Lima and the Captivating Peruvian Coast
Story & photos by Monique Burns
Take a pass on Machu Picchu. Let the Amazon float by without you. Not forever, but for 6 or 7 days, maybe longer. Carve out a few days to visit Peru’s great capital of Lima, with ruins predating the “Lost City of the Incas” by several millennia, treasure-filled Spanish Colonial churches and a lively multicultural vibe. Take four extra days to explore the nearby Pacific coast, where the Paracas National Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, shelters thousands of seabirds as well as playful sea lions and pint-sized black-and-white Humboldt penguins. Then head inland to Ica, birthplace of pisco, the country’s national spirit, and home to Hacienda La Caravedo, oldest distillery in the Americas and the site where award-winning Pisco Portόn is made.
Lima, your first stop on this counterintuitive tour of Peru, is admittedly noisy, chaotic and crowded. That, along with earthquakes, economic crises and political corruption, has kept it off most jet-setters’ dance cards. But Lima is also intriguing and sublimely beautiful. Sprawling north, south, and east toward the Andes, and crammed with nine million residents, it’s the product of 20,000 years of history, a fascinating pastiche of cultures and customs. Early indigenous people were followed by the Incas, who ruled a swath of territory stretching from present-day Colombia to Chile. In 1535, after the Incas were subdued, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro filled the city with grand plazas, imposing administrative buildings, and churches dripping in silver and gold. African slaves were imported to help indigenous Amerindians work the mines and plantations. After slavery was outlawed in the 19th century, Chinese laborers arrived. The early 20th century added Italians, French, Germans and British to the mix.
Most international flights arrive at night at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, so visitors immediately get a taste of the city’s chaos. Relatively few visitors stay in the center city, or “Centro,” so the madness continues with a 30 to 40-minute traffic-choked taxi ride from Lima’s west side to the tony southeast districts of San Isidro and Miraflores, side by side on the beach-lined Costa Verde along the Pacific. In San Isidro, the five-star Country Club Lima Hotel—facing the 18-hole Lima Golf Club—hearkens back to the glamorous 1920s with its columned and arcaded façade. Even if you don’t book a room here, stop in the English Bar to enjoy Peru’s signature drink—a lime-infused pisco sour—surrounded by clubby hunt prints and leather chairs filled with local movers and shakers. For more modern decor, choose the four-star Hotel Atton, with 252 well-appointed contemporary rooms, a black-and-white breakfast room serving Peruvian and international specialties, a lobby bar, a fitness room, Jacuzzi and saunas, and an outdoor swimming pool. You’ll also find the Sonesta Hotel El Olivar, a Swissôtel and the Westin Lima in San Isidro.
In Miraflores, perched high above the Pacific on the cliffside El Malecόn promenade, and not far from the boutiques and restaurants of the Larcomar shopping center, is the five-star Miraflores Park Hotel. An all-suite Orient Express property, its restaurant, Mesa 18, serves Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine in an edgy black-and-white setting, surrounded by a lush garden. The Crowne Plaza Lima, J.W. Marriott Hotel Lima and the new Hilton Lima Miraflores are in Miraflores, too.
Have a good night’s sleep, then explore the city. Traffic is horrendous, so if you’re tempted to rent a car, don’t. In 2010, the Metropolitana, a new city bus system, powered by natural gas, was introduced. And, in 2012, the new Metro Lima (a.k.a. the “El Tren Eléctrico”) opened 16 stations of Line 1, which heads northwest from the fringes of San Isidro and Miraflores to the Centro. But many tourists use taxis, which, in response to decades of poor public transportation, remain pretty cheap.
Amid Lima’s urban sprawl, the historic Centro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a small, self-contained grid of streets and plazas known as “Pizarro’s Checkerboard. “ The Plaza San Martín, honoring the Argentinian general who liberated Lima from the Spanish in 1821, is adorned with palm trees, and surrounded by European-style arcades with black-and-white tiled walkways and monumental Spanish Colonial buildings like the Governor’s Palace. If you’re here in the evening, do as Limeños do and stop at the 1924 Gran Hotel Bolivar to sip a pisco sour and drink in the faded grandeur.
