Lima, Peru
Credit: Raul Sifuentes / Getty Images

Lima, Peru

Nine million people live in Lima, making it one of the biggest cities in the Americas, though tourists usually bypass it for the Andes, the Amazon rainforest, or the dizzying ruins of Machu Picchu. Perhaps they find the city tough to love: It's perched on the Pacific, with palm-lined beaches, but overcast much of the year. The gorgeous colonial architecture hugs narrow, traffic-choked streets. The parks are full of exuberant, Day-Glo flowers — and feral cats. Earthquakes are frequent. There is one unassailable draw, however, to this occasionally maddening city: the food. Lima is currently the hottest culinary destination in South America, possibly the world. When I told the customs agent upon arriving for a five-day stay that I was there to eat, he said, "Then you're staying longer than that" and stamped my visa for 30 days.

Peru's thriving culinary scene is the by-product of a period of prosperity that began about 10 years ago, following decades of economic crisis and guerrilla warfare. "Food has become a path to unity in a country that's long been divided racially, politically, geographically," says Raul Cachay, editor of pop culture magazine Cosas. "Peruvians feel identified with the cuisine, like other Latin American countries do with sports or music. It is now our main source of national pride."

The food is wildly diverse, a reflection of Peru's geography — converging ocean, desert, mountain, and jungle ecosystems — and its unique immigration history, which brings Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and European influences to Latin American flavors. The menus of stands and cafes near my hotel prove the point: I see tallarines, long noodles served in pesto-like green sauce; cau cau, an African-inspired tripe stew; juanes, packets of turmeric-spiced chicken and rice; tortilla de raya, a skate omelet that suggests coastal Spain; and the ubiquitous anticuchos, delicious beef-heart kebabs originally made with llama.

RELATED: How to Make Perfect Ceviche

Because Lima's public transit options are lacking, and its taxis not the safest, I concentrate my culinary tour in the walkable waterfront districts of upscale Miraflores, where the better restaurants are, and the bohemian Barranco, a 19th-century beach resort recently revitalized by a young crowd drawn to its romantic public squares and bright art deco architecture. Connecting the neighborhoods is the malecón, a cliffside esplanade lined with towering cacti and bushy trees heavy with passion fruit. In Barranco, you can cross the rickety Bridge of Sighs toward the beach. There, the city's urban snarl collides with the tranquil ocean, as if downtown L.A. butted up against Malibu.

My first mission: Find the best ceviche, a dish that in Peru takes on communion status: big chunks of the freshest fish, marinated just barely so the flesh stays raw and translucent, eaten with a spoon. The idea is to get every last drop of leche de tigre, or tiger's milk, the salty-sour-spicy blend of fish and citrus juices considered both hangover cure and aphrodisiac. On a tip — effusive locals are always happy to guide you — I hit El Mercado, a leafy patio cevicheria where chic limeños (as residents are called) while away afternoons. I taste several ceviches but leave dreaming of the Galáctico: sole, crab, scallop, and tramboyo fish, with sea urchin juice and bits of sweet potato and corn.

In restaurants nearby, the next wave of Peruvian chefs are pushing the cuisine — and the country's exotic natural pantry — to new heights. At Central, I sample small river shrimp with airampo, a candy-red cactus seed, and cushuro, tiny marbles of lake algae known as Andes caviar. The menu at Ámaz is based entirely on ingredients from the Amazon, home to hundreds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that grow nowhere else on Earth. The list of juices alone is so esoteric — camu camu, taperibá, arazá, aguajina — even my Peruvian pals are baffled.

Of course, man cannot live on boundless food alone. Thankfully, escape from the city is surprisingly easy. Within an hour, you can be surfing gentle waves at beaches like Punta Hermosa to the south or Ancón to the north, or swimming among the 8,000 sea lions of Palomino Island (watch out for swooping pelicans like the one that bit my friend). After a dip, visit a beachside vendor for raspadillas, irresistible creamy slushies made with the mango-like lúcuma fruit.

Or, you can head 25 miles northeast to Chosica, a lush Andes mountain town above the perpetual clouds, ideal for hiking and biking. Arriving one morning, I take a bus another 25 steep miles to the village of San Pedro de Casta. A meal of grilled trout and coca-leaf tea fuels me for a rigorous, two-hour hike to Marcahuasi, a "stone forest" in a foothill at 13,450 feet, with massive rock formations created by erosion or carved by natives who lived in adjacent ancient ruins, a sort of Stonehenge meets Easter Island.

The return bus from the Andes drops me off in downtown Lima. Just off Plaza de Armas, the central square, is Bar Cordano, more than 100 years old. Like most bars in Lima, it has a huge menu and the conviviality of a venerable Spanish tapas bar. When a table sees me eyeing their stuffed mussels, one woman fills my glass with beer and invites me to join them. She insists I order the lomo saltado, a Chinese-influenced beef stir-fry with ají chili and fries: comfort food, Lima-style.

The customs agent was right. Five days is hardly enough time to taste all that Lima has to offer. On the plane home, I ask my seatmate, Tony, a Peruvian-born retiree living in New Jersey, what brings him back to the city. "I miss the food, and my girlfriend lives there, so I go for ceviche and sex," he says. "The ceviche is spectacular."