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Although it was first proposed by a linguist, a certain George Kingsley Zipf, the statistical model known as Zipf’s Law is now often used to gauge the expected size of urban populations. In brief, the law holds that the second largest city in a country should be roughly half the size of the largest city; the third largest should be one-third the size; and so on. A recent BBC programme (which we didn’t see) used Zipf’s Law to explain why, economically and culturally, London so dominates the UK. The law may also explain what we found two weeks ago, when we visited the Peruvian capital of Lima.

In 2007, when the last census was taken, Lima’s population stood just shy of 8.5 million. Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, weighed in at barely 800,000, or less than one-tenth the size. It’s a similar story if you measure metropolitan areas, which include outlying suburbs – Lima, 9.73 million; Trujillo, the next largest, 935,000. But perhaps most staggering is that the population of Lima is greater than the combined population of Peru’s next largest 80 cities. Few countries are as dominated by their capitals as Peru is by Lima.

 


 

We’d been planning to visit Lima in about six weeks, a there-and-back diversion from our planned route north through the Andean highlands from Cusco to Huaraz. However, with a four-day gap to plug between Ruth’s hospital visits, we found a cheap-enough return flight from Arequipa and flew in the weekend before last.

Arriving by plane rather than bicycle only increases the disorientating sense that Lima is a world apart from the rest of Peru, or at least the little of Peru we’ve so far seen. Part of the disorientation is scale. Arequipa is a fine place with a handsome historic centre, some pleasingly distinct neighbourhoods and a typically urban traffic problem. Next to Lima, it feels tiny. But the more dramatic difference is economic.

Peru is a poor country; by some measures, of all the countries in South America, only Paraguay and Bolivia are poorer. But Peru is a country on the rise, and that rise is focused on Lima – and central Lima in particular. According to a World Bank statistic cited in this 2013 New York Times article, the average Lima resident earns 21 times more than those who live out in the sticks, where poverty is endemic and the infrastructure can be virtually non-existent.

 


 

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That said, ‘central Lima’ is a hard place to pin down. An invigorating, cosmopolitan mix of stately historic buildings, shabby markets and scurrying, hustling streetlife, Downtown was once the city’s heart and remains the home of government. But for many residents and most visitors, it’s no more the centre than Wall Street is the centre of New York City. Lima sprawls in three directions, with only the Pacific preventing it from pushing out to the west. Around the edges sit poorer, rougher towns and suburbs, challenged by a ragged infrastructure and little visited by tourists. The money in Lima sits in the middle, the filling – and, at once, the hole – in a massive urban donut.

From our hotel in the agreeable southern barrio of Barranco, a dozen kilometres south of Downtown, we took a circuitous 20km walk through Miraflores, San Isidro, Lince and Pueblo Libre, four of Lima’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Small, immaculately manicured parks and tidy commercial stretches dot residential areas whose buildings – with some exceptions – carry little history or charisma, and non-jogging pedestrians are regarded with suspicion by the privately hired security guards who patrol some of the smarter, quieter streets.

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These streets are home to Peru’s great and good, wise and wealthy; but also to large populations of European and North American immigrants. Here, the cars are cleaner, the lawns are greener and the faces are whiter. The key commercial signifiers of global affluence are present and correct: vaguely Vegasian casinos, Banana Republic, the dreaded Starbucks. It’s all oddly redolent of a second-tier city on the west coast of the USA; San Diego, say. And it’s difficult to convey how little this donut-hole of white-bread commerce and culture has in common with the paisaje and pueblitos that define Peru.

 


 

This difference is also reflected in the food, which we’d both been looking forward to tasting. Limeño cooking appears to be deeply fashionable at present; certainly, Peruvian restaurants were quite the thing in London when we left last year. At restaurants, in markets and on streetcorners, you can eat very well in Peru. But if you’re not eating very well, you’re probably eating very badly. There seems to be little middle ground between the kind of restaurant or street-food stall to which you can’t wait to return, and the kind you wish you’d never found in the first place. Ruth’s writing something about food at the moment, which we’ll post here in due course. But in the meantime, one Lima restaurant merits early mention here.

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The walls of Grimanesa Vargas Anticuchos are lined with pictures of the eponymous Ms Vargas, a small woman with a winning smile who, judging by the photos, is apparently never seen without her pristine chef’s finery. The formality of her appearance is doubly amusing when you discover the deeply informal nature of her speciality. Vargas serves, and has only ever served, one dish: anticuchos, a traditional Peruvian kebab made by soaking beef hearts in a spicy marinade before grilling them over fierce flames. The result is astonishing: pungent, tender and deeply moreish. Once we’ve crossed the border from Bolivia in a few days’ time, we’ll be spending another two or three months in Peru, and we’ll consider ourselves very fortunate if we eat anything quite like them again.

from Nuestra Señora de La Paz, L, Bolivia