We were up at 3:30 Friday morning for our 6am flight. A taxi picked us up at 4, and we made it through security more than an hour before our departure time. Happily, we weren’t charged for our luggage, which included 2 monster suitcases and a medium-sized duffel bag (that’s a value of $95 and climbing!). I’m not sure if we got a free pass because it was an international flight, because we were flying first class, because we were using frequent flier miles, or because I was a proud owner of an American Airlines credit card (which I’d only obtained so I could get enough miles for us to fly free).
Luckily we’d managed to book our flights using frequent flier miles. However, doing so hadn’t been without some challenges. First, we had to fly out on Friday because Saturday wasn’t available. Then we had to book a rather roundabout itinerary to get to Peru. We’d fly from Charlotte to Dallas, where we’d endure a 3-hour layover. From Dallas, we’d fly to Miami. After another lengthy layover, we’d finally leave for Lima. I know – we need a better travel agent.
The only good news was that we were flying first class. Oddly, I was able to get these flights in first class with fewer miles than a more direct route in coach. Since we would be spending so much time that day in airplanes, we were kind of looking forward to first class treatment. On the other hand, Christy and I really aren’t first class type people. We could only hope that we didn’t get kicked out and sent back to coach where we belong.
The flight to Dallas was pretty uneventful. Our free breakfast was pretty disappointing, consisting of a bagel that clearly spent most of its existence in a freezer. We killed a few hours in Dallas, before flying back east to Miami. Our free lunch was better, though not particularly memorable. A 4-hour layover in Miami ensued. We spent most of that time working on our Spanish. Hey, what better place is there to learn Spanish than the Miami airport?
The flight to Lima was a bit more interesting. We took our seats and waited as the passengers boarded. One passenger caught my eye. In fact, I imagine he caught everyone’s eye. This is because he had no arms or legs. He wasn’t in a wheelchair though. Instead, he was, for lack of a better word, waddling up the aisle, unassisted. I quickly shifted my focus to my magazine in an attempt to avoid staring. This was already a bit surreal. Then, just after he passed by, Christy exclaimed, “hey, I know that guy!” At that point, I knew this was going to be a weird trip.
I turns out that this guy is something of a celebrity. He’s an inspirational speaker, and apparently he was on his way to Peru for a series of engagements. You can read more about him here:
The flight to Lima was actually quite nice. Dinner was very good, and we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine, too. I actually slept some, which I rarely manage to do on airplanes. Of course, it had been a long, tiring day. That cushy first class seat didn’t hurt, either.
When we landed in Lima, my watch said 12:30. This confused me, because we’d left on time and had been scheduled to arrive at 11:30. Even though Peru is on the Pacific Ocean, it’s in the same time zone as North Carolina (most of South America is far to the east of us). It was several days later when Christy finally figured it out. Peru doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time.
One of the first things we did at the airport was hit the ATM. Figuring out how to handle money was a bit of a pre-trip fiasco. I was leery about carrying a lot of cash, and I’d read that most establishments in Peru added a 5-10% surcharge for credit card purchases. A week before my trip I went to my bank to get traveler’s checks, only to discover that they no longer carry them. In the end, we decided that we’d largely rely on ATMs.
Peru’s currency is the Nuevo Sol. When we were there, the exchange rate was roughly 3 Soles to 1 U.S. Dollar. At the airport ATM I withdrew the maximum amount of cash, which was only around 450 Soles. That wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a start. Unfortunately, every time we used an ATM we paid a hefty fee. After 4 weeks in Peru, we managed to ring up an impressive total of about $130 in fees.
I was relieved to find that most of the signs in the Lima airport were in Spanish and English. Even the ones that weren’t were pretty easy to figure out. We endured a long line at customs and then promptly waited at the wrong carousel for our luggage. It was 20 minutes or so before we discovered that we were looking for our luggage on LAN’s carousel. It turns out that LAN has a flight from Miami at the same time as American Airlines.
We found our way to the American Airlines carousel and immediately found our two suitcases. We eventually located our duffel bag, which was a mess. Somewhere along the way the zipper had blown out, and there was camping gear and freeze-dried food scattered all over the place. We gathered everything up, hopeful that weren’t missing anything.
