Lima was a city that wound up being nothing like I expected it to be. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it really surprised me. One, because I found out that it is pretty much a desert city – the only capital city with a drier climate is Cairo! According to the tour guides that we had, there is fewer than 1 inch of rain that hits the city each year. So rain is practically unheard of here. Isn’t that odd?
Outside of the peculiar weather, this city offers an interesting history, really cool neighborhoods, and delicous food! It is a huge, and sprawling city, home to over 8 million people! In this Lima travel guide, I will provide details on what you should do (and probably not do) over a four day stay.
Brief City History | Lima
The land that Lima currently inhabitates has been occupied by several indigenous American groups at least since 200 AD, if not before. One of the oldest archeological sites from that time period is the Huaca Pucllana, an ancient religous center consisting of a large pyramid of clay bricks. The area was part of the Incan Empire by the 1400s, but by 1535, it was conquered by Spain.
The Spanish named the city Ciudad de los Reyes, City of the Kings, but the name didn’t stick. It was originally known as Itchyma, but Limaq by visitors. The latter name stuck, with just the “q” being dropped from pronunciation.
After a few years, Lima became the Viceroyalty of Peru, and was the seat of government for nearly all of South America.The city flourished throughout the 17th century. The first univeristy of Latin America was established in Lima (National University of San Marcos) and worldwide trade flourished there.
The citizens of Lima finally found freedom from Spain in 1824. And despite some struggles in the years that followed, the city began to prosper in the 1890s. City growth really took off in the 1940s, due to migration from the Andean montains. The population grew from 600,000 to 4.8 million in a matter of 40 years. Then another 4 million in the span of 20 years!
That brings us to the city that we know today, a bustling city known as the industrial and financial center of Peru.
Know Before You Go
Lodging & Logistics
Getting There: Lima is serviced by the Jorge Chávez International Airport, located outside the urban area in Callao. Note that this is pretty far outside the city, about a 1 hour to 1.5 hours drive. The city is also connected to other major cities in Peru by the Ferrocarril Central Andino rail line.
Where to Stay: For the first time visitor, I recommend that you stay in one of the two following districts:
- Miraflores: This is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Lima, and also one of the most popular with tourists. It does not offer the most archetechurally interesting buildings or history, but there are plenty of beautiful homes with lovely gardens. The whole area is very clean too, with several open park areas. We spent some time here after our visit to Machu Picchu, and stayed at the Lot Boutique hotel. It is an absolutely charming little hotel, and it is an easy walk to all the neighborhood’s main attractions. These attractions include restaurants, bars, museums, and more!
- Barranco: This area is known as being “bohemian”, or in my opinion, hipster :). It has more of authentic vibe to it, and is less commercial than Miraflores. There are plenty of restored colonial buildings in the neighborhood, and its easy to find a plethora of delicious restaurants nearby. Like Miraflores, there are plenty of spots to enjoy the nightlife and experience live music. We stayed at this cute AirBnb on our first stop in Lima, which is in the perfect location to access the best parts of the neighborhood. *If you are a first time Airbnb user, use my link to get $40 off your first stay!*
The Old City Center is another option for your stay, but has been known to be less safe the the aforementioned neighborhoods. Safety has definitely improved in recent years, especially if you stay in the more touristy areas. There are fewer things to do after dark here, so keep that in mind as you plan your trip.
Getting Around: Lima is very spread out, so while the neighborhoods themselves are pretty walkable, you will likely need to take a taxi or uber to get around between them. Miraflores and Barranco are right next to each other, so depending on where you’re going you can get from one to the other in about 15-30 min. But to get from either neighborhood to the Old City Center, it is about a 40 minute drive.
There is a bus system that connects the city, which is pretty cheap. And there is also a metro system that operates from a few neighborhoods in the south, through the city center to the northeast of the city.
When to Go: As mentioned in the intro, the city is dry all year. The weather in the fall / winter (April – September) is cooler with highs in the upper 60s. The spring / summer (October – March) is warmer with highs reaching the mid-80s. Note that the sun really does not shine much at all in the cooler months, so if that’s important to you, keep that in mind as you plan your trip. If you plan to also hit Machu Picchu while in Peru, note that it’s rainy there during the summer months.
Language Considerations: The official language of Peru is Spanish. In less touristy areas, there isn’t very much English spoken, so it’s a good time to start practicing! Check out my post on Spanish for Travel to get all the phrases you need to survive!
Money Situation: The currency in Peru is the Peruvian Sol. An interesting thing about Lima is that you’ll find guys on the street (usually near banks), with large quanties of cash to exchange. And although it doesn’t seem so, it’s totally legit! At the time of writing this post, the exchange rate is $1.00 = 3.37 soles. It is not as cheap in Peru as Colombia, but your dollar still goes pretty far here. Check here for the latest exchange rates.
Health: Don’t drink tap water or eat fruit that you haven’t washed yourself. This will help you avoid any stomach issues while you are in the country.
