We caught up with local Heather Thorkelson who divulges the best places to eat, sleep, get tipsy, soak in the sights and even experience the city’s famous “make-out” park in this affectionate guide to Lima.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must: In order to really get a feel for this massive city, which houses almost a third of the country’s entire population, you’d be remiss not to head straight for the dramatic oceanside cliffs that provide an impressive view of La Punta on the northern tip of the city, all the way south to Chorillos on the southern tip. The ‘malecon’ or waterfront esplanade is comprised of a series of lush cliffside parks perfect for strolling along as you settle in and get a feel for the city. A distinct feature on the cliffs of Lima is Larco Mar, a large shopping complex built right into the escarpment with a park-like plaza at the top, popular with families and skater kids on the weekends. Grab yourself an ice cream from one of the numerous vendors and wander on over to El Parque del Amor (The Love Park) to see the famous sculpture of two lovers embraced in a passionate kiss. Just to the right of the sculpture you’ll find the “˜parapuerto’ where you can catch a lift to go parasailing along the cliffs with a guide for about $50. For your first meal in Lima, check out Punta y Sal (located across the road), which serves up some excellent ceviche. And if you’re still around in the evening, expect to catch a dramatic sunset over the Pacific Ocean pretty much any day of the year.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… Go to the Surquillo market! This market is a bustling, colourful and friendly little microcosm of Peruvian food culture. And boy are they big on their food. One of the first questions any taxi driver or local will ask you is, “What do you think of Peruvian food?” Their pride is palpable, and it’s understandable when you hit up a place like the Surquillo market where you’ll experience the incredible diversity of fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, cheeses and carnivorous offerings produced right here in Lima. You can taste-test tropical jungle fruit and Andean cheese or just wander around, chat up the vendors, and marvel at avocados the size of your head.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: Jump in a combi. Combis are small vans that are meant to hold anywhere from five to 15 people but often get packed to double their capacity. As the solution to a shortage of transport units in the 1980’s, they became a popular mode of transportation. The running joke is that riding in combis should be classified as an extreme sport due to the rather lawless way in which they navigate the streets of the city. They are what Peruvians in the capital rely on to get from A to B, however you might only want to attempt this if you are able to speak some basic Spanish and don’t have too many valuables on hand. A ride will set you back about 30 cents and ideally you’ll be able to snag a seat, but be prepared for a sardine-can experience complete with the smells of too many bodies packed in to a metal container and lots of bumping of extremities as your combi careens through the city to your destination.
I had my best night’s sleep at: For a really unique, mid-range place to rest up you’ll want to check out the Antigua Miraflores. The Antigua’s centrepiece is a casona (or Spanish colonial-style mansion), which was built in 1923 and used as a family estate until it was converted into a hotel in 1995. Bursting with character, it’s also ideally located within walking distance of all the main attractions in Miraflores. For a higher end experience, Hotel Ibis on Avenida Larco is the place to be. Super clean, modern, and central to boot, they seem to have one of the best supplies of hot water in town, which is certainly a plus. Budget travellers must check out The House Project. Also located in the heart of Miraflores, The House Project is a brand new hostel that’s run by a group of environmentally and socially conscious adventure travellers. They’ve built the business to feel like a home away from home and they’ve done a great job creating a sense of community with this clean, modern, and super friendly atmosphere.
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: Any self-respecting LimeÃ±o will point you in the direction of La Lucha for a to-die-for sandwich and fresh fruit juice combo. Located alongside the famous Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, La Lucha almost always has a line out front because their food is THAT good. Their signature sandwich, El Preferido, will spoil you rotten and leave you disappointed with all future sandwich-eating experiences. I’m convinced their version of French fries – papas huayro, made with the huaryo potato which has a perfect texture for frying — are coated with some kind of delicious magic pixie dust. lt’s near impossible to eat there only once.
Best place to find artisan handicrafts: LimeÃ±os made it easy for the weary traveler in search of handmade goods by erecting two large handicraft markets right in the touristy neighbourhood of Miraflores. They’re located just to the east of the famous Parque Kennedy and if you don’t find what you’re looking for in the markets, there are dozens of handicraft shops located on the side streets surrounding the area. You have to show up ready for some serious bargaining. However, if you’re planning on heading to the mountains after Lima, you may want to hold off on purchasing bigger ticket items as you can find them for a much better price at the San Pedro local market up in Cuzco.
