Since creating my goal of visiting all 21 Spanish-speaking countries, Perú has been a top contender, and I immersed myself in the culture of this beautiful, diverse country by watching films made in Perú, studying the unique history of the Incas, and sampling the incredible gastronomy at Peruvian food festivals many years before finally arriving this year in mid-June.
Working with a volunteer’s tiny budget, Macchu Picchu was out of the question; honestly, it’s always been Lima, with its high cliffs overlooking the ocean and dozens of historic plazas mixed with modern architecture, that captured my heart.
Pardon el pardito de Pariwana
Pariwana is a “party” hostel that may not suit some weary travelers, but for anyone wanting an international atmosphere, warm friendly staff, comfortable accommodations, free breakfast and hot showers – all at a reasonable price in the heart of Miraflores – it is the perfect place.
Parque de las Amores, Centro Commercial and Museo de la Nacío
Day one in Perú, I met my street-savvy guide Javier in Miraflores for the 12-block walk to the Malécon, with its spectacular views of Lima’s vast shoreline. We continued to the picturesque Parque de los Amores, filled with colorful mosaics and sculptures about love, and finished the day with a menú del dia meal near the trendy Calle de las Pizzas, a sliver of pedestrian-friendly street featuring small discotecas and bars.
For several days, Javier and I took combis to the main tourist attractions in Lima, including Plaza Mayor (Plaza de Armas), lined with spectacular buildings like the Palacio de Gobierno, the Archbishops Palace, the Cathedral of Lima and the Palacio Municipal.
One day, after a morning of perusing the stalls of Mercado Central, enjoying savory cheese samples washed down with cool Chica Morada – a purple corn drink spiced with cinnamon – Javier and I ran feverishly through the streets of Chinatown, arriving to Estadio Futbol Club just in time to watch Colombia beat Japan 4-1.
Another afternoon was spent perusing the Museo de la Nacío, which featured an incredible photography exhibit on the suffrage in Peru at the hands of Abimael Guzman, communist and founder of insurgent group Shining Path.
The dark mood from the exhibit was instantly lightened with lunch at Cebicheria Manolito, a place favored by locals, serving fresh ceviche soaked in “leche de tigre”, a Peruvian delicacy.
In addition to delicious ceviche, traditional food not to miss in Perú includes causa con atun, chifles, papas a la haucina, and the popular, low-priced Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food).
Huaca Pucllana and Cerro San Cristobal
Close to Miraflores, in the center of the city, there is a curious-looking adobe ceremonial center built during the cultural height of Lima’s history, somewhere around 500 A.D.
During the tour of Huaca Pucllana, the guide explained the garden filled with plants typical of the area and animals native to Peru, as well as the occasional mummy, unearthed as renovation continues on the center.
One evening, I ventured to Cerro San Cristobal, overlooking Lima from a mountain near the Rímac District. Climbing 400 meters up a steep, narrow hillside, our small combi of 12 people passed the scenic Alameda de los Descalzos, a promenade with churches and marble statues built in the 1600s.
Accompanying the spectacular city view from the top of the mountain is a wooden cross, originally placed by Spaniards, destroyed by Quechua soldiers, and replaced with a replica that shines brilliantly above the city. Decorated with small lightbulbs, the cross is visible at night from most of downtown Lima.
The Catacumbas of San Francisco
Even with its rich historic overtones, Lima is a well-orgnaized, modern city with convenient public-transit and the fast Metropolitano, which will take you from Miraflores to Centro in minutes.
Once in el Centro, gorgeous ornate churches like the soft pink Iglesia de La Merced and buttery yellow Iglesia and Convent of San Francisco offer decorative facades with sturdy spires and complex carvings. Iglesia San Francisco is a true gem, with a soft glow outside and intricate Spanish tiles inside, as well as huge domed ceilings.
Taking an afternoon to tour the catacombs of Iglesia San Francisco was nothing short of spectacular. A friendly, bilingual guide showed off the iglesia’s expansive library, the lush center courtyard and the elaborate baroque decor of the gorgeous congregation. He continued by describing the strict rituals followed by monks of the church as they dedicated their lives to service.
The tour ended with a final walk deep below the congregation, in the famous catacumbas.
As our group of 20 tourists weaved through shallow, stone tombs lined with browned femurs, we passed a well ten meters deep with human skulls neatly arranged in circular piles: a horrifying yet fascinating sight to see. [The skulls are fairly morbid. Google “Iglesia San Francisco Catacumba skulls” or click here].
Barranco by Night
An evening invitation to Barranco seemed impassable with the opportunity to walk through the streets of his bohemian part of Lima, which in recent years has earned a reputation for its variety of restaurants and nightclubs. Traveling by taxi, arriving just after nightfall to a charming plaza, the breezes of Barranco swirled around the tiles at the entrance to the historic original Biblioteca.
Walking along steep stairs cut into cliffside led to a dreamy view of Lima at night, with a return pass by the intimate little church. Completing this night visit meant stopping for a proper Pisco Sour and enjoying the atmosphere of Ayahuasca, a gorgeous restobar housed in the former Mansión Berninzon, constructed between 1875 and 1895.
Chullos, Chicha and Cancha
No trip to Perú would be complete without some serious souvenir and a little gift shopping. Although the Inka Market in Miraflores is a popular choice among travelers, there are several reasonably-priced shops with personable vendors in El Centro, near Iglesia San Fransciso.
In one store, a woman neatly placed stacks of natural-hued chullos made from alpaca (and some colorful wool ones) next to intricate, embroidered pillows and woven leather bracelets while her husband nailed together wooden frames for his original, folk-art triptychs.
The woman negotiated fair prices with curious customers as her husband hammered away, and shoppers appeared happy to give their money to this creative couple.
[wherethesidewalkends.com has a great article on Bullying vs. Bartering and shopping tips for travelers]
While a majority of my gifts were purchased from the local supermercado, including chica morada drink mix, cancha snack corn and several packets of spicy aji amarillo powder, I left the souvenir store with a large bag of swag for family and friends, plus a bright yellow Inca Kola shirt for me: a colorful reminder of my resplendent 10 days here, where I definitely fell for the whole love of Lima.