Friday, Apr. 02, 2010


Peru's sprawling megacapital is actually a mosaic of many smaller cities. Comprising 43 districts with nearly 9 million inhabitants, Lima is a study in contrasts, with ultramodern seaside neighborhoods butting up against gritty shantytowns that cling to barren hillsides. It is one of the world's few megacapitals that can claim a golf course in the middle of the financial district, and where executives can go surfing before high-powered breakfast meetings. Although it's built in a desert — Cairo is the only other metropolis drier than Lima — it's known as the "Garden City" and is home to one of world's largest fountain parks.

While many of Lima's stately manors have given way to glass-enclosed apartment buildings, high-rise business towers and hotels, at least one part of Peruvian culture is returning to its roots here: the cuisine. Lima natives — Limeños — are obsessed with food. A 2009 documentary Cooking up Dreams (De Ollas y Sueños) profiles the emergence of Peru's national cuisine on the world stage. Meanwhile, Lima's government has established a Boulevard of Gastronomy in the Surquillo district, turning a traditional farmers' market into a pedestrian mall to showcase the fresh ingredients used in Peruvian cooking. And the city's annual food festival, held each September, is quite possibly the most important event of the year.

The only thing that rivals Limeños' love of food is their passion for pisco, a grape brandy that is the main ingredient in the national drink, the pisco sour. Don't be fooled by its frothy silhouette — it packs a powerful punch.

1. Aliaga House

The Aliaga House is as old as Lima itself. When conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded the capital city on Jan. 18, 1535, he gave the plot adjacent to that of the Government Palace to his trusted ally Jerónimo de Aliaga, so they could be neighbors. Eighteen generations of the Aliaga family have resided in the same mansion ever since — it's been renovated continuously, but it's the oldest house in the Americas. Jerónimo's descendants currently live in a modern annex, but much of the original main house is on display.

The Aliaga House has a wide-ranging collection of Peruvian art and artifacts, including the sword Jerónimo de Aliaga used in the conquest of Peru, and reflects various eras of decor, going back centuries. Walking through the house's heavy wooden doors means stepping into layers of history.

Tours of the house can be organized by calling +51-(0)1-619-6900 with 24-hour notice; tours aren't cheap at $40 per person, and last about an hour. Casa Aliaga is located 40 minutes by taxi from the San Isidro/Miraflores districts, where most visitors prefer to stay.

2. Government Palace and Plaza de Armas

Government Palace, the official residence and office of Peru's president, sits on the banks of the Rimac River, Lima's principal waterway, and faces San Cristobal Hill, the city's highest point. Back in the time of the Incas, the site had strategic and spiritual meaning, which is why the last Inca chief in Lima also lived here. Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incas, so liked the site that he kept it for the first Spanish palace, whose construction began in 1535. Since then, Government Palace has been rebuilt numerous times; the current French-inspired mansion was constructed in the 1930s.

Access to the palace is restricted; special tours can be arranged directly through the protocol office at +51-(0)1-311-3908. But you don't need tickets to see the changing of the palace guards, which takes place each day precisely at noon. (Behind the palace is the Peruvian House of Literature — it is Lima's old train station, which was restored by the government in 2009 and turned into a reading room of Peruvian works. It's worth a quick peek.)

Government Palace occupies the north side of the Plaza de Armas (or Plaza Mayor), Lima's central square. On the other three sides of the square are the Cathedral of Lima and the adjoining Archbishop's Palace, which were originally built during the 1600s; the Municipal Palace (City Hall); and private office buildings. All the structures sport the intricately carved wooden balconies that make the downtown cityscape so unique.

The Cathedral is open to the public and houses a museum with an extensive collection of religious art, much of which represents Peru's famed Cuzco School (Escuela Cuzqueña) of painting. The Cathedral is open until 5 p.m. daily; admission is $1.50 for adults (less for children and students).

After you've toured the Plaza de Armas, walk south on Jirón de la Unión, a long pedestrian mall, along which you can admire neoclassical and Art Deco architecture, shop and watch street performers. When you get to Plaza San Martin, which was refurbished in 2009, take a gander at the lovely 19th-century buildings, then duck into the Gran Hotel Bolivar. The hotel, which once welcomed the rich and famous, is on the wane, but the lobby and glass atrium are still worth seeing; the bar, with its polished woods and bronze, offers a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere to savor a delicious pisco sour ($4).

