Peru’s crazy-buzzing capital has ancient ruins and pre-Columbian antiquities, colonial history and museums, access to adventure sports and a solid gastronomical scene—here’s a few gems not to be missed!
It makes sense that you’d travel to Peru to soak in the culture and get in touch with lost civilizations. So when your international flight lands in Peru’s capital and biggest city, Lima, you’ll want to spend as little time there as possible, right? Actually, I’m hoping I can convince you otherwise. Modern Lima’s architecture, food and culture is a fusion of the area’s mixed past – from its original indigenous settlers to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors who brought European and Moorish influences, and more recently, immigration from Africa and Asia – Lima’s culture is like no other!
The Historic Centre of the City of Kings
While Lima’s rich colonial past is evidenced by baroque architecture hidden among skyscrapers throughout the city, its lavish buildings and extravagant balconies are most notably concentrated in the UNESCO-protected historical centre, surrounding the main fountain and plaza. The Plaza de Mayor – also called the Plaza de Armas, which literally translates to “weapons plaza” – served as a gathering place as well as a place of refuge and defense in the event of an attack using supplied arms. I guess it didn’t hurt to be prepared!
Modern Lima was “founded” in 1535 as the “City of Kings” (Ciudad de los Reyes, in honour of the Christian holiday of Epiphany) by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and fair year-round temperate weather beat out the original inland and less popular choice for a capital city of Jauja – definitely no complaints from the capital’s current coast-loving residents!
Lima’s weather, in fact, is fantastic: located on a strip of desert plain between the Pacific and the Andes, and affected by the cool Pacific Humboldt Current, rainfall is slight throughout the year, and temperatures typically range between 12-15°C at its lowest, to 24-28°C at its highest. Very, very nice.
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I distinguish between modern and ancient Lima because in fact, a pre-Columbian people and civilization occupied the area for what historians believe were thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. And as the Spanish conquerors were wont to do, they built Christian churches and colonial monuments directly on top of many existing structures as a symbol of domination.
The city was once very richly adorned, housing several Andean-silver funded mansions, churches and roads. During the years of Spanish colonial rule, as the capital of the Spanish vice-royalty in the Americas (a territory that spanned Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia), Lima survived (the usual) pirate threats and earthquakes (it’s located on the Pacific Ocean’s infamous Ring of Fire), and flourished economically, becoming an important trading centre for Europe (silver was a primary export). Eventually, Lima became the capital of the newly formed republic of Peru in 1821, and its independence was proclaimed right in the main plaza. Viva el Peru!
Similar to other Latin American examples, Lima’s central plaza is surrounded by important buildings – the Archbishop’s Palace, Municipal Palace and Government Palace, where Pizarro once lived. Pizarro’s old home-sweet-home is also known as the Presidential Palace because it’s the official residence of the current Peruvian president.
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Unfortunately, the Presidential Palace was built atop pre-Columbian ruins that date back 2,000 years. (Luckily not all of Lima’s ruins were ruined, and the city’s ties to the ancient past are so extensive that the topic warrants its own forthcoming article!) From the centre, wealthy Spanish conquistadors built mansions on the prime real estate radiating from the plaza, many of which are still preserved today.
Centuries ago, Lima was a walled city, but the wall was torn down when the city began expanding. Walking distance from the city centre you’ll find Muralla Park, with its central bronze statue of Pizarro (the conquest is still a complicated topic, though the man most associated with it gets his own statue; it’s on the outskirts of the city’s centre). Remarkably, in the park, there are ongoing excavations revealing part of the old city walls!
Further along, you’ll hit the central market, lined with maze-like galleries and colourful merchants selling everything from fresh fruit to cheap knock-offs and fine handcrafted silver jewellery. Within the city limits, you’ll find Lima’s Chinatown, or Calle Capon (the city has the largest Chinese population in South America).
Chinese immigrants began flocking to the city centre in the 1850s, and the area grew substantially when import companies began basing themselves there. Here, you can indulge in a chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food) buffet, enjoy a Chinese traditional festival, temple visit or shopping spree, all with a Peruvian twist.
