Having just returned from a very short whirlwind trip to Lima Peru to celebrate my oldest son’s birthday, I wanted to put my reflections together while they were still fresh in my mind. We were there for just three nights to experience the world-renowned food scene, soak up some culture, and celebrate all together.
We booked direct flights between JFK and Lima on Latam Airways, the largest airline group in South America that conveniently offers direct flights leaving at midnight both coming and going. There is actually no time change between New York and Lima, so if you are able to sleep on the flights you are ready to hit the ground running.
We set out early from our home, and made such great time to Queens we decided to stop at Don Peppe for dinner before the flight. Don Peppe is OLD SCHOOL, a classic Italian spot literally 5 minutes from JFK on Lefferts Boulevard. Don Peppe is a cash only establishment which prides itself on Italian-American classics cooked to perfection. Massive amounts of garlic, red sauce and house-made wine may not have been the best idea, but it was all good going down. If you never been to Don Peppe, please believe me, it is worth the trip!
To fly to Peru one only needs to present a vaccination card, as well as one of the most confusing forms that you can imagine which we all had to fill in on our phones while waiting in line. There was no option to do so beforehand. I was a little wary about booking Latam, but was somewhat reassured by the fact that they are a code share partner with Delta. I should have trusted my gut because there is no kinder way to describe the experience with them than Shit-Show.
Thankfully we all made it there and back in one piece, but if I had it to do again I would fly a different airline and change planes. Just one example, the assignation of seats for my boys necessitated no less that 20 phone calls split between myself and my travel agent. No one could give an answer, no computer system worked properly and there was no communication between Latam and Delta.
Our business class seats were very, very narrow- though they were lie flat and had comfy pillows. Sleeping with a KN-95 mask isn’t pleasant, but we managed to arrive pretty refreshed.
Once we arrived in Lima the inefficiency we encountered in Passport Control was remarkable. There were hundreds on line and only two desks open. One of the passport agents was heavily involved in a deep flirtation with his replacement agent- 15 minutes passed while they whispered to one another. Another agent took a bathroom break… it was close to insane. My travel agent didn’t suggest a greeter- but he should have.
Finally we passed through and found our way to our driver. The tour company thoughtfully arranged for this colorful bus for the duration of our stay; we certainly had room to spread out.
We were driven the 40 minutes to our hotel, The Belmond Miraflores Park Hotel, regarded by many to be the nicest hotel in town. Peru has been affected terribly by Covid, and the protocol to keep people safe is strictly enforced. Currently 80% of the population is vaccinated, but there is definitely an overriding sense of anxiety. Everyone has to be masked at all times whether inside or out. If you have a KN95 then you just need one mask, but if you have the lighter weight mask you need to double up. There are people all over the city checking and enforcing this. Additionally, you need your vaccine cards to enter all business establishments. We did not see a single person during our stay who flaunted this mask rule.
The reception we received at The Belmond was enthusiastic, and as we were arriving on 8 am , we made sure to reserve our rooms from the night before so there would be no delay in checking in. We had a large suite that was comfortably appointed in a 1980’s sort of way. We had plenty of space, and two bathrooms as well a generously sized porch. Our boys shared a room on a lower floor that we did not see, but they said was nice. One major positive which we learned during our stay, the bed and pillows were exceedingly comfortable.
The first thing on our agenda was breakfast. Located on the roof of the Hotel, the breakfast buffet has just reopened following a lengthy closure due to Covid. We really enjoyed the fruit, the flavors were super-charged versions of what we are used to in the States. The mini-sausages were especially good as well.
Fueled up and ready to go, our first excursion was to the Museo Larco, a truly impressive museum dating back to 1926 that highlights the treasures of Pre-Columbian societies. The sheer number of perfectly preserved artifacts is staggering. There is also an Erotic Gallery (quite graphic actually) which was a treat to explore with our sons (ha). The grounds were beautiful and peaceful, and there was a tremendous amount to absorb within the exhibits. This was a very worthwhile museum visit, and we were lucky to have our guide Vanessa fill us in on all the details.
Once we returned to the hotel we headed up to the rooftop to view the sunset. The sunsets in Lima are justifiably famous, and on our first night, It did not disappoint.
Dinner on our first night was at Astrid y Gaston, The Mother-Ship of the Gaston Acurio restaurant empire, which is currently ranked 4th on the list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America. Acurio is known as the Ambassador of Peruvian Cuisine, and is truly responsible for Peru's reputation as a gustatory power house. I don't want to be negative, but at this point it may be hard for Acurio to maintain the exacting level of excellence he may have had when his empire was smaller.
