“The first time I came here I was ten, and I had never seen the ocean,” says 63-year-old Abraham Gustavo, a slightly built retiree who was born in the Peruvian Andes. We’re staring out at the broad expanse of Agua Dulce, arguably the capital’s most popular beach. Spanish for “sweet water,” it gets its name from the fresh water that used to seep into it from the nearby cliffs. “Back then we would run out of the ocean, and wash ourselves with the fresh water,” Abraham tells me. “It was all sand back then.”
These days, however, it seems to be mostly capitalism.
Today, Agua Dulce has become a sprawling marketplace, blanketed with the type of informal businesses that reflect Lima’s new entrepreneurial spirit. But it’s also a microcosm of the problems caused by the unrestrained surge in urban informality that has crept over the city in recent years. Closely packed umbrellas threaten to engulf everything, hawkers have overtaken the sand, and what was once a serene respite from the bustle of the city has become an extension of it. Even the lifeguards have been forced to erect orange nets creating corridors that lead from their towers to the sea so they can actually get to the water if a swimmer is in distress.
The vending activity at Agua Dulce goes well beyond ice-cream cones and cool drinks. Everything from freshly cooked pizzas to tank tops can be bought mere feet from the water’s edge. “There’s even a rolling bakery,” Abraham laughs, pointing to a pastry vendor who has set up shop a few short steps away from where the cold waters of the Pacific lap at the sand.
Just behind a row of umbrellas a middle-aged woman offers me a plate of chicken and rice for 4 soles (about $1.50 USD). “Fresh from the pot,” she says from inside her stand. Next to her, a group of men work at Richard’s Umbrella Rental and offer to rent me an umbrella and a pair of beach chairs for 8 soles ($3.10 USD). All of them wear green vests that identify themselves as workers who belong to a vendors’ association, showing that they’ve been authorized to work at Agua Dulce by the district.
One of the most bizarre attractions is a rolling photo studio with a kitschy mural backdrop of an ocean scene (in case the real thing won’t suffice). For 5 soles beachgoers can have their picture taken in front of it. (More adventurous sunbathers can opt for a photo in front of the jungle backdrop, complete with stuffed tiger, on the reverse side.) The picture is taken by one man and the print collected from another who is standing nearby with a mobile printer attached to his hip.
Historically, and especially recently, Lima’s public areas have been affected by a general disarray that has allowed them to become breeding grounds for informality. “[This disorder] is what allows people to go out to the beaches and give certain services,” says Fernando Prada, a researcher at FORO Nacional International, one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s local partners in the Informal City Dialogues. As the city continues to grow, says Prada, this lack of control risks threatening its long-term prosperity and functionality. “In Lima, we are just beginning to see that.”
The question here at Agua Dulce, as in many of the city’s public spaces, is how to balance people’s freedom to pursue an informal livelihood with people’s freedom to escape such activities. One could argue that not every open area is suited to being a full-blown shopping center – perhaps the beach in particular, the part of the city most associated with relaxation.
But whether it’s apathy or incompetence, Lima’s government has often taken a hands-off approach. “It depends on the capacity you have to enforce laws,” Prada says.
There are hints of order among the vendors at Agua Dulce. They don’t pay taxes, but they are incrementally organizing into their own associations, and some of these associations are being recognized by district officials. Still, says Prada: “There is no way of verifying that [these associations] are what they say they are.” The number of vendors and work conditions can be easily misrepresented to city officials, and no system exists to verify them.
“These informal jobs have provided support for many families, but now this lack of control is clashing with the city’s interest,” Prada says. “Before Lima lived with their backs to these [informal worlds]. But now, little by little, the two worlds have begun to coexist, and it starts to generate conflicts […] The city is growing and asking for more order.”
Agua Dulce is more than the sum of its parts. It is a rare meeting point for many of the city’s upwardly mobile residents, and a place where the informal world is faced with the challenge of adapting to formality. Historically, the city’s more impoverished residents have sought these informal jobs, often when no other means of income were available. As the country’s economy has grown, its residents have sought new and different opportunities.
That day on the beach Abraham tells me people come to Agua Dulce because of a sense of belonging. “People will always come here until the summer is over,” he says. Nearby, vendors continue to roam the beach, in search of potential sales. “Sandals, sandals!” yells one vendor in a raspy voice, stepping over a sandcastle.
“The people chose to come here — they say, ‘This is what is mine, this is my place.’”