Greetings From Lima, Peru

Travel Features Peru

The former City of the Kings—once merely a stopover for travelers venturing south to Machu Picchu or the Nazca Lines—has recaptured a taste of its old splendor, but the new royalty rules from the kitchen, not the palace. Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame declared the “future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru,” and the Madrid Fusión International Gastronomy Summit officially named Lima the “Gastronomy Capital of the Americas.” The rising tide of culinary excellence lifted all boats in the beachfront capital, and neighborhoods like Miraflores, San Isidro and Barranco now emit a vibrant cosmopolitan energy.

Lima sits in a long and narrow stretch of tropical desert that hugs the Pacific coastline. The Andes are little more than 100 miles away, while sheer cliffs separate much of Lima from its rocky beaches below. The six-mile El Malecón stretches along the perch and entertains visitors with the Larcomar shopping center, Love Park and fiery sunsets that light up the Costa Verde (Green Coast) horizon. Less than a mile inland, Kennedy Park (as in President J.F.) is the center of action in Miraflores and an ideal reference point for Lima-based activities. South America’s third-largest country offers everything from sandboarding in Huacachina to piranha fishing in Iquitos, but the focus in Lima is eating, drinking and shopping in an urban landscape pulsating with fresh vigor.

Day One

Start the morning light with a fresh juice at La Lucha, a Criolla sandwich shop at Kennedy Park. Sure, they got your pineapple and papaya, but why not take a walk on the wild side and order an aguaymanto-guanábana or tuna-strawberry-plantain-orange juice. Lest anyone fear chugging the “chicken of the sea,” tuna is actually a sweet cactus fruit that Whole Fooders might call prickly pear.

With juice in hand, spend a moment absorbing the Kennedy Park ambiance that often includes the little-seen art of cat herding. Multi-course meals await so now is an ideal time to shop at Larcomar or enjoy an inexpensive massage. For shopping, Avenida Larco (adjacent the park) runs right into the cliff-perched complex, while an hour-long massage at a non-hotel facility costs about 60 soles (at 3.1 soles to the dollar). Travelers open to a blind masseuse should visit Estética Unisex Dreysi.

For the first act in your culinary adventure, enjoy an early lunch at IK (pronounced “E-Kah”) around the corner from Dreysi. This innovative restaurant, still largely unknown to the English-language press, is a tribute to Chef Ivan Kisic, who lost his life in a car accident during the restaurant’s development. Recommendations include the slow-roasted suckling pig and the scallops with lulo fruit, but the must-try drink is the double-temperature pisco sour that separates icy and warm layers with a large leaf. Start drinking the warm top layer and then lift the leaf slightly for a frosty finish.

After lunch, take a taxi to the historic center and explore Lima’s colonial past. Start at the Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor), where the reconstructed Archbishop’s Palace (1924) is a young’un next to the Government Palace and Cathedral of Lima (both dating back to 1535).

From there, walk southwest (opposite the Government Palace) for more colonial architecture and the Plaza San Martin. While a statue of General San Martin anchors the eponymous plaza, search out the Madre Patria statue and ask yourself, “Why the hell is there a llama on her head?” It is a funny story, actually. The Spanish word llama has two meanings, flame and llama, so when Spain commissioned a statue with a crown of llama … well, you get the picture.

Start the evening at the Larcomar-area cliffs for an epic left coast sunset before enjoying a Peruvian-Japanese dinner at nearby Maido. Possibly the best meal in town, the Maido Nikkei Experience delivers dishes (as of February 2015) like steak-stuffed red pepper fried tempura-style on a potato puree and crunchy pork belly with fried sweet peanuts. Furthermore, dive deep into a cocktail menu whose mixers include sake, pisco, shochu, Japanese vodka, Japanese cucumber, red tuna juice, Amazonian camu camu and various iced fruits.

After dinner, head to Barranco for Lima’s sexist pisco bar, Ayahuasca, named after the Amazonian hallucinogenic. Set in a restored 19th-century mansion, the vibey bar serves creative cocktails like a coca (leaf) sour. For those who mistakenly think they had a Coca Colada once at TGI Friday’s, coca leaves contain the notorious alkaloid cocaine, making it planta non grata in the States.

