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Spread out over an area the size of Rhode Island with a population of almost 8 million, Peru's capital has been a city of fusion from the time the first adobe bricks were laid on the original two-story government palace -- a Spanish stronghold in the land of the Incas and far older cultures. Lima is a jumble of Renaissance architecture, pre-Hispanic ruins and museums filled with pre-Columbian artifacts that pre-date the Incas. Likewise, Limeans themselves represent a complex mix of ethnic heritage, ancient Indian cultures from the northern coast and the Andes, Spanish conquerors, and a large Chinese population that grew following immigration from China, which began in the mid-19th century.
It's true that parts of Lima were inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, but let's start with the city's official beginning. Two years after taking down the Inca Empire, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535 on the bank of the Rimaq River, eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. Finding a good natural harbor nearby, Pizarro also created Callao, which became Spain's main port in the New World. Until the mid-18th century, Lima was the wealthy capital of Spanish domination in South America, an enormous viceroyalty that stretched from what's now Columbia to central Chile.
The city's historic center has a generous share of Baroque-, Renaissance- and Rococo-inspired buildings with elaborate facades, balconies, ornate gates and courtyards in the area around the Plaza Mayor. Although the city has experienced numerous earthquakes, some early colonial buildings, the collaboration of indigenous and Old World craftsmen, were fortunate to survive. In 1988, the historic district became a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Callao can be either a regular port stop or a point for embarkation or disembarkation, and cruise ships call there every season, except summer (June through August). Most cruise travelers skip Callao -- the only real sights are the seaside Fortaleza del Felipe Real (a 16th-century stone fort) and the adjacent military museum. Instead, they head straight for Lima's historic center with its old homes, grand balconies, colonial churches (such as the well-preserved San Pedro and the Baroque-style San Francisco) and the Government Palace, which was built on the foundation of the original palace constructed by Pizarro.
Central Lima is surrounded by a collection of neighborhoods, each one with its own appeal, vibe, and streets off the grid: prosperous suburbs like Miraflores and San Isidro; seafront Barranco with its Bohemian vibe, colorful homes and lively nightlife scene; laid-back fishing village Chorillos at the southern end of Lima Bay; and Pueblo Libre with its small-town feel and prominent cultural sites, such as the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum and National Archaeology Museum. Lima's coast, often called the Costa Verde (Green Coast), features a string of parks along Lima Bay that runs south from Magdalena through San Isidro, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos, with lush foliage spilling over the cliffs.
Clearly, there's more to Lima than can be seen in one day. If your cruise does begin or terminate in Lima, consider tacking on a pre- or post-cruise stay. Visits to the city can also be combined with tours to Cusco, Macchu Picchu and Lake Titicaca (also available as multi-day overland excursions mid-cruise).
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Other South America Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Peru is known for quality alpaca goods -- blankets and throws, sweaters, scarves, hats, mittens/gloves and even rugs -- especially those made from soft baby alpaca. (This type of fur does not come from young animals but, rather, from the first shearing of the fur around the neck, which produces the softest fibers.) Run your hand over any alpaca goods in market stalls and stores, and the seller will usually claim "baby alpaca" -- this may or may not be true, as alpaca is sometimes mixed with other fibers. If the item feels like cashmere, it's alpaca; if it's silkier than cashmere, the fiber is probably a blend of alpaca and polyester; and, if it seems rough, the blend likely includes sheep's wool. Alpaca wool comes in three classifications, the best being royal baby alpaca, then baby alpaca, then a lower grade called superfine alpaca.
Spanish and Quechua (native language of the Incas) are the official languages. In Lima and other main cities, English is widely understood in hotels, restaurants and shops.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The nuevo sol is Peru's currency (currency sign S/.); check www.xe.com for current exchange rates. Most hotels, restaurants and shops accept U.S. dollars, but they'll give change in Peruvian soles. Major banks include Banco de Credito (BCP), Banco de la Nacion, BBVA Banco Continental and Scotiabank. Bank hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and many are open until noon on Saturday.
ATM machines are plentiful, and it's preferable to make withdrawals in very populated areas or at ATM's that are inside banks with guards on duty. Some ATM's dispense cash only to local account-holders, so look for machines with the Cirrus or Plus logos. Credit cards are widely accepted in Lima, with VISA being the preferred card, although some businesses tack on a 12 percent surcharge.
