A World Apart in Villa Salvador — Peru’s Largest Slum

by Max Olson

A traveler leaves the tourist trail to confront the realities of Villa Salvador a shandy town on the outskirts of Lima that is known as Peru’s largest slum.

The condominiums and tennis courts of Miraflores give way to dust-caked slums as the car moves through the dense traffic of Lima. A border has been drawn in this part of the city. Not a border drawn by politicians or planners. Nor a border drawn by nature. No mountain ranges or rivers separate these two worlds. Instead, this is a border drawn by factors the locals themselves likely could not explain. The distance between coastal luxury and desert shantytown is a matter of miles. It is the same city but two different worlds. The hills of Villa Salvador, Peru’s largest slum, loom in the horizon. Houses blanket the hills from summit to bottom. The newest and poorest residents populate the crest, with living conditions improving ever so slightly the farther down one goes. The hills of Villa Salvador are not merely hills. They are living, breathing beings. The energy is undeniable. These hills have witnessed the lives of Peru’s most vulnerable people. Immense grief, hope, upheaval, and triumph. These hills have seen it all.

Villa Salvador, Lima, Peru

The car slowly comes to a stop along a dirt road strewn with trash. Villa Salvador’s local street market beams with happy faces, children playing, and fresh fruits. The vendors have an air about them that is hard to describe. Their stalls, made of wood or pieces of salvaged shipping containers, look as though they may fall apart at any minute. This does not seem to bother them, though. They are among neighbors and friends. The fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats of the Andes fill the street with a pleasant aroma of warmth. “Salud!” Friends clink their homebrewed drinks together and laugh. The people of Miraflores, Lima’s upscale neighborhood, do not seem to share this sense of community. Life in Villa Salvador has brought these people together in a way that few other experiences ever could.

 Villa Salvador is supposed to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Peru. Tourists are told not to go under any circumstances. The people do not seem to share this view. They greet outsiders with a friendly smile and an offer of drinks or food. An outsider cannot help but feel a sense of unease in accepting a cup of oatmeal or a glass of juice. The locals must surely need this food more. How can they offer it when they have so little?

Villa Salvador, Lima, Peru

Further up one of Villa Salvador’s hills is a local soup kitchen. The room is small and cramped. Mattresses, clothes, pots, and pans are strewn across the room. A group of women sit in colored, plastic chairs made for children. These are women who have dedicated their lives to bettering their own community. A woman stands in the back over a large cauldron of oatmeal. She holds a wooden spoon almost as tall as herself, and gently stirs. The oatmeal will feed dozens of children and adults who otherwise would not eat. Another woman sits down at the table and begins talking in a soft, soothing voice. She runs the soup kitchen as well as a local school. Her demeanor exhibits a confidence gained through years of service to her community and fellow man. Her kindness and warmth are radiant.

Even for an outsider, it is easy to see why the locals pick her every year to lead them. Outside of the soup kitchen is a small organic garden. Inside brightly painted car tires are various vegetables. Onion, tomato, and herb plants give a dash of green to a landscape that is otherwise brown and barren. There is a massive mural on the wall above the garden. In bright colors, the mural depicts an indigenous Peruvian woman with a bag strapped around her back in the local fashion. Inside the bag is Villa Salvador. The comparison is unmistakable. The woman in the painting carries the weight and aspirations of this community on her back, much like the woman who runs the soup kitchen and school.

 The school is a small room with little décor. Small posters of smiling children in traditional Peruvian dress are stapled into the wooden walls. In bright, colorful letters are the words “COSTA,” “SELVA,” and “MONTAÑA.” Coast, Jungle, and Mountains. The locals of Villa Salvador and their children who attend the school come from all over Peru’s diverse landscapes. Years of guerilla war between the army and the Shining Path Maoist group drove those living in the countryside towards Villa Salvador. One corner of the school holds a small library. Children’s books line a small wooden shelf. Small sheets on the wall proclaimed various incentives for children to read. In a place like Villa Salvador, education and university are often the only path out.

Outside of the school is a small concrete slab surrounded by thin wooden walls. Very soon this will be Villa Salvador’s newest school. Locals are looking forward to the inauguration with hope and excitement. The school is set to open in weeks, but for now it does not even have a ceiling, like many of the houses in Villa Salvador. A house with a finished roof means more taxes under Peruvian property law.

The path from the school to the top of the hill is one of both variety and uniformity. The similarities are found in the concrete houses, the piles of wood and trash strewn about, and the smiling faces. The differences lie in the houses themselves. Each house has witnessed a different life, giving each home its own characters. One house contains a small mesh cage for guinea pigs, considered a delicacy in the Andes. Another is filled with small barking dogs, a sign of the owner’s love for pets. In front of one small house hangs a line of laundry with children’s clothes. Their laughter can be heard from the path outside.

From the top of the hill, one can seemingly see the whole world. The world of Villa Salvador. On the horizon are hills dotted with houses. Each hill is alive with the energy and experiences of those who live on its slopes. A sea of brown shanty homes blankets the landscape like a coating of paint. In the far distance, one can make out a set of white buildings on the beach. This is Miraflores. It feels more like looking at another planet through a telescope. Two worlds so close in distance yet in reality further apart than can be imagined.

Villa Salvador, Lima, Peru

The woman who runs the soup kitchen and school lives in a small house near the top of the hill. She opens the small wooden door to her home. Rebar piping juts from the concrete floor in some parts of the house. The ceiling is currently under construction. The woman claims that she has saved money for ten years for the roof work. She hopes to have a celebration in December when it is finished. There is no sense of shame in the woman as she shows us around her home. She is content and proud of what she has accomplished. Her strength comes not from material possessions, like many others who call Villa Salvador home.

The car ride back to Miraflores is filled with reflection. The brown, dust-caked houses slowly turn to modern shops, and the desert hills shift into green parks. On the road out of Villa Salvador, the police lie in wait. They check identification and speak with drivers. The thought is hard to deny: One world is afraid of the other and seeks to keep them separated. This is the real border. The border between two different planets. 

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