The Peruvian capital is more than just a pitstop on the way to Machu Picchu, says Chris Moss. It's time to discovers ‘Latin America’s best-kept secret’.
For much of the year, a smog hangs over Lima. The city looks washed out and monochrome. When you combine this with years of news (and rumours) about Lima being unsafe, shabby or just plain boring, it’s no wonder the backpackers and silver-haired nomads heading for Machu Picchu view their night in Lima – inevitable after the long haul in – as something of an inconvenience.
But they’re wrong. As ex-BBC World Service staffer and returnee Javier Lizarzaburu explained to me on my last visit, ‘Lima is Latin America’s best-kept secret. The oldest city in the Americas, it has the best cuisine and a multicultural vibe. It has architecture from the past five centuries.’ This, surely, puts it up there with Bogotá, Mexico City or Buenos Aires and other supposedly ‘sexier’ cities and is a reminder that Lima was once the capital of Spanish South America. As new money pours into regeneration and infrastructure – including conservation projects in the Unesco-listed historic centre – and an emerging Peruvian middle class re-engages with its capital city, it really does seem as if Lima’s time has come again.
Tourists on packages get ferried to the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), which is all well and good, but how many shiny necklaces and gold-plated ponchos do you really want to see? Far more fun to eye are the many erotic-themed antiquities on show at the privately owned, recently refurbed and outstandingly interesting Museo Larco in the Pueblo Libre district – 20 mins from the airport, so you could easily visit en route to/from your flight. The Larco serves to underline that Peru’s pre-Columbian past is not all Incaic, with much of its 44,000-piece collection originating among the Chimu and Moche peoples – the latter were exceptionally good at phallic art. The Moche believed that man’s destiny, on death, was to keep pouring semen into the soil to keep it fertile. To help the deceased get on with this project, the living were encouraged to receive as many blowjobs as possible, from men or women. The museum has a smart restaurant worth visiting for a drink and a bite too.
The other must-see ancient treasure is the Huaca Pucllana, a ceremonial centre dating from AD400 and occupied over the centuries by a native group known simply as the Lima, and later by the Wari, Ichma and Inca peoples. On site is one of the top restaurants in Lima (Restaurant Huaca Pucllana), where you can dine on tapas while admiring the view and the open sky above.
To see the best of the city’s eclectic architecture – including lovely colonial mansions with ornate balconies – catch a cab to the Plaza Mayor or Plaza San Martín and walk down calles Ucayali, Conde de Superunda, Huancavelica or Jr de la Union. If you want to do the area in depth, contact Lima Walks. Dutch expat Ronald Elward leads a range of walks lasting two to three hours and costing just $10 per person (minimum group size five people).
Museo de Oro, Alonso de Molina 1100 (+51 1 345 1292) Museo Larco, Av Bolívar 1515 (+51 1 461 1312) Huaca Pucllana, Av General Borgoño, Miraflores (+51 1 617 7138)
Eating & drinking
The guinea pig always gets the attention when people roll out their Peru travel anecdotes but Peruvians prefer to talk about spuds. Potatoes were cultivated in Peru some 5,000 years ago and there are dozens of varieties in the markets – including blue ones. The arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century gave new impulse to a process of gastronomic fusion, which later absorbed Arab, Jewish and African influences. After came indentured Chinese workers and Japanese immigrants, and travellers on a tight budget could do worse than head for a chifa, one of the many Chinese restaurants in the city. Salón Capón is a reliable one.
Japanese-born Nobu Matsuhisa is the best-known chef to have worked in Peru – and he recognises Peruvian influence in his menus – but it is Gastón Acurio who is revolutionising the national cuisine and turning Lima into a gastronomic heavyweight. Like many Peruvian chefs, Acurio has re-introduced produce from the Andes such as quinoa, and from the Amazon forest, such as cocona (a yellow fruit sometimes described as a combination of lemon and tomato). To try his own version of the lomo saltado (a Chino-Peruvian sirloin-based stir fry), or causa limeña (a cold, layered spud dish) or a delicious ceviche, head for Astrid & Gaston, which featured in this year’s S Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ ranking.
If you like pisco (Peruvian brandy made from grapes, usually mixed as a pisco sour cocktail), go to the atmospheric Hotel Maury, where legend has it that an English barman, stopping by for a drink, asked the hotel’s resident mixologist to prepare a daiquiri using local firewater. There’s another nostalgia-heavy bar at the Gran Hotel Bolívar. If you’re in the mood for a beer or two, check out Antigua Bodega Sanguchería Antonio Carbone (corner of Cailloma and Huancavelica), which was established in 1923; snack on one of the bar’s celebrated ham sandwiches. Thanks to its proximity to the Teatro Segura, Bodega Carbone is where the likes of Plácido Domingo and Juan Diego Flórez have stopped by for a drink before and after performances.