Continue down traffic-free Jirόn de la Uniόn, where graceful old buildings with Spanish-style balconies now house moderately priced clothing and shoe shops, and casual pollerias where rotisserie chickens turn lazily on spits. Crammed between them is the intricately carved Church of La Merced, built on the site of the first Mass celebrated in the New World. At the end of Jirόn de la Uniόn, in the grand Plaza de Armas, or Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral of Lima, with its elaborate gold-plated altar, houses Pizarro’s last remains. Ornate churches appear at virtually every turn in Lima, but the Convento Santo Domingo, site of the New World’s first university, built in 1551, is one of the most beautiful. Around a palm-shaded, flower-filled courtyard, columned arcades adorned with original 17th-century Sevillian tiles lead to the wood-paneled library and various chapels. Inside are the resting places of three saints—St. Rosa of Lima, St. John Maciás, and St. Martin de Porres, history’s first black saint. Climb the church tower, past two levels of copper bells, for a bird’s-eye view of the city.
You’ll need at least a day to explore some of Lima’s historic churches. Another day, visit several of the city’s many museums. The Gold Museum dazzles visitors with ancient gold adornments, jewels and arms. Early ceramics and textiles are housed at the National Archeology and Anthropology Museum as well as the Rafael Larco Herrera Archeological Museum, with its offbeat gallery of early erotic art. In Barranco, the bohemian art district east of Miraflores, swoon over colonial paintings, sculpture and silver at the Pedro de Osma Museum.
Given its multicultural heritage, it’s not surprising that Lima is the place to enjoy Peruvian fusion cuisine, marrying local staples like pork, chicken, duck and seafood, and potatoes, beans and corn, with Chinese, Japanese or European accents. East of the Centro, in Lima’s Barrio Chino, perhaps South America’s largest Chinatown, traditional Chinese and Chinese-Peruvian dishes are served in family-run restaurants called “chifas.” One of the best and most unique of the capital’s many fine restaurants is Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, on the northern edge of Miraflores near San Isidro. A grand Colonial mansion, decorated with Peruvian textiles and ceramics, its large outdoor terrace adjoins Huaca Pucllana, or Huaca Juliana, ruins of an adobe ceremonial center built around 500 AD by the early Lima Culture. Enjoy “nuevo cocina peruana” fusion cuisine like fried shrimp in quinoa crust with soy and sesame sauce, traditional favorites like tenderloin steak “tacu tacu” topped with a fried egg, or several varieties of ceviche, a Peruvian standard made from the Pacific’s freshest fish. Follow coffee and dessert with a 45-minute huaca tour in English or Spanish.
After several days in Lima, the coast beckons—a wide expanse of Pacific sea bordered by coastal desert and mountainous sand dunes fronting the Andean foothills. From Lima, the 166-mile trip south to Paracas takes 3-4 hours along the well-maintained Carretera Panamericana Sur, or South Pan-American Highway. Rent a car or van for this leg of the trip. Or hop aboard a luxury bus of San Isidro-based Cruz del Sur for the four-hour ride to Paracas (about $30), followed by a 75-minute ride to Ica (about $15).
In Paracas, signs lead to La Hacienda Bahía Paracas, an intimate yet grand country manor with ached windows, airy passageways, and a tiled courtyard anchored by a sprawling olive tree and wreathed in crimson bougainvillea. Guests can stroll the beach, kayak the pristine bay or float in the waterfront pool. Decorated with Peruvian handicrafts and terra-cotta tile floors, the four-star accommodations include swim-up rooms, upper-floor rooms with balconies and four-bedroom cottages. Relax in the Asian-style Océano spa, peruse books in El Candelabro Lounge, and have a pisco sour in the Marineros bar, decorated with a giant marlin trophy, and photos of Ernest Hemingway who fished the Peruvian coast in 1956. Then savor fresh seafood and local dishes on the bay-front terrace of elegant El Coral restaurant.
Founded in 1975, nearby Paracas National Reserve, Peru’s sole marine reserve, covers more than 800,000 acres, including stretches of tropical coastal desert, a peninsula and surrounding offshore waters. The reserve has nearly a hundred archeological sites, traces of the Paracas people who flourished here between 1300 B.C. and 200 A.D. Tour companies ranged along the Paracas harborfront take visitors to landmarks like the Cabezas Largas and Cerro Colorado burial sites, as well as the Pampa de Santo Domino, where human remains dating back to 6,500 B.C. were discovered.
