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Lima once ranked as the richest and most important city in the Americas and was considered to be the most beautiful colonial settlement in the region. Founded in 1535 by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish Crown's "City of Kings" quickly became the center of power and trade for the entire American vice regency that stretched from Quito to Santiago. Lima was home to some of the Americas' finest baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces, and mansions, as well as the continent's first university, founded in 1551. For 2 centuries, the capital also served as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

When Spain created a rival vice regency in Río de la Plata, which subsequently grew rich from silver mines, Lima quickly fell into decline. An earthquake decimated the city in 1746, leaving more than 4,000 dead and few buildings standing. Today the capital of Peru is a sprawling, chaotic, and mostly unlovely metropolis, and many visitors dart through it rather quickly -- or they bypass it altogether. Peru's blistering poverty is more apparent here than perhaps anywhere else: Depressing shantytowns called pueblos jóvenes lacerate the outer rings of the city. The despair of a large segment of the capital's largely migrant and mestizo population contrasts uncomfortably with the ritzy apartment and office buildings in the residential suburbs. And as if that weren't enough, for most of the year, an unrelenting gray cloud called the garúa hangs heavily overhead, obscuring the coastline and dulling the city's appearance. Although it virtually never rains in Lima, the sun comes out only from December to April; the rest of the time, Lima makes London look almost like Lisbon.

Lima has calmed down a bit since the chaotic 1980s and 1990s, when the city was the scene of carjackings, kidnappings, embassy takeovers, and strong-arm political maneuvers. But much of the city still feels schizophrenic; outer suburbs such as Barranco are welcome, relatively gentle oases, worlds apart from the congestion and grime of the rest of the city. Although middle-class Limeños from residential barrios are again venturing downtown along with foreign visitors, there are still plenty of locals who consider central Lima off-limits.

Lima demands some effort to sift beneath the soot and uncover the city's rewards, especially when such extraordinary treasures hover over the horizon in the Andes Mountains and in the Amazon jungle. So why come to Lima except to beeline it to Cusco or elsewhere? If you skip Lima altogether, you'll miss a vital part of what Peru is today. With a population of more than eight million -- about one-third of Peru's population -- and as the seat of the national government and the headquarters of most industry, Lima thoroughly dominates Peru's political and commercial life. The old centro is slowly being spruced up, and the refurbishing of classic colonial buildings and a greater police presence have made the historic part of the city more welcoming to visitors. Spread across the capital are the country's finest museums, as well as its most creative restaurants and most vibrant nightlife. In addition, Peruvian (and specifically, Limeño) cuisine is the subject of a growing international buzz, and foodies bent on a gastronomic tour of Peru are flocking to Lima's diverse restaurant scene.

Even if you have only a day or two for Lima, the city's art and archaeology museums serve as perfect introductions to the rich history and culture you'll encounter elsewhere in the country. Not to be missed are the Museo de la Nación, which traces the history of Peru's ancient civilizations, and the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum, the world's largest private collection of pre-Columbian art. If you also squeeze in a tour of colonial Lima, dine at a great criollo (Creole) restaurant or cevichería, soak up some energetic nightlife, and browse the country's best shops, you might just come away from Lima pleasantly surprised, if not wholly enamored of the city.

Visitor Information

A 24-hour tourist information booth, iPerú (tel. 01/574-8000), operates in the international terminal at the Jorge Chávez International Airport. The most helpful iPerú office is in Miraflores, at the Larcomar shopping mall, Módulo 10, Av. Malecón de la Reserva 610 (tel. 01/445-9400), open Monday through Friday from 11am to 1pm and 2 to 8pm. Another office is in San Isidro at Jorge Basadre 610 (tel. 01/421-1627), open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 6:30pm. The Oficina de Información Turística in Lima Centro is at Pasaje Los Escribanos 145, just off the Plaza de Armas, in Lima Centro (tel. 01/427-6080); it's open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 6pm.

One of the best private agencies for arrangements and city tours, as well as general information, is Fertur Perú, Jr. Junín 211 (tel. 01/427-2626; www.fertur-travel.com), with an office in the Hotel España and a branch at Calle Schell 485 in Miraflores (tel. 01/445-1760). Another excellent spot for information and advice, particularly on outdoor and adventure travel in Peru, such as trekking, mountaineering, and rafting, is the office of South American Explorers, Piura 135, Miraflores (tel. 01/445-3306; www.saexplorers.org). The organization is legendary among veteran South American travelers, and it's not a bad idea to become a member ($50) before traveling so that you can take advantage of its resources (you can also join on the spot). The clubhouse in Lima maintains a great library of maps, books, trail information, trip reports, and storage facilities. It's open Monday through Friday from 9:30am to 5pm (Wed until 8pm), and Saturday from 9:30am to 1pm. There are also clubhouses in Cusco and Quito, Ecuador.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.