Lima in June is a cloudy affair; the winter sun may not emerge for 10 days straight and it drizzles every day, sometimes all day. Yet dreary weather frames a city where the welcome is warm, where centuries-old plazas and palaces feature impeccable, buzzy dining rooms or astounding art collections. It’s easy to sense how Spanish invaders, a complex indigenous culture, and later waves of immigration gave Lima its diversity and challenges, its colours and fascination. In twisting lanes and squares, chatty crowds seek warmth in cafes and watering holes. Sit down and you start to hear attitudes — some carping but most optimistic. It’s the sound of an ancient city marching straight into the future.
‘Nice’ families have favoured Miraflores for almost a century. More politely pleasant than hot and happening, this hood has long been Lima’s main hotel district, and travellers have to work hard not to be lodged here. Not a complaint. Manicured has its pleasures, as evidenced by Parque El Olivar, an ancient olive grove that’s marvellous for a walkabout. Suites in high-end high-rises overlook the area’s dramatic cliffside setting, with walkable streets leading to tiny cafes, bakeries, and cutesy shops. The city’s white-tablecloth dinners play out in the precinct.
It’s comfy, yes, but there’s an edge to Milaflores — often heard in conversations. “I think it says something good about a country that a former president did jail time,” says Elda Cantú, a Mexico-born writer and eight-year Lima veteran, in reference to the loved/reviled Alberto Fujimori. “Nothing so progressive happened in Latin America before.”
Later, I ask her to take me from official Miraflores to something more underground. We dine at Kañete, in the cool, not-yet-gentrified Surquillo district, just north of its bourgeois neighbour. A former cobbler’s workshop, the vibe is third-millennium authenticity, with vintage fixtures set against an industrial, graffiti-powered dining room. After a margarita — “You don’t have to order a pisco sour just because you’re in Peru,” Elda quips — we share a piquant catch-of-the-day, with a vinegary fruity salsa, alongside concolón (scorched, crunchy rice) with vegetables and egg.
Between pauses to savour our dinner, Elda warms to a number of themes. Sending a corrupt politician to the clink means the courts are actually doing their job, she surmises — “I think it’s a ‘moment’ in Lima. The stuffy old families that used to run everything are still there, but it’s opened up; there’s creativity and receptivity.” She also rhapsodises about Kañete’s owner/chef, Israel Laura. From a modest background, his talent “taught them everything they know at Al Toke Pez” (one of Lima’s most lauded restaurants). Kañete is his second smash restaurant.
Swooning saints and bloody martyrs populate the Museo Pedro de Osma, a tropical-garden-enveloped belle-époque mansion characteristic of Barranco, the still-bohemian enclave that clings to the coast, south of Miraflores. Also on this district’s ‘museum mile’, the small, mega-glam Museo MATE safeguards some of the finest work of fashion photographer and Lima native Mario Testino. What starts off glossy — shots of models in varying states of déshabillé — quickly goes deeper with dashing portrayals of indigenous Peruvians in dazzling, traditional clothing.
I see no street number, no sign to inform — much less welcome — visitors. A passer-by directs me to a stolid, colonial door; “Toque,” he urges. “Just ring.” The door creaks open. A middle-aged curmudgeon is your guide at the 16th-century Casa de Aliaga; you get the feeling you’ve interrupted his newspaper reading. Frosty reception aside, the interior of this colonial mansion (whose owners, descendants of the principal lieutenants of Lima’s founder, Francisco Pizarro’s, are still resident) is rich with heavy furnishings, Renaissance-style woodwork, plus a collection of paintings, china, chandeliers and portieres. I’m alerted to an item of interest: “plant-stand — Solomonic column!” says my guide, pausing one second, then moving on. “Limoges. Eighteenth century!”
Does this house encapsulate Lima’s Centro Histórico: nondescript from the outside yet sumptuous and fascinating as you begin to poke around within?
The long-neglected blocks surrounding the Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Martín beckon, filled with astounding colonial-era government buildings in signature ochre, with balconies in elaborately worked wood; crumbling churches, and early 20th-century commercial architecture, still stunning despite a little wear and tear.
The famed sites retreat into the fog and I’m pulled into details: signs recalling streets’ former names, at once pompous and comic; old hardware, shoe and fabric stores still going strong. A few blocks deeper into rougher quarters, I find secondhand book stalls clustered along Jirón Amazonas. It takes some digging, but I turn up a handful of great pulp paperbacks, in English, and a richly bound edition of Ricardo Palma’s playful prose sketches of colonial-era Peru, Tradiciones peruanas.