But the two-hour motorboat tour to the Islas Ballestas, the mini-archipelago of islands and skerries that actually lies just outside the reserve’s boundaries, is what draws many visitors here. En route, guides point out the famous Paracas Candelabra, a 600-foot-tall geoglyph etched into the peninsula’s north face. Shaped like a giant candelabra—or, some say, like a cactus, trident or hallucinogenic jimsonweed—the etching might be related to the famous Nazca Lines, scores of stylized flower, animal and geometric etchings two hours’ farther down the coast. Some believe the etching is ancient, and represents the lightning rod or trident of the god Viracocha, also known as Kon-Tiki. Others believe it was placed by 19th-century sailors, pirates or Freemasons.
A half-hour after leaving the Paracas harborfront, you’re bobbing around the Islas Ballestas. Known as the “Baby Galapagos,” these craggy islets shelter thousands of seabirds—including cormorants, condors and Peruvian diving petrels—that wheel overhead, their shrill cries echoing off the rocks. Onshore, you can make out blue-footed, gray-footed and masked boobies as well as the black-and-white silhouettes of two-foot-high Humboldt penguins. Sea lions clamber over the rocks, nuzzling their mates, sparring with rivals and generally playing to the cameras as tourists race from starboard to port to snap their pictures.
After a day or two on the coast, you could head back to Lima. Instead, make a morning pilgrimage 35 miles inland to the town of Ica, a 75-minute drive. For more than 300 years, the Ica Valley, a swath of coastal desert bathed by fresh waters flowing down from the snow-capped Andes, has produced pisco, the clear grape-based liquor that’s Peru’s national drink. Signs point the way to Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest distillery in the Americas, founded in 1684, and now the production site for Pisco Portόn, one of Peru’s premium piscos. If you’re lucky, your tour guide will be Master Distiller Johnny Schuler, a Bolivian-Swiss émigré who has studied Peruvian pisco for the past 30 years. His efforts on behalf of pisco, including writing the very first book on the drink, earned him the Peruvian government’s Congressional Medal of Honor.
On the Pisco Portόn tour, you’ll see every part of the pisco-making process from the outdoor grape press, a giant wooden screw fashioned from a native huaranga tree, to the old open-air brick distillery where grape juice, or must, is still distilled to the modern distillery with its custom-made copper stills. Eventually, you reach the aging room where Pisco Portόn remains in stainless-steel tanks for at least a full year, well beyond the Peruvian government’s prescribed three-month resting period. As you tour the distillery, you’ll also learn about the history of this legendary liquid, taste various varieties, and hear about famous cocktails like fruity pisco punch, a favorite of early San Francisco gold miners, and the pisco sour, created by an American railroad man who came to Lima in the 19th century.
By afternoon, you’ll be ready for a big Peruvian lunch. Fortunately, just six miles north of downtown Ica, in Fundo Tres Esquinas, is La Olla de Juanita, or Juanita’s Pot, which serves down-home dishes in any airy setting beside one of Ica’s premier pisco distilleries, the family-run Bodega Tres Generaciones, founded in 1856. Both establishments are run by Juanita Martinez de Gonzales, known as the grand “Lady of Pisco.” Enjoy criollo specialties like duck with rice in a spicy cheese, chili and milk sauce, or beef, chicken or fish dishes. Then toast your good fortune at discovering fine food and even finer pisco on Peru’s splendid central coast, only hours from the equally captivating capital of Lima.
IF YOU GO
Here are some of the best places to stay in Lima, Paracas and Ica:
Country Club Hotel, Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro, Lima, (51-1) 611-9000. www.hotelcountry.com
Hotel Atton, Av. Jorge Basadre 595, San Isidro, Lima (51-1) 208-1200. www.atton.com
La Hacienda Bahía Paracas, Urb. Santo Domingo, Lote 25, Paracas, (51-1) 213-1000 or 213-1010. hoteleslahacienda.com
Hotel Paracas, Av. Paracas S/N, Paracas, (51-56) 581-333. www.starwoodhotels.com
Las Dunas Sun Resort, Av. La Angostura 400, Ica, (51-56) 256-224 or (51-1) 213-5000. lasdunashotel.com
For tours and information on Pisco Portόn and Hacienda La Caravedo in Ica, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call (51-1) 711-7800, or visit www.piscoporton.com
For information on Peru, log on to www.peru.travel.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.