Monday, July 15, 2013

Peru - Part 1

South America has never been on our ‘must see’ list of places to visit.  We weren’t opposed to going there; it was more just a case of priorities.  However, early last year we began a serious conversation about making it a priority.  We discussed Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.  We talked with friends who’d been there.  We read about various possibilities.

In the end we decided to limit our trip to one country, Peru, and to spend 18 days there.  After a couple of days in Lima we would split our time between the Amazon rainforest and Cusco/Machu Picchu in the Andes.

As usual, I took on the job of organizing our itinerary – planes, hotels, logistics.  Sandra did research on restaurants, museums and important spots to see.  In the months before we left we watched a Great Courses lecture series called “Lost Worlds of South America,” which was very useful in filling in gaps in our knowledge.

We made two key decisions that would go a long way in determining the quality of our journey.  One involved how we would see the Amazon.  At first I thought that a simple small boat would be the way to go.  But I was put off by the thought of sharing a bathroom and pictures on the website confirmed that taking this vessel would indeed by a downscale experience.  The alternative was a deluxe boat, the Delfin, clearly upscale and much more expensive.  We chose to give ourselves a gift and chose the Delfin.

The other decision was whether to stay at the Sanctuary Hotel at Machu Picchu.  It is the only hotel right at the entrance to the site.  The other places to stay are in Agua Calientes at the bottom of the mountain, a half hour bus ride up (or down) a narrow rough road with dozens of hairpin turns.  Again, the comfortable and convenient choice was an outrageously expensive one.  Complicated by the fact that Sandra wanted to stay two nights.  But again we gave ourselves the upscale gift, and the Sanctuary it would be.

To complete our luxury experience I chose the Monasterio Hotel in Cusco.  This was not a difficult decision.  Friends had stayed at the Monasterio and loved it.  Everything I read made it sound wonderful.  And since we would be a total of six nights in Cusco there was no point in not enjoying ourselves, right?

Unlike our experience in trying to use United miles for business class seats to Europe or Asia, using miles to get tickets to Lima was not difficult.  So we were set to go, and left SFO on Monday, June 10, 2013.  We flew to Houston and then on to Peru.  The time difference is minimal.  In fact, Houston and Lima were the same time, so jet lag wasn’t an issue.  We arrived in Lima about 10 p.m.

We had a little drama getting from the airport to the hotel.  The cab and driver seemed perfectly safe and OK, since we hired the guy at the official taxi booth inside the terminal.  But about 15 minutes into the ride he went off the main road and onto deserted, dark, small roads.  We had no idea where we were going.  It looked and felt eerie.  Were we about to get robbed and dumped?  Both Sandra and I had the same thoughts going on, but didn’t say anything. 

Our hotel was the Casa Andina Select Miraflores, which I thought was a well known establishment.  At one point during the back street portion I asked the guy if this was the way to Miraflores, a Lima neighborhood.  He said ‘yes.’  After what seemed a very long time we were next to the ocean and on a main road again.  We began to breath more easily.  Once we were close to the hotel the driver had a hard time finding it.  Several times he asked for directions.  Finally, after what seemed a very long ride, we arrived.  We were safe, albeit by this time tired.  And so we went to sleep for our first night in Peru.

My interest in Lima was minimal, so I would have opted to spend little time there.  Sandra, however, had a different set of priorities.  She wanted to see the Larco Museum and to eat at two “Top Fifty in the World” restaurants, Central and Astrid y Gaston.  So, not surprisingly, we organized our itinerary to be in Lima for two full days and accommodate her priorities.  And also, not surprisingly, her instincts proved to be on target.

The Larco Museum is marvelous.  Housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion surrounded by lovely gardens, this private museum showcases 4,000 years of pre-Columbian Peruvian art.  Beginning in 1925, the collection was put together by Rafael Larco Herrera and his family.  The objects are displayed chronologically in a way that highlights their beauty and relevance.  I was very impressed and happy Sandra discovered the Larco.

We ended our first day in Lima with dinner at Central.  We had a minor glitch to start the evening.  Sandra thought our reservation was for 7, so we showed up at 7 only to find that the restaurant doesn’t open until 8.  Our friendly taxi driver (arranged through the hotel) took us back to the hotel and then again to Central at the right time.  It gave us time to enjoy a Pisco Sour, which quickly became our apéritif of choice for this trip.

The dinner was excellent.  We did the tasting menu, which included about 12 dishes.  Too much food, of course, but beautifully presented, unique and tasty.

Our plan for Day 2 in Lima was to visit the old part of town and the Plaza de Armas, the main square where the Cathedral of Lima, the Archbishop’s Palace and key government buildings are located.  As we neared the Plaza we ran into a demonstration of students marching to protest a change of rules that they deemed unjust.  Traffic came to a standstill.  Police, on foot and horseback, were all over the place.  Access to the Plaza was blocked, which, as it turned out, was good for us since we could be in Plaza free of vehicles and joined by only a few people.

We went into the Cathedral in the hope that it would be interesting.  It wasn’t.  It dates from 1535 and represents what I would call Colonial Baroque.  Not bad on the outside, but filled with kitschy statues, icons, niches, pictures, etc.  Garish.  Endless depictions of Jesus and Mary.  And an architectural style inside that underwhelmed me.  A waste of time and 10 Soles each for an entry ticket.

The Plaza itself isn’t bad.  An attractive green space.  But our overall impression of this area where it is said Lima became a city was ‘ho-hum.’  Which is pretty much my feeling about Lima in general.  Huge, sprawling, not beautiful or interesting, dirty, polluted, not worth a visit even though the Larco is worth a detour.

Sandra, ever on the lookout for places to eat, had located a special cerviche place for lunch, where we went after leaving the Plaza de Armas.  It catered to locals and was very good.  As was dinner that night at Astrid y Gaston.  What I remember most about dinner was a wonderful bottle of Blended Red produced by Susana Balbo in Argentina.  It was a recommendation from the sommelier, and a good one.


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