Local celebration not to be missed: Mistura, Peru’s annual weeklong gastronomic festival, which takes place in the middle of September near Lima’s historic centre, attracts approximately 40,000 visitors on any given day. This is THE quintessential festival to attend in the city if you’re here around that time as hundreds of food and drink stalls can be found, representing typical foods from every corner of this diverse country. You’ll find everything from chicken cooked in an oil drum (pollo al cylindro) to giant corn with a hunk of Andean cheese on top (choclo con queso), to plantain balls with smoked pork (tacachos con cecina) typically found in the northern jungle, to addictive Peruvian style artisanal chocolates. It’s a far cry from the traditional indigenous festivals of the highlands, but Mistura very much encapsulates the marriage of centuries-old culinary traditions with big-city gentrification that Gaston Acurio, the world famous Peruvian chef behind it all, is trying to showcase.
Favorite pastimes: Peruvians love family time and it’s not uncommon to see whole (large) families out for a stroll in the park or along the waterfront. This is usually following a massive mid-afternoon family meal — an institution in a culture that isn’t big on dinners. On the other hand, Peruvian youth are really big into making-out on park benches. At almost any time of day you’ll spot teens wrapped around each other smooching away. I’m always entertained by the volume of couples making out first thing on a Sunday morning when mom and dad are (presumably) at church.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: Head towards the historic centre to take in the light show at the Parque de las Aguas (Magic Water Circuit) ““ I know it sounds kind of boring but it’s actually one of the must-see attractions in Lima. Not to be confused with a water park, this is a vast green area dotted with beautiful water fountains of all shapes and sizes that are lit up at night with a laser light show. It’s well worth the effort and the couple of dollars it costs to enter. Take a good book, a snack and a tripod for your camera. You’re welcome.
The art/music scene is alive and well here: The bohemian heart of Lima resides in the neighbourhood of Barranco — it’s where you’ll find the majority of colonial style buildings and art galleries nestled along tree-lined boulevards. At night it’s the live music mecca where you can choose from a variety of smaller clubs, or head over to the truly impressive Ayahuasca Bar, an Alice-in-Wonderland-like hybrid of colonial style mansion, art gallery, high society club, and harem-esque hangout.
Where the locals get tipsy: Pueblo Libre is the place to be to get a feel for Peruvian booze history. There you’ll find the Boliviarano, a vast multi-roomed tavern built in the 1780’s that feels much like a family estate in the middle of the city. It’s full of traditional decor, old men drinking pisco, and has a traditional Peruvian menu that rivals the best. Right around the corner you’ll find the Taberna Queirolo, home to one of the most well-known pisco producers in Peru. Expect to be the only tourists there.
Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: There’s a lingering belief that Lima is crime ridden and the people are not to be trusted. Most people who visited Lima prior to the early 2000’s may cringe at your plans to visit and likely remember key parts of the city as dirty, sketchy and downright dangerous. In recent years, there’s been quite a societal shift and while you still have to use common sense (i.e., don’t walk down dark alleys at night), you can generally rest easy due to the increased police presence in the more tourist-heavy areas of the city. Central Lima has been cleaned up significantly, allowing the splendor and grandeur of traditional buildings and stately boulevards to now shine through. That being said, it IS a huge Latin American city, so you’ll want to get the opinion of local hotel staff or friends before heading out to new neighbourhoods, as well as trust your gut when hiring taxis, etc.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Lima I would: Grab a coffee at one of the great cafes on Calle Recavarren in Miraflores and go for a stroll along the cliffs by the ocean. Then jump in a cab to Barranco for a large ceviche lunch at Canta Rana. From there head to the Historic Centre of the city to check out the old colonial buildings complete with Lima’s characteristic wooden balconies, and take a tour of the breathtaking baroque-style San Fransisco Monastery. Not for the faint of heart, there’s an optional tour of the catacombs beneath the church containing the bones of some 75,000 people. Then mosey over to Polvos Azules, the city’s largest black market to check out some super cheap goods. For dinner, head back towards San Isidro/Miraflores to eat at the restaurant adjacent to the ruins of Huaca Pucllana. The outstanding food in combination with the view of the illuminated ruins as you dine is bound to leave you planning a return trip.
About Heather Thorkelson
Heather Thorkelson is an international business coach and mentor who leads an eclectic, adventurous, self-designed life, running her own location-independent business two blocks from the ocean in Peru. A freedom-lover who is addicted to the journey, she runs life-changing Adventure Reboot Retreats for a handful of courageous souls in Iceland & Peru each year. She’s particularly passionate about entrepreneurship, experiential learning and helping her clients flip the switch to chart lives + careers they really, truly, radically LOVE.
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Feature photo: HBarrison/flickr
All other photos by Heather Thorkelson