It might not live up to the splendour of the past, but Lima is much more than a stopping point on the way to the Inca Trail and the Amazon. Formerly one of the most important cities in the Spanish empire, today it’s a jumble of modern architecture and urban sprawl beneath near-perpetual grey skies. But with nearly 10 million inhabitants (around a third of the whole country), this 500-year-old city is the undisputed heart of Peru.
Halfway along Peru’s dusty coastline, the cliff-top capital is poised between the Pacific Ocean and the foothills of the Andes. It also lies near a tectonic plate, and has been subject to a succession of earthquakes that have wiped out a considerable amount of ancient architecture.
But not all of it, as Lima’s UNESCO World Heritage historic centre attests with the looming baroque majesty of Monastery of San Francisco, amongst other treasures.
Next to the seafront are a couple of affluent, trendy districts that equal almost any in Latin America for character and nightlife. The bohemian yet extremely elegant Barranco harbours a creative population of artists, photographers and musicians amidst handsome mansions, cool bars, pretty cafés and some phenomenal restaurants.
Indeed, the Peruvian food revolution that began here a couple of decades ago, and proceeded to spread across the Atlantic, can be traced back to gourmet spots in Lima. Lovers of ceviche in London and New York will find Peruvian cuisine all the more sublime back at the source.
Near to Barranco, the fashionable neighbourhood of Miraflores offers luxury hotels, world-class shopping and more than a few decadent clubs. Surfers will find easy access to Lima’s beaches, while paragliding from the cliffs is very popular. Miraflores is also home to Huaca Pucllana, a 3rd-century clay pyramid that pre-dates the Incas.
Although tourists tend to stick to the coast, it’s essential to take a bus downtown for the real centre of Lima life. The area is poorer than Barranco and Miraflores, but you’ll find traditional bars, impressive colonial buildings and the grand central square with its enormous 16th-century cathedral.