Lima
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Gail Harrington
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Lima

Spread out over an area the size of Rhode Island with a population of almost 8 million, Peru's capital has been a city of fusion from the time the first adobe bricks were laid on the original two-story government palace -- a Spanish stronghold in the land of the Incas and far older cultures. Lima is a jumble of Renaissance architecture, pre-Hispanic ruins and museums filled with pre-Columbian artifacts that pre-date the Incas. Likewise, Limeans themselves represent a complex mix of ethnic heritage, ancient Indian cultures from the northern coast and the Andes, Spanish conquerors, and a large Chinese population that grew following immigration from China, which began in the mid-19th century.

About Lima


Pro

Take tours to must-see spots including Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca

Con

You'll have to take a cab to get into Lima from Callao

Bottom Line

Lima is a sprawling ancient city with a dazzling array of historical sites and interesting neighborhoods


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It's true that parts of Lima were inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, but let's start with the city's official beginning. Two years after taking down the Inca Empire, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535 on the bank of the Rimaq River, eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. Finding a good natural harbor nearby, Pizarro also created Callao, which became Spain's main port in the New World. Until the mid-18th century, Lima was the wealthy capital of Spanish domination in South America, an enormous viceroyalty that stretched from what's now Columbia to central Chile.

The city's historic center has a generous share of Baroque-, Renaissance- and Rococo-inspired buildings with elaborate facades, balconies, ornate gates and courtyards in the area around the Plaza Mayor. Although the city has experienced numerous earthquakes, some early colonial buildings, the collaboration of indigenous and Old World craftsmen, were fortunate to survive. In 1988, the historic district became a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Callao can be either a regular port stop or a point for embarkation or disembarkation, and cruise ships call there every season, except summer (June through August). Most cruise travelers skip Callao -- the only real sights are the seaside Fortaleza del Felipe Real (a 16th-century stone fort) and the adjacent military museum. Instead, they head straight for Lima's historic center with its old homes, grand balconies, colonial churches (such as the well-preserved San Pedro and the Baroque-style San Francisco) and the Government Palace, which was built on the foundation of the original palace constructed by Pizarro.

Central Lima is surrounded by a collection of neighborhoods, each one with its own appeal, vibe, and streets off the grid: prosperous suburbs like Miraflores and San Isidro; seafront Barranco with its Bohemian vibe, colorful homes and lively nightlife scene; laid-back fishing village Chorillos at the southern end of Lima Bay; and Pueblo Libre with its small-town feel and prominent cultural sites, such as the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum and National Archaeology Museum. Lima's coast, often called the Costa Verde (Green Coast), features a string of parks along Lima Bay that runs south from Magdalena through San Isidro, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos, with lush foliage spilling over the cliffs.

Clearly, there's more to Lima than can be seen in one day. If your cruise does begin or terminate in Lima, consider tacking on a pre- or post-cruise stay. Visits to the city can also be combined with tours to Cusco, Macchu Picchu and Lake Titicaca (also available as multi-day overland excursions mid-cruise).

Where You're Docked

The port of Callao (pronounced Kay-ya-oh) is about seven miles from central Lima and 11 miles from Miraflores. There's no terminal building, shopping, ATM's or Internet access at the pier; there are telephones that require a calling card (available for sale at the pier). Authorized cabs are reasonably priced and available at the port gate. Depending on traffic, the ride into Lima can take between 30 and 45 minutes and cost around $12.

Port Facilities

There is little to do near the dock, but one landmark worth seeing is the pentagonal-shaped Fortaleza del Felipe Real , a stone-walled, octagonal fort, built in the 18th century to fend off pirate attacks. It played a role in Peru's war of independence from Spain in 1821. For those interested in military relics, a military history museum is located inside the fort, with a naval museum near Plaza Grau. You can also take a boat tour of the islands off Callao to see the seabirds, sea lions and Humboldt penguins. Unfortunately, the suburb of Callao itself has many unsafe areas, so if you're not visiting the aforementioned sites, you're betting off heading into Lima.

Good to Know

Crime isn't a major risk if you use the same common sense you would in any large city. Stay alert for pickpockets in busy marketplaces, on crowded streets and anywhere in downtown Lima. Don't carry your wallet or passport in a back pocket. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, and keep expensive cameras or electronic devices out of view when not in use.

Getting Around

At the pier, you'll find authorized taxis for traveling from the dock in Callao to Lima and for sightseeing in the city. Fares in Lima generally range from 4 to 10 soles (about $1.40 to $4.20), but taxis don't have meters, so agree on the fare in advance by asking, "Cuanto cuesta?" If you're on your own in Lima, a hotel or restaurant can call for a secure taxi. For getting around in Lima, avoid buses or mini-buses, which are cheap but slow and crowded, making tourists an easy target for pickpockets. If you're trying to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, you can hire a taxi for around $10 per hour and have the driver wait for you at each stop.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The nuevo sol is Peru's currency (currency sign S/.); check www.xe.com for current exchange rates. Most hotels, restaurants and shops accept U.S. dollars, but they'll give change in Peruvian soles. Major banks include Banco de Credito (BCP), Banco de la Nacion, BBVA Banco Continental and Scotiabank. Bank hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and many are open until noon on Saturday.

