PORT CITY: Callao/Lima
It was close to midnight when our American Airlines flight touched down in Lima/Callao, a gateway to South America. Our first impressions of Lima’s port of Callao were murky. As our private car whisked us through the gloom, our senses were assailed by stinging smog and pollution. Not an auspicious start for our trip, we thought. An industrial city of almost a half million inhabitants adjacent to Lima, Callao is considered a Constitutional Province of Peru. Not everyone flies here of course; Callao serves major cruise lines, including Crystal Cruises, Disney, Holland America, Orient Lines, Radisson Seven Seas, Royal Olympia, and Silversea.
Callao is replete with history, with such notable sites as an 18th-century fortress, colonial mansions, a naval museum, the archaeological complex of El Paraíso, La Punta beach and the Ventanilla marshes. The latter is a 1.5 square-mile swamp preserve for migratory birds. To promote tourism, the Peruvian government is striving to upgrade Callao's hotels, restaurants and other facilities. But these ambitious plans are still unfolding. For our third visit to South America, our initial focus was Lima, South America's fourth largest city with almost 8 million inhabitants. Other destinations would follow.
Lima was founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, the ruthless Spanish conquistador who butchered and suppressed indigenous Quechua Indians who had dwelled in the region for millennia. In 1821, General José de San Martín proclaimed Peru's independence. In recent decades, Peruvians have renewed their interest and knowledge of their Quechua heritage, and throughout our trip we learned much about this fascinating, ancient culture. Along with Spanish, Quechua is an official language of Peru and we tried to pick up a few phrases.
Our hotel, The Country Club, was located in Lima's upscale financial/residential neighborhood of San Isidro. The sprawling hotel is situated across from a golf course and not far from the Pacific ocean. As we checked in, we were greeted by flutes of champagne, an elegant, welcome gesture, especially at this late hour. We soon settled into our comfortable room -- complete with mini-bar and cable TV. Built in 1927 and renovated in 1998, Country Club is one of the city's finest hotels, featuring an upscale restaurant, cozy bar, and playground with outdoor swimming pool. Unfortunately, it was too cool for swimming.
Morning dawned cool and grey. As this was the middle of winter (August), Lima is usually sunless. However, temperatures hover in the 60s during the day and rarely dip below the 40s, mild by brutal East Coast standards. Even at night, the only wrap you need is a light jacket or sweater.
After a light buffet breakfast (included) of fresh fruit juice, yogurt and strong Peruvian coffee, we struck out for the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, recommended by a friend who has lived in Peru. We took a taxi which charged the outrageous sum of 7 new soles (our exchange rate was 3.4 soles to $1). The small but comprehensive museum chronicled Peru's long history starting with pre-Incan civilizations. While Incas get most of the "ink," they were only the last of a dozen or more pre-Columbian civilizations. Larco Herrera's vast storeroom is open to the public, and what a storeroom! As far as the eye could see, shelves are lined with all kinds of pottery, separated according to category and carefully labeled: plants, animals, gods, etc.
But the main attraction at Larco Herrera is the amazing collection of erotic ceramics, one of the largest in South America, we were told. I can't describe the figures in detail (The SeaLetter is a family publication), but those Incas did have fun, and they even carried their amorous pursuits into the afterlife.
Upon leaving that rather entertaining establishment, we followed a painted blue line along the sidewalk to Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología y Historia. But first, hunger beckoned, and we stopped at El Bolivariano for a delicious buffet lunch. After ordering local Cuscano cervezas, we attacked the bountiful spread of cebiche, camarones (shrimp), arroz con pollo, roast lamb and all kinds of papas (potatoes). I made the mistake of telling our waiter in my fractured Spanish that I was a food writer, and the next thing we knew, more goodies appeared: antichuchas de corazón (marinated skewered beef heart), picarones (deep fried pumpkin fritters drizzled with cane syrup), a sweet drink called chicha brewed from purple corn, and tart, potent Pisco sours. We waddled out of there and our total bill was 75 soles, which comes to about $22. We dined well -- and cheaply -- throughout our trip.
Back to the National Museum: Arranged around a courtyard (like many South American museums), exhibits are mind-boggling. Civilizations date back to 8,000 BC. We ogled mummies (pre-Columbian funeral practices were elaborate and similar to those of early Egyptians), pottery, and jewelry encrusted with gold and silver (which the Spanish conquistadores soon pillaged). Several explicit exhibits depict bodily deformities and illnesses (i.e. syphilis, courtesy of the Europeans), and the surgical practice of trephination, drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain.
