For any visit to Peru, you have to go through Lima, a vast, polluted metropolis in the middle of Peru’s desert coastline. We arrived at Lima after 11pm and had to take a taxi into the city. All the tour books suggest to avoid this rather unsafe city, and the only reason why it’s on the itinerary at all is that it’s a travel hub for the country. Passing customs & immigration was quick, but after you hand in your declaration form, you are required to press a green button. Afterwards, an indictor light comes on. If it’s green, you can go right to the exit. If it’s red, you have to have your bags searched. Frankly, we thought the lights were randomized like Russian roulette.
There are no airport hotels, so our lodgings were at the Sheraton Lima in the city, approximately 20 minutes away. It’s categorized as a 4-star hotel, but it’s way too rundown to be classified as such if the hotel were in the USA. Once we checked in we received some free coupons for the Peruvian national cocktail, pisco sour. So we all headed to the hotel karoake bar to try it. It is made from pisco, a locally produced white-grape brandy, blended with lemon juice, ice, egg white, syrup or sugar, and topped with bitters.In our travels to and from the airport, we did manage to see some of the city not heavily trafficked by the tourists. (Although the city looks run down, the airport is relatively modern. They collect US$5/person airport tax and you have to pay in US dollars! We thought that was odd that they don’t even accept the local currency for tax). The weather in Lima is similar to San Francisco, including a layer of fog that surrounds the entire city most of the time. The buildings look old and typically span no more that one to two stories. The lines in the roads depicting lanes are very faint and cars constantly weave in and out to avoid potholes. At one point, our taxi driver slowed down to negotiate a speed bump, but the car behind us was much more creative and actually drove up on the sidewalk to avoid it. Interesting solution. Fortunately, people don’t drive that fast and there weren’t that many cars on the road. We couldn’t quite figure out why until we remembered that it was Sunday: this is a Catholic country afterall, and people may be staying at home right after mass.
Overall, Lima is an interesting city with top flight museums, a vibrant nightlife and music scene, striking architecture, richly historical neighbourhoods and genuinely friendly people. However, it can feel grimy and unsafe at night so I’d suggest you spend a day or two wandering the city when you arrive and leave the rest for when you return from your adverturous travels throughout the rest of Peru.
Church and Convent of San Francisco
Due to its magnificent harmony of volume and color, San Francisco is considered by some as the greatest architectural complex of its kind in Latin America. Its construction was started in 1542 and completed in 1674. This Franciscan monastery is famous for its catacombs and its remarkable library where you can see thousands of antique texts, some dating as far back as the conquistadors. The museum has plenty of very fine religious art and is worth exploring if you have time. The convent, the cloisters and gatehouse are decorated with tiles from Seville.
The underground catacombs are the site of an estimated 70,000 burials and should definitely not be missed! In the basement are underground galleries or catacombs that, during the Viceroyalty, served as a cemetery for the city. The conservationists arranged the skulls and femurs into rings of concentric circles which makes for an eerie image (see below).
Court of the Holy Office or the Inquisition (Tribunal del Santo Oficio)
The Inquisition was established in Peru in 1569 to punish heresies and other offenses against the Catholic religion, and wasn’t abolished until 1820. The building has an imposing neoclassical portico and an exquisite ceiling carved in wood in its main hall, the finest extant in Lima.
Lima’s menus offer a wide variety of dishes from all parts of the world as well as the more select dishes of Peruvian cuisine, amongst the best in the world. Whoever comes to Lima cannot leave without trying its “criollo” (traditional) food; particularly its many dishes based on fish and shellfish, which magnificently combine flavors and aromas beyond imagining. Ceviche, raw fish marinated in lemon juice and seasoned with chili, is the most representative of all Peruvian seafood dishes. Other favorites are the “jalea” (deep fried mixed fish and shellfish) and “tiradito”, (strips of fish marinated in lemon juice, similar to ceviche) and “coctel de camarones” (shrimp cocktail). Other jewels of “criollo” food are lomo saltado (stir fried pork and vegetables), carapulcra (a type of potato and meat stew), arroz con pato (duck cooked with rice), cau cau (tripe and vegetable stew) and anticuchos (barbecued pieces of meat, chicken or fish on a skewer). Desserts such as arroz con leche (rice pudding), mazamorra morada (a purple coloured jelly), suspiros a la limeña (a sticky sweet classic pudding), picarones (deep friend pumpkin and sweet potato doughnuts eaten dipped in sugar cane syrup) and turrón de Doña Pepa (a multi coloured cake). All these dishes are delicious enough to satisfy even the most demanding of tastes.
In Lima you will find excellent restaurants specializing in Chinese food; better known in Peru as ‘chifas’. Chinese cuisine, which reached the City of the Kings with the first Asians who came to work in the haciendas close to the capital during the last century, has mixed in many cases with Peruvian cuisine, to create unique dishes such as Arroz Chaufa (stir fried rice). One can also enjoy French, Italian, Japanese, Arab, and Argentine cuisine as well as a wide variety of international dishes at excellent restaurants within the 3 to 5-star category. Below are some pictures we took in the local Chinatown:
Also known as the Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf), this is a highly restored Maranga adobe pyramid dating from 200 AD to 500 AD. It quite strange seeing this imposing monument surrounded by the modern civilization of Lima but nevertheless it provides a very interesting contrast. The two-story construction is made of adobe with a steep ramp leading to the upper level. Archaeological excavations have unearthed mummies, on display with ancient objects inside the on-site museum.