Travel & Lifestyle: Lima, a City of Color and Texture

Jiawen Shi
Posted on May 19, 2015, 7:31 pm
11 mins

At first glance, Peru is not a predictable honeymoon destination. Many will head for island resorts or a romantic rendezvous in Paris, but my husband and I wanted a unique blend of rich culture and history, bountiful natural beauty and amazing culinary experiences—and Peru fit the bill. The first stop on our honeymoon trip was Lima, a city by the sea. After an unforgettable surprise send-off at Seatac airport, my expectations for our honeymoon in Peru got a serious boost.

Lima is the capital of the Republic of Peru, and around one-third of the Peruvian population lives in the metropolitan area. Not unlike most major metropolises in the world, Lima is a melting pot strongly influenced by various cultures—Andean, European, African and Asian—through colonization and immigration. When talking with the locals, I found that most of them view the blending of different cultures as a positive—as what made Lima into a vibrant and diverse city. However, some still feel resentment toward the Spanish occupation, during which the indigenous cultures were trampled and destroyed, making way for Western ideologies, religions and culture.

Lima was founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1535, who along with other Spanish conquistadors brought down the ancient Incan Empire. They looted gold and valuables and used the mighty, stone, Incan foundations to build cathedrals, palaces, mansions. Pizarro became one of the wealthiest men in South America, but that didn’t last very long. He was assassinated in his own palace (now the Government Palace of Peru) by his own people in 1541.

Before embarking, we read up on this history (The Last Days of Incas) for some historical context, and consulted with friends who recently traveled to Peru. Most friends we talked to brushed off Lima, saying in effect, “It’s just another large city without much character and culture.” In some ways, our friends are right. Lima has its share of chronic, big-city problems: crowds, congestion, traffic, crime, a huge wealth disparity, etc. We went to Lima without high expectations, but after just two days there, our expectations were far exceeded.

Mid-day dance party at a public park in the Miraflores district. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Mid-day dance party at a public park in the Miraflores district. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

My husband and I love exploring a new city on foot. You get to see and experience more on those urban hikes, you are closer to the locals, and you feel the pulse of the city better, so we were at first disappointed when the hotel concierge told us to restrict our urban hikes to the neighborhoods Milaflores and Barranco, adjacent to our hotel. They insisted that we use the car service to a restaurant that was only a 15-minute walk away. Lima isn’t necessarily dangerous, but foreign tourists make an easy mark.

All my senses were fully awakened and stimulated by the colorful vibrancy of the city. It’s active but not hectic. You feel energized without the adrenaline rush you get in cities like Shanghai, Tokyo or New York City. That’s when you realize it’s a Latin American city after all. Even in a metropolis like this, people don’t move hastily and they do stop and smell the roses.

One of my fondest memories of Lima was on one of our outings in the city as we happened upon a crowd dancing in Parque 7 De Junio in Miraflores—one of Lima’s many public parks and squares. It was in the middle of a weekday and the dance floor was crowded with dancers old and young, skilled and novice, all twirling and having a great time. There were as many spectators as there were dancers, and once in a while the brave ones from the sidelines would jump in and participate.

Canta Bana: the neighborhood's favorite ceviche restaurant in Barranco district. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Canta Bana, Barranco’s acclaimed ceviche restaurant. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Our favorite gallery in Lima, Artesania Las Pallas, in the Barranco district. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Our favorite gallery in Lima, Artesania Las Pallas, in Barranco. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Both my husband and I fell in love with Barranco, the arty neighborhood in Lima right by the water. Galleries, charming old houses, street art and lazy, sunbathing cats filled this area. We spent hours walking up and down those cobblestoned streets, getting lost in the beautiful surroundings, and imagining what it would be like to live in one of those bright and colorful houses as carefree artists. With the help of a gallery owner, we also found one of our favorite ceviche restaurants, where I was introduced to chicha morada, a splendid Peruvian drink made from purple corn, lime juice, cinnamon, clove and sugar.

The city is known as the Gastronomical Capital of the Americas, after all. From Chifa (Peruvian Chinese restaurant), to ceviche shops, to fine dining destinations such as Central, Lima lived up to its culinary reputation. Out of all the wonderful meals we had in Lima, our dinner at Central Restaurante was especially memorable. Central immediately drew international attention after opening its door in 2008. In 2014, it was awarded the #15 slot in Restaurant‘s list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. By choosing the “Master Elevations” tasting menu, we got the best seats in the house, with a direct line of sight to the kitchen, where Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz works his magic.

Sunset over Parque Del Amor. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

Sunset over Parque Del Amor. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

“Master Elevations” is a three-hour, 17-course culinary extravaganza featuring ingredients from vastly different elevations found in Peru, ranging from below sea level to 14,000 feet. Chef Virgilio loves using lesser-known indigenous ingredients from Peru’s coastal region, the Andes highlands and the Amazon rainforest. We tasted the legendary and YouTube-famous cushuro, an edible cyanobacteria harvested in high-altitude wetlands. Other interesting ingredients included clay powder from the Andes and arapaima, a very large freshwater fish found in the Amazon River. We savored each bite, marveled at the artful presentation, and were awed by the breadth and depth of this thoughtfully orchestrated tasting menu. The experience went beyond just culinary: It’s a three-hour journey through the Peruvian culture, history and land.

The "other" side of Lima. Around 1.6 million people live in poverty in the metropolitan area of Lima. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

The “other” side of Lima. Around 1.6 million people live in poverty in the metropolitan area of Lima. Photo by Jiawen Shi.

As an outsider, I was intrigued and fascinated by the city’s many juxtapositions—old and new, indigenous and foreign, slow and fast, and like most big cities in the world, the huge income disparities further these extremes. Our dinner at Central Restaurante cost more than a month’s rent for our cab driver, to put some perspective on it. Over two million people live in shanty towns on the outskirts of Lima, and much of that area lacks basic infrastructure that most foreign travelers take for granted. For those who have not seen poverty before, Lima will be eye-opening, as even if you stay in the more affluent neighborhoods, poorer areas are seen rising onto the hillside.

This is an important aspect of Lima and travel in general that should not be overlooked. Most old cities and ancient civilizations have remnants of battles from outside invasions or internal conflict, and Lima is no exception. Such complex histories add texture and intrigue to a place. For some, it also means a reason to give and to serve others. For giving, consider the Peru Children’s Charity, which was founded a decade ago to benefit poor communities in Lima’s outskirts and which won a 2012 Rotary International Award for Contribution to the Community. For volunteering, check out this online guide to charity work in Lima. There are many opportunities to learn and discover more about the local culture and yourself on your trip.

I recommend Lima to others who want a trip that allows for an unhurried experience of history, art and hospitality. We left Lima wanting more and wished we had an extra day or two to explore different neighborhoods, enjoy the beach, visit more galleries and museums, enjoy more scrumptious food and meet more locals. Next time!

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