Visiting Lima, Peru: A private guided tour

We live in Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. But our population is just shy of 3 million (LA is just shy of 4 million). When Canadians think about Toronto, they have a perception that it is large…enormous…populous…crowded…massive. Well, that’s because they’ve never visited so many of the cities on other continents. Take Lima, Peru. Who knew that the population of Lima is in the vicinity of 10 million with a population density of over 3000 inhabitants per square kilometre! Until we visited the city a few weeks ago, we certainly didn’t.

Lima locator map

We arrived at the port city of Callao, 14 kilometres west of Lima. Since the city of Lima is largely built on oceanside cliffs overlooking a long stretch of beach, no cruise ships – or ships of any type for that matter – dock in the city itself. So, we boarded the cruise line shuttle, a modern, air-conditioned bus, that transported us from the pier to a part of Lima called Miraflores. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there is a very good reason for taking this shuttle and not meeting a tour guide at the entrance to the port, but we need to back-track for a moment.

We really are not fans of shore excursions organized by cruise lines. The reasons for this are many and we’ll spend a bit more time on those reasons in a future post. For now, let’s just say that we like to be in control. However, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be completely self-guided; we just want to be able to go at our own pace and see the things that interest us. Enter the world of the private guide.

When we planned the recent cruise to South America, we perused the cruise-line’s offerings for shore excursions then surfed on over to Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based, internationally-focused tour company that offers private, licensed, vetted guides in some 158 countries. We had the pleasure of discovering them a couple of years ago when we were searching for a guide in Ephesus and Istanbul. [See our post here.] After that wonderful experience, it only made sense to see what they had to offer in a few of our port stops. In Lima we discovered a tour-guide whose offerings looked like just what we wanted.

We contacted Aaron through the Tours-by-Locals site, and conducted all our preparations directly through him, using the site as a way to document and pay for the experience. It was during these preparations that Aaron mentioned that he would meet us in the “safe” spot that the cruise shuttle would drop us. We wondered about the 45-minute drive into Lima (only 14 km. but lots of traffic!) to meet him, but as soon as the shuttle bus pulled outside the port gate, it was clear to us why he had wanted us to meet him in Lima.

marriott lima
The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima where the Silversea shuttle dropped off passengers

The port shuttle took passengers from the pier only to drop them in a seedy spot just outside the gate populated by unlicensed taxis, questionable characters, and lots of grime. We considered how we might have felt waiting for our guide at that spot, or later on waiting for the shuttle to be dropped off. All in all, it was much preferable to be dropped in front of the uber-modern J.W. Marriott Hotel in Miraflores, one of the chicest neighbourhoods in the city of Lima. Yes, it was a good call on Aaron’s part. We called him as we left the port on the bus and as promised, he was waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrived in Lima.

Aaron had arranged for his brother to be our driver. We knew from previous experience touring other cities (Rome & Istanbul come immediately to mind) that having a driver in addition to a guide makes city touring even more enjoyable. That obviates the necessity for a guide doubling as a driver who is forced to spend time searching for parking spots. It also means that we can be dropped off at any corner, in any amount of traffic with plans to meet the driver at some other point. The we can walk which is, of course, the best way to see a city.

DSC00775Aaron started our tour in the historic area of Barranco. Considered to be the city’s most romantic and bohemian districts, Barranco was at one time a summer beach resort. Aaron took us to a lovely, small café for coffee before we carried on to Lima’s downtown financial district then on to The Larco Museum, which must hold the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world! It consists of over 50,000 pieces of ceramic art including a large selection of pre-Columbian erotica. It is not to be missed.

Of course, no visit to a Spanish colonial city is complete without spending some time in its Plaza des Armas, a central fixture of every city with Spanish roots. The plaza was originally building the sixteenth century and of course has as one of its most important features, the Cathedral of Lima. Completed in the seventeenth century, 1622 to be precise, it still stands in the square today.

 

A lively square populated with all manner of tourists, the square gives the that sense of history that holds the key to the city’s past. But after that visit, it was off to lunch. At Aaron’s apartment.

We arrived at Aaron’s apartment where his mother was already hard at work preparing for us a typical Peruvian lunch whose centrepiece was her ceviche which she taught us how to make.

But it was Aaron’s Pisco sour lesson that, for us, was  the highlight. We didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of our remaining two weeks in Peru and Chile, we would have one every chance we had.

A brandy-type of liquor, Pisco is distilled from grapes and is a staple of bars in both Peru and Chile, although the actual process for making the liquor is slightly different in each country. It can be used as the basis for a number of cocktails, or taken over ice, but Pisco is best know for it use in the ubiquitous Pisco sour. The drink’s ingredients are Pisco, fresh lime juice (which Aaron squeezed from tiny Peruvian key limes), and egg white in a blender with ice. Then he topped it with a drop of orange bitters – Aaron’s own recipe. We swooned.