We left baggage claim and stepped into the zoo. There were people everywhere, and most of them were shouting. Christy and I were tired and disoriented, but this was no place to be off-guard, particularly since we were lugging around a bunch of luggage. We weaved our way through the throng and miraculously spotted a sign with our name on it.
We had booked three nights at the Hitchhikers B&B Backpackers Hostel in Miraflores:
We had chosen Miraflores because it has the reputation for being the cleanest and safest part of Lima. We chose Hitchhikers for several reasons. First, the rates were reasonable ($30 / night for 2 people with a private bath). Second, it was one of several places in Miraflores in our price range that was recommended by Lonely Planet. Finally, Hitchhikers offers taxi service to and from the airport for a reasonable cost. In the post-midnight chaos of the Lima airport, it was a tremendous relief to have someone waiting for us!
Our driver helped us outside with our luggage. The taxi didn’t start on the first 7 or 8 tries, but finally we were on our way to Miraflores. Miraflores is on the opposite side of Lima from the airport. Lima is a big city – at last check, the population was around 8 million – so it was a bit of a ride. Fortunately, there was little traffic at 1am. Most of the cars we saw were police, who were apparently not interested in enforcing the speed limit. We made great time at approximately triple the posted speed limit, and reached the hostel in 25 minutes. We checked in, went to our room, and collapsed – exhausted from a day of traveling. Fortunately I had planned a light schedule for the following day.
We rolled out of bed at 9 on Saturday, just in time to take advantage of the free continental breakfast. It was a pretty standard Peruvian breakfast consisting of rolls, juice, and coffee. Then we caught a taxi over to the South American Explorer’s Clubhouse. I’d purchased a one-year membership to the SAE (http://www.saexplorers.org/club/home) several months earlier, primarily to get their assistance in planning our trip. They provided some useful information, but membership brought other benefits as well. We took advantage of some discounts and free phone calls home, but most useful was the opportunity to store luggage. I loaded up our duffel bag (its zipper freshly repaired) with all of the food and gear that we wouldn’t need until we went to Huaraz. When we returned to Lima from Cuzco, our first stop would be the clubhouse, where we’d pick up our gear.
The taxi ride was interesting. The clubhouse was only a mile away, and the fare was only 5 Soles. Unfortunately, my smallest bill was a 50. The taxi driver eventually scrapped together 40 Soles in change. We let him keep the difference, thereby massively overpaying for a 3 minute taxi ride. I learned an important lesson from this – always carry a plentiful supply of coins and small bills.
The taxi driver didn’t speak English, either. Generally, we found that the people in Peru that worked directly in tourism spoke at least some English. In fact, some of the folks we ran into spoke better English than the average American. Otherwise, most Peruvians spoke little to no English. The poor girl working at the hostel did her best to communicate with us, as she spoke a little English and we managed a little Spanish. That’s pretty much how the whole trip went for us – we managed to get by.
The folks at the SAE clubhouse were very welcoming. We stored our spare gear and hung out for a bit, perusing their vast library of books and maps. I ended up buying a couple of maps, which would come in handy later in the trip.
With our errands taken care of, it was time to venture out into Lima. Using a free map of Miraflores and a list of recommended restaurants from the SAE, we went in search of lunch. Christy is now mostly vegetarian, meaning that she doesn’t eat meat except on Fridays. Just kidding! Actually, it means she doesn’t eat meat except for fish once or twice a week, along with the occasional chicken wing. Anyway, we noticed a couple of vegetarian restaurants listed, and I was willing to try one. We ended up at Bircher Benner, a vegetarian German restaurant. Our lunch was excellente! This is the second time Christy has dragged me to a vegetarian restaurant, and both meals have been fantastic (the other being at the Laughing Seed Café in Asheville, NC).
While we were eating we were startled by a strange noise outside. I glanced out the second floor window and was surprised to see hundreds - no thousands - of teenagers streaming down the middle of the main avenue on skateboards. The parade of teenagers went on for a good ten minutes. Apparently this was a big event: http://www.goskateboardingday.org/events/13757/. I did enjoy getting a break from honking horns, idling motors, and diesel fumes.