Salón Capón, Paruro 819, Chinatown (+51 1 426 9286) Astrid & Gaston, Cantuarias 175, Miraflores (+51 1 242 5387/1496) Hotel Maury, Ucayali 201, historic centre (+51 1428 8188) Gran Hotel Bolívar, Jr de la Unión, Plaza San Martin (+51 1262 200)
Shopping & style
The Larco mall in Miraflores has great views of the Pacific Ocean, a decent foodcourt, and is home to global brands such as North Face, L’Occitane and Giuliana Testino, brand of the local designer and sister of photographer Mario Testino. For a different shopping experience, head to Gamarra market in La Victoria; with more than 20,000 shops and small factories, this clothes emporium is considered the biggest in South America. For contemporary and good quality crafts, Dedalo is the shop in Barranco. In an early twentieth-century mansion, close to the ocean front, it’s full of handicrafts, clothes, bags and jewellery made by local artisans and designers. Dedalo, Paseo Sáenz Peña 295, Barranco (+51 1 652 5400)
There is a growing art scene financially fuelled by the real-estate boom. Lucia de la Puente gallery, in a nineteenth-century mansion restored by the owner, is one of the most established, while Galería del Barrio is a new venture, catering to a younger clientele and smaller wallets. Lucia de la Puente, Paseo Sáenz Peña 206, Barranco (+51 1 477 9740) Galería del Barrio, Bernardino Cruz 148, Chorrillos (+51 1 251 9111)
For mood-lifting pre-club drinks, go to Ayahuasca, in Barranco or Malabar in San Isidro. Both are popular with hip young Peruvians. The decor of the former, which is set in an old, three-storey mansion, could be described as Andean postmodern, and is colourful and contemporary. Malabar, which also has a restaurant, is more sedate and coolly chic in style.
For a more down-to-earth, folksy night out, try some of the tabernas in Barranco, such as La Noche, where you’ll find good live music and cheap beer. If you have the urge to move your hips in a Latin fashion you can try any of the peñas (music clubs) in Barranco itself, like La Peña del Carajo. Otherwise try Cohiba, in Miraflores, for Cuban music and salsa.
Ayahuasca, Av San Martín 130, Barranco Malabar, Camino Real 1101, San Isidro (+51 1 440 5300) La Noche, Av Bolognesi 307, Barranco (+51 1 247 1012) La Peña del Carajo, Catalino Miranda 158, Barranco (+51 1 247 7023) Cohiba, Av Del Ejército 681, Miraflores (+51 1 422 6110)
Gay & lesbian
Lima’s gay scene is not big but there are some decent, funky bars including Lola Bar in Miraflores, created by one of the city’s top designers. In San Isidro the new 80 Divas has a good bar, dark rooms and dancing. Spanish-speaking lesbians should check out www.mylez.net for chats and chums. Lola Bar, Bolívar 197, Miraflores (+51 1 651 2247) 80 Divas, Av Petit Thouars 2677, San Isidro (+51 1 422 8873)
To sample Peruvian folk and country rhythms – but without the cheese of panpipes and pink ponchos – go to Don Porfirio Peña in Barranco, one of the classic hangouts for Afro-Peruvian music. Good Andean bands can be seen live at Brisas del Titicaca.
If it’s live jazz you’re after, Cocodrilo Verde or Jazz Zone, both in Miraflores, are good options. Cumbia, salsa, reggaetón and Latin dancing fans should check out the fab Salsa Power website at for a daily salsa bulletin. Don Porfirio Peña, Manuel Segura 115, Barranco (+51 1 477 3119) Brisas del Titicaca, Héroes de Tarapacá 168, Cercado (+51 1 715 6960) Cocodrilo Verde, Francisco de Paula, Miraflores (+51 1 242 7583) Jazz Zone, Av La Paz 646, Miraflores (+51 1 241 8139)
There are no direct flights from London to Lima. Fly with KLM via Amsterdam, Iberia via Madrid or Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Returns using European carriers start at around £760 including taxes.
The coolest hotel in town – with the uncoolest name – is Second Home Peru, which is in the house of nonagenarian painter and sculptor Victor Delfin and is right on the cliffs of the Barranco district. There are just five individually designed rooms, two of which have fantastic ocean views, and nearby are bars, restaurants and boutiques. Singles from $95.
Second Home Peru, Domeyer 366, Barranco (+51 1 247 5522)