What’s your view on sightseeing? Most likely not the one you will get in Lima. The Peruvian capital is one of the world’s few cities to permit paragliding above its skyline for an avian perspective. Join us for an exciting tour across old and new Lima – and an entirely new view of this fascinating metropolis.
The sound of the sea is the first thing you hear. From one moment to the next, the babble of voices disappears, supplanted by the crashing waves. Then, the sensation of weight kicks in; everything drops down into the pelvic area. Our feet no longer touch the ground, replaced by the Pacific surf ahead and below.
Down below, near the beach, a few lone surfers test their luck among the giant waves. Caught in white water, their boards resemble tiny black lines. Beyond the sea – a thin strip of beach, a cliff and, finally, the high-rise tower blocks of the Miraflores district.
Our location: Lima, the capital of Peru. And one of only a handful of cities to allow paragliding over built-up areas. Bordered by both desert and the sea, Lima is a spectacular sight to behold from above. Behind me, Michael Fernandez – whose father was the first to bring paragliding to Peru in the 1970s – pulls one of the glider’s many ropes. With a gentle, elegant swoop, we turn towards a distant lighthouse.
Today, the flying conditions are ideal with a steady breeze blowing in from the sea. Earlier on, in the morning, national flight control had green-lighted today’s air-bound excursion. Almost 20 pilots have gathered at Raimondi Park to take their passengers up into the sky above Lima. On a good day, they will show off their city to around 60 people in all, with up to nine gliders surfing the air currents at any one time. For the pilots this is good business. Under favourable conditions, they make around 1000 US dollars a week – a king’s ransom for the average Peruvian.
I don my helmet, get strapped in by a helper and off we go. While Michael Fernandez pushes off behind me, I run straight ahead towards the steep cliffs. Slowly, the chute behind us fills with air – and carries us up, up and away. My glance traces the urban canyons below, new lines of sight opening up in front of my eyes.
Lima has been around for almost 500 years. As part of their conquest of the Inca Empire, the arriving Spanish conquistadores had immediately noticed the broad bay’s strategic potential. For centuries on end, their ships would use this harbour to transport Inca riches back to Spain or to restock for another long spell on the trade routes to Asia across the Pacific.
The Spanish viceroy, too, picked Lima as a base for his royal court and household; his reach extending for thousands of kilometres from the continent’s southern-most tip all the way into today’s Colombia. Soon, Lima became the empire’s administrative and economic capital – a status still reflected in the city’s many splendid colonial structures. Among them is the Casa Aliaga built in 1535, the year of Lima’s official foundation. Still home to the descendents of Spain’s conquistadores, the building features many of its original fixtures, fittings and furnishings. And the Casa’s in-house museum affords rare insights into the glamorous life of the city‘s former gentry.
Right until the early 19th century, Lima remained South America’s most attractive city. Renowned for sophistication, finesse and an eclectic mix of Latin American cultures, it drew the continent’s artists and haute volée alike. Nowadays, the populous metropolis (9 million inhabitants and counting) is once again on the up, thriving on the cosmopolitan flair of its Asian, American and European population. A blend that even shows up on the menu: any restaurant worth its salt will offer fresh ceviche, a deceptively simple dish of fish, squid, salt, pepper and lime. The fresher the ingredients, the more delicate and delicious the results – even the finest European Sushi masters would be impressed. Incidentally, the best samples are prepared by the city’s countless Chinese chefs who would never divulge the source of their freshly caught delights.
A Bird’s-Eye View of Miraflores
Down below, the hustle and bustle of the Larcomar shopping centre, its music and noisy slot machines, barely reaches our ear – the roaring wind drowns out all other sounds. By now, it has carried us up to 110 metres above ground, but Michael wants to take us even higher. To this end, we join an airflow heading straight for the Marriott Hotel’s green-panelled front. Here, we will hitch a ride on a dynamic updraught as the land-bound wind buffeting the buildings pushes all air above and beyond. We join the flow to gain a few more metres; underneath us, the hotel’s giant air conditioning fans turn in lazy circles on the rooftop.
Our new perspective, hovering a good 200 metres above the city, reveals new aspects of Lima’s look and layout, including plenty of tempting roof terrace pools. Despite the city‘s ever-present haze, we can see for miles on end, all the way to the Andes foothills a good 10 kilometres away. I ask Michael about the buildings below. Which ones does he care about? “Only the ones that promise to take me up even further!“ He might be missing a few gems – down below are some of the city‘s most beautiful architectural wonders. Like the playful Baroque church La Ermita, whose lights, at least according to legend, used to guide fishermen looking for safe passage home across the foggy seas. Or La Rosa Nautica: a restaurant on a pier, perched above the waves like the iconic arcade in Britain’s Brighton.
In stark architectural contrast, the modern Marriott has become the symbol of Miraflores. Unlike the colonial Old Town, a little over 20 kilometres away, this area is bustling with life and the Peruvian jeunesse dorée. The latter love to surf in a spot popular with board-toting enthusiasts since the early 1930s – surfing has become the district’s premier draw. Over the last few years, Lima’s city council has invested almost a million Euros to build up a family-friendly community centred on the sport.
A little later on the same day I join Japan-born pilot Akita for a few loops above the Malecón, the city’s promenade above the cliffs. All the way towards the horizon, visible through the mist, I spot the cranes of the Callao harbour and the island of San Fernando. Floating 40 metres above the street, we find ourselves heading straight for the cliff. My legs are dangling in the air, primed for our imminent landing at Raimondi Park and the gliders‘ improvised airstrip.
Akita pulls up the chute to facilitate a soft landing. All of a sudden, however, the wind comes to a complete stop and drops us sharply, destination in sight. Without delay, the pilot pulls on a rope, and – with an abrupt jerk – we take a steep dive to the right and towards the sea. The harsh movement resonates through my entire body, unprepared for this sudden jolt. Unfazed, Akita takes us into an elegant, hardly noticeable turn for our descent along the nearby coastal road. Suddenly, a verdant park appears between road and sea: the Parque Tres Picos, our new goal.
Feet firmly on the ground again, after half an hour up in the air, I cannot deny a sense of envy – envy of the gulls above, circling ceaselessly in the sky with a stunning bird’s-eye view of the city.