Soon, however, lunch was over and Aaron deposited us back in Miraflores where, true to his promise, he led us to a shop where Patty began her search for an alpaca sweater. It wasn’t successful that day, but we still had a week in Peru! She’d find one.

Bottom line: our top pointers for visiting Lima via a cruise ship:

  1. Meet your tour guide in Lima rather than in the port of Callao. You will be happier and safer. Take the cruise line’s shuttle, sit back and enjoy the mostly beach-side drive.
  2. Book a private guide on Tours-by-Locals. We have found them to be a terrific value and have given us experiences you just cannot get with a group.
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Cruising to Chile: Our first stop in Chile

We first touched land in northern Chile in the port of Arica which calls itself “the land of the eternal spring”, and for good reason. With its temperate climate and terrific beaches, it was an inviting way to begin our eight days in Chile.

[Arica is a real, working port just south of the border between Peru and Chile. There is no cruise terminal just like everywhere else we traveled along the western coast of South America!]

Leaving the port and driving inland toward the Atacama Desert, we found ourselves in a new world. On the edge of the desert, 17 kilometers outside Arica, we come upon the Presencias Tutelares sculptures, emerging from the desert landscape.

atacama desert sculptures

Funded by the state arts council, the behemoths are the work of Arica sculptor Juan Diaz Fleming, and evoke a sense of the region’s pre-Columbian civilizations. Then we head inland.

Like a moonscape, the sand stretched out for miles as we made our way into the Codpa Valley. As we drove further inland, cacti began to dot the landscape and deep in valleys we could see small villages clinging to the river. We were making our way toward one of these villages: Codpa where we discovered a tiny, isolated community deep in a valley where time seems to have stood still.

A local shaman introduced us to a local ceremony and we wandered the streets wondering what life must really be like living in such an remote spot.

But our Chilean adventure was just beginning. The next day we visited the Elqui Valley farther south, then it was on to the magnificent, cosmopolitan city of Santiago. But that’s a whole story on its own!

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #5 (A Few Days in Peru)

We’re not sure exactly what we expected, but a desert to the ocean’s edge wasn’t it. Peru is a fascinating place…both geographically and culturally. After five days in Peru, we’ve come to appreciate the extent to which a cruise ship is, indeed, a great way to learn about a country new to us.

First, we’ve been taking in every port lecture available. Aboard this little ship, the Silver Muse, we are privileged to have on board a former journalist-turned-cruise-lecturer (who we’ll introduce in more detail when we move past live blogging to story-telling) who has been providing us with the history and culture of each place along the way before we land.

We spent several days touring Incan and pre-Incan ruins, and spent two terrific days in Lima. Our first introduction to this cosmopolitanism city was with a private tour guide we hired rough Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based company we’ve used before. Aaron walked us through his city then took us home where his mother prepared lunch for us. What an incredible privilege to be welcomed with open arms into a Peruvian kitchen. This day was in contrast to our group tour the next day which took us outside the city, introducing us to Peruvian Paso horses.

Yesterday we toured the Tambor Colorado Incan city site which took us from ocean-front desert into the Pisco River valley with lunch at the San Jose hacienda. This is a privately-owned hacienda in the heart of the Peruvian black populace where descendants of the slaves who toiled at the hacienda in years gone by live and work. The music presentation was loud and headache-inducing, but the experience was interesting.

Today we’re at sea cruising to our last Peruvian experience. Tomorrow we head into the Andes to the city of Arequipa which is known as the “white city.” Looking forward to that, 7700 feet above sea level!

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #4 (Cruising to Ecuador)

As we cruise from Florida toward Chile aboard the beautiful, new Silver Muse, you might well observe that we seem to have gotten ourselves from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific without further detail. Well, we navigated through the Panama Canal. However, that was such a singular experience, that we’ll wait until we get home to tell you a story. That said, we spent the day in Ecuador.

We arrived in Manta, an industrial fishing port on Ecuador’s coast to be greeted by a cadre of modern-looking coaches at the ready to take passengers to various expeditions. We traveled inland and then back along the coast to visit an archaeological site in a place called Aqua Blanca, White Water. A remote commune of pure indigenous people, the village is home to a small dig evidently led by a Canadian archeologist. Sadly, he was nowhere to be found…we would have loved to have had his commentary. But our guide did his best.

We then hiked 3 km through the well-worn, back woods trails of this village stopping (a few too many times it has to be said) to observe this or that bird.

One of the striking things about this part of Ecuador is the changing vistas: one minute you’re driving through a dry forest, then the next the greenery tells you that you’ve arrived in the cloud forest. But the best vistas of all are the long views of endless beaches, most of which have far too dangerous tides and surf to venture into. But the one beach we did visit was clearly one where you could enjoy the water. Well, the fact that we had to sit in the sand to eat our lunch was a story for another day!

Now it’s on to Peru…