pounding reggaeton vibe and Maju’s best efforts to pimp me out.

Come 7am, I couldn’t stand, sit or talk. I slumped between Maju and Josef, who mercifully decided to take me home. We dropped him off at his casita in a mototaxi and then, in the bright light of day, trudged around for 20 very painful minutes prepared to beg, steal or borrow a cab to take us back to our burbuja. I passed out immediately upon entering it and was shaken awake when we were at Maju’s door.

Once she had safely stumbled inside, I decided to forage for food at a café just opening. The waiter smirked at my beer-stained clothes, papier mache-d hair and makeup steadily sliding down my face, obviously seeing WALK OF SHAME printed on my forehead. And without any decent shame to show for it.

As I waited for the day’s first batch of papas fritas, inhaling the smell of warm oil and freshly cut grass of Parque Kennedy, with the trim streets coming to life with joggers, poodles, and elderly couples strolling, I wondered if it had all been a dream.

Talk about a real party.

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San Juan de Lurigancho from Cerro San Cristóbal (photo © KaMpErƎ, flickr.com)

Tips for safe fun in San Juan de Lurigancho:

  • Do NOT attempt to go on your own – there’s a difference between being adventurous and just plain silly.
  • Don’t use public transport (which wouldn’t be available anyway if you go at a ridiculous hour in the morning – best not to do what we did and try to go before midnight!) Get a safe taxi.
  • Go with Limeños (preferably a San Juan local) and/or someone who looks the part and speaks the local slang. Apparently, it also helps if they’re reasonably foul-mouthed.
  • Independent women: yeah, I hear ya, but just be sensible and take at least one man with you – a Peruvian, preferably a Limeño who knows the deal.
  • Once you get there, explore different places, and don’t cower in the corner. Relax, talk to the people you meet and dance – you’re here to have fun, remember! That being said, trust your instincts. If you don’t feel a situation or a person is safe, then it probably isn’t, so get away from them.
  • Don’t be daft and try to order cocktails, wine, or anything other than beer, with the (possible but not guaranteed) exception of water. And go easy on the cervezas – unless you’re with some truly non-judgmental types and don’t mind doing a 7am walk of shame back to the bubble, this really isn’t the time or place to get shitfaced.
  • Finally, know yourself. This sort of off-the-beaten track urban adventure isn’t for everyone. There’s a difference between stepping out of your comfort zone, and entering a zone of sheer terror. If you know you’re just going to feel scared and vulnerable the whole time, why put yourself through the hassle? In a city as exciting and varied as Lima, you don’t have to go down the ‘ghetto route’ to find something ‘authentic’ – it’s just one option of many.

You can contact Lidija via her research site, Iceberg Research, or the unique London-based social enterprise Unseen Tours, or follow Lidija on Twitter.

Cocktails image © Will Murray, Wikimedia Commons. Reggaeton and Burger images public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

  2 comments for “Lima Unseen: San Juan de Lurigancho

  1. Antonio
    December 13, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Wow girl! your adventure was dangerous! ,I live here in SJL close to Zarate ,next time you should go with more trusty people ,your friend took many risks and was wrong. I say you were lucky. Take Care.

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