Plazas and Pisco

To give me a whirlwind introduction to Lima, during my first week in the city Ivo took me around to two of the city’s main plazas via taxi. He tells these are places that you have to see twice: once during the day, and once during the night. We opted for a night-time visit.


The first plaza we visited was Plaza San Martín, which even Wikipedia states to be “one of the most representative public spaces of the city of Lima, Peru” (don’t tell my students I used Wiki as a source). In the center of this plaza, appropriately, is a monument to José de San Martín; as one of the main liberators of South America (from Spain), it was much thanks to his efforts that Peru could declare independence in July 1821. In July 1921, one-hundred years after the declaration of independence, the Plaza San Martín was inaugurated. At this point, though it has been fantastically maintained, the Plaza itself is now pushing a full century.

From there we walked down the Jirón de la Unión, a once aristocratic street turned into an endless chain of tightly packed shops, to reach our second destination: the Plaza de Armas. I love both the contrast between these two critical plazas, and the history of the Plaza de Armas itself. Basically, the Plaza de Armas is the original plaza, the one set down by the Spanish to be the city center back in the 16th century. It was this plaza that José de San Martín symbolically paraded across with the flag upon declaring independence.


For those of you doing the math, part of what is still located here in the Plaza de Armas is (give or take a few decades) roughly FOUR HUNDRED years old. It has been used as a market area, a bull fighting ring, and a city gallows. Buildings have been built on Indian burial grounds, used as siege hold outs, torn down, rebuilt, and generally morphed along with the fascinating historical ups and downs of the city.


The original center piece, another fountain, was torn down and replaced with the fountain you see below in 1651.


The stunning cathedral, which is lit up in amber, was completed in 1622, and has remained largely untouched since. We weren’t able to go inside this evening, but on the outside you can see these wooden “boxes” that protrude from the walls. Up close they’re very ornate, but Ivo tells me these are just verandas or balconies with no special significance. They are not unique to the cathedral; I’ve seen them on older buildings all over the city.


The Peruvian equivalent of our White House (the President’s home, in essence) was completed later, around the early 20th century. It is simply called the Government Palace. Its history is too bizarre to summarize in this blog– its symbolic location and significance has made it the center of attention during all forms of revolutions, shifting powers, and general reinvention. The current president of Peru is Ollanta Humala; the presidents here hold office for five years, and although they cannot be immediately reelected, they can hold office for an unlimited number of periods.


The Municipal Palace of Lima, Peru–or as Ivo put it, the Mayor’s house–makes this plaza look like daylight is streaming in even at night. The entire building is painted a bright, cheerful yellow, along with the other surrounding government buildings.



At the end of the evening, after wandering into two packed “pollo a la brasa” places (think massive KFCs, maybe slightly nicer), Ivo pulled me out the door and made a bee line for the Hotel Bolivar, which is located back in the first plaza we visited.


The Hotel Bolivar is famous here throughout the city; even today, Ivo’s friends all know it by name, and reference (with frequency) a very special kind of drink that is made there: the Pisco Sour. In particular, references to the “Pisco Catedral” (or the “Cathedral-sized Pisco Sour”) tend to be accompanied by laughter and, if several drinks have already gone around, the related stories.


Pisco is the name of a special grape brandy that Peruvians drink with the same zeal as Russians drink vodka. Although Chile produces pisco as well, pisco that doesn’t come from Peru is clearly (CLEARLY) inferior. The Pisco Sour is a national Peruvian cocktail made with lime juice, simple syrup, bitters, egg whites (for the froth), and–of course–pisco. Despite the unspeakable strangeness of drinking something made with egg white, I tell you now: I both love them and fear them.

At the hotel bar, Ivo ordered me the baby version of the Pisco Sour, and about a half hour later, I was half way to the moon. Pisco packs a serious punch for lightweights like me: Regular pisco is about 60 to 70 proof, but can be up to 100 proof, depending on quality (your average vodka is around 80 proof). Despite that though, pisco has this very light, smooth taste, that only feels better when matched with Peruvian limes, which are not bitter, but purely acidic. It’s served ice cold and usually in deceivingly adorable little glasses.


Though unfortunately I couldn’t find any photos of the bar itself, the hotel is a gem. The way it is described, by both reviews and the people here, gives it even more character than its appearance lends. Everyone seems to say about the same thing: “She was really something once, but even now, she’s still a lady.”


The main lobby, which has deep velvet blue furniture to match the yellow marble of the walls and columns, is topped with a stained glass dome. The hotel was completed in 1924, and everybody seems to love namedropping: Guests included John Wayne, Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, and– in the very bar itself, in the very same bar where we sat (!!!) — Earnest Hemingway himself.


Off to the side is one of the quirky attractions that apparently completes the Hotel Bolivar. Whenever I bring it up, everyone checks to make sure I saw the Ford Model T from the 1920s that sits near the check in desk, looking almost as if it just rolled off the assembly line.


3 thoughts on “Plazas and Pisco

  1. Pingback: The Federle Family Visits Lima (Part I) | La Colorada

  2. Pingback: Plazas & Pisco II: With Papa and Sisters | La Colorada

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