Pescado, Pinturas, and Post-Colonial Decay in Distrito Barranco

I came to Barranco on a Sunday morning to solve my ceviche problem. The problem had been that in Peru, ceviche is only eaten in the first half of the day, to minimize the hours between catch and consumption, and my workplace in Lima was not near enough any well-reviewed ceviche restaurant for me get it for lunch during the week. This is not a demand I ordinarily make of food finds when traveling. There are plenty of food stalls nearby that offer massive portions of delicious but fish-free Peruvian cuisine (future blog post?) for less than three dollars, but to my own surprise, I’m a much more discriminating customer when it comes to raw fish than other types of fare.

This became clear to me as I stood outside my neighborhood cevicheria, considering the
powerfully pungent smell of fish that must have been around since yesterday’s catch at least. This put me in mind of a previous UCSD School of Medicine student whose experience with ceviche had been described in a micro lecture a few weeks before my departure for Peru. He had contracted Anikiasis and had had the presence of mind and generosity of spirit (??!!) to bring back a nematode larvae specimen he had recovered from a plate of ceviche that he couldn’t keep down. After a few moments’ reflection on how I would preserve my own nematode specimen to bring back as a souvenir for the Infectious Disease Department (I did not have any rubbing alcohol; would Pisco work?) I decided to do some research and rely on Google reviews over workplace proximity, which meant trying ceviche on the weekend.

Peruvian Ceviche Mixto. Garnished with choclo, a giant Andean corn variety, sweet potato, and cancha, deep-fried crispy corn kernels.

Canta Rana in Barranco rewarded my efforts. It’s a bustling, scantly decorated, cavernous room crammed with tables and merrily chatting patrons, with a vibe more like a bingo parlor than a traditional restaurant. It had a small bar with a free seat for me, and I tried my first ceviche mixto here. In Peru this dish consists of blue marlin, scallops, shrimp, octopus, clams, and sea snails marinated for hours in herbs and juice from lemons and spicy peppers. After this treatment the taste differences between the various fish and invertebrates recede and you’re left with distinct textures lit up with spicy acid. Surely only the most robust of nematodes could survive it.

The district called Barranco, up to this point just the setting for my ceviche adventure, begged to be explored. It is apparently left over from a vacation spot for wealthy Peruvians who wanted an escape from Lima-proper during the 1800s. Though only a few miles down the coast from the plaza de armas, the rough terrain made Barranco just inconvenient enough for it to feel like a hideaway. As Lima sprawled further south down the rocky Pacific coast, though, it soon met Barranco, and the bastion of colonial mansions lost its exclusivity.

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In recent travel writing, attempts to characterize Barranco have tended toward Disney-fication.  The centuries-long abandonment of the art deco mansions is downplayed or skipped completely.  Or the architectural treasure trove is perfectly preserved, frozen in history or fully restored to the days before just anyone could stroll through. And while there’s no doubt that spots in Barranco like the town square with its proud, central biblioteca nearly fit these descriptions, a quick wander in nearly any direction will yield abundant evidence of a more nuanced Barranco.

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In the aftermath of the rich flight from Barranco, properties were abandoned if they could not be sold for cheap. Today the facades of many buildings look scuffed and dappled by flecked-off paint and crumbled mouldings. Many of them bear familiar signs of everyday use that might have been burnished away in the resort days, in others the decay has crept much deeper into the structures themselves. These exteriors, pastel-painted and bleached by the sun, frequently serve as backdrops for joltingly bright street art.

Anywhere you stand you can see more paintings peaking around street corners. They’re useful markers for a self-guided walking tour down dusty, sun-filled avenidas. Variously adorable, cynical, clever and strange, the street art in Barranco makes for an afternoon every bit as stimulating as a plate of hot and citrusy ceviche in a crowded café.



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