November 24 – December 1, 2016 (Beginning of summer)
Currency: Sol (S/.)
Visa: 183 days
Cost of living: Medium
Home to nearly a third of the people in Peru, Lima is enormous. It sprawls – along the shore, over small hills and deep into arid mountain valleys. And busy! We practically heard the car horns from our landing approach. It was all too much to take in. But when we looked to the west and saw the sun set over the Pacific for the first time in over a year, we found our calm. We couldn’t see everything this megacity had to offer; certainly not in a week, probably not in a lifetime. Exploring ancient artifacts, cooking a savory meal, walking the waterfront and listening to the waves clatter the beach pebbles back and forth, those were the moments that we could pick out and carry with us. They brought an inconceivably busy city into perspective and taught us that even the most introvert-hostile places are not insurmountable. We would absolutely love to revisit Peru again in the future. That said, one week in Lima was plenty.
Where we stayed
We picked an Airbnb↗ in the Miraflores area of Lima, one of the more upscale neighborhoods in the city. The apartment was on the 9th floor of a still taller tower, surrounded by more of the same. We weren’t on the water, but if we looked toward it we could occasionally see paragliders floating along the shoreline. A large, bright living room dominated the floor plan, which also featured a relatively spacious and well-appointed kitchen. That space came at a cost though. We had a cramped bed barely big for one of us, though the bedroom still somehow had room for a computer desk. Most of the outward-facing wall space was given over to windows. They let in a lot of light, but did little to block the street noise. The windows didn’t seal shut either; given the extremely arid climate, the risk of rain leaking through the gaps was basically nil.
At least in our building, the water flowing from the tap was safe to drink (or at least, we drank it and didn’t get sick), but the plumbing couldn’t handle toilet paper. One more week of tossing it in a bin.
Each morning the breeze off the ocean brought in fog and low clouds, giving the air a refreshing chill. The climate stays remarkably temperate throughout the year, even in December (Southern Hemisphere midsummer). After several steamy months in Mexico, the moderate maritime air and complete absence of biting insects was incredibly refreshing. There seemed to be few bugs in general. In our apartment, no worse than a couple moths emanating from a locked-off wardrobe.
There wasn’t really any single “downtown” to the city. Driving to distant draws like the Museo Larco or the airport, neighborhoods passed and blended together, kilometer after kilometer of houses and high-rises. From ground level it was impossible to tell how far the boundaries went. Miraflores and several other central neighborhoods are relatively wealthy, but in Peru poverty was visible all around. Lima is a textbook primate city↗ and by far the largest concentration of people and economic opportunity in the country. That equates to development, but also to surging numbers of desperate people moving from the hinterlands to make ends meet. Overpopulation and corruption strain a system already stretched thin. Together this gives Lima a reputation for pickpocketing and mugging, though we had no such troubles during our visit.
What we did
Miraflores was an easy first choice for wandering, being our home base in Lima. But the neighborhood is easily worth a visit either way. The whole city is built up to the edge of cliffs that fall off the edge of the continent into the ocean, but nowhere is this more exemplified than Miraflores. Paragliders took advantage of the rising air currents and floated along the greenbelt separating the stone and sea from the skyscrapers. Weather conditions were so consistent that we saw them every day without fail. Surfing is just as popular. Folks from all over the world congregated to ride the waves. We were content to stroll the waterfront – actually entering the icy water had no appeal for us – though the large black pebbles made our long walks on the beach more challenging than sand would have been. Most of the rest of the neighborhood’s attractions revolved around shopping and fine dining, but the other standout for us was Parque Kennedy. This park is a popular gathering spot for people and, more famously, a huge number of stray cats. The creatures are enjoyed and well-cared-for, disease-free, and extremely ambivalent. The park is well-guarded and very safe. One of the security personnel started up a conversation with us to practice his English and our Spanish and was generous with insider advice.