We managed to find our way back from the restaurant to the hostel. We regrouped there briefly and planned our afternoon. I didn’t have a big agenda for our 2 days in Lima, but there were a few things I wanted to see. A visit to the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera (http://www.museolarco.org/iindex.html) was near the top of my list. We decided to go there that afternoon, and visit central Lima on Sunday.
We caught a taxi from the hostel to the museum, which is in the San Miguel section of Lima. It was a fairly long ride, but it still only cost about $5 or so. Taxis in Peru are generally quite affordable. We could’ve gotten around cheaply on local buses, but Christy was a little intimidated by them, as they always seemed to be overflowing with people. Plus, it was usually difficult to tell exactly where a given bus was headed. What Christy didn’t realize is that we’d get the full range of local bus experiences later in the trip.
At the museum we wandered through some lovely gardens to the entrance. There we paid the entrance fee, which was about $10. This fee was higher than at most of the museums we visited, but it was definitely worth it! I was pleased to find that photography was allowed (Lonely Planet says it is not), although the use of a flash was forbidden. The museum is fairly dark, so we ended up with lots of blurry photos. Oh well.
The museum featured a wide variety of displays, including gold and jewelry, weapons, and textiles. However, the museum is most known for its collection of ceramics. The pottery is from multiple cultures and time periods throughout Peru. The best examples are organized in display cases, but there are many more. In fact, a separate storeroom, which is open to the public, contains another 45,000 pieces!
The museum may be famous for its ceramics, but it’s infamous for its collection of erotica. We eventually found our way to that collection, which is in a separate room. That room features pottery that is quite eye-opening, to say the least. Some of the pieces are surprisingly graphic, so view the photos at your own risk!
We spent several hours at the museum before heading back to the hostel. From there, we decided to go for a run. Christy wanted to keep up with her Ironman training, and I wasn’t about to let her go for a run through Lima by herself. From the hostel we walked a few blocks south to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This would be a very scenic place in good weather. Unfortunately, we were there during the season of perpetual fog. As it was, the cliffs towering out of the surf, largely lost in the mist, made for a spooky backdrop. We ran along a wide sidewalk that follows the brink of the cliffs. It was a nice place to run, except that we had to continuously dodge pedestrians and kids on bikes and skateboards. It also got dark before we finished. This caught us off guard, as it was only 6pm. That was something that we never really got used to during the trip.
We returned to the hostel and took showers. Then we made a quick trip to a really nice grocery store a few blocks away. Along the way, we passed several dogs, including two Weimaraners that made us think of Boone. We saw lots of dogs everywhere we went in Peru. Some of them were pets, but most were probably strays.
From there, we headed over to Si Senor Mexican Restaurant. There was something about eating Mexican food in Peru that amused me, but I really can’t explain what it was. Anyway, dinner was ok, but it was nothing compared to the lunch we’d enjoyed earlier.
We returned to the hostel, worn out from our first full day in Lima. We spent the rest of the evening in our room watching a Spanish version of “The Simpsons”. That was pretty funny, except the voice of Homer seemed all wrong. We slept fairly well that night despite the noise of water constantly dripping from the showerhead. It wasn’t until the next morning that I was able to fix that problem. The faucet handle was loose, so I jammed one of our trekking poles between the handle and the wall. Believe it or not, that actually worked!
We managed to get up at 7 on Sunday. We had the usual free breakfast and used the hostel’s computer to check our email. Then we headed to central Lima. We caught a taxi to the Plaza de Armas, which is bordered by the Presidential Palace, the Lima Cathedral, and the Archbishop’s Palace. From the plaza, we walked a few blocks to the San Francisco Monastery.
The Monastery is an impressive building, dating back to the 1600’s. We paid a modest admission fee, and waited a few minutes before joining a small group with an English speaking guide. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited within the monastery, church, and catacombs. We complied with the rules, but if you want to see photos, a simple internet search will turn up hundreds.
The tour was fascinating. Highlights included an ancient pipe organ and a library full of tomes hundreds of years old. The only thing missing from the library was Gandalf, the wizard from “The Lord of the Rings”. He would’ve fit in perfectly.
The highlight of the tour came at the end. Our guide led us down into the catacombs below the church. We wound around through narrow, low passages cut through the stone. Early on we passed a series of bins full of skulls and bones. These catacombs served as Lima’s first cemetery. It’s estimated that there were around 70,000 bodies buried here.
