Lima, for many travellers, is a city you pass through on your way to somewhere else. It doesn’t appear in any hot destination lists and when you compare it to other Peruvian cities such as Cusco, with its mix of Incan and Spanish buildings, or Arequipa, with its beautiful Spanish buildings made from local volcanic silar, Lima seems gritty and chaotic. Founded in 1535, the original settlement comprised only 117 blocks. Today, with a third of Peru’s population living within its confines (nearly 8.5 million people), Lima sprawls from the sea and across the desert with the urban area alone covering over 800 square kilometres. We arrived with no plans or expectations other than to travel on to Cusco in a couple of days. Lima, however, surprised. Travelling late at night from the airport to our hotel in Miraflores the transition to a new culture or “I’m not in Kansas anymore” feeling was immediate. The traffic even at 1am in the morning was haphazard and busy. The streets were dusty and stray dogs wandered across footpaths. Shanty-like buildings and unfinished construction works flashed by until we briefly passed through a more upmarket green district and arrived at our hotel in a nondescript street with no apparent tourist amenities. Over the next couple of days, however, we were introduced to Spanish colonial Peru, ate some fabulous food and visited a great museum.
Miraflores, a district famous for its cliff tops overlooking the South Pacific ocean is popular with tourists mainly because of its quality hotels and restaurants. We explored Miraflores by walking down Av Jose Larco, the main retail street in Miraflores, to Larcomar a multilevel food, shopping and entertainment complex built into the cliffs. Whilst this appears on many lists of things to do in Lima and provides great views it is still just a shopping complex, albeit one that is built into the side of a cliff. Take it or leave it. We returned to the hotel via Parque Kennedy with its red bull, handicraft stalls and the Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa (Church of the Miraculous Virgin).
Museo Larco located in an 18th century mansion in the Pueblo Libre district is a must see attraction in Lima. Although, renowned for its collection of erotic pottery, the museum contains many more interesting artefacts. As Goldilocks would say, Museo Larco is just right – not too big that you are overwhelmed and exhausted and not too small that it becomes an information free zone. Helpfully organised both geographically and chronologically and with detailed information plaques in English, it provides a real insight into the history and cultural development of Peru. If you are interested in erotic pottery (and who isn’t a little bit curious) the exhibition hall containing the pottery is not in the main museum, but down the stairs outside and across the garden. Personally, seeing a few pots was interesting, but row after row of clay figurines doing it every way imaginable is a little bit tiring (and to think most of this type of pottery was destroyed because it offended Spanish sensibilities). Thankfully you can recover in the adjacent restaurant/cafe.
The Historic Centre of Lima has been on the Unesco World Heritage list since 1988 and whilst it has been damaged by numerous earthquakes, over-population and pollution it retains a unique beauty. It is best seen by foot. We started in Plaza San Martin and met friends at the Gran Hotel Bolivar. Once the finest hotel in Lima attracting famous guests like Clark Gable and Orson Welles, it is now a bit run down but is still worth visiting for a look at is rotunda lobby and stained glass ceiling dome. From here we walked north to the Plaza de Armas surrounded by the Archbishop’s Palace and Palacio de Goberierno (the president’s residence). Although the plaza was the centre of the 16th century Spanish settlement, none of these buildings are original (they were built in the 1920s and 30s). Continuing north-east we arrived at the Convento de San Francisco. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Spanish baroque style, the church and monastery are well worth a visit not only for the catacombs (if you are into lots of old bones) but also for the wonderful library and the painting of the last supper with its unique Peruvian interpretation of the food eaten at the meal (the main dish is guinea pig (cuy)). Walking south-east from the church we reached the Museo del Congreso y de la Inquisicion on the Plaza Bolivar. The Peruvian Inquisition commenced in 1570 and finished in 1820. This museum which includes odd wax figures demonstrating the torture techniques adopted by the inquisition is housed in the building previously occupied by the tribunal of the Peruvian Inquisition. We completed our walking tour by walking through El Barrio Chino (Chinatown) and Mercado Central. Incredibly crowded and without another tourist in sight, the market sold all kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat, household goods and clothing.
We tried two restaurants, both within walking distance of our hotel in Miraflores. The first, Mama Olla, was on a leafy pedestrian only street with an enclosed front courtyard. The food was good without being spectacular and reasonably priced. Handy to our hotel, but if you have come to Peru to sample Peruvian gastronomy its probably a restaurant which won’t be on your list. In contrast our second night dining out was at Amaz a restaurant chosen because of reviews by the Guardian and New York Times. Specialising in dishes based on ingredients from the Amazon region the menu is indecipherable, which given we were with a couple of eighteen year olds who under no circumstances wished to eat giant snails (which are on the menu somewhere) initially presented a bit of a problem. Not to worry, the wait staff were incredibly helpful and patiently explained the meaning of each menu item. We skipped the giant snails but still had an unforgettable meal. Also not to be missed is the extensive list of juices and cocktails. We tried a cashew juice and the juice of a fruit called camu camu. The cashew juice was a bit sweet, but if there is one drink you should not miss out on in Peru it is camu camu juice.
We stayed in the Miraflores district primarily because it was reputed to be one of the safer districts in Lima with good quality hotels. Our hotel of choice was the Casa Andina Private Collection. It is located about a kilometre back from the ocean so the views were pretty ordinary. It did, however, have one of the best breakfasts I have had in a hotel, spacious clean rooms, good free wifi and very helpful staff.
Taxis are everywhere in Lima, mainly because anybody in Lima can buy a plastic taxi sign and put it on top of a car. Unfortunately this means that violent incidents involving tourists being taken to side streets, robbed and dumped do occur. Signs warning against getting in unregistered taxis are all over the airport and a quick scan of the internet shows that the warnings are made for good reason. If you want to avoid this risk only travel in cars organised by your hotel, restaurant or museum or use one of the registered providers with desks at the airport. This will cost a fair bit more than travelling in one of the beaten up taxis but I always choose the option which is least likely to see me shot or kidnapped. There are also local buses but given the urban sprawl that is Lima these would require a better command of Spanish than we had.