ATM machines are plentiful, and it's preferable to make withdrawals in very populated areas or at ATM's that are inside banks with guards on duty. Some ATM's dispense cash only to local account-holders, so look for machines with the Cirrus or Plus logos. Credit cards are widely accepted in Lima, with VISA being the preferred card, although some businesses tack on a 12 percent surcharge.

Language

Spanish and Quechua (native language of the Incas) are the official languages. In Lima and other main cities, English is widely understood in hotels, restaurants and shops.

Food and Drink

If there's anything that makes Lima a standout city, besides impressive old architecture and archaeological treasures, it's the cuisine -- perhaps the original fusion food, which is a mix of African, Spanish, Andean, Asian and Pre-Colombian influences. Long ago described by Auguste Escoffier as one of the four great cuisines of the world (third to French and Chinese), Peruvian food remained overlooked outside Peru until recent years when it started to find its place on the global culinary stage, thanks to the success of Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio. His huge restaurant empire and television show have made him a local food hero, and he has put a spotlight on some of the under-the-radar small restaurants that cook great food, whether it's criollo (dishes with African, Spanish, Chinese and Andean influences), chifa (a Peruvian-style Chinese food) or ceviche.

Peru's Pacific coastline produces more than 400 varieties of fish and 400 species of shellfish, so you can't go wrong with seafood in Lima -- particularly the national dish, ceviche (chunks of raw fish and/or shellfish, sliced red onion and minced aji chile, tossed in lime juice), which can be found at a cevicheria, a restaurant concept that began in Lima in the mid-80's and took off. There are now more than 2,000 cevicherias in Lima alone. And that's because Peruvians have a strong emotional connection with ceviche - it's the dish they want to share with family and friends, whether as a remedy to lift their spirits or to celebrate.

Chifa Capon (Ucayali 774, Central Lima, 427-2969) remains one of the best restaurants in Chinatown for chifa, a blend of Cantonese and Peruvian cooking.

Lar Mar (Avenida La Mar 770, Miraflores, 421-3365), Gaston Acurio's ceviche hotspot stands out among 2,000 other cevicherias in Lima, offering a contemporary spin on ceviche, tiraditos (think Peruvian sashimi) and other Peruvian specialties, not to mention the upbeat Latin music that plays in the background.

Trattoria Dei Prati (Cantuarias 239, Miraflores, 242-3382), down the street from Gaston Acurio's flagship restaurant, turns out delicious northern Italian cuisine. After learning to cook in Veneto, Lulu Prei returned to Peru and turned her former home into this intimate, two-room restaurant.

Chez Wong (Enrique Leon 114, La Victoria, 470-6217) is Javier Wong's 10-table Asian-fusion cevicheria inside his home. He serves lunch only, and reservations are a must. There's no menu, but trust Chef Wong because he's one of Lima's star chefs. He will decide what to make for you and will never make it again. The first course will be a ceviche, and the second dish will be a hot seafood entree, cooked in a wok with Chinese vegetables.

Restaurant Sonia (Calle Santa Rosa 173, Chorrillos, 467-3788) was one of the first cevicherias in Lima. Sonia Bahamonde does the cooking, and her husband, Fredy Guardia, catches the fish, so you can count on ceviche with sushi-quality fish.

Evening Dining
L'Eau Vive (Ucayali 370, Central Lima, 427-5612) is run by an order of French nuns and set behind the massive door of an 18th-century mansion. They turn out wonderful French and Peruvian dishes with a set menu, and most nights, the nuns come out and sing Ave Maria just before closing at 9:30 p.m.

Astrid y Gaston (Cantuarias 175, Miraflores, 242-5387) is, hands-down, the best restaurant in Lima, run by Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid, who turn Peruvian criollo cuisine into an art form in a colonial-style building with elegant interior.

Restaurant Huaca Pucllana (General Borgono block 8, Miraflores, 445-4042) sits amid the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, an archaeological site that dates back to 200 A.D., which is lit up at night. Take a table on the terrace for views of the pyramid and adobe walls, and dine on criollo cuisine.

Jose Antonio (Bernardo Monteagudo 200, San Isidro, 264-0188) has clocked 30 years as a favorite in Lima, serving gourmet criollo cuisine with a backdrop of rustic decor that recalls a conquistador's ranch.

Shopping

Peru is known for quality alpaca goods -- blankets and throws, sweaters, scarves, hats, mittens/gloves and even rugs -- especially those made from soft baby alpaca. (This type of fur does not come from young animals but, rather, from the first shearing of the fur around the neck, which produces the softest fibers.) Run your hand over any alpaca goods in market stalls and stores, and the seller will usually claim "baby alpaca" -- this may or may not be true, as alpaca is sometimes mixed with other fibers. If the item feels like cashmere, it's alpaca; if it's silkier than cashmere, the fiber is probably a blend of alpaca and polyester; and, if it seems rough, the blend likely includes sheep's wool. Alpaca wool comes in three classifications, the best being royal baby alpaca, then baby alpaca, then a lower grade called superfine alpaca.