Those first bins were eye-opening, but the best was yet to come. Our guide led us to a platform overlooking a stone well. Inside the well were more bones and skulls, piled almost 40’ deep. That was unnerving, but the way the bones were arranged was particularly disturbing. First, someone (?) had organized the bones by type. Skulls, femurs, and other bones were all grouped together. What is really eye-catching is that the bones are arranged in a giant concentric circle. A few skulls affixed to the wall of the chamber added a nice touch to the ambiance.
We didn’t take any photos, but I found one in the Wikipedia Commons:
It looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, eh?
Our visit to the San Francisco monastery was fantastic. It was one of the highlights of our trip. Along with the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, it made spending two days in Lima worthwhile.
(NOBODY EXPECTS) THE SPANISH INQUISITION
From there we walked over to the Museum of the Spanish Inquisition. When we arrived we weren’t sure if it was even open. It was, but apparently there are no tours offered on Sundays. So, instead of a tour, we wandered around the museum on our own. We were almost the only people in the building, which made the experience more enjoyable. The museum features a number of displays, including several devices of torture. Overall, this museum was interesting, but I wouldn’t consider it a “can’t miss” for a trip to Lima.
MARCHING UP AND DOWN THE SQUARE
From there, we walked back to the Plaza de Armas. When we arrived there was a big party in full swing. The plaza featured a giant screen that was showing the World Cup. There was a big crowd in the square watching the game, along with lots of vendors and other festivities. We relaxed there for a few minutes and watched a bit of Futbol. As it turns out, we ended up watching quite a bit of Futbol while we were in Peru.
While we were holding a park bench down, I watched a family from Europe taking turns photographing each other. A woman was composing a photo of the family with the palace in the background when a soda bottle in the grass caught her eye. Apparently it must’ve been in the frame, because she walked over to it, picked it up, and tossed it off to the side – nearly hitting a trash can with it. Apparently the U.S. isn’t the only place in the world with slobs.
We walked over to the palace a few minutes before noon for the changing of the guard. This is a daily event, but it draws quite a crowd. The sidewalk was several people deep, and the road in front of the palace was blocked off by police. Apparently the police were there to guard the guards.
Shortly after we arrived, a stray dog wandered down the street behind the line of police. Eventually he stopped behind one of the policemen and sat down. Then he stared at the crowd stoically, much like the policeman in front of him. It actually appeared that he was intentionally imitating the officer. Mocking him, even. This was pretty funny, but it got better. Apparently he got bored, because after a few minutes he sprawled on the sidewalk so he could lick his privates. At that, I really had trouble maintaining my composure.
The actual changing of the guard was quite the display. First we were treated to a marching band. Then the actual guard appeared. They came out the main gate and into the street bordering the plaza. The guards appeared to consist of teenage boys carrying riffles with bayonets. There was quite a bit of marching up and down the square before the guard retreated back into the palace.
The changing of the guard is one of those events that most tourists take in. The experience was interesting, but the highlight for me was the canine entertainment, which isn’t part of the official performance.
From there we walked over to Chinatown for lunch. It turns out that Peru, and Lima in particular, has a large Asian population. We ate at Way Lok, a Chinese restaurant that is recommended by Lonely Planet. Way Lok was surprisingly crowded, and we actually had to wait a few minutes for a table. The food was quite good though, and well worth the wait.
From there we wandered through Chinatown’s giant market. On the far side we caught a taxi that took us to the National Museum of Lima on the east side of town. This museum was being renovated during our visit, so part of it was inaccessible. Admission was free, but we paid a modest fee for a tour with an English-speaking guide. Our tour lasted 90 minutes, but only covered one floor of the six-story building. By the time it was over it was almost closing time. The tour was certainly educational, but at this point I think we were both ready for a break from museums.
We took a taxi back to the hostel. We did some packing and then went in search of dinner. We found most of the area restaurants closed because it was Sunday. We eventually found our way to pizza row – a large collection of pizza joints and other restaurants in the heart of Miraflores. We had a decent meal at Gloria’s, where I dined on grilled trout. Afterwards, we returned to the hostel and finished packing. We went to bed early again, as we had another early flight the next morning. After a couple of days in Lima, we were ready to explore the Amazon.
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