Lima, Peru - But is it safe?

'Don't take a cab from the airport.
Don't flag a taxi in the street.
Don't walk anywhere after dark.
Don't wander into the wrong neighbourhood.
Drive a car in Peru! Are you insane?'

I can't remember a time when we were so bombarded by safety warnings.  Guide books, the internet, other travellers, hotel doorman - everyone seems to have a cautionary tale and advice on how not to become a target in Lima.

We have been in Lima, Peru for three days staying in the upmarket area of Miraflores.  We feel safe. This is where the well-to-do live. Personal safety and minor thefts are just not an issue.

On our last day we decide to explore the city centre.  Much of the advice we have received seems to centre around avoiding rogue taxi drivers who act in concert with thieves and muggers. We ask the hotel doorman for advice. He calls a 'radio taxi' for us. There seems to be no shortage of perfectly respectable looking cabs cruising past the hotel but for reasons beyond our comprehension none of these will do.

This leaves the issue of how to find a safe taxi for the return journey. With limited Spanish and no local mobile phone, calling a 'radio taxi' won't be easy. We explain the problem.

"You must use a yellow taxi", the doorman says. Apparently no other colour will do.

Our radio taxi arrives and we are soon speeding toward central Lima. We are dropped at the main Plaza without incident. I look around - there are blue taxis, green taxis, grey taxis and black taxis. There even seem to be a few technicolour taxis - but not a yellow taxi in sight. 

Plaza Mayor is spectacular. Lima was the capital of the Sth America's Spanish vice-royalty as well as the religious centre of the continent. With power and influence came magnificent buildings. Those clustered around Plaza Mayor are beautifully restored.

Colonial grandeur in Plaza Mayor

More beautiful buildings in Plaza Mayor

We wander through the Archbishop's Palace and Lima Cathedral.  As we emerge, a crowd is gathering in front of the President's Palace. It is midday and we have fluked the Changing of the Guard. First a brass band and then row upon row of Palace Guards dressed in the gold helmets, red breeches, white jackets and spit-polished black boots of their full dress uniform parade into the courtyard in front of us. They goosestep, slow march and precision drill in such perfect formation I almost expect them to break into dance. They are armed with the latest in medieval weaponry - swords and lances. A lone demonstrator, dressed in a sack cloth, (something to do with Easter I think) adds a touch of excitement when he lunges forward from the crowd and is quickly removed by the real guards armed with semi-automatic rifles. The demonstrator seems to have a wing-man who continues to argue with the rifle-toting, military men. The argument is heated and I wonder how long it will be before the wing-man gets himself arrested.

Lima Cathedral

Inside the Bishop's Palace

A Palace Guard in dress uniform

Serious security at the Presidential Palace

After a while we wander off to explore the streets around the Plaza. Against all safety advice we cross the river into the neighbourhood of Rimac. Once prosperous, it is now crime-ridden and decaying. We stick to the main avenue, don't stay long and hold on tightly to our belongings.

A taxi in Rimac

Back across the river we chance on the Saint Dominic Priory and are rewarded with stunning city views from the top of the bell tower. Wandering south from Plaza Mayor the further we walk the more run-down the buildings become. By early afternoon we can no longer ignore the problem of how to return to our hotel. It is much too far to walk. For the first time in my life I regret that we don't have a hire car. Driving and parking may be a hassle but at least we could avoid playing taxi roulette.

There are still no yellow taxis to be seen. A vacant blue taxi stops in traffic as we are crossing a street. David asks the driver if he will take us to the Hilton Hotel in Miraflores. The driver doesn't seem to know where it is. This is an unexpected problem. Fortunately we have a hotel business card with the address. The driver studies the card. We do not seem to be making progress. His reluctance makes me nervous and I drag David away. My subconscious is busy compiling a list of things which might go wrong and I do not want to add getting lost to the list.

We are close to the Grand Hotel Bolivar on Plaza San Martin. Our back-up plan is to go to one of the larger hotels and catch a taxi from there. The Grand Hotel Bolivar has definitely seen better days. The line of taxis out front look as ancient as the hotel. We finally see a yellow taxi but not one I would wish to set foot in. Our quest for a cab is beginning to feel Kafkaesque.

David loses patience with me.

"Unless you want to spend the rest of your life here you have to choose a taxi."

He is right of course.  There is a line of cabs on the other side of the Plaza. The three at the head of the queue look reasonably modern. Our theory, with absolutely no evidence to back it up whatsoever, is that we will be safer in a newer looking cab. Just as we arrive at the line all three taxis are taken. The fourth is old, beaten-up and decrepit. The driver is a woman. She is one of the roughest looking women I have ever seen - mid-forties, tattoos, overweight and with bulging biceps.

We show her the hotel card.

"Veinte sollies", she barks.

All those Spanish lessons have finally paid off.

"She says 'twenty'", I translate for David.

We know it is a fair price. We climb into her cab and she pulls away from the kerb. The seat belts don't buckle - of course.   I pass the time imagining our driver as the matriarch of a gang of thugs praying on any tourist foolish enough to trust themselves to her transport services, however we soon begin to recognise the route home. That she is headed in the right general direction does much to settle my anxiety. Forty minutes or so later we are safely cocooned in our hotel suite. I resolve not to step foot outside again until we leave for the airport tomorrow.


  1. My goodness - now that you have experienced taxi cabs in Lima, you will be thrilled to ride taxi cabs in Ho Chi Minh City - I won't offer myself as your tour guide :=) Fascinating travel! Ciao. Lv

  2. Hi Lv.

    Glad you are enjoying my blog - if you ever want to do a guest post just let me know.