The physical space at Astrid y Gaston (Astrid is Gaston’s equally accomplished wife) was stunning, visually it was overwhelming (in a good way). The service was very professional, but not intimate, more factory-like. With 33 restaurants in 12 countries, Acurio is doing something right, but the personal touch is lacking. As we sat down to study the menu, we ordered some Pisco Sours as well as a drink featuring maiz morado, the juice made from the purple corn Peru is known for.
We were hungry, so we ordered A LOT! We ordered even more than is shown here, and the consensus was the appetizers were definitely better than the main courses, with the Scallops being the hands down winner. The food was very good, but not incredible. The flavors were revelatory in some cases, but the dishes really seemed to feel a bit institutional, lacking TLC. It was a good introduction to Peruvian Cuisine, and we could certainly appreciate the empire Acurio has created. Sadly we were too stuffed for dessert.
Following Breakfast on day 2 we headed out to meet Patrick, a chef who leads market tours as well as cooking classes at Urban Kitchen. The small neighborhood market we toured was filled with delectable tropical fruits as well as an extensive selection of potatoes, chilis, and corn.
Following the tour we ventured to the Urban Kitchen facility and cooked both Lomo Saltado, a delectable stir fried beef with potatoes cooked in butter and oil, as well as traditional Ceviche. This was accompanied by Inca Kola and tropical fruits. The instruction was clear and concise, and we were all able to participate in the process, and then eat our creations. It was a lot of fun.
Our afternoon activity consisted of a walking tour of Barranco, the super trendy hip neighborhood. As an aside, Barranco abuts Miraflores but has a much younger vibe. There is a Relais & Chateaux hotel called Hotel B which was absolutely enchanting. If I were to recommend a place to stay in Lima, I would go with the Hotel B. It has a great artsy yet sophisticated energy, and the neighborhood is happening.
One benefit of traveling with 3 young men and my husband is that someone is hungry all the time. Peru is known for their love of Guinea Pigs, though they are more frequently consumed in the Andes rather than in Lima. One of my sons was intent on trying this regional dish, so it was lucky our guide was familiar with Tio Mario, a spot in town which specialised in the traditional preparation along with other local treats- Antichucho de Corazon (skewered beef hearts) and Picarones- traditional Peruvian doughnuts made with squash, sweet potatoes and flour, water and sugar.
The Guinea Pig was not the dish to serve a vegetarian such as myself, and one of my sons had to look away as well. The others all declared that it tasted like chicken, with the crispy fried skin being the highlight. The skewered hearts were also deemed delicious, with the Picarones being the perfect complement.
I sat out this meal, saving room for our dinner!
Tio Mario is located just next to the Bridge of Sighs, an iconic spot in Barranco where we continued to explore in hopes of working off some of the afternoon’s snack. We made it back to the hotel in order to catch another sunset, and regroup before dinner.
Dinner our second evening was at Rafael, Rafael Osterling’s Italian inspired restaurant located in Miraflores. Rafael is currently ranked 20th on the list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America. The atmosphere in Rafael was subdued yet sophisticated, not the showiness of Astrid y Gaston. Sadly my husband was sidelined with what was to be stomach issues that tore through our group over the weekend. None of us would escape unscathed. I would put blame on the Guinea Pig, but I think it was more complicated than that. We were advised by our tour guide, as well as the hotel not to drink the water, but somehow we must have ingested some along the way.
Getting back to the food at Rafael, the menu was filled with tempting choices, which we debated over while enjoying some cocktails and a large basket of freshly baked bread. Bread is not a common offering in Lima, so my boys devoured it quickly. The food was excellent, and the service professional yet friendly. The dishes themselves were not groundbreaking, but the quality of the ingredients and the presentation was top notch. The desserts were also outstanding. The lighting was fairly dim (atmospheric) in the restaurant, hence the murky photos.
The following day started early as we were set to explore Lima’s historical center followed by lunch at a popular Cevicheria (also owned by Gaston Acurio). We were fortunate to have a spectacular day in which to view the beautiful architecture in the historical center . There was most definitely a strong European influence in the design of these magnificent buildings.
Following our tour we needed a quick pick me up, so we headed to a traditional tavern near the old Railway station in town. Bar Cordano dates back to 1905 and is famous for serving all the Presidents of Peru both their famous Pisco Sour as well as the iconic Butifarra sandwich (sweet or savory ham- we ordered one of each). There is a great article about Bar Cordano in Vice, which you can read here. We were rejuvenated, and ready to continue our historical exploration.
The Pisco Sour at Bar Cordano was just perfect.
Our next stop was Casa de Aliaga, a spectacular home built in 1535, which 17 generations later, is still inhabited by the same family. They have opened a small portion of their estate to the public, and it is breathtaking. You would never realize the extent of it from the unassuming exterior, located on a fairly busy corner. Casa de Aliaga is the oldest Colonial mansion in Lima, if not all of Latin America. A tour must be prearranged, there is no public access.
