Lima – the Gateway to Peru

Lima – the Gateway to Peru

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Founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535 and originally named as Ciudad de los Reyes or “City of Kings”, the city of Lima enjoyed great prestige and influence as the capital of Spains South American empire. Peru broke away from the Spanish empire and declared independence in 1821.  The Spanish influence is overwhelmingly apparent in the old colonial buildings that still dot the Plaza de Armas, designed by Pizarro.

The city is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes mountains on the other.  It is the second largest city in Peru, with 8 million inhabitants –that’s a whopping two thirds of the country’s population, many of who flock here in search of employment opportunities and end up in the slum colonies on the outskirts of the city.  Like many South American cities, it’s congested and polluted, and has a gaping rich-poor divide,  but a few days spent walking about Lima will open your eyes to the old world charm and beauty of this 400 year old city.  Its San Francisco convent and historic center have been declared as world heritage sites by UNSECO.

The city is a history buffs dream with its rich museums and churches and important pre Inca archaeological sites. In addition, there are excellent restaurants that showcase Peruvian cuisine, especially the seafood the country is famous for, great casinos and gambling centers, fabulous nightlife and cultural entertainment that is unparalleled in much of the region.  Plus, the people are helpful and hospitable, typical of Latin warmth and friendliness.  The concept of rain is alien to Limenos and the city enjoys warm weather all year round.

Door of the National Cathedral, Lima

Door of the National Cathedral, Lima

Getting In
Lima is, in effect, the gateway to Peru. Its Jorge Chavez International Airport serves as a transit point to all the regions in the interior of the country and is well serviced by most international airlines to cities like Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Madrid and Amsterdam.  Once inside the airport, hire a taxi at the taxi counter to get to your accommodations.  Avoid the informal taxis outside the airport. There is an airport shuttle service available at the shuttle counter inside the terminal that ferries travelers to hotels from the airport. The Green Taxi counter at the terminal is also highly recommended.

Getting Around
The architectural splendor of downtown Lima demands that you walk around the city oohing and aahing at the colonial treasures that fill it.  If that sounds like too much exertion for someone on holiday, hire a taxi. They are really affordable and $2 should get you to an adjacent neighborhood.  For longer rides, you may have to shell out between $3 to $5. Always negotiate fares before getting into one and never get into a shared taxi. They are also buses and combis – vans crammed with up to 20 people. You can catch one at the end of a block or try stopping one at a traffic light.  They’re generally slow, so opt for a taxi if you’re in a rush.

Where to Stay
The city is a backpacker hotspot for those looking to do the Inca hiking trails and so, offers plenty of low priced lodgings. There are a number of budget hotels in the city center. If you’re looking for more comfort for your dollar, the more expensive hotels in Miraflores and San Isidro are the places to head.

Hotel espana in central Lima has dormitory beds at unbeatable rates. The Stop and Drop Lima Backpacker Hostel and Guesthouse is in the heart of Miraflores, close to where all the action is and has beds as cheap as $9. They also offer a number of adventure sport activities and Spanish language courses. Another backpacker hangout in Miraflores is the LOKI Backpackers Hostel.

The Posada del Inca Hotel in San Isidro has spacious rooms – they have a healthy occupancy rate, so book ahead. The Bellavista de Miraflores offers mid priced accommodation in the heart of the commercial and nightlife district of Lima.

The Country Club Lima Hotel is a grand structure built in the Spanish hacienda style and is stuffed with antiques and modern conveniences. The hotel is surprisingly fair priced considering the privileges – 3 restaurants and a bar, salon and access to the nearby Lima Golf Club.  Part of a successful Peruvian chain of hotels, the Libertador San Isidro Golf Hotel is boldly decorated and has a nice top floor restaurant and bar. Facilities include a Jacuzzi, gym and sauna.

Where to Eat
Peru’s capital offers a varied range of dining options from traditional seafood based Peruvian food to international cuisine.  The number one dish that no visitor should leave without trying is ceviche, pieces of raw fish marinated in lemon juice, all topped off with sliced onions. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and is made only from the freshest fish. You’ll find cevicherias at every corner; from the beachside shack where it costs a few dollars to up market restaurants where you’ll pay many times that amount for the exact same concoction. There are also plenty of other seafood varieties that show up on Lima restaurant menus.  The prime location of the city above ocean waters means that fresh fish is not only plentiful, but the diet of plankton that’s abundant in these waters makes them extra delicious.   Besides local eateries, there are hundreds of Chinese joints as well as more expensive Japanese restaurants.  Middle Eastern food stalls are also common along Parque Kennedy. For a more upscale dining experience head to Astrid Y Gaston, which has the best collection of wines in the city or the serene El Curtejo, named after an obscure mission of monks.

The Pisco sour, made from fermented grape juice is the national drink of the Peruvians and available all over the city. Like Ceviche, it is highly recommended for a full blown Peruvian experience.  You can also try a variety of fruit juices including a mixed fruit juice called surtido.

