Lima is perhaps best known as a stopover on the way to more exotic destinations like Cuzco and Machu Picchu. But, recently I found myself staying for an extended period of time in the sprawling coastal city. So instead of sticking to the typical tourist plan, I decided to truly explore some of the city’s more remarkable districts. What I discovered was a dynamic tapestry of people, architecture, customs and cuisine; an intoxicating blend that makes visiting this capital city something really special.
By all standards, Lima is a very large city. Covering approximately 310 square miles, it is home to over 10 million people, or roughly one-third of the country’s entire population. The city perches high atop gargantuan green cliffs at the base of which runs a road known as the Costa Verde. Miles of two-story homes interspersed with modern mid-rise buildings, boisterous local markets and quaint city parks fan out along the coastline. Overhead, paragliders loop through the air on the strong ocean breeze, occasionally drifting perilously close to the hotels that dot the busy shore.
One wonders how the city stays put atop the steep cliffs, which appear to be formed mostly of sand and in many places are secured only by netting. Lapping at their feet are long lines of horizontal waves, which break on the rocky shore and retreat with a noisy rumble, sweeping mounds of smooth, shiny pebbles back out to sea. Near the popular Rosa Nautica restaurant and pier, surfers ride the waves from sun-up to sundown, prudently abandoning their boards just moments before they collide with the rocky beach.
Currently billed as the third largest city in Latin America, Lima was founded in 1535 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who laid out the original boundaries for what he envisioned to become a “City of Kings.” At the time, there were roughly 200,000 indigenous people in the area. The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire was one of the most important campaigns in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Spanish ruled Peru for over 300 years, renaming the region the Viceroyalty of Peru.
In addition to suffering under occupation for centuries, Lima has endured many earthquakes (earthquake warning signs abound) and following liberation, bouts of guerrilla warfare as recently as the 1980s. A stroll through just a tiny fraction of the city’s many neighborhoods is a trip through history itself as one area morphs into another yielding up contrasting architecture and cultures characteristic of each of Lima’s distinct time periods. Worn stone sidewalks, polished smooth by centuries of use, crisscross the city, affording a constantly changing vista.
Officially, the province of Lima is divided into 43 districts. The various coastal districts, though, are generally frequented most by tourists and their population increases with summer months. Here are some suggestions for what to see and do in some of these more popular areas.
As its name suggests, Central Lima is the heart of the historical Lima city. And the main plaza, called Plaza Mayor, is the core of the the 16th century city established by Pizarro. At the north end of the plaza sits the massive Palacio de Gobierno, first erected in 1535 by Pizarro and today the official residence of the President of Peru. The grandiose baroque style building has undergone many transformations over the years and now occupies an entire city block.
To the east of the Plaza is the Archbishops Palace, a Baroque-style stone edifice with ornate cedar balconies. It is joined to the Cathedral of Lima, which houses Pizarro’s remains.
A short walk away is the beautiful Plaza San Martin, named for José de San Martin, an Argentinian general who led South America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire. Known as the ‘Liberator of Peru,’ he is depicted sitting astride a horse in the center of the park. Underneath, is a bronze rendering of Madre Patria, the symbolic mother of Peru.
Also located on the square is the magnificent Gran Hotel Bolivar, built in 1924 and at the time considered one of the most luxurious accommodations in Latin America. In the 1940s and 1950s, the hotel was a favorite among many movie stars, including Clark Gable, Orson Welles and John Wayne. Edward II, Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon were also guests. The Gran Hotel Bolivar is known as the place that catapulted the local cocktail, the Pisco Sour, into the international spotlight.
Now considered the national drink of both Peru and Chile, the Pisco Sour was allegedly invented by an American bartender in the 1920s. It is composed of pisco, a high-proof spirit made from distilled grape wine, as well as sour citrus juice and other sweetener components. In Peru, bartenders usually add key lime juice, syrup, egg white, ice and Angostura bitters to the mix.
Peruvians love to offer Pisco Sours to guests and we drank them pretty much everywhere we went.
Miraflores was established by the Spanish in the 16th century and was later the scene of the Battle of Miraflores in the late 1800s (during the War of the Pacific) when it was sacked and burned by Chilean invaders. Today, it is where most of the luxury hotels and apartment buildings are based. Upscale shopping locations include the multi-tiered mall called Larcomar and its cliff-side bars and restaurants. Behind the high-rise hotels, we discovered quiet, tree lined streets and stopped to peek through the gates at the many beautiful stone mansions, their graceful architecture just visible above high walls draped with crimson bougainvillea and other colorful flowers.
