Machu Picchu is one of those bucket list adventures, isn’t it? I’d dreamed of going there since I wrote a report on the Incas in the 5th grade. It only took me more than a few decades to realize that dream. We had to sandwich our trip into 6 short days and made the most of every single day. If you’re looking for a magical trip, replete with the dreamiest hotels and best-ever guide, follow our itinerary to a T. If you’re looking for a more magical trip, add more days. That’s our only regret.
Now, the ONLY way to get to Machu Picchu is to fly into Lima. Lima gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s a drab industrial-looking city, but it’s also a historically magnificent city that lines the Pacific Ocean. It’s also a foodie paradise of significant renown that deserves to be explored. More on that later.
Where to stay in Lima?
You know that I’m a devoted Marriott/Ritz points hog and ascribe to the philosophy of “why pay for vacay hotels when you can glamp gloriously with points?” Take my advice and forego the big hotel chains (no matter how many points you have) and stay at Second Home in Peru. This grand, rambling estate, in the boho Barranco neighborhood, looks out over the Pacific Ocean and is the original family home of Victor Delfin, Peru’s most famous living artist. The gated structure sprawls along a cliff, with the original Tudor home, additional odd outposts, a tall structure called “The Treehouse” and every available space taken up with Victor’s sculptures, paintings, multi-media pieces and found objects. Victor, who is now 92 and still producing art, lives on the premises. The place is managed by his daughter, the beautiful, spirited Lillian Delfin and her brother. Like many Peruvians, Lillian lived in the US during the dangerous period when the Shining Path terror movement battled the Peruvian state, and the home fell into serious disrepair. They’ve lovingly restored it over the past 15 years and every room is completely unique and different. Our room came with a multi-colored hammock and a patio that looked out over the Pacific ocean with a bonus view of the ginormous Jesus statue that lords over Lima. Victor’s art is all nature and animals. Horses figure large, as do fighting cocks (the national bird of Peru), bulls, lush red flowers and fruit. Bring a bathing suit because there’s a patio with a terracotta pool, filled with sculptures and this very cool bas-relief, just outside of Victor’s studio. Speaking of fruit, get Lillian to show you her unique way of opening a Granadilla at breakfast. Indeed, the room comes with breakfast and nightly rates are very reasonable at $150 to $250 a night depending on the room. If you have a longer trip than us, be sure to add time to explore the neighborhood – lots of funky bistros and nice restaurants. We had a delish vegetarian meal on our first night at the Sofa Café which is right around the corner from the home.
Exploring Lima in one day
We devoted our one day in Lima to exploring and eating as much as we could muster. The Museo Larco was an ideal starting point for our future adventures in the sacred valley. It traces the entire evolution of the Incan from the earliest times to the Spanish invasion. If you have a passion for pottery, this is your place. If you’re into copulation and fertility sculptures, (and who isn’t?), this is really your place. There’s a side gallery called the Erotic Gallery. Let me put it this way, pre-Columbians had no shame, nor did they ascribe to the modern-day version of binary sexuality. Oh, and there’s the most enchanting little café at the Museo Larco that looks out over the beautiful gardens and offers everything from little bites to delicious sweets and tea. Alas, we had to keep our appetites for our grand adventure at one of Lima’s best restaurants, Astrid and Gaston.
Eating in Lima
There are so many amazing restaurants in Lima and with only one day, it was hard to choose. Be forewarned, most of these fabulous foodie establishments require reservations so don’t show up in Lima expecting to waltz into these places. My true foodie friend, Stefania Pomponi, recommends gorging on ceviche at La Mar along with the Peruvian creole grilled meats extravaganza offers up at Panchita. She also advises exploring as many Chifa restaurants as possible. “Chifa” is a culinary specialty, unique to Peru, that fuses Chinese Cantonese food with traditional Peruvian ingredients. All the locals recommended Chifa Titi, but warned that the menu is overwhelming and best to get your waiter to recommend a few of the classics.
Astrid and Gaston in Lima
Our pick for our one day, Astrid and Gaston, is located is in the elegant San Isidro neighborhood. Owned by the wildly creative husband and wife team, Astrid (wife) and Gaston (husband), the restaurant is located in a grand old colonial home, although it is far from fussy. It’s a modern open atmosphere place with the most attentive waiters you’ll ever encounter. The décor is as simple, exquisite and delightful as the food. We came to try out what’s called Novo Andean food and of course have a ceviche or two. My husband was brave and opted for cuy tacos. Cuy, guinea pig, is wildly popular in Peru. Me? I just can’t get over the idea of eating a children’s pet. Instead, I opted for this delicious avocado, beet and shrimp concoction that arrived looking like a bridal bouquet and tasted absolutely scrumptious. For our main course, David gobbled down the striped bass and I had this light, airy, scallop ravioli dish in a lime parmesan sauce. The menu constantly changes and you’ll want to book several weeks in advance for a meal at this legendary restaurant.
