Lima may lack the cosmopolitan ennui of Buenos Aires and the devil-may-care buoyancy of Rio, but Peru’s 473-year-old capital is still the perfect jumping-off point for backpackers and adventurers seeking bang-for-your-buck charms.
Start with a walking tour of Lima Centro—actually, refer to the old colonial center of the city as simply “Lima,” as the local Limeños do. (Otherwise, you’ll risk getting ripped off by taxis.) Lima’s Spanish provenance is squarely evident in the Plaza de Armas (between Conde de Superunda, Jirón Callao, Jirón de la Unión and Calle Carabaya), which is surrounded by delicately carved wood balconies and the grandiose facades of the Palacio de Gobierno, Municipalidad de Lima and the Catedral (pictured). The Catedral’s cheap tour, available in near-perfect English by knowledgeable guides, showcases the different Peruvian schools of Christian art and the tomb of conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The Iglesia de San Francisco (Jirón Ancash 471, 427-1381), only a few blocks away, is more famous for what’s below it than what’s inside it: mazelike catacombs, where the bones (skulls, tibias, the works) of thousands of Franciscan clergymen and devotees rest in peace…in neat rows and in plain sight of visitors.
Lima also has some serious pre-Columbian ruins, and one of the better-curated ones is Huaca Pucllana (General Borgoño, Cuadra 8; 445-8695). The flat-top pyramids, multipurpose structures of various indigenous cultures (including the Lima, Moche and Chimu) tower in the residential neighborhood of Miraflores and have a fancy alfresco restaurant on the grounds.
Tourism may have started growing only recently in Lima, but food has been serious business for centuries. Indigenous Peruvians were the first to domesticate the potato (so don’t even front, Ireland), and Peru’s typical food (referred to as “comida criolla”) leans heavily on this tuber and other local veggies like maize and peppers such as ají amarillo and rocoto. Brujas de Cachiche (Calle Bolognesi 472; 446-6536 or 447-1883) prepares traditional dishes including piqueo criollo (a platter of Peruvian classics, like stuffed potato and corn tamales) and seco de res a la limeña (cilantro-based beef stew) with flair and expertise, and though it’s a bit on the pricey side, you’re also paying for service and cleanliness. In the boho Barranco neighborhood, the old standby of Manos Morenas (Av Pedro de Osma 409, 467-0421) serves a mean chicha morada —a sort of national drink made by boiling together purple corn, pineapple, cloves, cinnamon and apples. For a varied taste of Peru’s fabled ceviche, try the all-you-can-eat weekday lunch buffet at seaside restaurant Costa Verde (Circuito de Playas, Playa Barranquito; 477-5228). It’s $11, expensive by local standards, but a steal for Americans. Lower on the money scale is Bembos (visit bembos.com.pe for locations), Peru’s bigger, better version of McDonald’s, and Pardo’s Chicken (visit pardoschicken.com for locations), which makes excellent rotisserie bird.
Drinking is affordable and good: pisco sours (pictured) and cocktails go for the equivalent of $6 at most trendy bars and reputable restaurants, while the beer selection is plentiful. Either chill at the Euro-chic Malabar (Camino Real 101, 440-5200) and no-frills La Calesa (Manuel Bañón 255, 440-5568) or dance the night away at Gótica (422-7852) or Aura (242-5516) nightclubs, both at entertainment hub Larcomar, perched on the western coast of Miraflores.
Much like eating and drinking, shopping in Lima is by and large cheap. You can always haggle prices down at Miraflores’s Mercado Indios (Av Petit Thouars 5245), the best-stocked showcase for Peru’s famed textiles and earthenware. Or forgo the bargaining at the independent boutiques that are popping up all over town. Many—including punk-infused Estereofónica (Centro Comercial Caminos del Inca, Av Caminos del Inca 257, #103; 372-3255); airy and bohemian Neomutatis (Prolongación San Martín 110, 247-3433); and vintage-focused Segunda Vuelta (Av Conquistadores 330, 421-7163)—stock merch by emerging Peruvian designers.
As a backpackers’ mecca, Lima has plenty of cheap lodging. The best spots are La Quinta de Allison (Rates start at $15; Jirón 28 de Julio 281, 247-1515) and the centrally located Flying Dog Backpackers Hostel (Rates start at $10; Calle Diez Canseco 117, 445-6745). Or stay at the charming Gran Hotel Bolívar (Plaza San Martín, 428-7674) for about $60–$80 a night (double room). Think Drake Hotel, minus the ridiculous price tag, plus a stained-glass dome and an authentic pisco sour at the bar. Just remember that it’s in the heart of dodgy Lima Centro, and as such, it’s much like Lima itself: heavy on history and a bit rough around the edges, but surprisingly warm and inviting.
Play it safe
Here’s some tips for an unforgettable (in that good way) trip.
1. Don’t take Ticos. These are the tiniest and cheapest taxis around, which means they’re also the filthiest.
2. Although Peru’s culinary track record rarely disappoints, the tap water definitely will, so drink bottled. Also, don’t get anything with ice.
3. Carry only what you need, and in your pockets if possible, especially in Lima Centro. Avoid big purses, fanny packs, blinding-white tennis shoes and (you know what’s coming) Hawaiian shirts.
4. When haggling, a 10 or 15 percent discount is decent. More than that is somewhat criminal.
5. Accelerated vocab lesson: say “plata” for “money”, “lorna” for “lame” and “pucha” for “damn”, and you’re as good as local.
Two nights, two people
+ Hotel $200
+ Meals $80
Travel time: 7 to 8hrs
For more information, visit peru.info or munlima.gob.pe. Country code for phone numbers is +511. Currency is Nuevos Soles, and the current exchange rate is about 1 to 2.75.