There is a lot more to Lima than Paddington Bear’s Great Aunt Lucy and the Home for Retired Bears: With a population of almost 10 million, this sprawling metropolis on the Pacific coast is the second largest city in the Americas. Cosmopolitan, fascinating and sometimes confusing, Lima, with its trinity of excellent food, extraordinary heritage and very good shopping is the essential starting point for a trip to Peru. Miss out Lima, and you risk never quite finding your cultural bearing in this complex country, with its compelling mix of pre-Columbian culture, colonial past and 21st century commerce.
We flew to Lima from London Heathrow via Paris on Air France. My sister found an economy seat for just a shade under £500, which was incredible value, (it’s 6360 miles to Lima, 1000 miles further than flying to Los Angeles from London). Our baggage was checked through, and the transfer at Paris Charles de Gaulle was simple – just a change of terminal and only an hour wait.
My sister has Accessibility needs, and travels in a wheelchair through airports. We cannot praise both Air France crews, and the ground staff at CGD highly enough for their help, support and cheery good humour.
Several people we met during our Peruvian adventure flew into Lima Airport and then straight out again to Cusco. There are several reasons why I would argue for heading into Lima before exploring the rest of the country.
The first is that Lima itself is a standalone destination. We stayed there for three nights and found plenty of things to do and see, and so much delicious food to eat. (If you were pressed for time I think that 48hours would probably be plenty, and you could whizz around in a day.)
The second is altitude sickness: we were both very unwell in Cusco, and lost 48 hours of valuable exploring time as we lay in bed, sucking down oxygen and groaning quietly. I think we would both have suffered even more if we were also exhausted from a long transatlantic flight.
One of the most important reasons to visit Lima before the rest of the country is to get a handle on the country’s history and to put the Incan artifacts and sites – such as Machu Picchu – in context. As our informed and amusing guide at Lima’s Museo Larco repeatedly told us: Peruvian history isn’t just Incas. Moche! Moche!
In brief, the Incan period of dominance was both brief – less than three hundred years, and relatively recent – they flourished in the 15th century, whereas the Moche, from the northwest of Peru, dominated from around100 AD to 800 AD.
With such a short time in Lima, our ground arrangements were all organised and underwritten by Black Tomato. Not only did this allow us to squeeze in as much as possible without feeling time-pressured, it ensured that we really did get an informed and edited highlights tour of the city.
And, whilst I love researching destinations beforehand and making plans, I really appreciated being able to hand over to experts in a city where I didn’t speak the language and had very little prior knowledge. (After my trip, when I sat down to do a compare and contrast, I discovered that we had done everything that I would have chosen – and more – if I had planned the weekend in Lima myself.)
Over two days we had our own guide and a driver, organized for us by Black Tomato, and this was fantastic: we steamed through the city, packing in as much as possible. (For some activities – I did a private walking tour of Barranco, for example – Black Tomato organised specialised experts in their field.)
There is also Uber in Lima, and we had huge success with it for getting to and from restaurants in the evening at very low cost. Our hotel strongly discouraged us from hailing cabs in the street – they cited safety concerns.
Lima is rather like Los Angeles in that it is huge, and consists of a series of linked together districts; there is no central CBD, no central shopping area like, say London’s West End, and no area where all the smart hotels are to be found.
On this trip I was looking at the top end of the hotel market and discovered that, like its fellow South American city Rio de Janiero, Lima is not blessed with an abundance of five star hotels, and the ones we would recommend are not to be found in the heart of Historic Peru, as one might expect, but in distinct residential areas by the coast.
The view over the Miraflores coastline from our room at the Belmond Miraflores Park.
Arguably Lima’s best big hotel for tourists and business travellers alike is the Belmond Miraflores Park, which is, unsurprisingly, in the Miraflores coastal district. Surrounded by towering apartment blocks, the hotel is a short walk from Larcomar, Peru’s most famous – and shiny – open air shopping centre which is built into the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean, and about 10km from Lima’s Historic Centre, with its colonial architecture.