Everyone we spoke to assumed we were in Peru to see Machu Picchu, but sadly it was just too expensive and time-consuming to fit in as a side trip. But we weren’t going to leave without learning a bit about Peruvian history, and for that, there’s no better place in Lima than the Museo de Larco. Artifacts abound from all eras. The Incas are well-represented, of course, but there are also countless treasures from lesser-known civilizations like the Moche, Nazca (of “lines” fame), Chimú, and Wari. Huaco pottery is the most common artifact, especially single- and double-spout vessels with human or animal themes. One corner of the museum specialized in erotic-themed pieces, somewhat NSFW but ultimately adorable. The arid climate also preserved an alarming number of still-vibrant tapestries, yarn crafts, and even human remains. Some precious metals even survived the conquistadors’ pillaging. There were so many fun, interesting, and relatable items on exhibit, it is difficult to pick favorites. This shy guy hiding, or this fella, or maybe this wooden wallflower. But after all that, the most incredible revelation was our visit to the storeroom. After admiring hundreds of pieces, it was mind-blowing to see the thousands more kept in reserve waiting their turn to be cataloged, studied, and exhibited.
Not far from Plaza Mayor, the main square of Lima and site of key government buildings, sits the Monastery of San Francisco. It was easily one of the more striking churches we saw in the Americas. Distinctly beautiful red and white geometric patterns cover almost every surface. We opted for the Spanish-language tour of the monastery, both to practice our language skills and because we didn’t feel like waiting for the less-frequent English tour. The main attraction is the catacombs below the church, containing as many as 25000 skeletons. The tour continued with discussions of the various paintings scattered throughout the grounds. Unfortunately, the monastery’s famously extensive library was closed for renovation during our visit.
Probably our favorite activity was learning Lima’s distinctive flavors for ourselves with a cooking class. Taking advantage of our credit card rewards, we were set up with a pair of local home cooks for a tour of Mercado de Surquillo before heading to their home for our lesson. We ended up the only two on the tour for the day and had a wonderful time getting to know our teachers. Paula provided translations for her mother‘s instruction and shared her own fascinating stories as a guide in the Peruvian Amazon. Recipes included causa (a sort of layered potato salad), ceviche (raw fish “cooked” or cured in lime juice) and authentic pisco sours. Though none of the dishes involved application of heat, the little thoughtful touches everywhere really made for an amazing day. Stuff like teaching us how to make mayonnaise from scratch, or homemade chicha morada – a juice-like beverage made of sweetened boiled purple corn – for refreshment. We even learned the secrets of the beverage / hazing ritual known as tiger’s milk, where Limeños drink the leftover ceviche juices as a beverage (sometimes with a splash of pisco as a cocktail). Once was enough for us!
Food & Drink
The nearest groceries to our apartment were Wong and Metro, with Metro being the cheaper of the two and Wong offering more variety and pricier options. Either way, it was hard to go wrong with the local ingredients. Thanks to the Humboldt Current, Peru is blessed with an abundance of seafood, and it shows in their cuisine. Ceviche is perfect vessel for meaty white fish, while shrimp shows up in aromatic chupe de camarones. Traditional staples include potatoes, quinoa, corn, and chili peppers. The nearby Mercado de Surquillo was ideal for produce and spices, and we would have spent a lot more time there if our stay was longer.
Since we arrived on Thanksgiving Day, we didn’t have time to celebrate with a big meal. We made up for it a few days later by dining out at Huaca Pucllana. One of Lima’s best restaurants, their dining room sits right next to a 1500-year-old adobe pyramid. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually get to overlook the archaeological site as the outdoor seating area was reserved for a special event. The meal began with anticuchos de corazón, grilled skewers of beef heart, which were startlingly tender and flavorful. We toasted over Malbec and an expertly-crafted pisco sour. For our main courses, we noshed alpaca medallions with Peruvian corn soufflé and chupe de camarones with quinoa and topped with a fried egg. Every bite and sip was delightful.
Seafood is a staple in coastal cities like Lima, but the Peruvian interior is famous for another, slightly more divisive choice: cuy. Better known as guinea pig. Plenty of tourist restaurants at the city are more than willing to offer it, but we found one at Wong and decided to take a stab at it ourselves. A little cooking oil, salt and pepper and we ended up with, well maybe not the most glamorous rendition, but certainly a tasty one. Not a terribly substantial meal on its own, though. Alpaca is another inland delicacy that we managed to sample during our stay. The taste and texture fell somewhere between bison and lamb.
Less exotic but every bit as delicious was aji de gallena, finely shredded chicken in a pepper sauce over rice. Another dish that tastes better than it photographs. Snack foods were kind of all over the place, with plantain chips our surprising favorites. But when it comes down to it, our favorite food memories were undoubtedly the fish; our handmade ceviche was probably the easiest on the eyes and the taste buds.