Lima’s Churches: From Teeny Tiny to Over-the-Top
The conquest introduced Christianity to Latin America. It also spawned some of modern Lima’s iconic sites, such as the countless adorned churches and mosaic-lined chapels of the Cathedral of Lima in the main square. The Cathedral happens to hold the death tomb of the person who brought it to life in the first place – Francisco Pizarro, who laid its first stone in 1535. But it turns out the wrong “Pizarro” mummified remains were on display for centuries (in fact, until the 1970s), when some workers accidentally stumbled upon the conquistador’s actual bones in the church’s crypts, which were then confirmed via forensic testing.
Meanwhile, the Santo Domingo Church and its breathtaking convent hosts silver urns with the remains and glass-encased skulls of the city’s most famous saints, St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres (who became the first black saint of the Americas). The convent has stunning Spanish tiles and leisurely courtyards.
You also won’t want to miss the Moorish-and-Spanish-designed and mural-adorned St. Francis of Assisi Basilica and Monastery (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco); its world-renowned historical library hosts 25,000 ancient texts, some of them predating the 16th-century conquest, many extremely rare editions. It’s one of the oldest libraries in all of the Americas. Inside the monastery, one of the highlights is a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles dining on typical Peruvian fare, including potatoes and guinea pigs.
If you haven’t had your fair share of bones underground, you’ll find the church’s creepy catacombs or burial crypts with the meticulously arranged skulls and bones of thousands and thousands of the dearly departed. Discovered in 1943, this was once the growing city’s final resting place, before the first modern cemetery was built.
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It’s said there are even secret passageways connecting to the Cathedral of Lima, and at the time, the Tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. For centuries, the Inquisition tried and grotesquely-tortured those (indigenous and non-indigenous) accused of deviating from Catholicism through witchcraft, sorcery and other outlawed religious practices. You can visit the Museum of Congress and Inquisition in Lima to get some realistic – and quite disturbing – insight. Finally, take a break from this troubling past by visiting the cutest (and smallest) church in Lima, and possibly the world: Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel slivers in between storefronts at a width of just five metres!
The City of Adventure and Adventurous Eats
A couple of hours inland from Lima, you’ll find Lunahuaná, a small town which happens to be a great spot for adventure sports. It’s picking up steam as a playground for rafting, ziplining and mountain-bike enthusiasts.
But so is Lima, which is no longer just a launching point for adventure. These days the city lives and breathes adventure, and there are plenty of thrills to be experienced within its limits. In the districts and neighbourhoods of Miraflores and Barranco, Lima is home to some world-class currents for paragliding and waves for surfing.
Connecting Miraflores to Barranco – otherwise known as Lima’s hipster bohemian hood! – there is a stunning path that can easily be cycled or walked.
You start at the John F. Kennedy Park in Miraflores, the bustling district at the west end of Lima where the city borders the Pacific Ocean (locally the park is known as “Cat Park” as it’s home to hundreds of feral cats which the city, by ordinance, protects!). Along the way, you can walk hand-in-hand as you pass through the “Love Park,” which is littered with canoodling couples soaking in the coastal views at all hours of the day – though most notoriously at sunset.
Those after some serious views, especially of the vertical kind, will be happy to hear Lima’s coastal desert paradise has naturally-formed rock walls to challenge beginner and expert climbers alike.
After a long and adventurous day, you’ll want to refresh with a smooth Pisco sour cocktail, and sample some of the Lima’s best culinary landmarks. Lima’s restaurants have placed Peruvian food, and the city itself, on the world stage, particularly establishments in the districts of Miraflores and San Isidro. Gaston Acurio, the city (and country’s) most reputable chef and Peruvian cuisine ambassador, owns some visit-worthy restaurants both in Lima and abroad.
I suggest you hit the districts’ high-end restaurants, ask for a Pisco sour – you should not leave Peru with trying a Pisco sour! – and sample all of those Peruvian classics like ceviche and lomo saltado. You just can’t go wrong!
- Carla Bragagnini, a Peruvian-Canadian, is infromtheoutpost.com PERU’s associate editor. With files and photos from Team Outpost Peru.