3. Church of San Francisco

You can't walk more than a few blocks in downtown Lima without stumbling upon another colonial church. Catholic religious congregations were each allotted a piece of land in the early days of the city, and most of them erected monasteries, convents or churches in honor of patron saints. The Church of San Francisco is one of the best preserved (you'll recognize it by the swarm of pigeons on the patio out front; vendors sell bags of seed to passersby to keep the birds coming).

Built in the baroque-style of the late 1600s, San Francisco has several gilded side altars and an impressive lattice dome. The adjoining monastery has a superb collection of ancient religious texts, some of which were brought over by the first wave of Spanish priests after the conquest of the Incas.

Most people go to San Francisco, however, for its catacombs. The catacombs were actually part of Lima's original cemeteries, which were built under churches. Tour guides say an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone, and many of the remains are exposed, stacked in strange patterns in circular stone pits. A catacomb tour is not for the squeamish or the claustrophobic.

The Church of San Francisco is located about 45 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, with tours (including the catacombs) lasting approximately one hour; the entrance fee is about $2.

4. Larco Museum

There are many public and private museums in Lima, but none as unique or pleasing as the Larco Museum. Housed in a former mansion, itself built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple, the museum offers a varied collection of 3,000 years of ceramic, textile and precious metal artifacts. There are also mummies that show off the different ways ancient cultures, including the Incas, preserved their dead.

Two things really set this museum apart. First, visitors are allowed into the museum's store rooms to see what's not on display: a vast array of ceramic objects crafted by ancient Peruvians; there are tens of thousands of pots in the shapes of animals, plants and people. Second, there's a special room devoted to erotic archaeological treasures. These are not your run-of-the-mill phallic symbols, but a collection of ceramic pots portraying a variety of sexual positions and acts — the Kama Sutra in clay, basically. Many such erotic pots were destroyed by Spanish conquerors, who were mortified by the explicit depictions, which makes this collection all the more important.

The Larco Museum is about 25 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; admission is $11.50.

5. Pucllana Temple (Huaca Pucllana)

You don't have to trek into the Andes to see vestiges of Peru's ancient civilizations. Lima has a large number of historical ruins, known locally as huacas, which can be spotted in many neighborhoods. They are generally fenced off, but that is the extent of the preservation. One of the major exceptions is the Pucllana Temple, or Huaca Pucllana, in the city's upscale Miraflores district. This adobe ceremonial center was likely built around 500 A.D., during the cultural height of Lima's history. Much of the site has been restored and excavations continue to uncover artifacts and the occasional mummy.

The huaca is creatively illuminated at night, giving it a movie-set aura. To make your visit even better, there's an on-site restaurant that serves haute cuisine prepared by an internationally trained chef. There's nothing like dining while taking in 1,500-year-old views. The restaurant stays open long after the ruins close.

The ruins are accessible Wednesday to Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the last tour starts 30 minutes before closing. Admission is $2.50 for adults, and half off for children and students.

6. El Malecón, Miraflores

Lima has always been known as the Garden City, and no district rivals Miraflores when it comes to parks. The Miraflores government has spent years improving and adding to the district's green spaces, with a special emphasis on El Malecón, a six-mile stretch of parks situated along the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. (Bear in mind that the Malecón actually goes by three names, starting as Malecón de la Marina in the north, then becoming Malecón Cisneros, and ending as Malecón de la Reserva in the south.)

The Malecón is perfect for jogging, biking or simply taking in the view. Dotting the walkway are statues created by famed Peruvian artists. The two most famous works of sculpture are located on either side of the Villena Bridge, which spans a deep ravine at about the midway point on the Malecón. On one side of the bridge is the "Intihuatana" (sun anchor), designed by Fernando de Szyslo; on the other is Víctor Delfín's massive carving of a couple in deep embrace. The latter is the central piece of a section of the Malecón known as Parque del Amor (Love Park), whose design borrows heavily from Antoni Gaudí.