Next on the agenda, La Mar, Gaston Acurio’s incredibly popular Cebicheria located in Miraflores. The one drawback to La Mar is that they do not take reservations. When we first arrived we were told the wait would be close to 3 hours. After quite a bit of “negotiation” the wait time was cut down to 30 minutes. The location of Lima just on the Pacific Ocean ensures that the seafood selections are impeccably fresh and delicious, so we were excited. There is a lot of buzz about La Mar, so much so that we heard an outpost just opened in Dubai.
We did not show much restraint in ordering, and we were not prepared for the tremendous portions! Needless to say, this was a gluttonous meal and by the time we were finished we could hardly move. The restaurant was filled with loud and boisterous family groups, all out for a Sunday lunch. It was a fun experience which we really enjoyed. La Mar is currently ranked 15th on the Latin American 50 best list; not sure I really agree, but it was certainly fun. The lighting was also just perfect for photographing the food!
Following our feast at La Mar we headed back to the hotel to rest. We had a reservation for dinner at another Gaston Acurio restaurant Panchita, but we chose to cancel it not only because we were tired of eating, but we also were a little tired of Gaston Acurio.
As I had mentioned, everyone’s stomach was a little tricky (not sure if our massive lunch was a good idea) but in any case, we watched the glorious sunset , and then lazed around.
While everyone was down for the count, one of my sons and I walked around near the hotel and then enjoyed a drink at the hotel bar, which is quite lovely.
The next morning we had a surf lesson scheduled at 8:30 am. Surfing is a very popular sport in Lima, with the beaches literally filled with surfers all day long. Because the Pacific is so cold, a wetsuit is a necessity. This was just after the volcano in Tonga, so the tide was affected all the way in Peru. I was watching from the side lines, and am proud to say everyone did a great job.
Most importantly, appetites were ravenous for the culinary highlight of our trip, lunch at Central Restorante. We literally timed our entire trip to coincide with this reservation, so suffice it to say we were eager to experience it.
Central is the brain child of Virgilio Martínez Véliz, a disciple of Gaston Acurio who opened the restaurant in its current location in 2018 . Central is not only the best restaurant in Latin America, but is also regarded as the 4th best restaurant in the world. The location in Barranco is light, airy and open, with the food and wine the star players. There is only a set menu, with the opportunity to pair with Latin American wines, or European wines. We decided to do the “local” pairing. The stage is set upon entry, with a very low-key but warm welcome from the staff. The lighting in the restaurant was magical, as I am sure every person there was recording each course on their phone to remember after they had left.
The menu is meant to explore the different altitudes in Peru, and all the magical indigenous ingredients that can be found there. The service throughout the meal was sublime-casual yet absolutely professional. Then food itself was as beautiful as you could imagine, and the taste and flavor combinations were incredible. Rarely do I have a meal with no mis-steps, but this was one. I will let the photos speak for themselves, as much of the descriptions are now a blur of color and taste sensation. Honestly, if you are food obsessed, I would make sure to include a visit to Central if you are planning a trip to Peru- whether just to Lima, or en route to Machu Picchu.
After dinner we returned to the hotel to spend some time before our red-eye flight home. We were able to secure our suite until we left the hotel for the airport at 9:15 which was lucky because we were ALL sick. Not sure whether it was the culmination of all the eating, the surfing, the water, the extravagance of our meal at Central, or what- but we were all in stomach distress. Not to be too graphic, but Imodium saved the day and made it so we could fly home. Even with our delicate conditions, I would still heartily recommend Central!!
We caught one more killer sunset, and then gathered up our bags to head to the airport.
The experience leaving Lima Airport was even more aggravating and stressful than the arrival. The number of lines we had to wait on that did not move- Check-in, Security, Passport Control, a Secondary Security check were maddening. We finally got through as our flight was boarding. Two of our sons were flying to Los Angeles, so they encountered a problem of their own. One of my sons’ ticket (purchased through Delta) was not coming up for him, leaving him unable to check in. 50 minutes of frustration ensued until they were able to figure it out, and then they were off to wait on the endless lines. They too had to run to make the flight as it completed boarding. To reiterate- Latam = Shit Show. Our plane home was a 787, so the beds were bigger, and again we were lucky to go right to sleep (thankfully pumped up with Imodium!).
When we arrived at JFK I was so grateful for the Global Entry Kiosk and the efficient Airport Police that I could have kissed the ground! Off the plane and into our car within 10 minutes.
We had a fabulous time in Lima with a tremendous amount of laughter and good food- a real celebration, and honestly what could be better? A little stomach distress was worth it in the end!