Beverage-wise, we found many more notable nonalcoholic options in Lima than usual. The aforementioned chicha morada is made from purple corn boiled with pineapple rinds and a blend of secret family spices. It was surprisingly refreshing; sweet and hearty and fruity all at once. We got kind of a smoothie/sangria vibe. Drinking chocolate is sold in hardened bar form, made to be blended into milk on-demand. And Inca Kola was a something else. The fluorescent yellow color belied a fairly decent taste of bubblegum cream soda. While we were happy just saying we tried it, the brand certainly has its fans: Peru is one of the few countries on Earth where the favorite son soft-drink outperforms Coca-Cola.
We had trouble finding any other beer besides Cusqueña, and it was oddly expensive for what it offered. We figured this meant Peru wasn’t a big beer country, but our cooking instructor set us straight. Peruvians enjoy suds plenty, there just isn’t a whole lot of competition. A little digging turned up a few craft beers here and there, and the Nuevo Mundo Draft Bar was a huge relief with plenty of tasty options on tap. Peru also cultivates a fair amount of wine grapes, though most get swallowed up producing pisco. The country was once a wine powerhouse, but an earthquake in 1687 essentially destroyed the industry, which never really recovered. Our only bottle was an easy-drinking Tannat that definitely showed promise. Pisco is the country’s real pride though. They’re in a bit of a feud with Chile over who owns the concept, and its most famous cocktail, the pisco sour. Peru’s version includes an egg white, resulting in a fluffy and smooth concoction without any hard liquor taste. Quite honestly, we give Peru the edge on this one.
Our host graciously provided us with detailed directions for arriving by bus, because the signage at the airport was not clear. Straight out from the terminal, all the way to the main road (Vía Expresa Elmer Faucett), take a right, and walk a ways to reach the bus stop. Even so, we got turned around. The gauntlet of increasingly pushy and desperate taxi drivers we had to navigate amped our stress levels even more. Don’t give in! We found the bus stop eventually. A tender flags down buses depending on where you want to go. The route our driver recommended didn’t show for a while, so the tender put us on the next closest thing and we were on our way.
…slowly. Lima’s buses are more like colectivos, cramped and run-down minibuses that run set routes through surface traffic for minimal fares. (The city does have a modern bus line called the Metropolitano, but it doesn’t service the airport.) We appeared to be the only tourists traveling our route. Paying our fare of less than $1 each, we wedged ourselves and our massive packs into the only two seats available. We definitely got some funny looks, but the ride was uneventful if uncomfortable. It took nearly two hours to work our way across the city, fighting through rush hour traffic in perhaps the most chaotic streets we’ve experienced to date. Our driver split lanes, slammed brakes repeatedly, and frequently pierced the jovial radio music with his horn. We were grateful not to be in a taxi, or worse, driving ourselves.
Uber↗ was an option as well, though not when we arrived. We didn’t yet have SIM cards, and the airport wifi blocked Uber, presumably to protect the taxi racket. It came in handy a few times to get around, though. Most of the time, the ride was a regular taxi that simply used Uber to drum up more business. That was fine by us; we’re not anti taxi, just anti getting ripped off. The return trip to the airport was much quicker by car too, though we should note the driver had to drop us off outside the airport grounds to avoid getting harassed by taxi drivers himself!
Stuff of interest
Peru’s currency, the Sol, is more valuable than most in South America – roughly 3:1 during our visit instead of 30:1 (Uruguay) or 650:1 (Chile). ATMs have relatively low withdrawal limits and spit out relatively big bills, which are not universally accepted. There may have been ATM fees as well, but our bank pays foreign transaction and withdrawal fees for us.
We purchased an Entel SIM↗ with 200 mb data for a little over $5 US. All shops require a passport to buy a SIM to combat illegal activity. It was probably our most complicated SIM purchase to date, including signing a document stating the phone won’t be used for kidnappings or drug deals. The phone kiosk at the airport tried to tell us that tourists can’t buy SIMs at all in Peru, instead offering to rent us one for almost $50. This is a scam. Obviously.
What we learned
Once a city earns the prefix “mega,” it is probably too big for us. But the salty, cool Pacific breeze and stellar seafood endeared Lima to us quickly. We felt more at home than we expected, at least for a little while. We definitely want to return to Peru for a longer visit someday, but a week in Lima was just right to keep us from going off the deep end.