Lima: Need to Know

City Basics

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Arriving. Lima's Jorge Chávez International Airport was completely remodeled in the mid-2000s. The facelift included a four-star hotel and shopping center, and there are plans to complete a second runway by 2014. Nearly all flights originating in North America arrive in Lima together, between 10 p.m. and midnight, which means that lines for immigration and customs tend to be long. Even travelers with only carry-on luggage can expect to spend at least an hour in the airport before exiting.

Getting out of the airport is also a lesson in crowd management, with lots of people lining up outside to pick up relatives or friends. There will be men and women asking to help you with luggage or offering transportation services — do not use these pirate services. Instead, go with one of three taxi services available immediately before the exit doors in the international arrivals section. They include CMV Taxi Remisse at +51-(0)1-422-4838; Taxi Green at +51-(0)1-484-4001 or +51-(0)1-998-267-148; and Mitsoo at +51-(0)1-261-7788.

The airport is about 11 km from central Lima, and 17 km from San Isidro/Miraflores. The fare to hotels in San Isidro/Miraflores is about $25, and the ride should take about 30 to 40 minutes. Fares to other districts vary. You'll pay the receptionist at the counter and get a receipt before getting a taxi.

Getting Around. Taxis are ubiquitous in Lima because the city has no public transportation system. The buses that ply the streets are all privately owned and bid for routes, creating chaos and congestion. However, the city government plans to complete the first portion of a dedicated bus system in 2010, while the central government has restarted work, after a 20-year delay, on a light rail that should be operational in 2011.

There are formal taxis and pirate taxis, and it is hard to distinguish between them. Many out-of-work Peruvians simply buy an illuminated taxi sign, hitch it to the roof of their car and drive around working the streets. All hotels have taxis available at the door or are affiliated with a service and will request one immediately; you can also hail cabs on the street. Taxis in Peru are inexpensive — with the exception of those originating at the airport — with an average fare between districts running no more than $3 to $4. Ask the price before getting in and haggle a little before settling on a fare; it's expected.

It is unlikely that your taxi driver will speak English, so if you're not a Spanish speaker, be sure to have the address of your destination (and your hotel) written down.

Money. Unlike most countries, Peru has money-changers, known as cambistas, on street corners and near banks; you'll recognize them by their colored vests with $$ or EURO written on the back. They will exchange foreign currency (U.S. dollars or Euros) for the nuevo sol at a slightly better rate than banks.

One quirky thing about changing money here: cambistas, banks and currency-exchange houses (casas de cambio) will not accept foreign bills with even the slightest rip or writing on them. Likewise, many stores in Lima dislike accepting ripped or worn local bills, so if the soles you get from the bank or cambista aren't pristine, ask for bills in better shape.

Also unique in the region: shops, hotels and restaurants almost anywhere in Peru will accept U.S. dollars and local currency interchangeably, generally at a rate slightly below the daily exchange rate. Taxis are the exception, and soles are needed for fares.

Tipping. Many restaurants will include a tip in the bill even for small groups, so make sure you check your bill before paying. If there's no service charge included, the general rule for better restaurants is 10%. Outside of restaurants, Peruvians do not tip. Taxi drivers don't expect gratuities.

Survival Skills. Lima is a city of 9 million people and many neighborhoods. Like most big cities, some neighborhoods are safe, while others should be avoided. Most popular tourist spots are in safe neighborhoods, but it doesn't hurt to ask your hotel concierge for advice before heading out. The commonest crime in Lima, and in the rest of Peru, is petty theft of wallets, purses, cameras and the like. Regardless of the neighborhood, keep a close eye on your belongings. Never leave your bag or purse draped over the back of a chair. Do not walk around with your camera bag or purse swinging to and fro; this can attract unwanted attention from thieves.

Internet. It's easy to stay connected in Lima, even without a laptop or BlackBerry. The city has thousands of Internet cafes that are fast and dirt cheap, charging around $0.20 for 30 minutes. An increasing number of cafes and hotels now also offer free Wi-Fi.

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