Keep walking a few minutes north of the Parque del Amor, and you'll see the taking-off point for parasailers. The Malecón is the prime spot for parasailing in Lima — gliders jump off the cliffs and ride the winds whipping off the ocean below. For $50, you can take a 10-minute flight with a trained parasailing guide; buy tickets at the small kiosk at Block 2 of the Malecón. Rides are available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, winds permitting.

If you want more than 10 minutes of fun, rent a bike and cruise the Malecón and other sites in Lima. A good place for rentals is Bike Tours of Lima at Bolivar 150 in Miraflores. The daily rate, which includes lock and helmet, is $15.

7. Larcomar

Along the seawalk in the Miraflores district is Larcomar, a multilevel entertainment, food and shopping megacomplex that caters to most tastes. The first thing you'll notice about Larcomar is that you cannot see it. The entire complex is built into the cliffside, underneath Miraflores — the entrance is on Block 6 of Malecón de la Reserva, across the street from the JW Marriott hotel; take the stairs down just before you get to the cliff's edge.

Larcomar has breathtaking ocean views, which you can enjoy from numerous restaurants offering Peruvian fare, as well as several American franchises serving everything from doughnuts to ribs. Try Peruvian broaster chicken — or pollo a la brasa (literally, chicken over coals) — at Pardo's Chicken or have a cone of homemade ice cream from Gelateria Laritza D', while watching the sun set on the Pacific. There's also a movie theater, bowling alley and pool hall here, and shopping galore. Many Peruvian fashion designers have boutiques in Larcomar, and there's no shortage of high-end jewelry and clothing stores. This is a great place to while away your last few hours in Lima (and buying gifts for friends back home), before catching a cab to the airport.

8. Ceviche

You must not leave Lima without stuffing your gullet with ceviche — raw fish, hot chili peppers and onions marinated in lime juice — the mouth-watering dish that is the star of Peru's culinary repertoire. The best place to get it is on Avenida La Mar in Miraflores. Many of the city's top cevicherias populate this tree- and bench-lined boulevard, and also serve lots of other succulent seafood dishes, which you'll want to tuck into after your ceviche starters.

It's not the first seafood joint to open on the street, but the namesake La Mar restaurant is the best known; in March 2010 it was rated Lima's top cevicheria by the local restaurant ranking guide Summum. Begin your meal with an order of leche de tigre ($6.50), which is simply ceviche broth. Then get things going with the ceviche sampler, which has five different kinds of fish and shellfish ($16). Next, move on to your main course: try the swordfish, which is caught on Peru's northern coast and prepared in various ways ($16).

La Mar is the seafood creation of chef and TV star Gastón Acurio, Peru's Paris-trained ambassador of food. Acurio, who owns a small empire of restaurants, including the flagship Astrid y Gastón (which is also worth a visit), is taking ceviche international with La Mar: franchises operate in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Panama; there's also a La Mar in San Francisco, with another outpost scheduled to open in New York City in Summer 2010.

9. Bridge of Sighs, as Seen From Chala

The Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros) is a lovely wooden structure spanning the Bajada de Baños, a stone walkway that runs down to the Pacific through Lima's bohemian district, Barranco. This comely neighborhood was the place to be in the 19th century and retains its laid-back charm today; there are lots of bars and restaurants in Barranco, plus views of the water, and it's worth strolling around here for an afternoon.

The best place to sit and contemplate the Bridge of Sighs and the ocean behind it is Chala. This unassuming Peruvian restaurant is located in a restored manor, with a long porch shaded by ancient, towering ficus trees. Chala's food and drink are as refreshing as its setting. The pisco sour is dry with just right amount of froth, and sipping one at a porch-side table is an unforgettable experience. Co-owner and Peruvian congressman Carlos Bruce recommends the saltado characato de lomito, strips of sautéed beef and chilis on a bed of refried garbanzo beans, accompanied by tempura-style plantains. Finish with the mango cheesecake ($8).

10. Magic Water Circuit

The Lima municipal government has transformed a dusty park on the edge of the downtown area into a delightful tour of dancing water and lights — more than a dozen fountains send water shooting into the air, choreographed to music and light. The Magic Water Circuit (Circuito Mágico del Agua) is the city's newest attraction, and locals and tourists agree it's surprisingly awesome. Check it out for yourself. The fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., but go after the sun has set to see the light show; admission is $1.50.