Everything I read in mainstream guidebooks about Lima, Peru’s capital city, made it sound like a place you should leave as soon as possible. Dirty, unsafe, chaotic, polluted. Definitely not a city to linger.
Which is why I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed my 18 hour layover in the city last week. Maybe it was just luck (and a good tour guide), but I loved the energy and historic sites of Lima, as well as the food (ceviche!), and would gladly spend more time there.
My LAN flight from LA arrived around midnight, so I went straight to my hotel, the Libertador in the San Isidro neighborhood. For those not familiar with Libertador, it’s a chain of upscale hotels throughout Peru designed to appeal to business travelers. They’ve recently partnered with Starwood to build a Westin in Lima (opening in a few months); road warriors looking to redeem points on vacation will be happy to know that Starwood points can be used at the chain’s Luxury Collection hotels in Urubamba near Machu Picchu, as well as Paracas on the Peruvian coast. My hotel felt very safe; we were around other nice hotels, a country club and there was even a Starbucks next door.
The next morning, we embarked on a city tour led by Roberto of Mountain Lodges of Peru (which offers treks in Machu Picchu, as well as equestrian adventures and other luxury experiences in the Peruvian Andes). As we drove toward the Cercado de Lima – the city’s historic center – Roberto told us about Lima’s beginnings. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535 shortly after toppling the Incan Empire in Peru’s highlands, choosing its location because it was on both the Pacific Ocean and the Rimac River. He called it La Ciudad de los Reyes, or “The City of Kings.”
Lima’s former wealth is visible in the elaborate Spanish colonial architecture throughout the old portions of the city. While many of the buildings are reproductions, due to the numerous earthquakes that have hit Peru over the centuries, they still have the features of the colonial period, including yellow facades and Moorish touches.
Our first stop was San Martin Square. ringed by large white colonial-style buildings and anchored by a statue of General José de San Martín, who liberated Peru from Spain.
The Spanish spoken in Peru is more Catalan than traditional Spanish – which caused problems when this monument was created in 1921 to celebrate 100 years of Peruvian independence. Roberto told us that the woman, representing freedom, was supposed to wear a crown of flames. The sculptor misunderstood the directions and put a llama on her head instead.
San Martin Plaza is the home of the Gran Hotel Bolivar, Lima’s grand dame hotel where celebrities and visiting heads of state used to stay. Its amenities have fallen a long way since that time – Roberto described it as a two star hotel instead of a five star – but it still has a gorgeous lobby and bar. We would have lingered for a pisco sour if it wasn’t 10 a.m.
From Plazas San Martin, we ambled down the Jiron de la Union, a pedestrian walkway that runs through the historic district. We were there on a Saturday so the streets weren’t as crowded as I’ve read they can be. I didn’t notice pickpockets but I still kept my bag close to my body. It being summer in Peru, ice cream seemed to be the popular snack, although I kept eyeing the empanadas.
As we walked, Roberto encouraged us to look up at the wooden balconies that helped make the Cercado de Lima a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. With Moorish roots and meant to allow women of Lima society to look out on the street without being seen, the balconies found in Lima are enclosed and made of elaborately carved wood. Lima currently has an “Adopt a Balcony” program aimed at restoring the 1,000+ balconies in the city’s colonial districts.
We stopped at the Casa de Aliaga, which Roberto billed as the oldest home in Lima (and quite possibly, the Americas). Built in 1535 for Jerónimo de Aliaga, who traveled into Lima as the standard-bearer for Pizarro, the Aliaga House is still privately owned by the original family, now in its 18th generation.
The home has been reconstructed and resconstructed over the years, but there’s still plenty of original artwork and tiles inside. You can’t just walk in, but the House will arrange a tour guide for you if you email them (email@example.com). The House also hosts tour groups for colonial-style lunches and dinners.
The Casa de Aliaga is just a block away from the Plaza de Armes, also known as Plaza Mayor. This plaza is the heart of Lima, containing the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace and the government buildings. The Plaza also boasts a 357-year-old fountain, which the government fills full of free-flowing pisco on Peruvian Independence Day.
Pizarro himself laid the first stone of Lima’s Cathedral in 1535. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great development for Peru’s indigenous population, as the Spanish brought their Inquisition methods to Lima as well. Strict Catholicism appears to have established a foothold in Peru, as several of Lima’s top cardinals belong to the controversial Catholic sect Opus Dei.
Pizarro’s tomb is located in a corner of the Cathedral. During his lifetime, the conquistador made many enemies, which resulted in his assassination in 1541. As he died, Pizarro allegedly painted a cross in his own blood and cried out, “Come my faithful sword, companion of all my deeds.” Peruvians had displayed what they thought was Pizarro’s body in a glass box, until workers discovered a lead box containing a labeled head in the cathedral’s foundation in 1977. Subsequent forensic evidence proved that the head was indeed that of Pizarro, and that the church had been displaying the wrong body for more than a century.
My trip to Lima coincided with Epiphany, the night that churches remove the baby Jesus from their Nativity scenes. These are no ordinary creches; in South American churches, Nativity scenes are often elaborate affairs, with blinking lights, landscaping and native animals such as llamas. I’m glad I was able to see it before it came down.
After all this sightseeing, we were ready for a break. Roberto took us to a cafe near the Presidential Palace. I loved the old-school look of the interior.
At the wooden bar, servers were concocting pitchers of chicha, a beverage made from fermented purple corn. They gave us a sample; to me, it tasted like licorice. Not my favorite flavor.
Our final stop in Cercado de Lima turned out to be my favorite. Built in 1774 in the Spanish Neoclassical style, the Monestary of San Francisco is a MUST DO if you are in Lima. The catacombs under the church served as the burial place for more than 75,000 Peruvians, and the display of bones and skulls throughout the dank tunnels will satisfy any visitor with a taste for the macabre (unfortunately, the church won’t let you take pictures). Besides the catacombs, San Francisco contains a 17th century library that looks like something straight out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Thanks to LAN Airlines for sponsoring my trip.