Exploring the heights and depths of Central Lima
Goshen College students got a crash course in the history of Lima on Friday by touring the historic downtown district, better known as “El Centro de Lima.” The students got a top to bottom tour of the City of Kings – so named by its founder, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro – by touring the highest point downtown as well as underground catacombs that house the remains of thousands of Limeños. They also toured a riverfront park, watched the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace, had lunch at a downtown landmark, visited a monastery and a cathedral and had drinks at one of the city’s historic watering holes. Celia Vasquez, our study coordinator and Lima native, was the perfect guide for the day.
The day began with a bus trip from the Miraflores district to the top of the Cerro San Cristóbal, the steep hill that overlooks the city. It’s a vertiginous ride up a narrow road, but worth it. The 360-degree view gave students a better sense of the vastness of this city of 9 million. The hill was worshipped in pre-Colombian times as an Apu, or divine protector. When the Spaniards seized the area, they erected a wooden cross on the summit and renamed the hill.
Next stop, the Parque de la Muralla (Park of the Wall), which is beside the Rimac River. The park features an original section of the defensive wall that once surrounded the central city and was built between 1684 and 1687. The park also is the site of a statue depicting a conquistador said to be Francisco Pizarro. The 1934 statue (a gift from Mexico) used to be in Lima’s central plaza, but was moved to the less prominent park location because of widespread misgivings about Pizarro, especially his subjugation of native people.
Next we threaded our way through the Centro’s busy, crowded streets to the historic railway station. No longer used as a station, it is now a cultural center. We admired the beautiful building before walking a few short blocks to the Government Palace (or Presidential Palace) to watch the changing of the guard.
The changing of the guard ceremony began with a brief concert by the regiment’s excellent band. Dual 24-member units slowly emerged from opposite entrances of the palace. Taking high-kicking steps, the units converged in the center and then exchanged flags, signaling that one unit had relieved the other of guard duties.
For lunch, students enjoyed a traditional Peruvian two-course almuerzo, or lunch, at La Merced, a traditional downtown restaurant. La Merced is housed in what were once offices for the adjacent La Merced Church and features a wood-carved ceiling and walls. The students ordered their meals in Spanish and enjoyed the diverse and tasty soups, salads and main courses.
After lunch we strolled through the Plaza Mayor, formerly known as the Plaza de Armas, in the heart of Lima’s historic center. It is a pretty place in the summer sun, with its yellow buildings, palm trees and central fountain. On this spot Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535. Lima’s most important buildings surround the plaza – the Government Palace (home of Peru’s president), the Cathedral of Lima, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Municipal Palace (Lima’s City Hall).
The first interior tour of the day was of the 16th-century San Francisco Monastery. It is an interesting old building, with original tiles from Seville, Spain and intricately carved mahogany ceilings. The most intriguing part of the tour is the underground catacombs, one of Lima’s original public cemeteries, where servants, slaves and poor people were buried until 1821. We saw a series of wells where bones of thousands of people were stacked according to the kind of bone – piles of femurs and skulls arranged in rings.
Emerging back out into the hot sun, we decided to quench our thirst and rest our feet with a short break at the Bar Cordano, a Lima landmark established in 1905. It is on a strategic corner across from the railway station and the Governmental Palace. It was once a popular watering hole for writers and other artistic citizens (we stuck with Inca Colas and coffee). Celia told us that the bar nearly closed many years ago, but the waiters got together and saved it. Many of them have continued to work their entire careers there.
Last of all, we toured the Cathedral of Lima, which was constructed in 1758, after an earthquake destroyed the earlier structure. Francisco Pizarro’s tomb is located inside the cathedral. The bones of the conqueror of the Inca Empire were positively identified through forensic scientists in 1977. A graphic illustration shows the fatal wounds that Pizarro suffered when he was slain by Spanish rivals – wounds that aided in identification of his remains. More significantly, the cathedral has magnificent chapels and priceless collections of gold, silver and paintings. And the main altar is nothing short of spectacular.
At the end of this fun day, we climbed back into our bus and headed for the Buen Pastor church, where the students met their new host parents. Of course, that’s another story.
– By Judy Weaver and Richard Aguirre