Lima is a city that is overlooked by many travelers to Latin America. While it may not be as picturesque as Rio or have the almost European feel of Buenos Aires, Lima has slowly been appearing on more tourists’ radar. Whether you are a first time visitor to South America, veteran expat, or a digital nomad looking for a new place to set up shop, Lima may be just the spot you’re looking for.
For most tourists, Lima serves as the stepping stone to popular tourist spots like Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungles or Lake Titicaca. What the tourist throngs miss is that Lima is a vibrant city of 10 million with endless options for nightlife, culture, history and dining. It will take stay of at least two months to really get sense of what this city has to offer.
Obviously Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in Lima. English is not widely understood except in restaurants or places specifically aimed at tourists. Peruvians however are generally accommodating of foreigners who make an effort to learn a few words and knowing some basic Spanish will go a long way.
One bit of good news is that Peruvian Spanish is spoken very clearly and slowly compared to that other Spanish-speaking countries. For this reason, Peru is considered one of the best places in the world to learn Spanish. If you’re still learning, you will find the local dialect easy to understand.
Where to Stay
Lima is enormous, and like many large cities in Latin America, you will see extreme income disparities depending on which city district you are in. Generally speaking, the districts on or adjacent to the shoreline like Miraflores or San Isidro will be more upscale with lower crime, while those in the interior will be more dangerous (avoid Surquillo district!). Miraflores is hands-down the best neighborhood to stay in for foreigners, particularly if you cannot speak Spanish. Logistics-wise you will be within walking distance of the beach, shopping and nightlife options, and tourist buses which can take you to nearby attractions. Other good choices would be Santiago de Surco, a wealthy suburban community, or the artsy bohemian neighborhood of Barranco. However if you’re new to Peru or Latin America in general, do yourself a big favor and just stick with Miraflores.
Short-term rentals can be found on Airbnb, beginning at around 50 USD per night. Flipkey.com tends to have lower prices, but fewer options. Reserve a spot prior to your trip for minimal headaches. You can also find MUCH cheaper options on craigslist or local apartment listings. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with a landlord for a lower rate. If you have not reserved a room in advance, you can try staying in a hostel nearby while doing your research. Kokopelli Backpacker Hostel on Calle Berlin is recommended for those seeking a balance between liveliness and peace and quiet.
Take one of the daytime Mirabus tours of Lima. You’ll get a nice view of Miraflores and San Isidro neighborhoods, as well as the historic sights downtown like the Plaza de Armas and notable colonial-era buildings, churches and museums. Take in the incredible view of the coastline along the Malecon and visit the Larcomar- a mall with stores, restaurants, discos and even a cinema built right into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Lima’s one arguable weakness is its’ beaches. With the possible exception of the Barranco neighborhood, Lima is not known for having the prettiest beaches in the world. While they look gorgeous when viewed from above, most are quite rocky with large waves. The water can be also be surprisingly cool- the ocean currents which make Lima’s climate mild for its’ latitude also make the water quite crisp. If surfing is your thing, Lima’s beaches can be a great choice. If you prefer swimming, some of the nearby beaches mentioned below are a better option.
Check out the spectacular remains of Caral- about 2.5 hours outside of Lima and at 5,000 years old, the most ancient ruins in the Americas. If the beach is more your thing check out Punta Hermosa, the Asia district (popular with Peruvians on summer vacation) or the sleepy town of Paracas about 3.5 hours away by bus, where you can take in some sun and see the famous Ballestas Islands (commonly referred to as “the poor man’s Galapagos”). Just outside of Lima is the city of Callao, where you can visit the Real Felipe Fortress, the BAP Abato- a decommissioned submarine of the Peruvian Navy which is now a museum. Be sure to try an incredible chicharrón sandwich in the Mercado del Callao. Callao is safe during daylight hours but can be dangerous at night, so it is recommended that one makes their way back to Lima before dark.