Day Two

From the top corner of Kennedy Park, head east on Avenida Ricardo Palma over the expressway bridge for Mercado de Surquillo, a sprawling farmer’s market filled with Peruvian fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and other culinary finds. If it is a Sunday morning, navigate the maze of shops to find stall 200 for legendary chicken soup with a bone in each bowl. On other days, sample another Peruvian fruit juice from one of the dozen-plus vendors making it fresh. In either case, peruse the market to appreciate the original states of the protein and produce you have been eating. On Sundays, additional outdoor vendors sell items like Peruvian olive oil, Amazonian chocolate and alfalfa-coca leaf pasta.

No visit to Peru is complete without trying ceviche so head toward the coast for La Mar, the most-esteemed cevicheria in the world. For the uninitiated, Peru’s national dish typically involves fresh raw fish cured in lime juice (essentially cooked in citrus acid) with additions like red onion, sweet potato, chili peppers (aji) and large-kernel corn (choclo). As with any quality ceviche restaurant, La Mar is only open for lunch to ensure that the fish caught that morning is optimally fresh. After lunch, head back to Kennedy Park for a pair of chocolate shops. In terms of chocolate edibles, the ChocoMuseo is no Willy Wonka, but the shop sells interesting chocolate face creams and choco-pisco alcohols. For the best truffles, cross the park to Calle Manuel Bonilla for Xocolatl, a sleek gourmet shop by Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef Giovanna Maggiolo.

For dinner, make a reservation a month in advance for the tasting menu at Astrid y Gastón, the nation’s most important restaurant. Iconic chef Gastón Acurio (also the man behind La Mar) originally opened the restaurant in Miraflores and sparked a culinary revolution by applying French technique to Peru’s biodiverse abundance. Last year, the restaurant relocated to Casa Moreyra, a 300-year-old hacienda in San Isidro. Acurio retired from the kitchen in September, but his long-time associate Diego Muñoz (an elBulli and Mugaritz alum) took over with the clear intent to keep the restaurant on top.

The tasting menu (as of February 2015) recounted the history of Peruvian household culture through 28 courses over about three hours. Dishes ranged from a crispy pork ball set on sticks to a King Kong dessert with cotton-candy hair and a giant footprint.

For less ambitious appetites, La Barra is a secondary a la carte restaurant in the hacienda with dishes like chicken-stuffed calamari topped with breaded shrimp tails and thinly sliced asparagus. Tasting menu or not, La Barra also serves fun cocktails (e.g., Tanqueray gin, five-year Plantation rum and grape and cranberry juices) for after-dinner drinks. If walking between the restaurant and Miraflores, cut through Parque el Olivar (Olive Grove Park) for a gorgeous and romantic stroll. This urban oasis starts across the street from the restaurant and stretches one kilometer (.62 miles) south toward Miraflores.

Astrid y Gastón, like most every restaurant in Lima, does not open on Sunday nights, in which case the best option is touristy Huaca Pucllana in north Miraflores. The menu might not have diners breaking out in song, but the outdoor dining patio sits flush against fifth-century ruins. Bring a camera.

Bathroom Safety
The main tourist neighborhoods are relatively safe (relative meaning you are still in a South American capital), but one tip might keep the gents safe from a verbal lashing. When that fifth pisco sour gives the bladder the puffer-fish treatment, do not charge through the bathroom door marked M. The M stands for mujeres, which we can assure you does not mean “men” in Spanish. Go for that H door, hombre.

Getting There
Jorge Chávez (LIM) International Airport is a hectic hub about 11 bumper-to-bumper miles north of Miraflores. Thirty or so airlines operate out of Jorge Chávez, and companies like jetBlue, LAN, American, United and Delta offer direct connections to cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Dallas. Overzealous taxi drivers mob the arrivals gate, but people can save money and aspirin pre-booking a ride with Taxidatum. The company’s current rate is $20 USD (or 55 soles) from the airport to Miraflores, and a driver waits at arrivals holding a sign with your name.

To Stay
With striking ocean views and original artwork, Second Home Peru is the trendy choice in the bohemian Barranco neighborhood. Artist and sculptor Victor Delfin (of naughty Love Park statue fame) once lived in the Tudor-style villa, which is a taxi-ride away from most area attractions. Rooms start at $115 USD.

Centrally located two blocks east of Kennedy Park, Hostal El Patio is a rustic hotel with colonial charm, a lush garden courtyard and outdoor lounging areas. Rooms start at 126 soles.

Between Kennedy Park and Mercado de Surquillo, the Mariel Hotel is a friendly and affordable modern option with easy access to the main neighborhoods. Rooms start around $70 USD (plus a 10% service charge).

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.

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