Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lima's Culinary Delights

Hello from the Southern Hemisphere!  I am writing you from Lima, Peru, where I have spent the past four days doing little more than walking and eating.  One does eat a lot in four days, so therefore I have plenty to write about!

My trip started with my earliest flight ever -- 5:28 AM Monday morning from Washington Dulles, catching a Copa Airlines flight to Panama City.  I had some fears of traveling through a decrepit Central American airport but everything turned out easy-peasy.  Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen in Ciudad de Panama isn't a bad facility at all and has some exquisite duty-free shopping at Lacoste and the like if you have time to burn on a layover.  Copa Airlines is the Latin American little brother to Continental and was a smooth ride, though if you don't like being awakened by a call for desayuno you may not be perfectly thrilled.

Lima is only about 3500 miles south of Washington DC and is on the same time zone, so with such an early departure I was able to arrive in Lima at around 3PM, giving me some time to enjoy the end of the day in the city.  I have been staying at a great hostel in the Miraflores part of town, safer than most of Lima and probably the best place to park yourself if you're a tourist here.  My buddy Michael had already arrived ahead of me and met me at the hostel.

We did some walking around the area, through the artisan market at Parque Kennedy and the tourist trap restaurants on the Calle de las Pizzas down to the Oceano Pacífico.  Strangely, I had flown more-or-less due south and gone from one ocean coast to another.  We walked to the Larco Mar, an American-looking outdoor mall complete with a Starbucks and a TGI Fridays.  Definitely gringo territory.

After enjoying a Pilsen beer along the waterfront, we walked to the elegant Miraflores Park Hotel, quite possibly the fanciest hotel in Lima, where we met up with a few Darden second-years at the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde bar.  They had just finished the Inca Trail and had the best things to say about their trip -- cannot wait to start our hike in a few days!  At the bar I did some more Peruvian beer sampling, trying Cristal and Cusqueña, with Pilsen being the consensus favorite amongst us Darden folk.  We moved from here to Rafael, quite possibly the most expensive restaurant in Peru!  I had a delicious meal of fried squid, grilled sea bass served in a mushroom sauce, and churros served with Nutella.  I also sampled my first pisco sour, the Peruvian national cocktail, containing a grape liquor (pisco), lime juice, egg whites, and bitters.  Service not good, though, so at $53/head I will call this place overpriced!

Day two started solo.  While Michael and the first-year Darden Peruvians were being courted at a six-course lunch held by McKinsey & Co., I slept in and awoke to walk further around Miraflores.  I was a little afraid I wouldn't find lunch on my own with the five words of Spanish I know, but I managed to survive at a pleasant empanadería.  Unfortunately, empanadas are Argentinian!  I spent a couple hours getting to know the neighborhood, walking through the Plaza Centro America and past the Peruvian Papa John's ("Mejores Ingredientes.  Mejor Pizza.") to the Parque Del Amor, well-known for its rather controversial statue of embracing lovers.

I returned to the hostel for a nice siesta before being picked up by Michael and our Darden Peruvian friend Antonio, who drove us in his nicely-appointed Audi A4 to the posh suburbs of Lima, where we met our friends Javier and Ariana.  Drivers in Lima are crazy and the traffic here is the worst!  I would be in about 12 accidents per day if I were driving here.  Also, pedestrian safety is almost non-existent here -- like China you need to keep your head on a swivel here.

The five of us caught up over a couple Pilsen beers, then drove back to the city and parked ourselves at Bar Huaringas, a trendy lounge, where we met Darden Peruvians Jaime and Melissa.  Our friends were great hosts and made sure we kept the pisco sours flowing (I highly recommend the maracunya sour, same drink but mixed with the juice of passion fruit).  We also ate like kings, feasting on sampler platters with tamales, stuffed peppers, roasted pork (chicharron) and my new favorite, cow's heart (corazón).  From here we taxied to Larco Mar to a club with a cover band playing American rock-and-roll hits from the likes of AC/DC and Journey.  They LOVE American music in Peru, especially 80's music!

On Wednesday, Michael and I went to the Barranco neighborhood, the bohemian part of town also along the coast.  The neighborhood was quiet with little to see during the day, so we sat down for lunch at a cevicheria named Canta Rana.  Ceviche is a dish of fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and peppers.  I ordered a mixto plate with octopus and fish -- delicious!  I also ate some of Michael's plate of calamari (chicharrones de calamar) and drank a couple more Pilsen beers, then pretty much needed to be rolled out of the place with a food coma.

We taxied back to Miraflores to visit the Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan mud-brick pyramid.  A pretty random bit of history in a bustling city, sort of like the ruins you see scattered around Rome.  From here we headed back to the hostel for a break, then back out to the San Isidro neighborhood, the richest part of the city.  We sampled the espresso at a local cafe and ate at a great little Italian place, one of those little 10-table restaurants, with served some great cannelloni.

This morning we set our alarm and met Jaime and Melissa for a trip to the city center on Lima's new city bus, the Metropolitano.  From Miraflores to the Centro in 15 minutes would have been unheard of with Lima's traffic, but this bus gets its own lanes and is a super easy ride.  The four of us visited the Plaza de Armas, home of the presidential palace, then toured the catacombs underneath the Iglesia de San Francisco.  Unfortunately no cameras allowed, but super cool, especially if you like bones!

Melissa's family is from China, so she knows all the great Chinese restaurants in Lima (called chifas).  We ate brunch at a great dim sum place near the city center, eating Cantonese-style dumplings, pork, and stuffed rice noodles.  From here we walked around the busy markets of the city center watching desperate Limeños struggling to find last-minute Christmas gifts.

This walk turned out to be much needed as we were heading to our next meal with Javier and Ariana at Panchita, a modern Peruvian restaurant headed by local celebrity chef Gaston Acurio.  Gaston was eating food and greeting visitors -- gotta love when the chef is hanging around his own restaurant.  I couldn't believe how much food our hosts ordered -- anticucho (skewers) of corazón, delicious potatoes, stuffed peppers, more roast pork, goat served with beans, a savory chicken with a yellow sauce (Michael's favorite), flan and picarones (donut-like fried treats) for dessert.  For about $25, perhaps the best food value I have ever experienced!

So, as you can see, Lima doesn't have a whole lot of traditional touristy things to do, but it has a ton of great food to eat!  You don't need a big budget at all (unless you're dining at Rafael) to eat really, really well.  From here we are onward to Cusco.  Our friend Anoop arrives late tonight and we fly up to 11,000 feet in the morning!

My Spanish is improving slowly and I hope to be communicating at the level of a 2-year-old by the time I leave Peru.  Feliz Navidad to all my American friends!

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