There are two top reasons why travelers choose Peru: The nation’s awesome archaeological sites, and its cuisine. While many visitors are under the impression that they’ll need to sacrifice access to Lima’s fine dining in order to experience the ruins—Cuzco and Machu Picchu, Nazca, Kuelap, Chan Chan, and so forth—that’s not always the case.
Lima, which has been a capital city since at least 800 BC, is home to hundreds of pre-Columbian archaeological sites, in various states of preservation. The city of some nine million people has, unsurprisingly, subsumed many of these ancient artifacts completely. But, there are still a handful of important and impressive huacas that remain intact, scattered throughout the city.
Originally, the term “huaca,” literally “sacred” in the Quechua tongue, referred to any natural feature that inspired the soul to contemplate strength or beauty: an artesian spring, rocky outcropping, or mountain. With the rise of the Lima Culture in about 100 AD, the word came to connote a ceremonial pyramid, astrologically aligned and imbued with spiritual significance. In Lima, these huacas were most often constructed with stepped adobe bricks, fragile but beautiful.
There are about 250 huacas known to exist in Lima, and all are officially protected; in 2010, the Ministry of Tourism even tried to promote ten of the best-preserved pyramids as a tourist route. Unfortunately, that never quite took, thus these delicate remnants of our remarkable human history will probably continue to deteriorate. Elaborately painted Huaca Garagay, for example, though close to 3000 years old and probably the capital and ceremonial center of the ancient Chavin people, is now the site of a dump in San Martin de Porres District.
However, there are still several sites that have been carefully protected and are open to visitors, their elegant silhouettes and fascinating histories on dedicated display.
One of the most photogenic, Huaca Huallamarca, or Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf), rises pale and pristine from a grassy field in San Isidro District; an onsite museum describes its occupation from about 200 BC through the Inca period. The extensive Maranga Complex, originally founded around 800 BC, is now part of popular Parque de las Leyendas, where you can enjoy a zoo, botanical garden, and other kid-friendly attractions in the shadow of pyramids so well preserved that even their ancient murals remain intact.
A dozen more are open to visitors, and though their proximity to the ever-expanding city of Lima is in some senses devastating, there is a silver lining. Almost any tour operator can easily arrange a day trip taking in several huacas, and most pyramids are convenient to public transportation; Huaca San Marcos, for example, is on the campus of the National University of San Marcos, served by several bus lines. That’s a boon for budget travelers.
Perhaps the most memorable (and certainly the most accessible) is Huaca Pucllna in the Miraflores District, the glittering center of Lima’s dining and nightlife scene. The adobe brick pyramid might have suffered the same fate as hundreds of others in Lima, dismantled and destroyed, had it not been occupied by one of the city’s best restaurants.
When Restaurant Huaca Pucllna opened in the midst of the eponymous, 23-meter (75-foot) pyramid, it was already crumbling, a park for locals sitting on some of the most valuable real estate in Peru. Things could have gone badly; instead, the huaca is now the top tourist attraction in Miraflores, with an excellent museum and delightful displays that highlight the 1900-year-old structure’s original significance as a center for politics, government, and trade.
“The flatland of the Rimac Valley offered a great variety of crops such as corn, beans, lima beans, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, ‘lucuma’ and ‘pacae’ (local fruits) and chili pepper,” the restaurant’s website explains. “The ocean provided them with different fish species including sole, flounder and silversides, all kinds of seafood such as scallops, clams, mussels and crabs. The pastures of its slopes gave home to deer, herds of llamas and alpacas as well as guinea pigs and ducks.”
Today, many of these same ingredients have been adapted into “novo Peruvian cuisine,” using international techniques to improve upon thousands of years of exquisite Limeno recipes. Amidst pyramids bathed in multicolored lights, you’ll dine on excellent ceviche, innovative causas (structural potato salads), tasty chupes (soups), and all sorts of classic dishes, from Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian fusion) to the iconic aji de gallina (shredded chicken in yellow pepper sauce.)
While there may be better restaurants in Miraflores, you can’t equal the experience of dining in the exquisitely preserved ruins, centuries of history all around you, as well as on your plate. Enjoy.