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For the first-time traveller, Peru’s capital can feel like a metropolis with almost infinite tentacles. Stretching from the beautifully-preserved colonial centre to the coloured houses that cling to the hills around the periphery, it can be hard to get one’s bearings – Lima is one of the world’s largest cities without an underground transport system.

But away from the traffic and noise of downtown, the southern barrio  (neighbourhood) of Barranco is an instant reprieve, a place to breathe in a lungful of salty Pacific air and enjoy the village-like atmosphere.

Despite the fact that Barranco long ago segued into the metropolis, for years it was fiercely independent of the capital, a seaside getaway for well-heeled urbanites seeking a place to dip their toes during the baking hot summers.

At the end of the 19th Century, locals flocked to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas or Barranquito, and Barranco quickly became a favoured hangout of poets, writers, painters and sculptors, inspired by the coastal scenery and lapping waves. 

Despite the flurry of modern construction that has taken place in the bordering neighbourhood of Miraflores, Barranco has maintained its many charms. It is a great place to cover on foot – only about 10 square blocks in size – while marvelling at the towering palms, prickly cacti and impressive turn-of-the-century colonial mansions painted in bright hues of pink, orange and green.

There are also no fewer than 14 galleries in the neighbourhood, the most celebrated being last month’s opening of the Mario Testino Association, the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the internationally-renowned fashion photographer in his hometown.

The gallery – which is located in an exquisitely restored whitewash residence from 1898, a few minutes’ walk from the main square Plaza de Armas – collaborates with international artists and helps promote Peruvian artists overseas.

“Barranco is one of the most romantic districts in Lima,” explained the gallery’s director Martha Zegarra. “Although Mario grew up in nearby San Isidro, he used to visit Barranco as a student, just to walk around the parks with his friends. He always loved the area.”

Indeed, when it comes to romance, the de rigueur meeting spot for lovers in Barranco is the Puente de los Suspiros, the barrio’s take on Venice’s Bridge of Sighs (albeit made from wood) where couples congregate as the sun descends.

For one of the most emblematic slices of Barranco life, take a stroll down Cajamarca street, the best place to see the full gamut of colourful houses. Here street art is also in abundance, scrawled on walls and lovingly adorning the facades of the hallmark low-storey residences.

Number 212, one of the most eye-catching houses in the neighbourhood, is a large blue residence, separated from the street by a heavy-set iron gate. It is also, surprisingly, a renowned spot to buy handicrafts and artisan goods such as tapestries and ceramics.

Mari Solari, the Welsh owner of Las Pallas gift shop, has lived in Peru for 45 years. She moved here after falling in love with a local – and never left.

“When I moved here 27 years back, Barranco was very dilapidated,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t fashionable, it was slightly artistic and had very much a village and not a city feeling. [Today] we have one or two of the best art galleries in town here. [And] people still talk to the neighbours in the smaller streets.”

While Barranco’s galleries may be may be well established, the neighbourhood’s nightlife is relatively new. Tranquil Barranco wakes up with a startle at night and the area is now one of the more popular spots to go out in Lima. The undisputed bar king is Ayahuasca, another incredibly well preserved colonial mansion that does a roaring trade in pisco sours. Inside, a mix of creative types and travellers mingle among the brightly coloured fabrics and modern artworks designed by local artist Maricruz Arribas, which give the place a warm, bohemian edge.

In Barranco, even drinking, it seems, is an art form.

Practicalities
There are lots of small, pretty guesthouses in Barranco, including the understated yet chic Second Home Peru. But as of yet there are no standout hotels. Watch out for the area’s first boutique offering, Hotel B, due to open next to Galería Lucía de la Puente in January 2013.

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