Cerviche and sushis lovers are in for a treat, whilst adventurers can swim with sea lions on an eco-cruise around the islands. Caitlin Purdy offers us an insider’s guide to the Peruvian capital…
An affair with Lima isn’t likely to begin with love at first sight. An enormous knot of gritty urban chaos, it’s covered in a layer of thick gray fog for a good portion of the year and the streets are perpetually clogged with taxis and micros, the ornery apparatuses charged with mass transit. But past this superficial facade Lima is a truly fascinating city, as vivacious as it is varied. And once you’ve peeled back a few layers of grime you’re bound to fall for her head over heels.
High-brow restaurants, edgy art galleries, luxurious shopping malls, and glass skyscrapers all attest to Lima’s status a global, modern city. But it’s the city’s old school charm that really steals the show – the pre-Colombian temples, ornate colonial cathedrals, and colorful Republican-era mansions. All in all, navigating the chaotic streets of Lima can feel a bit a bit like a wild urban treasure hunt and that’s part of the fun. You never quite know where you’ll end up or what kind of hidden gem you’ll uncover.
Best of the Beaten Track
A jaunt into the center of Lima is the best way to get a taste of the city’s storied colonial past. Start out in the Plaza de Armas, meandering through the Palacio del Gobierno and La Catedral de Lima. Next head down into the catacombs of El Convento de San Francisco. Filled with skulls and bones arranged in circular patterns it is estimated that the catacombs hold some 70,000 remains.
The Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historía del Perú traces the history of Peru from the Preceramic Period to the early republic, while the Yuyanapaq photographic exhibition at the Museo de la Nación offers an emotional look at the violence of the Peruvian Internal Conflict. Set in an 18th century viceroy mansion the Museo Rafeael Larco Herrera has one of the largest ceramic collections found anywhere in the world, with over 50,000 pots. Be sure not to miss the expansive collection of pre-Colombian erotic pottery, basically a Peruvian kama sutra in clay.
But the best of Lima isn’t all colonial architecture and ancient pots. If you’re an art lover be sure to pass through the Lima Museum of Art (MALI). Its collection is as vast as it is varied, encompassing everything from pre-colonial textiles to contemporary paintings. El Circuito Mágico del Agua (The Magical Circuit of Water) is also worth a visit. The largest fountain complex in the world, it contains a variety of different interactive fountains that are beautifully lit up at night with continuously changing color schemes.
To the north of Lima you’ll find Callao. It’s the largest Pacific Ocean port in South America, full of traditional sailors’ dive bars, cheap cevicherías, and bustling commercial harbors. La Punta is the gem of this rough and tough port town. A sliver of peninsula that juts out into the Pacfic, La Punta was originally an exclusive enclave for Callao’s wealthiest families and many historic mansions remain. It was settled by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century and today retains a unique European flair. La Punta is only three-fourths of a kilometer long. Though small it’s packed with a number of hidden treasures. Several excellent beaches and fine restaurants can be found along the tip of La Punta’s north shore. And be sure to explore the Fortaleza Royal Filipe. Constructed in the early 18th century it was intended to defend the city from pirate attacks.
The several islands off of Lima’s shorelines, Palominas, Cabinzas and El Frontón, are easily accessible from Callao via boat tour. Try the ecotourism group Ecocruceros for an affordable tour. And don’t forget your bathing suit. If you’re the mood for a Pacific swim you can take a dip with the colony of sea lions that inhabits Palominas.
Experience & Events
For a glimpse into Lima’s vast informal economy in action head to Gamarra, a sprawling textile market in the La Victoria district. Spanning an astounding 24 square city blocks this mammoth market is comprised of over 20,000 textile shops, manufacturers, contractors, and retailers and employs over 100,000 people. With an annual economy that’s valued at around 1.5 billion, Gamarra is one of the largest informal markets in South America.