The Barranco neighborhood is the center of Limas nightlife activity and boasts of a number of dance clubs and bars that come alive after dark. For sophisticated partying, head to the Costa Verde in Barranco where all the beautiful people go. In Miraflores, the younger party animals head to El Cocodrilo Verde with its scattered café tables and choice of jazz and rock and every thing in between. Some of the most crowded night time destinations on weekends are the penas, small bars that play musica criollas, a thumping medley of Peruvian and African influences. Keeping time to the beats are flashily dressed dancers and the mood is boisterous. The Freiheit Bar is a German tavern style watering hole in Miraflores and has a small dance floor.  The Son De Cuba is Caribbean themed in the choice of music and O’Murphys Irish Pub is obviously, the place to head for Guinness on tap.


What to See & Do
Plaza de Armas

The Plaza de Armas is the center of the city, where in the days of Spanish rule, bullfighting contests were held. Circling the Plaza are some of the most important buildings in Lima dating back to the colonial period,  including the Spanish baroque cathedral with its impressive choir stalls, the baroque chapel of the Immaculate, a Christ statue made of ivory and the Museum of Religious Art and Treasures. The Governments Palace, which has been the headquarters of Peruvian Viceroys, Governors and Presidents since 1541 is the official residence of the President of the Republic and there is a daily changing of guard ceremony outside the palace that is a noteworthy tourist attraction.  The Hall City has a collection of historic documents including those relating to the Founding of Lima and the Independence of Peru in 1821.  The Plaza also houses the impressive Archbishops Palace. A bronze fountain stands in the middle of this square, bearing the coat of arms of the city.

National Museum
The National Museum has great exhibits showcasing the history of the country right through the many conquering cultures to the Inca period. The museum is well laid out and provides a terrific snapshot of the cultural heritage and richness of Peru.

Gold Museum
This fortress like building known locally as Museo de Oro Del Peru, houses treasures from the Inca period. There is an expansive collection of glittering gold jewelry and ceremonial objects including the famous golden Tumi, symbol of Peru. In addition, there is a massive range of artifacts – thousands of pre Inca masks, mummies, tapestries, and antique weapons.

Museo Rafael Larco Herrera
Boasting of the worlds largest collection of ceramics, this 18th century museum has close to 55000 pieces of pre Colombian ceramic pottery from the Moche dynasty, a people who lived in the north of Peru from 200 to 700 AD. This civilization was extremely unique in the sense that they used their pottery, not written words, to leave behind fascinating accounts of their religious beliefs, agricultural practices, music and means of transport.  The Moches also excelled in erotic pottery, depicting explicit, if down-to-earth and sometimes funny, erotic images that are displayed at the museums Erotic Hall.

Church of San Francisco
A stunning yellow and white building, the San Francisco cathedral is one of the more prominent of Limas colonial structures.  It was one of the very few buildings in Lima that managed to survive the devastation wreaked by the 1746 earthquake and is renowned for its underground catacomb that houses the remains of nearly 70000 people. There is an excellent library with works of the masters as well as a small museum containing the works of Van Dyck and Rueben.

Archaeological Sites
Machhu Pichhu may be the most famous ruins on the Peruvian tourist trail, but there are in excess of 30 other such sites in and around Lima. Huaca Pucllana, a temple from the pre Inca period is located in the trendy Mireaflores area, nestling comfortably among modern buildings.  Another temple called Huaca Huallamarca in San Isidro has been constructed entirely of mud bricks and has astonishingly stood the test of time for over 1500 years. To the south of Lima is the 200 year old Panchacamac with its pre Colombian pyramids and palaces that are definitely worth a dekko. It is a sacred site and pilgrimage spot and was formerly inhabited by a line of people much before the Incas.

Cruise to Palomino Islands
Close to Limas port, Callao, are the Palomino Islands that are inhabited by sea lions and other aquatic breeds. A 4 hour cruise from Lima will take you to these islands where you can swim with the sea lions.

Although Limas beaches are a far cry from the legendary waters of Rio de Janeiro, they are worth a visit just to people watch, hugely popular as they are with the locals. The shores of El Selincio and Punta Hurmosa have great seafood restaurants with excellent fresh ceviche.

The capital has the best selection of handicrafts in the country. So you might want to wait till you’re in Lima on your way home to get your hands on touristy finds. Lima is also famous for its alpaca pullover and scarves. For plenty of fun filled bargain shopping, head to the Central Market and the Artisans market for handicrafts at throwaway prices.  Traditional carpets known as tejidos, carvings on wood, jewelry are other must buys in Lima. Mireflores is the shopping district and a favorite with foreign visitors. One of the largest Lima shops for Peruvian artifacts is Peru Artifacts at the Larcomar Shoping Mall. The Jockey plaza is the newest and the biggest mall in Lima and has a restaurant, a movie theater and over 200 upscale shops.

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