Huaca Pucllana, an important historical site and one of the last remaining pre-Inca ruins in the city, is located in the heart of Miraflores. The word Huaca means tomb, and the site is exactly that; a multi-tiered ceremonial center composed of mounds of hand-formed adobe bricks. Restored portions of the tomb blend seamlessly with the original structure first created by the Limas people back in AD 400. A stunning open-air restaurant of the same name faces onto the ruins, which are beautifully illuminated at night.
Another Miraflores attraction, Lovers Park (Parque del Amor) is located on the the top of the cliffs. Its focal point is a clay statue entitled “The Kiss” (El Beso), which is surrounded by curving walls of colorful mosaics.
San Isidro is an upscale district of the city that in recent years has become a major financial quarter. For tourists, the principal attraction is the Museo Larco, a former 18th century Viceroy’s house which has been converted into a museum housing an outstanding display of pre-Columbian Art. Founded by Rafael Larco Hole in 1926, the museum’s chronological galleries showcase over 4,000 years of Peruvian pottery. They also house the largest collection of jewelry used by many notable rulers of pre-Columbian Peru including crowns, earrings, and other ornaments finely wrought in gold and decorated with semi-precious stones. A separate gallery features a large collection of pre-Columbian erotic pots.
One of the best cafes in the city, the Cafe de Museo, serves fresh Peruvian food on a cool porch amid trailing ferns and cascading bougainvillea.
Also located in San Isidro is one of the hottest restaurants in Lima, Malabar. When our car pulled up, a hostess opened a large door in an otherwise nondescript wall to usher us in to a sleek and glamorous space. Malabar is run by culinary star Pedro Mighel Schiaffini who concocts unusual blends of Peruvian food, using local Amazonian produce that changes daily. We sampled many dishes that introduced entirely new tastes to our palates, including wild-caught fish, weird roots, unfamiliar mollusks and sauces made from exotic fruits. The dinner was complemented by a round of specialty cocktails (created by Schiaffini’s dad) served in vintage glasses.
At the turn of the the 20th century, Barranco was known as an upper class resort community lined with old mansions. Today it is a boisterous area with brightly-painted houses, unusual tropical plants and acres of colorful flowers, including large beds of fragrant roses.
A block west of the main plaza is the Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs), a narrow wooden bridge that traverses an old stone stairway. We crossed the bridge and took the stairway down to the beach shoulder-to-shoulder with the local weekend crowds sporting umbrellas and towels and an infectious happy mood. Along the way we passed crowded eateries, the smoky smell of pork chorizos rising up into the later afternoon air. Sidewalk vendors sold spiral cone ice cream, frozen fruit popsicles and tiny baked treats from little pop-up stands erected along the steps.
One night we dined at the trendy outdoor restaurant, Amor Amar whose tagline reads roughly “There is no better love than the love of food.” Discretely located on a sidestreet in Barranco, the understated courtyard space features full scale trees, ivy-cloaked walls and hundreds of twinkling lights. The menu is heavy on seafood, including charela, a sea bass from the north of Peru. We also sampled delicious Peruvian dishes made with local duck, slow roasted lamb and suckling goat. The house-made ice creams and delicious desserts made of local, fresh ingredients were a perfect end to a fabulous meal.
We were warned in advance to be careful about taxis, many of which are not taxis at all, but scammers who will literally take you for a ride. The few instances we resorted to cabs, we made sure to negotiate a price up front. For most all of our travel, we used Uber, which provided us with a quick and easy way to get around all parts of the city.
The temperature in Lima fluctuates little from summer to winter. Expect low 60s to upper 70s December-March and low 60s to upper 60s/low 70s July-September. In January, we enjoyed days ranging around 75 degrees. Although mornings often start with a grayish cloud cover, by early afternoon it is almost always sunny. It rarely rains in Lima.
There is a stiff breeze along the coast, which can feel chilly in the mornings and evenings. In the city proper, however, the sun is strong and there is little breeze. Best to come prepared with a hat and lots of sunscreen.
For further information on Lima, what to see and do, go to peru.travel.