If you’re not up for battling market crowds, head to the Malecón. A six-mile stretch of parks along craggy cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Running through Miraflores and Barranco, the ample walkways and stunning ocean views make it perfect for a run, bike ride, or a simple afternoon stroll. Read the famous literary love quotes carved into the murals at El Parque del Amor (Park of Love) or for something more adventurous try hang gliding off of the cliffs for sublime views of the Pacific. Peru Fly runs daily flights from 11am to 6pm just north of the park.
There is certainly no shortage of intriguing events in Lima, although Mistura is one of the city’s best. A foodie’s delight this annual festival is hosted by the The Peruvian Gastronomy Society and brings together the best of Peruvian cuisine. Diversity is the operative word. If you can find it in Peru it will definitely be at Mistura, from the best Amazonian chocolate to the best ceviche. Typically held in early September the annual festival also features a variety of food competitions, master classes, traditional music, and popular dances, as well as a forums with prominent chefs.
Armed with a heated rooftop infinity pool, a luxury spa, and on-site gourmet restaurant the opulent Miraflores Park Hotel is the place to go if you’re looking for luxury. Situated in a glass tower in the fashionable Miraflores District this Orient Express property offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and is among the best hotels in the city. For those in search of something easier on the wallet the Hostal El Patio Guesthouse is conveniently located near Kennedy Park and features a sunny courtyard garden, while the Anituga Miraflores Hotel provides a comfortable and quiet setting in a converted 20th century mansion. Barranco is the backpacker’s mecca, home to a slew of great hostels. The quaintBackpackers Inn is only steps away from the ocean and the Point Hostel is home to a boisterous in-house bar.
An eclectic mix of Andean, European, and Asian flavors, Peruvian cuisine has burst onto the world scene in the past decade and Lima is right at the center of the explosion. For a sublime fine dining experience eat a meal at Astrid y Gastón, the novoadina-meets-French-cuisine brainchild of Gastón Acurio. Gastronomers with an adventurous palate are advised to order the Peking guinea pig. For something on the more casual side drop into Tio Mario for a plate of traditional anticuchos, skewers of grilled, marinated cow heart. A historically robust population of Japanese immigrants and an abundant supply of high-quality fresh catch makes Lima one of the best cities in the world for sushi. The acevichado roll at Matsuei is a must. While we’re on the subject of seafood be sure to hit up La Mar for a ceviche. For a late night snack head to La Lucha Sanguchería Criolla. You’re guaranteed the best sandwich in town.
Barranco is the center of Lima nightlife. Be sure to stop into Ayahuasca for a drink, a trendy bar with a psychedelic feel in a sprawling Republican-era mansion. With quirky furnishing, several different bars, an array of exotic cocktails, and a wall-to-wall crowd it never fails to deliver a great night. For cheap beer and live music head to bohemian hotspots La Noche or El Dragón. Salsa Tuesdays in Sargento Pimienta (Sargent Pepper) provide a great opportunity to check out talented local salsa bands like Mambo Glacial. If you’re looking for a chill hang out Piselli is a Barranco favorite.
For those headed to Lima from North America, Spirit Airlines has cheap flights from Miami. American Airlines run directly daily flights from NYC, LA, and San Francisco, while Air Canada runs direct daily flights from Toronto. If you’re coming to Lima from Europe your best bet is probably to fly British Airways or Iberia direct from Madrid, though Air France also runs directly flights from Paris and Amsterdam.
Though visually a disaster Lima Easy does offer a plethora of important practical information. Head to Lima Daily Secret for a little help finding Lima’s hidden gems and be sure to check out Lady in Lima and An American in Lima for great personal blogging on the capital.
Lonely Planet and Frommers are both guidebooks worth packing. Literature lovers should investigate the works of the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, many of which use Lima and/or Peru at their backdrop.
Claudia Llosa’s 2009 film The Milk of Sorrow provides an insightful look into Lima’s contemporary social woes and the tragic legacy of Peru’s violent past.
Soundtrack to the City
Featured photo by Martin Garcia.