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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Rome: A City for (Walking) Lovers

Rome - Borghese gardens
Take a beautiful, relaxing walk through the Borghese Gardens.

Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.

 

We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.

Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]

We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.

Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.

We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.

Rome - ancient rome
It was a fantastic day to walk the hills of Ancient Rome and feel the ghosts of the past.

Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.

 

Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.

Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover

If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…

So happy we had a chance to visit Istanbul

Ottoman luxury
Typical Ottoman Empire luxury!

The news is sad. It’s always sad when stories of terrorism and mayhem make their way into our lives either directly or indirectly, but we find it especially distressing to hear of death and destruction in places that should be on everyone’s travel radar – but sadly sometimes they have to be shelved.

Over this past month the news out of Istanbul is frightening: tourists killed by a suicide bomber right in Sultanamet Square near some of the world’s most wonderful edifices. We are just so happy that we had a chance to visit Istanbul before this latest round of terror attacks.

It is one of the world’s finest cities – some say the most romantic. Apart from the frantic traffic – you take your life into your hands just crossing a street downtown – the sights are without equal.

The apparent emphasis on security was evident to us, though, even from the beginning of our visit. When we drove up to the front of the new Marriott Hotel in the Sisli district, the car was stopped at a gate and inspected with a long-handled mirror to check for hidden explosives underneath before we were permitted to approach the front door. When we entered the hotel for the first time and for every time thereafter, we walked through metal detectors and our bags went through an X-ray scanner – every time we returned. Once through that gauntlet, though, the hotel was outstanding – one of the loveliest Marriott’s we have ever stayed in (and we’ve stayed in many). And we cannot say enough about the professionalism, competence and friendliness of the staff.

dolmabahce palace
Dolmabahce Palace – one of our favourite spots to visit in Istanbul – but they won’t permit interior photography

Our days in Istanbul were spent with a private guide we hired through Tours by Locals, a Vancouver-based travel company whose guides are second to none. Young Emre, with his patriotic fervour and deep knowledge of his city and country, introduced us to so much of what that wonderful city has to offer – he led us through places that we would not have seen either on our own or with a group tour.

Of course we visited Haiga Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the markets and Topkapi Palace, places so close to last month’s bombings. But he also took us to Dolmabache Palace, the nineteenth-century palace and home to the last of the Sultans on the Bosphorus and many small mosques, early Christian churches, and he included a truly one-of-a-kind restaurant experience where they serve food based on original Ottoman Empire recipes – Deraliye Ottoman Restaurant. Our lives have been greatly enriched by having visited Turkey in general, and Istanbul in particular.

After the recent current events, it’s fair to say that there will be some travelers who will think twice about visiting, then perhaps avoid it: this is so sad, if understandable. We are grateful that we did not have to make that choice.

Our video shows how we saw Istanbul. If you’ve been there, we hope it brings back wonderful memories. If you haven’t, please enjoy.

Irish Memories for St. Patrick’s Day

leprechaun museum
Patty & friend at the leprechaun museum in Dublin!

It’s hard for us to believe that it’s been three years since our extraordinary private tour of Ireland, Patty’s ancestral home. But today, St. Patrick’s Day, we’re thinking about the emerald Isle and all it offered to us.

We began with the delights of Dublin, a truly wonderful city. Then our tour took us to the ancient site of Newgrange, south to Cork, then on to Killarney. We marveled at the Book of Kells in Dublin, Blarney Castle, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, and a number of sacred places along the way.

Ireland truly is green, but it’s much more than that. It was for us a trip that had long been on our bucket list and we’ll go back the moment that the opportunity presents itself!

 

Join us for a few moments of our private tour to see for yourself…