By foot or by taxi, exploring Peru's multi-hued capital and golden history is a transporting experience, writes Pamela Wade.

It was when I passed a pair of policemen patrolling the footpath in leather boots laced to the knee and double gun holsters, each with a Rottweiler on the end of a chain - and they looked surprised to see me - that I seriously rethought my plan.

I had already begun to wonder how far it really was to Lima's famous Gold Museum: on paper it hadn't seemed a great distance, but then again, it's a city of nine million, and hotel tourist maps are not always as particular as they should be about boring things like scale.

This was certainly a lived-in area - lived-out might be a better description, to judge by all the eating, working, sleeping, playing, laughing and shouting going on around me.

I had noticed the increase in volume as soon as I crossed over the expressway from the neat tourist precinct of Miraflores: lots more noise, plus more litter, more traffic and many more people, all of them looking so much more at home on the footpath than I was feeling.

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I cursed once again the false economy that had made me leave my trusty - but heavy - Lonely Planet guide at home. I did, however, remember its advice not to flap open a map in public in case I made myself conspicuous to predators.

Apparently, a fair-haired, fair-skinned woman on her own, wearing sensible shoes and an anxious expression, would be completely invisible in a crowd of Peruvians right up to the moment that she unfolded her Globetrotter. Yeah, as they say, right.

One person who had already noticed me was a private security guard on duty outside a shop. In my best night-school Spanish, I asked him how far it was to the museum, and could I walk there.

It was well-practised tourist vocabulary, and came out so fluently that Miguel responded with several rapid paragraphs in which only "no, no, muy peligroso" were recognisable.

Never mind the "very", at this stage, "dangerous" was all I needed to hear, and I decided to turn back - but Miguel had some questions of his own.

Once he had established that my husband was back in New Zealand I had just enough time, while he scribbled out his phone number, to remember the name of a different hotel from mine to tell him when he asked. Which he did, naturally: not for nothing is machismo a Spanish word.

I scuttled back to Miraflores leaving Miguel smirking, planning our date. Crossing the motorway again was like closing a door: the shouting faded away, the litter vanished, there was room to move again on the footpath.

Strangely, the tooting continued and eventually, sharp as a spoon, I realised it was I who was causing this particular commotion as passing taxi drivers, better informed than me, suggested that I flag them down instead of attempting to get around the city on foot.

Yet to be driven from one point to another is to miss an authentic Lima experience, and I don't mean getting mugged.

As I meandered through well-heeled Miraflores down to picturesquely crumbling Barranco on the coast, I got a feel for the city that would have been impossible in a car.

Even in the flat light from a white sky the colours glowed, and nosing into little cul-de-sacs I found clusters of pretty Spanish colonial houses, their stucco and shutters painted in zingy combinations of lime green, blue, yellow and red.

Churches in ochre and orange with huge wooden doors of shiny black were edged with neat gardens of roses and lilies.

A blue and yellow macaw sat on a perch in a walled courtyard. Sombre black turkey vultures circled in the thermals over the cliffs; far below them fishing boats bobbed on the waves. A swirl of uniformed school girls waited at a bus-stop.

In a quiet playground a man was training a kestrel to come to his whistle; in a busier park under tall palms I found a bust of JFK, artists displaying their paintings and a row of municipal shoeshine boys with tins of Kiwi polish.

The footpath bustled with locals, tourists, beggars and people renting cell-phones by the minute or walking small dogs in jackets, but in the rabbit-warren of aisles that made up the artisans' markets, piles of folded woven tablecloths and knitted jerseys slowed the foot-traffic and embroidered wall-hangings absorbed the noise.

Instead it was a riot of colour in there: hot pink, purple, red and turquoise hats, skirts and bags, brightly painted wooden llamas and masks, dolls and necklaces, gourds and paintings.

And silver, everywhere silver, elegant or tacky: jewellery, ornaments, chess sets, dishes.

"Pase, amiga!" the stall-holders called. "Come in, friend!"

Oddly, the mud-brown poncho presented to John Key at the Apec conference seemed not to be a hot item at either the Inca Market or the Peruvian Market, but pretty scarves and soft alpaca gloves for only $6 each were irresistible, woven bottle holders for a dollar were clearly useful, and the hand knitted condor finger puppet for 50 cents? A steal.

It was still gold I wanted to see, however, and I found it in a fascinating and well-presented museum at the ritzy Larcomar mall, between Burger King and Starbucks.

In darkened rooms that traced the importance of this precious metal from ancient times, I saw cups and masks, shields and spears, tweezers and earrings, necklaces and filigreed nose-rings, all spotlit and gleaming, richly golden.

Gold represented the sun, silver the moon in ancient Peru, and copper and bronze were also valued.

Incredibly, the metals were smelted by several men blowing through tubes together, forcing the fire to reach 1100C: it made me dizzy just thinking of it.

Displays of ceremonial knives used for human sacrifice and cups to drain the blood made for more sober viewing, however, and I was glad to turn to a gloriously colourful feathered head-dress - still bright after 700 years.

Sacred to the Incas and priceless to the conquistadors, the story of gold in Peru was never going to end well, and despite handing over a literal roomful of it as ransom, plus two more of silver, the last Inca king, Atahualpa, was executed in 1533 by Francisco Pizarro.

The "Founder of Lima" himself met a violent death followed by the further indignity of lying unidentified in the cathedral crypt for over 400 years, his head in a box, separate from his body.

He was lucky. In the maze of catacombs below the nearby Monasterio de San Francisco thousands of skeletons are bizarrely arranged into patterns: rosettes, wheels and chevrons made from skulls, tibia and femurs.

I followed the guide through dimly lit brick-lined tunnels and peered into the pits where, before cemeteries were established, the city's dead were dumped and covered with lime: even today, the monks are interred here.

Upstairs are magnificent paintings and carvings, altars of gold and silver, an ancient library and a parade float of solid silver so heavy it needs 36 men to carry it; but it is the bones I remember.

The bones, and the wild taxi ride to the Plaza Mayor to see them. Turns out getting around in Lima is exciting, however you do it.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: LAN Airlines flies from Auckland to Santiago daily with onward connections to Lima.

Getting around: Adventure World can organise trips to Lima and Peru generally. Phone 0800 238 368 or see explore.co.uk
Hints: Don't leave your Lonely Planet guide book behind. A pre-trip visit to travel medical experts like the Travel Clinic is strongly recommended.

Further information: See visitperu.com
Pamela Wade went to Lima for a three-week Explore tour around Peru hosted by Adventure World.