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Lima delight: A surprising thing happened on the way to Machu Picchu

The author, left, and her three companions line up for a picture on Lima’s main square,  Plaza de Armas. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)
The author, left, and her three companions line up for a picture on Lima’s main square, Plaza de Armas. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)
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Colleen Thomas | Tribune News Service (TNS)

LIMA, Peru – Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail. Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They are all good reasons for a trip to Peru.

Those, and the cats.

But in visiting Peru, I didn’t expect that Lima – the capital city most tourists use as a starting point for seeing the country – would be an intriguing attraction in itself.

With a population of more than 11 million, Lima is a rising star among world-class cities. It’s a place where ancient history and long-held traditions blend with evolving modernism and foreign influences to create an excitement you can breathe in on any streetscape.

Before the trip, my husband and I hadn’t thought much about being in Lima. We had long desired to visit Peru, but our focus was on seeing the ruins of Machu Picchu, a place named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. When his brother invited us to join a tour of ancient sites with him and his wife, we eagerly signed on.

But not without trepidation.

Peru had only recently reopened its key tourist areas, including Machu Picchu, after months of political protests swept the country. Some international tourists had become stranded for a time during the tumult.

Eventually, news of things quieting down, along with the State Department’s advisories, convinced us it was safe to go.

The weeklong tour would take us to major attractions such as Cusco in the mountains and Machu Picchu in the high jungle, with time in Lima serving as bookends – two days at the beginning, another day before our flight home.

That’s where the surprise happened.

  • The Huaca Pucllana pyramid is among the oldest Peruvian ruins...

    The Huaca Pucllana pyramid is among the oldest Peruvian ruins in the Lima area, and its original purpose remains unknown. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • Peruvian military soldiers on horses put on a show in...

    Peruvian military soldiers on horses put on a show in front of the presidential palace at Plaza de Armas. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • The Magic Water Circuit in Lima’s Reserve Park puts on...

    The Magic Water Circuit in Lima’s Reserve Park puts on a stunning light show using its 13 fountains. Here, the spray becomes a movie screen. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • “The Kiss” is the centerpiece of Park of Love, which...

    “The Kiss” is the centerpiece of Park of Love, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Lima. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • Glazed pork belly with areapas served at Merito in the...

    Glazed pork belly with areapas served at Merito in the trendy Barranco neighborhood of Lima. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • In John F. Kennedy Park, dozens of cats are free...

    In John F. Kennedy Park, dozens of cats are free to roam and are well cared for by local volunteers. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

  • A bike tour stops for a view along the oceanfront...

    A bike tour stops for a view along the oceanfront in the Barranco district. (Colleen Thomas/TNS)

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We hadn’t anticipated Lima would offer so much. It is jam-packed with stunning parks, historic city squares, Spanish-influenced architecture, a thriving textile industry, shopping and, perhaps most significantly, world-renowned restaurants.

There was way more to do in Lima than we could fit into three days, though not for lack of trying.

First up for our touring group of a dozen travelers was a bus tour of key historic, political and religious sites. During the rides between them, our guide, Carlos, shared narratives of the Spanish conquest and capture of the Incas in the 1400s as well as other events that shaped what we know as modern Peru.

I was grateful for that context as we visited sites such as a tiled monastery that’s still in use, the block-long Catholic Church La Compania de Jesus, and Plaza de Armas, a huge square in the heart of Lima where city hall and the presidential palace sit. As luck would have it, we caught a military parade crossing the square complete with horse-riding musicians playing instruments. Carlos let us linger at the sites, even beyond his own time restraints.

Our tour ended at Parque del Amor (Park of Love), a picturesque haven that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Its centerpiece is a provocative 10-foot-tall sculpture by Peruvian artist Victor Delphin called, what else – “The Kiss.” Established in 1993, the park hosts a longest kiss contest each Feb. 14 with big prizes for the smoochiest couple.

