Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lima, Peru

The colorful architecture of downtown Lima
This is part 5 of my series about our cruise to South America in December, 2012.  Today's port-of-call is Lima, Peru's capital city.  This would be my third country in South America, after Colombia and Ecuador. 

For a general overview of the cruise and the trip report index, click here.

Date of Visit:  Monday, December 17, 2012

Cruising down the west coast of South America is a longer trip than it might first appear.   The Pacific coastline is nearly 5,000 miles long from Colombia to the Tierra del Fuego (a place I very much hope to go someday) at the Chile/Argentina border.  This meant two whole sea days to get from Manta to Lima, or more specifically Callao, a western suburb where the port is located.

On the first sea day, we saw numerous sightings of whales and dolphins.  I don't have a high-powered camera to get a good shot of a moving animal, but I was able to get this fuzzy shot of a whale (or possibly a dolphin) from our balcony.

We were also treated to yet another spectacular sunset, courtesy of some clouds that happened by in the early evening.

Originally, we were scheduled to arrive in Lima at 8 A.M. Monday morning.  However, we were told late Saturday that the Peruvian immigration authorities wanted to check every single passenger's passport before anyone would be allowed to deboard.  The captain decided to haul a** and get to Lima by Sunday afternoon instead, so that immigration could go through passports and we would be allowed to leave the ship as scheduled Monday morning.  Not a terrible outcome, with the only drawback being that we would be stuck all afternoon and evening on the ship in a smelly port (and it was REALLY smelly from our balcony, which meant sitting out there wasn't an option).  But as it turns out, nothing would go smoothly from this point forward, and Celebrity's handling of port snafus would leave much to be desired.  More on that in future posts.

The arrival into Callao provided for some good photo opportunities.  Notice the smog in the background.  The cool Humboldt current keeps this part of South America temperate but rather cloudy, which leads to a lot of smog getting trapped near the ground, similar to Southern California.  Summer in Peru (late December through April) is usually the one time of year that it is sunny, but we were told that we were about a week or two too early to see much of the sun.

Lima is one of the oldest cities in South America, founded by Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro in 1535 (Peru had been inhabited by the Incas for many centuries prior to that).  More than 7.6 million people call Lima home today.  Many historical buildings and institutions still exist today, and several of these would be on the agenda for our guided tour, with the same group of people we toured with in Cartagena.  This time, though, I made sure to triple check the time so we wouldn't be late...

It took about half an hour to get from the port of Callao to the center of Lima.  One of the first things we passed by was an enormous Santa Claus head hanging out of a building.

Next we passed by the Plaza Castilla, which contained a statue of Jose de San Martin, a revolutionary who helped Peru gain its independence from Spain in 1821.

We then stopped for some time at the Plaza Mayor (Central Square), also known as the Plaza de Armas.  Several buildings of historical significance can be found in this general vicinity, but perhaps the two most important are the Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace) and the Catedral de Lima.  The first photo is the palace, completed in 1930, along with the fountain in the center of the plaza.

The Catedral de Lima, a stunning piece of baroque architecture, was originally constructed in 1564, but several earthquakes destroyed the main building over the years.  What you see today was mostly constructed in 1746.  The Cathedral also houses the remains of Pizarro.

Also on the Plaza is the Archbishop's Palace.  This building looks older than it really is.  It was "only" built in 1924.

Our next stop was the Convento de San Francisco, constructed in the 1620s and a spectacular example of Moorish baroque architecture.  It is most famous for its catacombs, which are said to house the remains of more than 70,000 persons.  We did take a tour of the church and the catacombs, but they did not allow photos to be taken inside, so you'll have to make do with a few photos of the outside.

We then took a driving tour around the city for awhile before heading to our last stop of the day.  On the way, we passed by one of the city's colorful slums, which you can see extends well up the hill in the background.  This is a typical scene when traveling in developing countries - pockets of poverty, sometimes extreme, juxtaposed with beautiful colonial architecture and gleaming office towers.

After driving around for an hour or so, we proceeded to our final stop of the day, the Museo Larco (Rafael Larco Herrera Archeological Museum).  In addition to being located in a beautiful, flower-filled garden, the museum showcases Peru's pre-Columbian history, including a large collection of textiles, ceramics, and gold and silver coins and jewelry, among other things.

First, the beautiful gardens surrounding the museum.  A few breaks in the clouds had finally developed by then, making for a wonderful afternoon.

Here are a few samples of the ceramics, gold/silver objects, and jewelry on display in the museum.

It was already after 2 by this point, and time to head back to the ship.  That's one of the drawbacks of cruising.  You get to see a lot of different places, but rarely stay in one place long enough to really explore it in depth.  I'd like to return to Peru one day, especially to take a few days to visit Machu Pichu and the Andes.

Miscellaneous Things to Know

- Currency - the Nuevo Sol; current exchange rate is approximately 2.79 to the dollar.  A few tourist heavy shops will accept dollars, though at a crappy exchange rate.  ATMs are widely available, and credit cards widely accepted.
- Climate - as mentioned above, cold ocean currents offshore keep the weather overcast and cool most of the year, with a warmer, sunny period from late December through April.  Similar to Southern California, there isn't much variation in temperature from season to season; it was overcast and in the upper 60s the day we were there, but our tour guide said temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees even in the summer.  Also similar to Southern California, the climate is very dry, with an average of only around 10 inches of rain a year.
- Transportation - unless you're part of a tour group, or fancy a walk, city buses or taxis are the way to get around town. Buses are ridiculously cheap - crosstown fares might run 2-3 soles - but be aware of a few things before going this route.  First, the concept of a "bus stop" doesn't really exist, except in some wealthier suburbs; you just flag down a bus that you see going down your street.  Generally your best bet is to go to a major street corner where you see a bunch of people standing around.  It also helps to have at least a rough idea of where you're headed, and to know enough Spanish to ask the driver if you're headed the right direction.  It is also said that the safety of the buses (privately operated) can be questionable, and buses are not permitted to run into the historic city center; you'll have to get off nearby and walk.  If you want to travel by taxi, be aware that they don't use meters, so you'll need to negotiate the fare before getting in.  Minimum fare is usually 5 soles, though "official" cab companies and nighttime rides may incur a surcharge.
- Food - our tour didn't include time for a lunch stop (boy, was I glad I hit the breakfast buffet hard), so I didn't get to sample Peruvian cuisine.  The country's most popular dish is "lomo saltado", which is stir-fried beef mixed with vegetables, soy sauce, vinegar, and cilantro, served with french fries and rice.  More than anything, the dish highlights the Asian fusion you often see in Peruvian cuisine - local ingredients prepared with Asian techniques (Peru has a fairly significant population of Asian descent).  Other dishes highlight the Spanish influence on Peru, such as arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) or arroz con camarones (shrimp with rice), which are similar to Spanish paella.
- Other - if you have respiratory problems, be aware that pollution levels in Lima, thanks to the persistent marine layer that covers the city most of the year, can be very high.  Peru, especially the highlands, are known for clothing made from alpaca fur (think of an alpaca as a long-haired llama).  There is a craft ship near the dock in Callao that sells these, but the prices seemed high to me.  You're probably better off trying to find a place in the city; remember to negotiate off the sticker price. 

The website provides a good overview of typical local dishes if you'd like to peruse before your trip.

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