With only one day in Lima, we opted to sign up for an “alternative walking tour.” Hubby and I are decidedly not tour guide people. We hate traipsing around with eager-eyed tourist groups, following a pre-programmed tour guide, speaking heavily accented English, saying things like “On your right, you will observe the historic grand palace. There are 429 bedrooms.” To which, everyone always says “oooh and ahhh” and clicks their cameras and nobody remembers what was said. We actually found an individual guide through my relationship with Marriott Hotels, named Alberto Meza, (email@example.com) who totally got our gestalt of wanting to explore the quirky, the history and the politics.
Alberto and his driver picked us up at Astrid & Gaston and took us to Plaza de Armas in the historic center of Lima. It’s kind of like the Peruvian equivalent to our White house, only you get the Government Palace, the Archbishop’s palace, the Palace of the Union and the Municipal Palace, all in one square. You want to take note (and pictures) of the famous wooden balconies which jut out from the buildings and are elaborately carved Moorish-looking affairs. You can dip into the Cathedral de Lima, which basically has round the clock weddings and there’s a line-up of folks on the steps, gloriously dressed ready for their opportunity to stand in this historic Roman Catholic church in front of a room full of tourists and onlookers, just to get hitched.
The Spanish invaders really liked grand squares (and grander churches), so you’ll also want to hit up the Plaza Saint Martin, which features, fittingly enough, a large sculpture of Jose de Saint Martin himself. He’s the guy who liberated the Peruvians from the Spaniards and, along with Simon Bolivar, is considered the founder of the Republic. By the way, there’s another very similar sculpture of Jose on a horse in Central Park, right at the corner of 59th and 6th avenue. When you visit the Jose statue in Lima, take note of Madra Patria, she’s “the mother of Peru” and you can’t miss her because she’s standing beneath the statue, holding up the entire thing (horse and all) with her slender arms If you look closely, you’ll notice she has a llama on her head. Yep, a llama on her head Evidently, this was a mistake by the sculptor. He was instructed to add flames – only the word for flames looks suspiciously like the word for llamas, so poor Madra Patria ended up with a llama on her head. (By the way, you won’t find this detail in many tourist books, so take in that fun fact!) There’s also some history about a big brouhaha over why the big statue in the square is for St. Martin and not the famed Bolivar. Rumor has it, the two men had a famous fight with St. Martin making the bold declaration, “There is not enough room in in Peru for Bolivar and me.” After with that, he threw his cape over his shoulder, stomped out of of Peru, moved to France to live out his days. (Where there are even more statues of him around the country.)
Hotel Grand Bolivar and Orson Welles
We found a way to honor Bolivar at the historic Gran Hotel Bolivar across the street from the Plaza de Armas. If you’re going to get a Pisco Sour (the national drink of Peru), this is the place to do it. It’s also the stuff of numerous competing Hollywood legends. Supposedly Ava Gardner got wildly drunk on Pisco Sours at the Bolivar, danced barefoot on the piano and was escorted to her room by a very sober John Wayne. In another story, Orson Welles, who had just finished shooting Citizen Kane, visited the hotel and decided to break the record for most Pisco Sours ever consumed at the bar, downing 42 in one sitting. Alas, we’d been forewarned of the strength of just one Pisco Sour so could not imbibe so soon after our wine-drenched meal at Astrid and Gaston.
Churches in Lima
Peru has a lot of churches, like a LOT of them. The Spanish, who conquered Peru in 1532, brought with them Catholicism and a wicked case of smallpox. They also weren’t keen on the Incan penchant for worshipping idols and set out to build their churches on the foundations of Incan temples. Perhaps the most beautiful church in Lima is the Church of San Francisco, a towering golden yellow structure, which is famous for its catacombs. It’s a little creepy, but evidently there are something like 75,000 bodies buried under the church in this higgledy-piggledy, crisscross pattern. One minute you’re walking down a pew and the next, you are staring into a cut-out section of the floor at a gaggle of skeletons. We happened to show up on a very special day when there was a pilgrimage or celebration of the famous statue of San Judas Tadeo. (We know him as St. Jude. You know, one of Jesus’s apostles? The patron saint of lost causes. Usually spotted carrying what looks like a billy club?) Anyway, there’s a big, sparkly silver statue of St. Jude and on this day, it seemed like all of Peru was out honoring him, waiting in line with flowers to throw at his feet.
So visit those churches, genuflect and then head over to my next entry for serious advice on how to soulfully explore Machu Picchu.