The Travel Guide | Lima in 4 Days
Day 1 | Getting to Know the City Center
Start your first day in Lima exploring the city center, the oldest part of the city. Here you’ll get to see sites such as:
- The Plaza Mayor (Plaza de las Armas) – The historic core of the city, where you’ll find buildings such as the Government Palace and the Cathedral of Lima. This plaza is where the Jose de San Martín proclaimed Peru’s freedom from Spain
- The Basilica and Convent of San Francisco – This basicilica is particularly noted for the catacombs found beneath the structure. You see rows and rows of bones here. It’s cool, but pretty creepy at the same time
- Chinatown – This area is reminiscent of many chinatowns found in the US, full of Chinese restaurants (called Chifas), but less full of Chinese residents who have moved to other neighborhoods.
- Central Market – The place where the locals shop for food and other staples. Great place to pick up some of the local fruit, which is delicious!
If you’d like to see all of these sites on a guided tour, I recommend the 4-Hour Walking Tour of the Historic Center of Lima. This tour includes these sites and more, and you’ll be accompanied by a local guide who can provide you with the context and historical background for each place that you visit.
After spending the morning in the city center, take some time to stroll around and find a good place to eat before turning in for the evening.
Day 2 | Exploring Pachacamac and Barranco
On your second day, get out of the city and explore the nearby ruins at Pachacamac. Pachacamac is the name of the grand religious complex found about a 40 minute drive outside of the main city of Lima. Ruins here date back as far as 200 BC, and this site was activitely used until the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s.
Due to its long history, you’ll find artifacts from a varity of former cultures, such as the Wari, Lima, Ichma, and Inca. The site is named for the Incan god Pachacamac, who was the god of fire, child of the sun, and essentially the creator of the world.
After spending the morning at the archeological site, head back to Lima to the Barranco neighborhood. Spend time strolling through the streets of Barranco. Explore the Parque Municipal de Barranco, and the surrounding area. Here you’ll find lovely murals, shops, and food and drink options. It was my favorite part of the whole city! You could honestly spend the rest of the day here for a nice and relaxing evening.
If you’d like to do these activities with the accompanyment of a guide (which I especially recommend for Pachacamac), I recommend the Half-Day Pachacamac and Barranco Tour from Lima. The guide was extremely informative, detailing many historical details about Pachacamac that we would not have been able to know without her. A bonus is that they provided the history of the town surrounding Lima on the drive to the ruins as well.
Day 3 | Miraflores: Food Tour & Huaca Pucllana
For day three, it’s time that you get acquainted with the food of Lima :). Lima is known as the culinary center of South America, so a food tour is an absolute must! I recommend taking the Miraflores Foodies Tour. As a quick summary, you’ll experience ceviche (a Lima original), local fruits, stuffed avocado, various types of fish, and more!
The tour closes out with a stop at the Choco Museum, where you can schedule (in advance) a chocolate-making class. We made truffles, and had a lot of fun. While at the museum you can also purchase a lot of cool products made from chocolate or cocoa butter, like lotions and sweet spreads.
After your food tour, take a walk (about 15 minutes) through the Miraflores neighborhood to Huaca Pucllana. As I mentioned above in the history section, this was another major religious center. It is known for the large pyramid of clay bricks that have essentially only survived to this day because Lima is so dry! The entrance fee is 12 soles or about $4.00, and tours are included with the price.
Day 4 | Choose Your Own Adventure
Okay, so for the forth day, I will first tell you what we did. Then I will tell you what I think you should do instead, as we did not enjoy option #1 haha. But to each his own…so choose your own adventure!
What we did…We took the Palomino Island Tour from Lima Callao in order to swim with sea lions. I really did it at the request of my cousin who thought it would be really cool. The tour involves taking a opean speedboat through choppy waters through the Palomino islands. Before you get to the one with the sea lions, you’ll see smaller islands, which are home to various birds, including some penguins (kinda cool).
Once you get to the sealion isle, you’ll know by the smell. I won’t go into detail, but remember how I said it never rains in Lima? Well the island is just full of sealion waste that never gets washed away. So the smell is QUITE unforgettable! At this pint, you’ll be offered a diving suit and a life jacket (both required) to go on the swim.
You can hear the sea lions roar in the below video, hence their name:
If you are not a strong swimmer, I don’t recommend this, even with a life jacket as the waters are just soooo choopy. My cousin and I lasted about 1.5 minutes in the water before turning back. Oh…almost forgot to mention. Unless you go in the summer, the water is COLD. So that’s option #1.
What you should probably do instead…I recommend either going on an excursion to Caral, the oldest city in Peru that has pyramids as ancient as those in Egypt. Or you should check out the Nazca Lines; tours include plane rides and aerial views of the lines that still have unknown origins. Both activities keep you dry, warm, and away from bad smells. Of course, the choice is up to you though!
Final Thoughts | Lima Travel Guide
That’s it for my Lima travel guide! Overall, I had a great time on my visit there, and definitely recommend taking a visit. Even if you just do it for the food – I’ll go into more detail on this topic in a later post!
What about you – if you’ve been to Lima before, what else do you recommend? How about the options I’ve mentioned above for day 4? Which activitiy would you choose? Let me know in the comments below!