01 October 2018

Clifftops and Ceviche: A Weekend in Lima

As with many large cities in Latin America, Lima isn't usually the main reason people come to Peru. But if you're flying into the Peruvian capital, it's well worth spending at least a couple of days in the city. There's plenty to see and do, and besides it's a foodie's paradise, from world-beating tasting menus to fresh and flavoursome ceviche at a low-key counter in the mercado central.

As ever, I only have two weeks to spend in Peru and arriving in Lima on a Friday evening, I stay until Monday morning, with a bonus half-day during my layover at the end of my trip. The taxi journey from the airport to my hotel in the Miraflores district takes about an hour. "Hay mucho tráfico," the driver explains. "Siempre," I reply, and he laughs.

I'm tired after a 12h30 BA flight from London, but I always like to go for a wander when I arrive in a new city, so after checking into my hotel (Casa Cielo; comfortable, clean, quiet and well-located), I head out into Miraflores, where fancy shops and restaurants abound. The nearby Kennedy Park is bustling: there is live music and plenty of stray cats. I get a tasty criolla chicken sandwich at La Lucha Sangucheria, which I enjoy in the park.

Lima is far from pedestrian-friendly, however. The traffic is bad, the streets can be smoggy and the city's dramatic geography — clifftop paths along the seafront that end abruptly, requiring a steep climb down and then back up, or a lengthy detour — doesn't help. Pedestrian crossings on the bigger roads tend to be infrequent too. Miraflores, and the neighbouring district Barranco, are generally thought of as the best areas to stay but many of the city's museums and other sights are in the downtown area, some four or five miles to the north. I take an Uber from Miraflores, which costs only about £3 but takes over an hour. I return on foot but it isn't the most interesting of walks.

One morning I go for a run along the Malecón de Miraflores, the stretch of paths and parks along the clifftops. The scenery is dramatic but the haze never lifts throughout my trip — I would have to stay another three or four months for that to happen. But by the time my hard-earned reservation (I woke up at 6 am on the morning September bookings opened) at Virgilio Martínez's Central restaurant rolls around on Saturday evening, I find myself warming to the city.

The two large squares at the heart of downtown Lima, Plaza San Martín and Plaza de Armas, are grand and packed with interesting sights. Troops are marching outside the Palacio de Gobierno, and there's a wedding taking place in the cathedral so I can't go inside. Instead, I enjoy the impressive Moorish balconies on the outside of the neighbouring archbishop's palace. A couple of blocks north is the lemon-hued Basílica y Convento de San Francisco, and then there's a little park overlooking the river, where you can spy some of the city's original walls and nearby peaks.

I plan to visit the Museo de la Inquisición, but it's being renovated so I continue on to the mercado central for the aforementioned ceviche, which I eat alongside locals at the counter I pick almost at random. The fish comes with potato and the giant, pale sweetcorn you see throughout Peru and costs all of £3. Afterwards, I walk for about 1.5 miles to the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), whose grand, historic building is as impressive as the pre- and post-Columbian art therein. I particularly like the murals that adorn the main staircases.

After returning to my hotel on foot, I change into smarter attire — though at Central, jeans would have been fine — and walk along the Malecón to Barranco. I'm hoping for a sunset but it's too cloudy. Instead, I walk over the Puente de los Suspiros, which is bustling, although much doesn't resemble any of the previous bridge of sighs I've seen. I have a few minutes before my dinner reservation, so I first go to Tostaduría Bisetti, a real Lima coffee institution, for a cortado and some beans. I'm planning separate blog posts both for the speciality coffee spots I visited in Lima and for my meal at Central, but suffice to say the latter was outstanding — an exotic and delicious journey through all imaginable Peruvian elevations and ecosystems. Never mind eating the rainbow — I ate the whole Pantone Colour Guide!

I spend Sunday morning in Miraflores before taking lunch at Panchita, chef Gaston Acurio's criolla spot. It's not in Central's league, but there was a nice vibe on Sunday lunchtime. I have my heart set on the, er, beef heart anticuchos — grilled, marinated beef served on a skewer. I am a little nervous but it tastes delicious and comes with potatoes and corn. The tart sweetness of the potent pisco sour is the perfect accompaniment. In the afternoon, I go back to Barranco, which is more residential and artsy than Miraflores. It's slightly less central but I would stay there instead if I returned to Lima. I pop into a few shops, galleries and cafes and work my way back along the clifftops.

On my bonus afternoon at the end of my trip, I take the Airport Express into the city; it runs every hour, takes about an hour into Miraflores, and costs $15 return. I plan to leave my suitcase at the airport left luggage but it has been closed for some months. In the end, I take it with me and find a Miraflores hostel to look after it for a few hours (my original hotel, Casa Cielo, lost customer-service points by not even replying to my email asking if they would hold my bag for me). I am tired, so I find a buzzy ceviche spot — El Verídico de Fidel — for lunch and then walk back to the seafront, before taking a final coffee. If you haven't finished your Peruvian souvenir shopping, you can try the expansive Mercado Indio, but you can find the same things at cheaper prices in other Peruvian cities.

So, although I didn't adore Lima, it did rather charm me and indeed, Lima is a city that rewards those who take the time to get to know its workings and its secrets. I feel bad when I let myself be swayed by a city's weather, but I can't help but wonder if I would have taken even more of a shine to Lima if the sun had shone for more than an hour or two.

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