After Pisco sours in the hotel's Bar Inglés, we dined at Jose Antonio, a rustic, atmospheric restaurant I discovered on the Internet. A bull's head over the fireplace glared down on the Spanish-like décor of heavy wooden beams, stuccoed walls and colorful tiles. Since we had nibbled on appetizers earlier, we went right to the main event: cau cau -- a savory seafood stew -- and grilled lenguado (sole). We found the local vino quite pleasant, although throughout our trip we occasionally ordered wine from neighboring Chile.
The next day we took a half-day city tour, which we recommend when exploring a new venue. Our guide was Milagra, which means "miracle." First stop: the reconstructed ruins of Huaca Pucllana, the ceremonial and administrative center for pre-Incan culture. Dating back to 400-800 AD, the site was considered a sacred village, where humans and animals were often sacrificed. To illustrate the point, we were shown a recently discovered skeleton of a female victim, who died by poison.
Our mini-bus wound through Lima's myriad neighborhoods, passing groves of olive trees planted 400 years ago by Spanish colonials. Even though it was winter, we saw flowers everywhere (the name of one lovely neighborhood, Miraflores, means "look at the flowers"). Downtown, we stopped at the Plaza de Armas (main square), where we were greeted by a bevy of Indian children hawking knick-knacks. Across the Plaza stood the Government Palace, aka the House of Pizarro -- where the conqueror worked and lived until his death in 1541. Changing of the guard takes place daily at 11:45am. Unfortunately, we missed it.
Several blocks from the Plaza is another highlight, the colonial Monastery and Church of San Francisco. The entrance hall is decorated with gorgeous tiles from Seville dating to 1620. Then we descended steps into the catacombs. In this subterranean cemetery, 25,000 people, mainly paupers and slaves, were interred throughout the centuries. Bones are everywhere, placed in various "graves." Leg bones are stacked like cordwood, skulls artistically arranged in circles. The rather ghoulish display reminded us of tombs we've seen in Italy and Portugal.
Our last stop was Peru Art Crafts, an artisan store in a shopping complex overlooking the chilly Pacific ocean. En route we passed Parque Amor --love park -- dominated by a monumental statue of a couple embracing. After a rushed and overpriced lunch at our hotel, we visited the Museo del Oro (gold and military museum) a main attraction in Lima. As we entered, we spotted the sword carried by Prince Charles when he wed Diana Spenser in 1981, alongside a dagger which once belonged to Czar Nicholas of Russia. I found it ironic, seeing two objects side by side, belonging to ill-fated persons. Moreover, most visitors miss the small display. The gold museum is replete with all kinds of jewelry: nose rings, earrings, bracelets, covered with precious and semi-precious stones. More noteworthy, however, is the plethora of mummies, most of them buried in the fetal position. Apparently, the ancients believed in exiting the world as they had entered it.
Later, we had drinks with a new friend at the Hotel los Delphines, where we watched real dolphins frolicking in a huge pool right by the cocktail lounge. For dinner, we decided to check out a chifa, a local Chinese restaurant. Peru has a large Asian population, and we had not seen this many Chinese eateries since Hong Kong! Tonight we walked a few blocks to Restaurant Royale, which did remind us of a Hong Kong floating restaurant. The décor was lavish (some would say tacky) but we loved the red and gold dragons, banners and teeming fish tanks.
After perusing the lengthy menu, we settled on an appetizer of egg rolls, an order of chufa (Peruvian fried rice with chicken and duck), and spicy scallops. Various condiments appeared on the table, which we carefully ladled onto our rice. Our bill, which included the shared egg rolls, entrées and local wine and beer, came to $129 soles ($38). As we strolled back to our hotel, we managed to win a few soles at the casino across from our hotel. The next day we flew to Arequipa, and new adventures.
Peru is famous for beautiful textiles (alpaca rugs, wall hangings, shawls and sweaters), as well as pottery and jewelry, especially gold, silver and turquoise. And don't leave without purchasing a bottle of Pisco, the heady Peruvian liquor distilled from grapes. A good place to shop in Lima is Peru Art Crafts, Malecon de la Reserva 610, in Miraflores.
For more information visit www.peru-travel.net
A freelance food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., Celeste McCall loves ships, past and present. A member of the Titanic Historical Society, she has embarked on more than a half dozen very modern voyages. She has visited ports of call including Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Hong Kong; sailed through the Panama Canal, explored the Volga, climbed the Great Wall of China and snorkeled in Belize.
A former writer and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, Celeste has contributed to local and national publications including Fodor's City Guide to Washington DC, Caribbean Travel & Life, Porthole, The Washington Post, Foodservice Monthly, Lodging and Roll Call.
She is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international organization of women in the fields of food, restaurants and hospitality. When not traveling or writing, Celeste and her husband of 31 years, Peter, who shares her love of travel, like to read, lounge on the beach and cook out in their backyard. They dwell on Capitol Hill with their four cats: Eggplant, Artichoke, Gypsy, and Jesse. Celeste may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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