Where You're Docked
The port of Callao (pronounced Kay-ya-oh) is about seven miles from central Lima and 11 miles from Miraflores. There's no terminal building, shopping, ATM's or Internet access at the pier; there are telephones that require a calling card (available for sale at the pier). Authorized cabs are reasonably priced and available at the port gate. Depending on traffic, the ride into Lima can take between 30 and 45 minutes and cost around $12.
There is little to do near the dock, but one landmark worth seeing is the pentagonal-shaped Fortaleza del Felipe Real , a stone-walled, octagonal fort, built in the 18th century to fend off pirate attacks. It played a role in Peru's war of independence from Spain in 1821. For those interested in military relics, a military history museum is located inside the fort, with a naval museum near Plaza Grau. You can also take a boat tour of the islands off Callao to see the seabirds, sea lions and Humboldt penguins. Unfortunately, the suburb of Callao itself has many unsafe areas, so if you're not visiting the aforementioned sites, you're betting off heading into Lima.
At the pier, you'll find authorized taxis for traveling from the dock in Callao to Lima and for sightseeing in the city. Fares in Lima generally range from 4 to 10 soles (about $1.40 to $4.20), but taxis don't have meters, so agree on the fare in advance by asking, "Cuanto cuesta?" If you're on your own in Lima, a hotel or restaurant can call for a secure taxi. For getting around in Lima, avoid buses or mini-buses, which are cheap but slow and crowded, making tourists an easy target for pickpockets. If you're trying to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, you can hire a taxi for around $10 per hour and have the driver wait for you at each stop.
Watch Out For
Crime isn't a major risk if you use the same common sense you would in any large city. Stay alert for pickpockets in busy marketplaces, on crowded streets and anywhere in downtown Lima. Don't carry your wallet or passport in a back pocket. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, and keep expensive cameras or electronic devices out of view when not in use.
Central Lima: Make sure to visit the 117-block UNESCO district, which Pizarro designed to be built, block-by-block, like a chessboard of squares, featuring 400-foot-long blocks with 40-foot-wide streets. Start at the impressive Plaza Mayor, surrounded by Lima Cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace, City Hall, Government Palace and the Club of the Union (a favorite lunch spot for politicians and business people). In the mid-90's, the mayor of Lima started an Adopt a Balcony program to save, restore and rebuild hundreds of balconies. Although the process is still underway, you can find some of the most beautiful balconies on a mid-16th century home known as Casa del Odior (just off the Plaza Mayor) and the Archbishop's Palace. The palace is connected to the Baroque-style Lima Cathedral, where a small side chapel has the tomb of Pizarro.
The gem of Central Lima is the 17th-century San Francisco Monastery and Church, a few blocks from Plaza Mayor at the corner of Jr. Ancash and Jr. Lampa. The monastery has a serene courtyard and 17th-century library with 25,000 volumes and 6,000 parchments. Beneath the church, catacombs (discovered in 1951) contain the bones of 70,000 people, sorted by body part -- skulls, femurs, etc. Tours of historic Lima also take in Lima's grandest European-style square, Plaza San Martin. (Editor's note: The easiest and safest way to see some of the city's original homes and government buildings around the Plaza Mayor is to take a guided excursion.)
Miraflores: One of the best residential neighborhoods with a fair share of shops and restaurants, Miraflores is also a great place for getting around on foot. From Parque Kennedy, you can walk to the craft markets on Avenida Thouars, and take a 20-minute stroll down Avenida Larco to the Pacific Ocean. When you reach the end of Larco, cross over to the malecon, and take the stairs down to the cliffside Larcomar shopping center. In the center of Miraflores, surrounded by residences, you'll find what's probably Lima's oldest and most surprising site, the mud-brick fourth-century pyramid ruins of Huaca Pucllana, built by the Lima culture 900 years before the Incas constructed Machu Picchu.
Rafael Larco Herrera Museum: If you only have time for one museum, book an excursion to the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum, located in an 18th-century mansion, built over a pre-Columbian pyramid. The Larco has one of the world's largest collections of pre-Columbian art and is most well-known for its 45,000-piece compilation of erotic pre-Columbian pottery -- so much they don't have space to exhibit all of it. But, after seeing the main collections, you can wander through storerooms of amazing pottery stashed in floor-to-ceiling glass cases. Afterward, get a bite at Cafe del Museo, whose menu was created by Gaston Acurio.
