Lay of the Land
Lima is the fifth largest city in South America and home to nearly a quarter of Peru’s population. One of its nicknames is El Pulpo, or the octopus, because of its increasing reach. Home to more than seven million people, it sprawls over twenty-seven square miles, spreading north, south and east from the Pacific Coast and its original center. Founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1535 as the capital of the Spanish empire’s largest viceroyalty, Lima was modeled on the great Iberian cities, so the historic center may remind you of Seville. Unfortunately, few of the grand colonial palaces remain. Over the centuries, many of the finest houses and buildings were lost to earthquakes and fires, but you can still spot some with the wonderful enclosed wooden balconies that enabled the women of the house to watch what was happening on the street while protecting their modesty. Also remaining are some of the original churches and cloisters, where you may find beautiful blue and white tiles bearing dates as early as 1606.
The main areas of interest to visitors are the historic center, around the Cathedral; Miraflores, a residential and commercial area on the coast; Barranco, Peru’s version of SoHo, home to many of the galleries, restaurants and nightclubs; and San Isidro, the leafy residential area where the Country Club Lima Hotel is located. We highly recommend hiring a guide and driver to explore and map out what you want to see. (Since taxi drivers who are not part of legitimate companies have been known to rob tourists, it is advisable to arrange through Indagare or a hotel in advance.) Because of the city’s vast sprawl, you should limit your museum visits, shopping and restaurant dining to one area at a time.
Miraflores, once an enclave of mansions and gardens, is now dominated by apartment and office buildings with ocean views. Even its upscale mall Larcomar, which houses many attractive boutiques, faces the Pacific, whose beachfront is undergoing a massive cleanup. Miraflores’ best restaurants include Astrid y Gastón, Central, Huaca, La Gloria, Panchita, Pescados Capitales and Rafael. Great shops to visit are H. Stern, Larcomar, Tanya Trahtemberg and Kuntur Huasi.
Along with Miraflores, San Isidro is considered the city’s prime residential area, known for its gardens, parks and leafy streets. Many embassies and fine old mansions remain, giving a sense of the grand colonial days. The Country Club Lima Hotel, a hotel and gathering place, embodies the neighborhood’s gracious lifestyle, and Matsuei is a popular restaurant. Take a walk through El Olivar, a park known for its ancient olive trees, which were brought from Spain and planted in the 1600s, and also stop in at Huaca Hualllamarca, an Incan pyramid and museum. For shopping, try Cabuchon and Indigo.
The beachfront district Barranco is known as Lima’s Latin Quarter because of its concentration of cafés, galleries and nightclubs. The country’s most celebrated author, Mario Vargas Llosa, has a house here (look for the street named after him for a clue to where). The neighborhood is characterized by attractive narrow streets, small parks and sidewalk artists and musicians. A sunset cocktail in Barranco is an adored city tradition, and revelers bring the streets alive at dusk. Many of the charming colonial buildings are being restored and now contain shops such as Dédalo, galleries and restaurants, including Cala, Chala and LA 73.
If your itinerary spans different regions, you will probably be connecting through Lima, the country’s hub. The newly expanded and renovated airport in Lima is clean and well run, although the lines for check-in and security can be very long. Heed the warnings to arrive two hours before your flight. To avoid long lines, splurge on Business Class tickets (although there is little distinction between the classes when flying domestically). Sometimes, frequent flier cards can help. LAN is a member of One World. If you have time to kill after check-in, there are Express Massage treatments on the second level near gates 18 and 19 on the north mezzanine that cost $15 for 30 minutes.
Whenever you depart from an airport (whether on a domestic or international flight) in Peru, you must pay a tax. The charge for a domestic flight can be as little as $5.84; and for international trips is $31. Once you have checked in, find the airport payment teller windows (on second level in Lima) and settle up (cash only) before proceeding to the security queue, since you cannot go through security without proof of payment
Tip: The flight from Lima to Cusco offers spectacular views of the Andes on the left side of the plane. Book accordingly.
When to Go
Peru’s two main seasons are winter, the dry season, from May to October, and summer, the wet season, from November to April. The climate varies region to region, however, so Lima is actually at its best from January to March, when the skies are clear of fog and it’s warm. The Amazon is wettest from December to May, when the river is at its highest, but don’t let this put you off: many smaller waterways, which teem with wildlife, are accessible only in this period. In Cusco and the Sacred Valley, there can be periods of rain in the dry season, and the wet season rarely has more than an afternoon shower.
Because Peru’s greatest attractions have long been its hiking trails and Machu Picchu, the most popular times to visit have been during the dry Peruvian winter, so the crowds are greatest in June, July and August. But any Peruvian will tell you there really is no bad time to come.
In general, the two main seasons are winter/the dry season, which is May to October, and summer/the wet season, November to April. In their summer, average temperatures range from the high 60s to the high 70s in Lima and low 40s to high 60s in the Sacred Valley. In winter, the temperatures range from high 50s to upper 60s in Lima and low 30s to the mid 60s in the Sacred Valley.
Bottom line: Each season has its advantages, so go when you can.