Palma’s entertaining stories of rogues, grandees and ladies both on Lima’s bustling lanes of yore is the perfect read over ají de gallina (shredded chicken-and-potato comfort, in creamy chilli and walnut sauce) at Cordano Bar. One of several great old-school drinking joints downtown, Cordano is famed as a watering hole for Peru’s literary lights. Its saloon doors swing onto a tile-floored bar; walls decorated in political and sporting memorabilia; high shelves groaning beneath dozens of dusty bottles of pisco and cheap red wine. Out-of-towners take their lead from elderly regulars or order off the plastic-laminated menu; over-served bohemians push tables together to argue issues, then slide into sentiment. The conversations are fiery, engaged; no one retreats to their mobile phone.
A notorious slum until just a few years ago, Callao’s waterfront and early 19th-century plazas are beautiful ruins, lately colonised by artists and like-minded liberals. The historic port district of Callao — long ago absorbed into Greater Lima — is starting to reinvent itself, most visibly in the form of bold, dazzlingly colourful murals that testify to a renewed neighbourhood pride and an assertive political consciousness. Most beautiful may be the colossal portraits of local faces framed by spray-paint arabesques. The project, collectively called Callao Monumental, is expanding its art-regeneration slowly, door to door; its spiffy, bright-white galleries and artsy boutiques radiating chic next to tumbledown tenements full of old-time residents, yell-gossiping from balconies as they hang out laundry.
Husky voiced, high-energy Angie Pelosi, a Lima native, invites me to the rooftop headquarters of Fugaz, a privately owned community initiative that’s playing a key role in the transformation of Callao into an arts hub. The lobby of the splendid 1923 building we’re in, Edificio Ronald, houses art galleries and boutiques.
Upstairs, Angie and I peek into studios illuminated by huge vintage windows. Beneath delicate supporting arches, whole floors and walls are transformed into canvasses. Spattered in paint or clay, artists toil away on intriguing, large-scale pieces, in preparation for major shows — visual arts in April, photography in August — that are becoming musts on the international art circuit.
Angie points out that sprucing up the neighbourhood — bringing in trendy shops and restaurants, plus nightlife — is fun, but Fugaz is also committed to its artists, musicians, designers and, importantly,the district’s existing residents. “The art — especially the music — breaks down a lot of barriers, helps people shake off being timid and defensive. As they get to know us, they start taking an interest in development opportunities we organise: language classes, computer training, professional and even psychological counselling. The goodwill is contagious and sort of feeds itself, leading to bigger plans and a tighter community…little by little. This is my dream job, and I’m thrilled to be here.”
When in Lima…
Food for thought
Top fine dining restaurants include Central Restaurante, Astrid & Gastón and Maido (the latter, the best place for Nikkei: Japanese-Peruvian fusion). Mid-range places like Pescados Capitales and Tanta are maybe more fun for a casual evening out. And as for street food: if it smells right and there’s a crowd, get in line.
The Museo Larco, in Pueblo Libre, is a stately hacienda all but buried under flowering plants. It’s home to dazzling Pre-Hispanic treasures, from statuary to erotic art.
Markets & music
Dozens of handicraft markets spill out from the lanes of the Centro Histórico district and the blocks north of Parque Central in Miraflores. Expect everything from silky, alpaca wool ponchos and cardigans to vibrant carpets and fine textiles. More serious artesanías (with more serious prices) are found at the fun La Feria Union de Barranco market every weekend. With live music and craft beer, this is always a lively affair.
A long legacy of immigration means eating at chifas (Chinese restaurants) is customary in Lima. Perennial favourites include so-tatty-it’s-hip Chifa Chung Yion in Barranco, and family-friendly Chifa Men Wha in Pueblo Libre. Expect noodles, soups and whole fish served on Lazy Susans, lit with classic red lanterns. No frills and piping hot.
Journey Latin America offers an 11-day trip to Peru, with three nights in Lima at Sonesta Hotel El Olivar, visiting Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu from £2,492 per person. Upgrade to Belmond Miraflores Park hotel from £2,848 per person, or Hotel B from £2,759 per person. Includes flights, transfers and excursions.
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)