Museum of Peruvian Gold: Many cruise lines offer excursions to the Museum of Peruvian Gold, located about 20 to 25 minutes from Miraflores in the residential neighborhood of Monterricco. The private collection contains gold artifacts from pre-Columbian times to more recent centuries and includes jewelry, funerary masks, sacrificial knives, swords and statuary discovered at archaeological sites around Peru. Years ago, a scandal surfaced at the museum -- the gold collection included a considerable number of fakes. Even though those have been removed, the museum is still packed with golden treasures that are the real deal, representing Peru's many pre-Hispanic cultures.
Shopping: While there are handicraft markets with dozens of sellers on Avenida Petit Thouars in Miraflores, and, in San Isidro, some high-end boutiques on Miguel Dasso and shops of local designers along 12 blocks of Avenida Conquistadores, some of Lima's most stylish boutiques are scattered about in residential areas, often hidden away behind unmarked doors. Case in point: For exquisite jewelry, visit Anna Dannon (Alvarez Calderon 130 #2 in San Isidro; 421 2039) and Lorena Pestana (Calle General Borgono 770, Miraflores; 446 4033). In Barranco, there are two wonderful stores inside old mansions: Mari Solari's stunning craft boutique is called Las Pallas (Calle Jajamarca 212; 477-4629), but there's no sign outside; the same goes for Dedalo (Paseo Saenz Pena 295; 477-0562), hands-down one of most interesting stores for accessories, eclectic fashion, objets d'art, things for the home and wooden toys -- each room of the home has a theme. When you're done shopping, there's a lovely terrace in the back for cappuccino drinks, cookies, wine, tasty sandwiches, pasta and salads.
Been There, Done That
National Archaeological Museum: Learn a bit more about Peruvian history at the National Archaeological Museum. Located in a colonial mansion that was once home to Jose San Martin and Simon Bolivar -- Peru's leaders for independence -- this museum has an enormous collection of pre-Hispanic art and relics, including paintings, pottery and well-preserved mummies and funerary bundles that have been opened up. Most of the exhibits are labeled only in Spanish, so it's best to hire one of the museum's English-speaking guides if you don't speak Spanish.
Barranco: On the southern end of the bay, Barranco's wide, leafy streets, lined by graceful colonial mansions, recall its reign as the summer playground for aristocrats in the 19th century. Renovation is bringing color and style back to this bohemian zone that's now known for great nightlife, a few art galleries and two of Lima's most interesting shops (see shopping section above). It's home to artists and writers, including famed novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Make sure to walk over the Bridge of Sighs, which spans a bougainvillea-lined walkway that ends at a lookout spot above the sea -- there's a myth that first-timers who hold their breath while crossing this bridge will be granted a wish.
Pachacamac: About 20 miles south of Lima in the Lurin Valley, Pachacamac, a coastal archaeological site, dates back to the Wari culture (200 to 600 A.D.). The Waris left their fish frescoes, pyramids (only a few of the 17 identified have been excavated thus far) and temple to the god Pachacamac, but much later, the Incas arrived and built a second Temple of the Sun (the other being at Machu Picchu).
Caral: If you've got an overnight in port or are doing a pre- or post-cruise stay in Lima, consider a day-trip to see the 4,700-year-old ruins of Caral (130 miles northeast of Lima), a 165-acre site where adobe-brick pyramids, circular plazas and amphitheaters are still being excavated. The largest pyramid stands 60 feet in height and has a 500-square-foot base. Caral's official English-speaking guides share fascinating details on the findings and explain why this civilization is important beyond its age. Just last June, Caral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because this is an all-day outing (a 3 to 3.5-hour drive from the pier in Callao to Caral), it's best to sign up for an organized tour, whether independent or ship-sponsored.
If there's anything that makes Lima a standout city, besides impressive old architecture and archaeological treasures, it's the cuisine -- perhaps the original fusion food, which is a mix of African, Spanish, Andean, Asian and Pre-Colombian influences. Long ago described by Auguste Escoffier as one of the four great cuisines of the world (third to French and Chinese), Peruvian food remained overlooked outside Peru until recent years when it started to find its place on the global culinary stage, thanks to the success of Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio. His huge restaurant empire and television show have made him a local food hero, and he has put a spotlight on some of the under-the-radar small restaurants that cook great food, whether it's criollo (dishes with African, Spanish, Chinese and Andean influences), chifa (a Peruvian-style Chinese food) or ceviche.