Peruvian cuisine is truly world-class. There are many excellent restaurants aimed at tourists which serve amazing food. While you won’t walk away unsatisfied, you’ll still be paying about 3 times the normal price. On the famous Calle Las Pizzas (Pizza Street) you’ll find numerous options for rather mediocre pizza at similarly exorbitant rates. Instead try some of the smaller spots where locals eat on the side-streets just off Parque Kennedy. You can get a filling, three course meal of authentic Peruvian food for as little as 10 soles (about 3 USD as of this writing). Ceviche of course is not to be missed and cuy (guinea pig) is an intriguing dish unique to this country, but is usually quite expensive (50-75 soles).
This is one area where Lima really shines. The city’s best nightlife is concentrated in the Miraflores and Barranco districts. Miraflores is a bit more upscale, with most options concentrated in the vicinity of Parque Kennedy. Calle las Pizzas features most of the discos and pubs aimed at foreigners. The most popular venues on Pizza Street are The Old Pub (an English-style pub popular with expats), Sabor Peruano, a disco which gets a mixed crowd of locals and backpackers alike 7 days a week. Sabor Peruano plays mostly EDM and around midnight will switch to reggaeton and salsa. There is also the much larger Sabor Perano VIP, which has a similar atmosphere but only attracts a good crowd on weekends. A few blocks away in the Larcomar Mall is Gotica, large disco popular with the well-to-do Peruvians. Saturday night is the best night to visit. On Calle Berlin there is Houlihan’s Irish Bar, a very popular expat spot which plays sports from all over the world and is the only bar in the city that serves Guinness.
The other main option for nightlife is Barranco, about 15 minutes away from Miraflores by taxi. Barranco, especially at night, is a little rougher around the edges the Miraflores, but you won’t find trouble here unless you’re looking for it. Be sure to check out Picas, a large, very popular disco right below the famous Bridge of Sighs. Discoteca Help draws a younger crowd, and Hypnosis and Bierhaus just off the main square are popular spots as well. Barranco also features the city’s only brewery- the Barranco Brewing Company.
By far the coolest venue in Barranco and arguably all of Lima is Ayahuasca. While they do not serve the eponymous psychedelic beverage, they do offer multiple bars inside an large colonial-style mansion and a huge outdoor patio in the back. Rather than a high-energy disco, Ayahuasca has a more laid-back, lounge atmosphere. Each room has a slightly different vibe, and the food is exceptional. Whether your out on the prowl, meeting friends, or looking for a quiet spot for a date, Ayahuasca can’t’t be missed.
The fact is Peru is a developing country and of all its’ major cities, Lima is really the only place in the country for top-notch medical care. Hospitals here are clean and provide excellent, modern healthcare services, for which you can expect to pay only a fraction of what you would would in say, the United States. Food poisoning is fairly common among first time visitors, but is easily avoided. Chose a reputable, clean restaurant and if you’re aiming for a cheap meal, it’s actually recommended that you pick restaurants that are busier- the ingredients will be fresher since they are using them up faster. Be especially wary of “chifa” (Peruvian Chinese food) no matter how much people may recommend it. There are farmacias (pharmacies) on almost every block for basic health necessities.
Be advised that in spite of how upscale and sophisticated parts of Lima may seem, Peru as a whole is still a poor country and as a foreigner, some people here, especially cab drivers, will try to take advantage of you. This is common in many developing countries and by no means unique to Peru, and with a little research, can be easily avoided.
NEVER just hop in a cab and tell the driver where you want to go, or your wallet will regret it later on. Always tell the driver where you want to go and agree upon the price before getting in. The first price the driver gives you is usually about double what locals pay, so counter with half that amount, and always be willing to walk away- there are thousands of other taxis in Lima and cabbies will usually drop the price if you do this. Taxis will charge more on Friday and Saturday nights. For example, the ride between Miraflores and Barranco is normally 5-8 soles. On a Saturday, you may have to settle for paying 8-10. Going to and from the airport to Miraflores or the surrounding districts should run you about 40-50 soles.
Is Lima right for you?
The parts of Lima recommended here combine the amazing cuisine, culture and history of South America with many First World conveniences and comforts. If you’re looking for a South American city to set up as home base, it’s hard to go wrong with Lima.