We were ready for a late lunch. Guides had advised us not to eat shellfish in the inland hills and valleys where we’d spend much of our trip, due to spoilage. But food in Lima was wide open. A place called Alfresco was within walking distance of our hotel and was popular with the locals. That sealed it.

Alfresco’s extensive menu included catches of the day, pasta dishes, soups and all manner of ceviches, a celebrated Peruvian dish.

Peru’s dining scene has achieved great respect both regionally and worldwide. Chileans are known to spend a week at a time in Lima just to eat the food.

There are three main categories, we were informed – seafood, Creole and “Chifa,” or Chinese Peruvian – but variations on them make for an endless culinary exploration. We wanted to try them all.

In a 2023 list by World’s 50 Best Restaurants, an independent organization that ranks the top 100 restaurants (ignore the math), Lima claimed five spots. And, for the first time, Lima’s Central nabbed the No. 1 spot.

(I tried to get a reservation at Central – when would we ever again get a chance to dine at the world’s best restaurant? – but it was booked solid for four months out.)

We found a table at No. 59 on the list, Merito, where server Johann helped us choose a variety of stunning dishes the four of us could share but not pronounce. Chef Juan Luis Martinez integrates Peruvian and his native Venezuelan traditions, resulting in flavors and textures that were a delight to sample.

There were so many options to fill our time in Lima. On a whim, we signed up for an early evening bicycle tour – GOGO Biking’s last outing of that day. This ride was no easy-going jaunt around a serene city park. For the first mile we had to blend in with car traffic on tight streets, endure being honked at, and keep our gazes and front tires going straight ahead. Like ducklings following their mother, we stuck close to our guide, Beto.

Beto led us through the Miraflores neighborhood into the trendy Barranco district, along the ocean coastline, and finally to Crem dela Crem, for the best ice cream in town, which soothed our nerves after the intense ride. It was dark by the time we returned.

Later, Beto sent each rider a video of our tour. Who knew that he was not only herding seven intimidated bikers through chaotic streets, but taking pictures of us along the way?

Other parks had unique offerings. One evening we took in Lima’s “Magic Water Show” at Parque de la Reserva, a dazzling display of colored lights choreographed with music and swirling water sprays in huge fountains. The centerpiece of the spectacle was a video projected on a “screen” of sprayed water, telling the story of the ancient Incas.

Now, about those cats. Lima’s Kennedy Park, named after JFK, is known for its dozens of strays, which are welcomed to the park as a haven from an otherwise harsh street life.

These are not your typical feral felines. Local volunteers take good care of them, providing little homes and beds, feeding them and interacting with them. Visitors can pet, cuddle and photograph them, but they’re not allowed to take one home. The cats didn’t seem to mind all the phone cameras aimed at them and in fact appeared to enjoy their privileged status.

On our last day in Lima, just before flying home, we taxied over to the Huaca Puccllana temple, a sprawling archaeology project that began 30 years ago. The structure rises like a small mountain in the middle of a residential neighborhood. As we walked up and down its paths, we contemplated the original purpose of the temple. The guides couldn’t help us much with that, as no one knows for certain why it was built. Chalk it up as another ancient curiosity.

I have to say that Lima’s people are among the kindest and most humble I’ve met. Street vendors avoided hard-sell tactics and were pleasant to talk with. There was a friendly vibe in every restaurant and shop. Even the dogs running loose were nice to us out-of- towners.

Of course, our group toured Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and as expected I was awed by them beyond words. But the time we spent in Lima also was splendid — a welcome surprise that added depth, culture and more unforgettable experiences to a “bucket list” adventure.

If you go

If this is your first trip to South America and your Spanish skills are weak, consider an all-inclusive group tour.

Our tour company: Exoticca, www.exoticca.com, which contracts with Condor tours in Peru, www.condortravel.com. The package included flights, ground transportation, tickets to sites, tour guides, hotel and breakfasts. Not included: tips for guides, lunches and dinners, and taxis outside of tour destinations.

Our hotel: Ibis Larco Miraflores in Lima

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