|Where's Juliet? Peru!|
With only three days to spend in Lima, and a visit with my traveling companion's family to fit in, I knew I wouldn't get to the popular tourist destinations of Cuzco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Instead, I decided to focus on Lima itself and what it has to offer, as well as take a day trip to Palomino Island to swim with the sea lions.
BUENOS AIRES TO LIMA
After a nearly three-hour flight on LAN airlines (1-866-435-9526), which cost $280 and was reasonably comfortable, I arrived at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport (LIM). I was hungry when I arrived and as I waited for the driver from the hotel where I was staying to pick me up, I bought a $1.50 churro - a long, thin, fried-dough-type pastry with caramel filling. It was delicious and a good introduction to the gastronomical pleasures that awaited me in the capital city of Peru.
MIRAFLORES PARK HOTEL
After a 30-minute car ride, much of which was spent hugging the expansive Pacific Ocean coastline, I arrived at the Miraflores Park Hotel, a five-star hotel built on a cliff with sweeping panoramic views of the ocean. Located in Miraflores, perhaps the most exclusive residential and commercial district in Lima, the hotel, part of the Orient-Express Hotel group, was impressive from the moment I entered and saw the broad spiral staircase in the center of the modern lobby. My room, a junior suite, was equally impressive. It was spacious and comfortable and the view from the room was amazing.
One of the reasons I wanted a junior suite was so I could get a large bathtub to take advantage of the hotel's signature bath butler service, in which a hotel staffer dims the bathroom lights, places candles around the bathtub and draws a bath using salts, oils and soaps, as well as a sprinkling of rose petals. Talk about the ultimate in pampering and relaxation! Speaking of which, I also had a wonderful massage at the hotel spa, Zest, which is on the top floor where the pool is located and where a scrumptious breakfast is served each morning. The view from the rooftop terrace is remarkable.
THINGS TO DO, PLACES TO GO
The hotel is a short five-minute walk from Larcomar, a way-cool shopping and entertainment center overlooking the ocean. There are specialty stores, restaurants, bars, discos, ice cream shops, a cinema and bowling alley, and an entertainment arcade. I won't brag about taking first-place in the Skee Ball competition, but ... The shops offered all kinds of hand-made items indigenous to the region, but I found even better bargains in downtown Lima, where everything from handmade musical instruments to handbags to jewelry made from gemstones and silver were sold. The prices were amazing, especially since there are 3.18 Peruvian nuevo sols to the US dollar. I bought my son a beautiful hand-carved and painted huiro (a musical instrument) made from a gourd that cost the equivalent of $3USD. I've seen similar instruments at American music stores for more than 10 times that amount.
Downtown Lima has a great deal to offer in addition to shopping. There's a strong mix of colonial architecture, unique museums and historical sites right around the main square, the Plaza Mayor, and the nearby neighborhoods give visitors a glimpse into the archaeological, historical and artistic Peruvian past. Don't miss the magnificent La Basilica Catedral de Lima, built in 1625 as a Renaissance structure that was rebuilt in Baroque style after an earthquake in 1940. It may not look like much from the outside, but the inside is breathtaking, with intricately carved wood pillars and choir stalls, ornate altars and gold-leaf accents on many pictures that adorn the walls. The cathedral also contains the tomb of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and a gruesome display of skulls. The cathedral is open Monday through Saturday and is well worth the $4 admission price. Also worth seeing in Lima are Santa Domingo, a church given to Dominican friars by Pizarro, the Parque de la Muralla (Park of the Wall) near the Rimac river and the Palacio Torre Tagle, considered the best-preserved colonial private residence in the city that is now used as the Office of the Foreign Ministry for the Peruvian government.
SWIMMING WITH SEA LIONS
Since I knew there wouldn't be time to visit popular tourist destinations like Cuzco, the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and Amazonia, the most biodiverse tropical forest that exists, I wanted to find something closer to Lima that I could do in a day. A colleague recommended going to Palomino Island and swimming with the sea lions. I took the suggestion and had a blast. After boarding a small, rustic boat in the marine port of El Callao, myself and about 15 other passengers were ferried to a larger boat that would take us to Palomino Island, a natural refuge for sea lions and guano birds, about an hour's ride away. On the way, we passed the islands of El Fronton (an abandoned prison that is likened to Alcatraz), Cabinzas, and San Lorenzo, Peru's largest island. As we approached Palomino Island, the sight of hundreds of sea lions frolicking in the caves, basking on the rocks, sliding down the embankments and playfully jockeying for position in the water was too cute. Only four of us (plus a guide) donned wetsuits and braved the choppy water to go swimming with the friendly whiskered sea creatures who let us pet and swim alongside them. The only negative aspect of the trip was that there was a pungent odor at the island - so much so that the guide gave passengers alcohol-dabbed cotton swabs to hold up to our noses - and the strong smell, coupled with the rough waters, made for a queasy feeling in my stomach (that's the nice way of putting it ...) on the ride back, despite the tablet I took before the trip to prevent seasickness. All in all, however, it was a great experience and well worth the $50 per passenger (which includes pickup and drop off at the hotel). There are several tour companies that offer swimming with sea lions excursions, the least expensive of which was the one I took with Peru Coltur. Call 51-5-615-555 for more information.
As I mentioned earlier, the food in Peru was delicious. Because of the country's multicultural heritage, as well as its varied geography and climate, there are plenty of choices. Being a vegetarian, I don't eat fish, but those who do say some of the best fish dishes in the world are found here. One of Peru's most popular regional dishes, papa a la huanca’na (potatoes served in a creamy, spicy sauce), was out of this world, and I thought the desserts were yummy - especially picarones, small donuts made from sweet potato and squash and sweetened with carob syrup.
There's plenty happening in Lima for those who like the nightlife. The Barranco district, south of Miraflores, offers open-air concerts and performances in the district's parks and public gardens, and there are plenty of bars, cafes and penas, where Criolla music - which blends African, Hispanic and Amerindian influences - is played. Pick up a copy of El Comercio newspaper, which has a thorough listing of entertainment offerings, including theater, film and music.
I found the people in and around Lima to be warm, friendly and helpful. I was told to be wary of pickpockets and thugs in the city, but I had nothing but positive experiences with everyone I encountered - even the police who didn't like that I got too close to the Presidential Palace to take pictures of the changing of the guards, which occurs daily at noon. In fact, they seemed amused by my attempt to explain to them in Spanish how I wasn't posing a threat by taking a picture. I can't wait to go back to Lima and explore it - as well as other areas of Peru - more thoroughly. For more information about Peru, visit www.peru.info.
Juliet Pennington is a freelance journalist who lives in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. She can be reached at Juliet at JohnnyJet.com (replace the "at" with an "@").
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