We also stayed two nights at the glorious Hotel B, a very chic boutique hotel about twenty minutes down the coast in the bohemian Barranco district.
Reception at Hotel B
A beautiful Belle Époque colonial building, its former past as a summer home to escape from the punishing heat shows in high ceilings and whitewashed walls, which highlight the enormous contemporary art collection of its owners.
WHAT TO DO
If you have one full day to explore then you must start at the privately owned Museo Larco.
Housed in an 18th-century vice-royal building built over a 7th-century pre-Columbian pyramid is one of the largest privately owned collections of Peruvian artifacts, and an eye-opening collection of pre-Colombian pottery erotica (those poor alpacas!). It’s the perfect place to get an overview of 4000 years of Peru’s extraordinary pre-Columbian heritage.
(We didn’t have time to visit the Museo de la Nación, which traces the history of Peru’s ancient civilizations, but it would be worth adding to the list for longer stays.)
Time your visit to Museo Larco well, and you can have an early lunch at its excellent Café del Museo, with seats outside under a bougainvillea draped pergola, whose menu has been designed by Peruvian culinary legend Gastón Acurio. The food was properly delicious.
Then head to the Historic Centre of Peru, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, arranged around a series of beautiful colonial squares. You should allow an hour or so to walk around the Plaza Mayor, also known as the Plaza de Armas, the birthplace of the colonial city of Lima, and visit the 17th century cathedral.
Then head to the Convento de San Francisco (above). Still a monastery, it is also the home to bone-chilling catacombs housing 25,000 skeletons.
After your cultural sightseeing is done, it’s time to head to the Barranco quarter to walk around its beautiful streets and visit the many small galleries and boutiques on every block.
If you have time, do include a trip to Mario Testino’s photography foundation, MATE
Barranco is the place to buy beautiful design souvenirs – and painted clay guinea pigs (is that just me?!)
I met with Mari Solari, owner and curator of the renowned folk art gallery Galleria Las Pallas Barranco, who told me that many of the Peruvian artifacts you will find in your travels around the country are Peruvian in name only, and fresh out of a Chinese cargo ship. Hone your eye, whilst investing in the real thing, at her gallery.
We managed to squeeze in a quick early evening trip to Larcomar to explore the cliffside shopping centre. If you aren’t particularly bothered by exploring Peru’s food scene, there are plenty of popular restaurants in the open air shopping centre. It’s also a gorgeous place to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
There’s a useful supermarket in the basement (it takes some hunting down) where you can buy water, snacks and Peruvian fruits.
It’s hard to even know where to start. Lima is ALL about the food. After all, this is a country with other 300 types of potato, and nearly 100 microclimates. The cooking is brilliant, the ingredients extraordinary. Black Tomato used their ninja string-pulling to get me tables at the restaurants below, and I ate some of the most exciting and delicious food I’ve tasted anywhere in the world.
I’m dedicating a whole upcoming post to eating in Lima, but suffice to say here that you will want to try to get a table at Rafael Osterling’s Mercado for lunch at the weekend, and book months in advance to eat at Central, one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World, where Chef Virgílio Martínez and his team take guests on a culinary expedition through Peru’s ecosystem, from the Amazon to Pacific coast.
Belmond Miraflores Park
Address: Av. Malecón de la Reserva, 1035 Miraflores, Lima 18, Peru
Telephone: +51 1 610 4000
Address: Sáenz Peña 204, Barranco, Lima 15063, Peru
Av. .Bolivar 1515, Pueblo Libre, Lima 21 – PerúTelephone: + 00511 462 4757 4611312 www.museolarco.org
Galleria Las Pallas Barranco
Address: Calle Cajamarca 212 Barranco,Lima, Peru
Telephone: +511 4774629
Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima
+51 1 242 8515
With many thanks to Air France and to Black Tomato for organising my trip to Peru. Black Tomato is an award winning luxury travel company – offering the very best in tailor made travel around the world. Air France currently operates three flights a day to Lima via Paris Charles de Gaulle airport from £469 return, from several UK departure points.