Peru's Pacific coastline produces more than 400 varieties of fish and 400 species of shellfish, so you can't go wrong with seafood in Lima -- particularly the national dish, ceviche (chunks of raw fish and/or shellfish, sliced red onion and minced aji chile, tossed in lime juice), which can be found at a cevicheria, a restaurant concept that began in Lima in the mid-80's and took off. There are now more than 2,000 cevicherias in Lima alone. And that's because Peruvians have a strong emotional connection with ceviche – it's the dish they want to share with family and friends, whether as a remedy to lift their spirits or to celebrate.
Chifa Capon (Ucayali 774, Central Lima, 427-2969) remains one of the best restaurants in Chinatown for chifa, a blend of Cantonese and Peruvian cooking.
Lar Mar (Avenida La Mar 770, Miraflores, 421-3365), Gaston Acurio's ceviche hotspot stands out among 2,000 other cevicherias in Lima, offering a contemporary spin on ceviche, tiraditos (think Peruvian sashimi) and other Peruvian specialties, not to mention the upbeat Latin music that plays in the background.
Trattoria Dei Prati (Cantuarias 239, Miraflores, 242-3382), down the street from Gaston Acurio's flagship restaurant, turns out delicious northern Italian cuisine. After learning to cook in Veneto, Lulu Prei returned to Peru and turned her former home into this intimate, two-room restaurant.
Chez Wong (Enrique Leon 114, La Victoria, 470-6217) is Javier Wong's 10-table Asian-fusion cevicheria inside his home. He serves lunch only, and reservations are a must. There's no menu, but trust Chef Wong because he's one of Lima's star chefs. He will decide what to make for you and will never make it again. The first course will be a ceviche, and the second dish will be a hot seafood entree, cooked in a wok with Chinese vegetables.
Restaurant Sonia (Calle Santa Rosa 173, Chorrillos, 467-3788) was one of the first cevicherias in Lima. Sonia Bahamonde does the cooking, and her husband, Fredy Guardia, catches the fish, so you can count on ceviche with sushi-quality fish.
L'Eau Vive (Ucayali 370, Central Lima, 427-5612) is run by an order of French nuns and set behind the massive door of an 18th-century mansion. They turn out wonderful French and Peruvian dishes with a set menu, and most nights, the nuns come out and sing Ave Maria just before closing at 9:30 p.m.
Astrid y Gaston (Cantuarias 175, Miraflores, 242-5387) is, hands-down, the best restaurant in Lima, run by Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid, who turn Peruvian criollo cuisine into an art form in a colonial-style building with elegant interior.
Restaurant Huaca Pucllana (General Borgono block 8, Miraflores, 445-4042) sits amid the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, an archaeological site that dates back to 200 A.D., which is lit up at night. Take a table on the terrace for views of the pyramid and adobe walls, and dine on criollo cuisine.
Jose Antonio (Bernardo Monteagudo 200, San Isidro, 264-0188) has clocked 30 years as a favorite in Lima, serving gourmet criollo cuisine with a backdrop of rustic decor that recalls a conquistador's ranch.
Check with discount hotel sites, such as hotels.com and quickbook.com ; many hotels are great values, with rates around $100 per night -- well below rack rates. Even Lima's top hotels are priced below similar lodgings in most major cities. To phone Lima, dial your outgoing country code then 51-1 and then the number.
Closest to the Ships
Sheraton Lima Hotel and Convention Center (Paseo de la Republica 170) is just 4.5 miles or 15 minutes from Jorge Chavez International Airport.
Miraflores Park Hotel (Malecon de la Reserva 1035, 610-4000) dishes up glamour, a rooftop swimming pool, four presidential suites and stunning ocean views. Rates include a breakfast buffet.
Country Club Hotel (Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro, 611-9000) has 83 suites in a whitewashed, 1927 mansion with a large art collection and antiques on loan from Lima's Pedro de Osma Museum; it sits across the street from the Lima Golf Club. Rates include a buffet breakfast.
