In Praise of Peru 1: Lima
As regular readers of my blog will know, I am (notwithstanding narcotraficante violence, a supposed ‘failing state’ and swine-flu) rather smitten with Mexico – see especially my post “Ten Reasons to Fall in Love with Mexico”. However, Mexico may now have a rival for my affections – I spent most of the month of January this year in Peru and adored it.
Peru is a fascinating country. Unlike Mexico, where even the geography seems chaotic and overlapping, Peru is divided into three distinct areas – the coast which is mostly desert, the sierra (the Andes), and the jungle. This makes Peru seem almost like three different countries. In this trip, I had the opportunity to visit each area.
The first thing to be said about Peru is that the food is wonderful. I had read that Lima is the gastronomic capital of Latin America and now I know why. The great thing is that it has many world class restaurants at very reasonable prices. Whilst I was in Lima, my friends Pilar and Fernando took me to Rosa Nautica, which is a restaurant built on Playa Costa Verde’s historic pier at Miraflores. It has to be one of the most romantic restaurant settings in the world – the food is good too. Another friend took me to 5 Esquinas, which did not appear in any of the guides I had, but which had delicious ceviche and some of the freshest most succulent fish I have ever tasted.
‘5 Esquinas’ is in a street, La Mar, on the far west of Miraflores, which is a foodie’s paradise. It is lined with good restaurants, including at Number 1337, ‘Pescados Capìtales’. This makes No. 1 in Trip Adviser’s review of the best restaurants in Lima, and it seemed wherever I went in Lima people were talking about this place. I had a table booked there for the end of my stay in Peru, but because of being stranded at Machu Picchu for three days, I did not have the time to go there. One more reason to go back to Peru.
The person who has been making all the waves in Peruvian gastronomy is Gastón Acurio. Unfortunately, without prior booking, I could not get into his flagship restaurant ‘Astrid y Gaston’, near the center of Miraflores. Like any other celebrity chef worth his salt, Gaston is now busy developing and marketing his franchise throughout the world. Last year he opened a Gaston y Astrid in Polanco, Mexico City – after opening branches in Santiago, Bogotá, Quito, Caracas, Panamá and Madrid. In his blogpost of the ten best restaurants in Mexico City 2009, the Mexican offspring was rated by Nicholas Gilman – who wrote an excellent book called Good Food in Mexico City – as “Best Newcomer in the Foreign Category”.
I did, however, go and eat in Gaston’s restaurant in Cuzco, ‘ChiCha’, which at the time of writing sits at No. 11 on Trip Advisers best restaurants in Cuzco. The food here was very good without being outstanding.
I should also mention Govinda on Schell 634, just to the south east of the center of Miraflores. This is a vegetarian restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas. The Menu del Día was 5 soles – if I remember correctly, which seems ridiculously cheap now – around 2 USD and the food was good. Whilst I was marooned in Aguascalientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, I ate a number of times in another branch of Govinda there. The people running the restaurant were delightful and the food was freshly cooked and tasty.
I enjoyed being in Lima very much. Apart from the wonderful restaurants (especially seafood), it has many good museums and an interesting historic center full of colonial churches and architecture from different periods. Someone I met told me too that the live music in the bars in the center of Miraflores is excellent. The old historic center is said to be dangerous, especially at night, but I felt very relaxed there and there was a strong police presence. Alberto, a Peruvian friend who accompanied me said it was much better now than in the past.
People in Lima complain about the traffic, but having been in Mexico City and more recently in Sao Paolo, really they have nothing to complain about. Each of the three times I went to the airport from Miraflores, the trip was about 40 minutes and the traffic was always flowing.
I visited a wonderful small museum, Museo Larco, in an old 18th century viceroy mansion, near the center of Pueblo Libre. Apart from having an outstanding collection of ceramics from different pre-hispanic cultures, the museum has a terrific restaurant, Cafe Del Museo, which I later discovered was one of Gastón Acurio’s. There is no escaping the man in Peru.
I also visited the attractive neighbourhood of Barranco – just east of Miraflores – with Alberto. He took me to a great buffet restaurant on the main square there, whose name now unfortunately escapes me. The food is traditional Peruvian and very good value especially if you are hungry and can eat a lot!
Like most tourists, on first arrival in Lima, I stayed in Miraflores, though it was a toss-up between here and the Gran Hotel Bolivar, in the Plaza San Martin in the Centro Histórico. I stayed for three days at Hotel San Antonio Abad, which although not in the center of Miraflores, is within walking distance of both the center and Larcomar – the fancy, up-market commercial mall built into the cliff side.
The mall is worth a visit. As well as shops, including a branch of PeruRail, where you can buy tickets for the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, it has many cafes and restaurants – where you can sit watching the paragliders – and a multiplex cinema with a reasonable variety of films showing. Because of its success, they were going to build more of these malls in the cliffs until they realised they were vulnerable to earthquakes and erosion.
Hotel San Antonio Abad is a very comfortable, small, well-run hotel. A double room costs 70USD and includes a good breakfast. The hotel also picks you up free at the airport, which as I arrived from Mexico City at 00.30am, was very welcome.
Talking of the airport, I really liked Lima airport. I passed through it six times and each time it seemed efficient, relatively relaxed, speedy and easy. I did read though that some people experienced queues of one hour to pass through immigration on leaving for an international flight. Also be prepared each time to pay departure taxes – around 7 USD for national flights and 31 USD for international flights.
The next part of my paean to Peru will be about Iquitos and Cuzco, cities based in the jungle and sierra respectively.