Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Ultimate Destination

Lima was the last destination of our trip, and it was almost as if we saved the best for last. While Lima's surroundings are dry, sandy desert, the city itself is a rich and vibrant oasis that we were happy to be in the center of. We used some credit card rewards to book our stay in the Gran Hotel Bolivar, which in its heyday in the mid 1900's hosted the likes of John Wayne, Edward II and Robert Kennedy. It was located on a lovely park, and while it could have used some serious renovations, but with its 1920's decor and excellent service, was still a real treat for us compared to backpacker hostels.

Gran Hotel Bolivar
Stained glass atrium in the lobby

From the hotel, we were just minutes from the Plaza Mayor and historic center which offered tons of restaurants and shopping options (mostly shoes). The Plaza itself featured the bright and majestic municipal buildings as well as the main cathedral and presidential palace. At the palace we were luckily able to see the once-a-month special changing of the guard with the national cavalry. Performed only the third Sunday of every month, the show featured a jazz band of riders on horseback playing some upbeat tunes, followed by a series of routines involving dozens of cavalry members trotting around in different formations. It was an interesting show and we had prime seats!

Us in the Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Cavalry band
Changing of the cavalry

Just off the plaza, we visited the convent of San Francisco which since the 1500's has housed a Franciscan order of friars. Though we're not much for religious artifacts, the tour of the maze-like convent and adjoining church and catacombs was fascinating. We saw a fantastic old library with thousands of books including choral chanting books that were three feet tall and a spinning stand used to hold them. They had magnificent art including intricate geometric cedar wood cupolas, hand-painted Italian tile work, solid gold processional litters, and dozens of oil paintings and murals. The best was one of the last supper that had been altered in order to assist in the evangelization of locals. Jesus and the Apostles feasted on roast guinea pig at a round table with kids and dogs present, while the cherubs looking down had wings of macaws, a local bird. The catacombs were eerie and musty, and held the piled-up, decayed remains of pretty much every Spanish resident from the 1600's through 1821 when a proper cemetery was decreed necessary. The only other fellow traveler on our tour was an older lady from Brazil who at the end began talking to us, almost entirely in Portuguese, although we answered in Spanish. It was amazing that we were able to keep a conversation going with her, and we surprisingly learned she had even visited Detroit once!

Journeying outside of the center, we spent a full day in the Miraflores and Barranco neighborhoods which stretch along the coast of the Pacific. In Miraflores, we had a guided tour of Huaca Pucllana ruins occupied by the Lima and Wari people before the Inca. The ruins were unlike any others we'd seen, featuring a unique building style called librero where adobe bricks were stacked up and cemented together creating a library-like effect which protects the building from seismic activity. The site was a ceremonial temple where sacrifices and burials took place close to the sea which was very sacred.

At the ruins (see library book staking method in the background)

At the top of the temple

Miraflores itself is a modern and upbeat area which would probably be a nice place to live given the concentration of airy apartments, good eateries and vibrant park spaces. It was nice to wander around, it reminded us a lot of Australia or the Western U.S., but didn't have a lot to offer in terms of attractions. Barranco was a bit less developed with even fewer attractions, but still pleasant with many old buildings, ornate houses and beautiful parks. The day we visited, the entire coast was also bathed in a moist, salty ocean fog which meant things were continually disappearing into and out of the mist and we couldn't get a good view of the beaches and coast.

Lima is known as the "gastronomic capital of the Americas" both for its variety of traditional Peruvian fare and its notable fusion dishes with other cuisines like Chinese and Japanese. We certainly tried to take in a variety of culinary experiences. We ate at one of the best (and most expensive) sushi places in the city, Edo, which had some delicious rolls like one with smoked trout cream and fried salmon skin. We visited the Chinatown district, complete with an arch, and had a filling mixed stir fry with two kinds of pork, beef, shrimp and some other unidentified seafood. We also had our share of Peruvian foods like seco de tierno, a tender piece of beef (maybe calf?) with a tomato-y cilantro sauce; aji de gallina, sliced potatoes topped with pieces of chicken and red pepper sauce and causa, a soft potato cake that we had topped with a shrimp salad. Lima is perhaps most famous for its ceviche, raw fish and seafood "cooked" in lime and chile served with onion and cilantro. We weren't too enthusiastic about trying it, but we found that it was surprisingly flavorful and the texture of raw clams was the only really off-putting part.

Chinatown arch

Seafood mixed platter

Our trip also would not have been complete without tasting a Pisco Sour, the national drink made from the local alcohol, pisco. Pisco is similar to grappa, its a strong, clear distilled spirit made from grape skins in, you guessed it, the Pisco region of Peru. The pisco sour is a blend of pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup and beaten egg white with a dash of bitters. These were good, but strong since bartenders tended to be heavy handed with the liquor! We preferred other mixes like a chilcano - pisco, lime and ginger ale - or pisco with maracuy√° (passion fruit) juice.

Enjoying a pisco sour

We were surprised at how much we enjoyed Lima. It had a contemporary, developed vibe, but also lots of ornate historic architecture that gave it a sophisticated and regal feel. The temperature was perfect this time of year, hovering in the high 70's, but cool in the shade and with a pleasant breeze from the ocean. The rapid bus system was efficient and easy to navigate. There were abundant parks and recreation spaces, all clean and well-maintained. We felt completely and totally safe, even walking around at night because there was always such a bustle of people. It truly was the ideal spot to end our wonderful trip.

Building designed by Gustave Eiffel in a park in the city

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