Spurred in part by its world-class restaurant scene, the Peruvian capital has undergone a transformation from stopover to tourism hotspot
Author Chris Wilson Photography Jessica Sample
DAY TWO | You wake up feeling a little delicate, your condition accentuated by the knowledge that you’re about to drive downtown. Navigating Peru’s congested capital is a blend of white-knuckle drama and stop-start purgatory. After an eventful hour or so zipping through a snarl of cars, mopeds, taxis and buses, you arrive at Plaza Mayor, where breakfast awaits at the wonderfully old-timey Bar Cordano, right across the street from the heavily guarded Presidential Palace.
Inside the bar, a counterman makes exquisite butifarra sandwiches, slicing cold ham prepared two ways—glazed with sugary syrup or sprinkled with extra salt—then piled on a roll under salsa criolla (onions and lemon juice). It’s as good a ham sandwich as you’re likely to have, in Lima or anywhere else. You chase it with a strong coffee from the rickety Gaggia machine and then sample one of Bar Cordano’s beautiful causas, classic Peruvian potato dishes displayed under glass like prize tarts in a Parisian bakery.
Revived, you wade through the crowds to tour the Church of San Francisco, a Spanish Baroque complex built in the mid-1500s, flattened by an earthquake a century later and reconsecrated in 1673. Inside, gazing upon Marcos Zapata’s “Last Supper”—in which Jesus and his disciples dine on cuy, or roasted guinea pig—you are struck by the sobering thought that 75,000 bodies are interred in the church’s cavernous stone catacombs. You hear a clicking noise, which could be someone taking pictures or a skeleton shifting in one of the crypts.
Next, you roll down the Old Pan-American Highway, past dusty roadside chicharrón stalls and flower shops in the Lurín Valley. Your destination is Casa Hacienda Los Ficus, a ranch owned by Fernando and Elsa Puga, who breed Peruvian Pasos—the “dancing” horses renowned for their ability to trot sideways. Luckily, you’re in time for a show, which culminates in a steed prancing alongside a woman in traditional garb to the strains of piped-in marinera music. Later, you lounge on the hacienda’s vast lawn, Pisco Sour in hand, and tuck into a rustic lunch of mashed white beans, potatoes and roast chicken.
On the way back to Lima, you stop at the Pachacamac Ruins, about half an hour south of the city. You spend an unsettling hour looping around 18 pre-Incan pyramids that sit on a patch of earth so parched and unforgiving it could be on another planet. As if the landscape weren’t forbidding enough, you learn that archaeologists recently uncovered a massive pre-Incan tomb here, which included 70 skeletons wearing false wooden heads, along with evidence of ritual human sacrifice. You snap a few pictures and beat a shuddering retreat.
After washing away the residue of sand and dread back at the hotel (and, unexpectedly, passing chimp expert Jane Goodall in the lobby), you head out for dinner: a nine-course extravaganza at Central Restaurante, a short drive away in Miraflores. You pull up to an unmarked cedar door flanked by two men in dark suits. You’re ushered into the sleek, 80-seat restaurant and seated near the windowed kitchen run by revered chef Virgilio Martínez. The conceit behind the high-concept menu is a culinary voyage across four Peruvian terrains: sea, coast, Andes and Amazon.
The dishes appear rapidly, baffling in their complexity. Highlights include a sublime octopus, purple corn, olive and limón chili plate; a frozen potato puree dotted with cushuro, a fish roe–like bacteria from the Andes; raw river shrimp with Amazonian sacha inchi seeds; arapaima fish with hearts of palm; an 18-hour stewed lamb; and frozen huampo wood extract with Amazonian bahuaja nuts and a shot of maca tree sap. Each course is paired with a well-curated wine. What a trip.
It’s late, but you decide to keep the party going with elixirs of questionable provenance at Ayahuasca in Barranco, a rambling, psychedelic-themed villa that is named after a powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic. You have one of their deceptively punchy fruit-infused pisco specials, then another, then maybe one more, then call it a night before those crazy wooden-headed skeletons start dancing again, man.