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Lovely Lima: Peru's capital is a great city and a great value
by Gina Czupka, Minneapolis Budget Travel Examiner
Lima Centro hums with activity, day and night. All photos © Cory Czupka or Gina Czupka
Granted, our 2 a.m. drive from the airport to our hotel, through some seriously desolate parts of the city, wasn't a great introduction to the city (nor was our first night in a room with plywood nailed over the windows). The next morning, we stepped out into the city and discovered its ample charm.
In Lima Centro, the Plaza de Armas is a great hub for relaxing and people watching--lots of locals hang out here, from families with frolicking kids to wooing young couples to shuffling old men. The plaza is surrounded on all four sides by scenic architecture like the Cathedral and Archbishops palace, the Palacio de Gobierno and tall, golden yellow buildings with colonial detailing. The cathedral is well worth a visit for its retablos (side altars), masterfully carved wooden chancel screen, and the artistic curiosities and treasures of its museum. In the morning, you can often find people around the plaza selling sliced fruit for a cheap breakfast. We had a concerned Limeña tell us that we were overcharged when we paid one sol (about $0.30) for each of our baggies of pineapple and papaya--she also berated the seller for not charging us the more standard price of 50 centimos.
Despite the hair-raising warnings that I read prior to departure, Lima Centro was really quite pleasant for walking (although we made sure to not be too far from our hotel at night). It's easy to bounce from place to place and the churches in the area are astounding in all of their Baroque frothiness; in particular, the retablos are jaw-dropping pieces of craftsmanship that manage to overwhelm with their size, but also with their intricacy. The monastery church of San Francisco, La Merced, San Pedro and Santo Domingo were all unique and worth a visit. The central post office is an atmospheric, faded-grandeur sort of place from which to send out a postcard.
If you're a cross between a museum buff and a cheapskate, you've got a conundrum in front of you: the Museo Larco. I can speak to you as one of your kind, though, and tell you that, yes, it is worth it to cough up the $10 entry fee, even in a country where not much other than hotels and transport costs above $10. And yes, you'll have to take a cab there. Still worth it, for the lush, flowery grounds and the spectacular collection of artifacts covering 3,000 years of pre-Colombian Peruvian history.
The Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología y Historía del Peru is another excellent option. It's laid out in a beautiful, sprawling house that was once the home of Peruvian heros San Martín and Bolívar, and features varied and interesting exhibits on its eponymous topics. Go in the morning and then venture out into the pretty neighborhood for a excellent, low-priced lunch in one of the nearby restaurants (about $5-10 for two people, if you order the special).
Miraflores, is the hub of happening, upper-class Lima. It's hip and shiny and, yes, there is a Starbucks. But it still has plenty of character and appeal, with great restaurants (for all budgets), vibrant nightlife, unique shops and an abundance of hotels (even cheapies). The central Parque Kennedy is alive with strolling residents day and night and impromptu concerts by bands draw crowds. Vendors sell churros and sweets and cotton candy, and temporary markets are held there too (we happened upon a book fair). The Mercado del Indios is within walking distance, and it's a good place to pick up last minute souvenirs (read: there's a lot of of inauthentic stuff here, mixed in with some unique handicrafts). Miraflores is heavily trafficked by tourists, so be on your guard about rip-offs; there are plenty of over-priced restaurants but they're generally identifiable by being completely devoid of locals.
Barranco would be a lovely place to stay, though it makes for a good day's outing, too. It's hub is the shady, Parque Municipal, and the tree-lined streets are ideal for strolling and looking up at the neighborhood's impressive houses. The Puente de los Suspiros is a feature of any Barranco walking tour; it stands over the Juan Parra del Riego Square and a pedestrian path the leads down to a lookout over the Pacific. There are some small museums in the area, like the Museo Pedro de Osma, which was unfortunately closed on the day I was there. If the exterior is any indication, the museum would be a great place to see a slice of colonial Lima.
Quick Tips for Lima
There are lots of good hotel options at very reasonable prices in Lima. In Miraflores and Barranco, expect slightly higher rates, but even in those areas, hostels can be a great way to save money, and a number of them are recommended by guidebooks like Lonely Planet, Moon and Rough Guide.
Peru's cuisine is steadily gaining recognition throughout the world for its quality and unique character. You can savor any national specialty somewhere in Lima's restaurant-packed streets.