Peru is a wonderful country, but lima is one of the world’s less appealing cities. Founded in 1535 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, it was once the richest metropolis in Latin America. Today, it is generally chaotic and sprawling. From May to September, which is the best time for visiting Cusco and the Andes, it is often smothered by a depressing blanket of sea fog.
Nonetheless, Lima is the inevitable arrival point for foreign visitors and does have some impressive colonial buildings. It also contains two remarkable museums, the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia and Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera, located within a 20-minute walk of one another. Each houses an incredible store of Peruvian artifacts.
While we would never suggest that a visit to these museums replaces the thrill of exploring Peru’s unforgettable ruins, their collections have greatly enriched our appreciation of the country’s fascinating cultural heritage. Besides, the ruins tell only part of the story. As magnificent as they are, they have been stripped of the overlays of art and embellishment that provide insight into how their creators viewed the world. Nor do they offer the glimpse of daily life that can be gleaned from implements, textiles and ceramics. And the museums are powerful reminders that Peru was home to accomplished civilizations long before the Incas arrived.
Housed in the Casa Huerta, the mansion that was used by the liberators José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, the National Museum has such comprehensive holdings that only a small part are on display at any given time. Among the highlights is the exceptional collection of textiles, which is regarded as one of the finest in the world. More than 32,000 items date back as far as 2500 B.C., the most notable pieces coming from the Paracas culture (which emerged around 600 B.C.), with its distinctive geometric designs. These remain in an astonishing state of preservation, as they were interred in the bone-dry desert region on Peru’s southern coast.
Peru’s long tradition of ceramics is also well-represented, with prime examples of Moche pieces, which depict animals and human beings in strikingly realistic poses, and gorgeous Nazca pottery (from the same culture that produced the enormous and unexplained Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert that prove so compelling to UFO enthusiasts). There are also Incan gold adornments, including impressive necklaces, plus the Estela Raimondi, a large stone obelisk from the ancient Chavín culture embellished with carvings that depict the three major figures in Peruvian myth: the snake (the underworld), the puma (the earth) and the condor (the heavens).
Nearby, the Larco Museum is home to the largest private collection of Peruvian pre-Columbian art. Of particular note is the magnificent Gold and Silver Gallery, which contains a peerless array of superbly wrought pieces that includes headdresses and breastplates inlaid with gems. Elsewhere, one of the museum’s chief prizes is a fragment of Paracas textile that has an extraordinary 389 threads to the inch.
Our preferred lodgings in Lima are at the old-fashioned, dignified and recently upgraded Country Club Lima Hotel. The hotel is housed in an imposing 1920s Spanish-style mansion adjacent to the Lima Golf Club in the cosmopolitan San Isidro embassy district. A striking lobby café-bar is capped by a spectacular stained-glass dome and complemented by the formal Perroquet Restaurant and a clubby English-style bar. Spanish Colonial artworks on loan from the nearby Pedro de Osma Museum decorate the 83 accommodations, which also provide all expected contemporary amenities, including lavish marble baths, many with Jacuzzis. The property is overseen by an unusually polite and obliging staff.
COUNTRY CLUB LIMA HOTEL Master Room, from $440; Governor Room, from $615. Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro, Lima 27. Tel. (51) 1-611-9000.
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