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Friday, 02 May 2014 12:33

Lima and its Splendid Coast

Written by  Monique Burns

Latin-Peru
For decades, Lima, Peru’s great capital by the Pacific, languished, beset by crime, political unrest and triple-digit inflation. The once-proud city became a way station for Americans headed east to Machu Picchu or north to the Amazon. But times have changed. In the past decade, a committed leadership has worked to wipe out gang violence, strengthen U.S. trade agreements and upgrade the city’s infrastructure.

Safer and more welcoming, Lima retains the elegance of its Spanish colonial past. Grand plazas are lined with ornate churches, and stylish European-style cafés where Limeños savor cocktails made from pisco, the heady national drink, and ceviche made from the Pacific’s freshest fish. Only a three-hour drive down the coast, tour the Paracas National Reserve, home of Humboldt penguins, sea lions and blue-footed boobies, and follow the Pisco Trail to Hacienda La Caravedo, the oldest distillery in the Americas and birthplace of premium Pisco Portón.

Discovering Lima’s Grandeur
From Newark’s Liberty International Airport, an eight-hour flight takes you to Jorge Chávez International Airport in western Lima, a bustling city of nine million sprawling along the Pacific, backed by the Andes. After a late-evening arrival, take a 35-minute taxi ride southeast to San Isidro or Miraflores, side-by-side luxury-hotel districts along the Pacific’s Costa Verde.  

In San Isidro, four-star Hotel Atton (www.atton.com) has 252 contemporary rooms in black and white with pale wood accents, a sunny dining room and an outdoor pool. Doubles start at $129. The 1920s Country Club Hotel (www.hotelcountry.com), facing the 18-hole Lima Golf Club, has Spanish Colonial-style rooms starting at $199. In cliffside Miraflores, the Orient-Express Miraflores Park Hotel (www.miraflorespark.com) charms with a spa, Japanese fusion restaurant, and suites starting at $320.

The next morning, head northwest to the heart of the city, El Centro, or the Cercado. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but only a third are licensed, so look for windshield medallions, or ask your hotel clerk to call a registered cab. Otherwise, hop aboard the Metropolitano, the natural gas-powered bus system that debuted in 2010, or El Tren Eléctrico, the Metro whose Line 1 was completed in 2012.

A grid of plazas and squares, dotted with fountains and historic churches, El Centro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known as “Pizarro’s Checkerboard,” it was laid out by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who founded the city in 1535. Rich in gold and silver from nearby mines, Lima became Peru’s Viceroyalty, holding sway over Spain’s South American colonies for nearly three centuries.

At El Centro’s southern end and ringed by graceful European-style arcades, Plaza San Martín is dominated by an equestrian statue of Argentinean general José de San Martín, who liberated Peru in 1821. Stroll north along broad Jirón de la Unión whose ornate Belle Epoque buildings house clothing shops and casual eateries. At 16th-century Basilica of La Merced, gawk at the highly carved baroque facade and phantasmagorically gilded chapels.

Several blocks away, at Plaza de Armas, the main square, Pizarro’s ashes rest for eternity in Lima Cathedral, with its lavish gold-plated main altar, while outside Government House, the Changing of the Guard is held each day at noon. Several blocks west, at the Church of Santo Domingo, arcades adorned with 17th-century Sevillian tiles surround a flowery courtyard with a tinkling fountain. The lofty cupola, with huge copper bells, offers fabulous city views. East, at the Convent Church of San Francisco, tour spooky underground catacombs.

Steps away, Limeños gather in Bar Cordano, circa 1905, where lithe waiters in black vests glide through a sea of small wooden tables as ceiling fans whirr overhead. Order Peru’s signature drink, the lime-infused pisco sour, topped with frothy egg white, or a chilcano, with pisco, lime and ginger ale.

Lima is also famous for fusion cuisine, a blend of European, Asian and South American influences. East of El Centro, in the Barrio China, perhaps South America’s largest Chinatown, try Chinese-Peruvian cuisine in tiny eateries called chifas. South in Miraflores, the terrace of elegant Huaca Pucllana (www.resthuacapucllana.com) overlooks a huaca, or ancient adobe ceremonial site, predating Machu Picchu by four millennia. Order a nuevo cocina peruana fusion dish like fried shrimp in quinoa crust with soy and sesame sauce, or a traditional criollo favorite like tacu tacu, paper-thin steak topped with a fried egg, and served with beans and fried plantains.

The Paracas Reserve and the Pisco Trail
After a few days exploring Lima’s churches and museums, make the 3 to 4-hour drive 166 miles south along the Pacific, via the well-paved South Pan-American Highway, to Paracas. Check into La Hacienda Bahía Paracas (www.hoteleslahacienda.com), a sprawling country inn with 87 swim-up pool rooms and balconied upstairs rooms, a terraced restaurant, and a long sandy beach, strewn with kayaks, on pristine Paracas Bay.

The 800,000-acre Paracas National Reserve, Peru’s only marine preserve, includes a coastal desert and peninsula with over a hundred ancient archeological sites. But the visit’s highlight is a two-hour cruise across Paracas Bay. En route you’ll pass El Candelabro, a 600-foot-high geoglyph in the shape of a candlestick. At the craggy Islas Ballestas, known as the “Baby Galapagos,” flocks of cormorants, condors and Peruvian diving petrels wheel overhead while sea lions roil atop the rocks, and blue-footed boobies and Humboldt penguins toddle over the rocky terrain.

From Paracas, a 75-minute drive inland takes you to Ica where pisco has been distilled for 300 years. At Hacienda La Caravedo, built in 1684 and the oldest distillery in the Americas, take the fascinating tour and tasting at the Pisco Portón (www.piscoporton.com) facilities. Then lunch in nearby Fundo Tres Esquinas at La Olla de Juanita whose owners run the Bodega Tres Generaciones distillery, founded in 1856. Do as the locals do: Order a pisco sour or icy beer, then dig into criollo-style duck in spicy cheese sauce or grilled fish fresh from the Pacific.

For nonstop flights to Lima from the New York area, contact American (www.aa.com) and United (www.united.com). Nonstop flights are also available from Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami. For information on Peru, log on to www.peru.travel

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