Hotel Libertador Lima (Los Eucaliptos 550, San Isidro, 518-6300) is a chic and intimate hideaway with 54 spacious rooms in a quiet neighborhood. Time for a day trip or side trip? Libertador's plane can be booked for private flights to Paracas, and there's also a luxury yacht for cruising in Paracas Bay. Rates include a buffet breakfast.
Casa Andina Private Collection (Avenida La Paz 463, Miraflores, 213-9739) is a sleek, 17-story, contemporary hotel with cool furnishings, a covered and heated swimming pool and terrace, chic lobby bar with piano music in the evenings, and a coffee house/cafe that's stocked with publications especially for travelers. Rates include a breakfast buffet.
JW Marriott Miraflores (Malecon de la Reserva 615, 217-7000) offers dramatic ocean views from every room, a nightclub and a basement casino. It's located directly across the malecon from the Larcomar shopping center.
Doubletree El Pardo Miraflores (Jr Independencia 141, Miraflores, 617-1000) is only three blocks from Parque Kennedy and eight blocks from the oceanfront Larcomar Shopping Center. Rates include buffet breakfast.
Radisson Hotel Decapolis (Avenida 28 de Julio 151, Miraflores, 625-1200) is a contemporary hotel with a hip vibe; it's close to the waterfront and has a rooftop bar and swimming pool. Rates include a buffet breakfast.
Hostal el Patio (Diez Conseco 341-A, Miraflores, 444-2107) is a colorful courtyard bed and breakfast inn with flowering terraces, a terrific location and breakfast included.
Inka Frog (Calle General Inglesias 271, Miraflores, 445-8979) is a bed and breakfast inn with a lot of personal attention from the friendly staff, free wireless Internet and breakfast included. It's about a 10-minute walk from the heart of Miraflores.
Staying in Touch
Many hotels in Lima offer free wireless Internet access, plus a business center or lobby computer for guests to use, and the city has many inexpensive cyber cafes (called cabinas publicas). Some examples include Dragon Fans (Calle Tarata 230, Miraflores), Plazanet (Avenue 28 de Julio 451, Miraflores) and Cybercafe Amrelo (Jorge Basadre 395, San Isidro).
Best for First-Timers: You'll see a bit of everything on a four- or five-hour "Lima Highlights" tour. See ornate baroque architecture of Spanish aristocracy and landmarks around the Plaza Mayor in Lima's downtown UNESCO district. You'll tour Casa Aliaga, a colonial mansion that's been continuously occupied by the same family since 1535, and explore the San Francisco Monastery. Some shore excursions include a visit to the districts of San Isidro and Miraflores or a stop at El Parque del Amor for ocean vistas.
Best for Repeat Visitors: Join a half-day or full-day "Pachacamac and Paso Horses" tour to visit Pachacamac, a pre-Columbian archaeological complex of palaces and pyramids, first occupied in 200 A.D. The area was a religious pilgrimage site for more than 1,000 years before the Incas took over and added their own temples. Some all-day tours include a visit to a ranch where the smooth-riding Peruvian Paso horses are bred, and you'll see a demonstration by costumed riders and ride on a horse for a few minutes. Many tours also stop at the National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Best for Museum-Lovers: Take a guided excursion to two of Lima's top museums on the "Gold Museum and Ancient Treasures" tour. First up is Lima's Museum of Gold, where you'll see the country's largest collection of gold artifacts, as well as an exhibition of ancient weapons from around the world. Then, head to the Larco Herrera Museum to view pre-Inca pottery and pre-Columbian textiles.
Best for a Multi-Day Adventure: If your cruise embarks or disembarks in Lima (Callao), you can add on a three-day "Cusco and Machu Picchu Overland Adventure" at either end. If Lima is a mid-cruise port of call, you can skip some sea days to do this tour and then rejoin the ship in Chile. You'll explore the colonial city of Cusco and then take a scenic train ride to Machu Picchu (the Lost City of the Incas) to see the stone ruins located 7,874 feet above sea level.
For More Information
On the Web: PromPeru, 574-8000
iPeru Tourist Information: Larcomar Entertainment Center, Module 14, Plaza Gourmet, Miraflores (445-9400)
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--by Gail Harrington, Cruise Critic contributor