Touring Downtown Lima, From Cathedral Crypts to a Hilltop Lookout

Our tour of downtown Lima began in an early colonial monastery, Convento de San Francisco, known for its religious art above ground and its history below ground.

Convento y Iglesia de San Francisco in central Lima.

We admired the courtyard, the wood carvings, and the paintings, including “The Last Supper,” by Diego de la Puente, in which a cuy, or guinea pig, is shown on a serving platter. Earlier in the week, one author had told us to be on the lookout for “syncretism,” or ways in which Peruvians blended indigenous beliefs and customs with Catholic practices brought by the Spaniards.

But what really got our attention were the bone-filled crypts, with skulls and femurs arranged in concentric circles. The monastery served as a public burial place until 1808. As we moved single file through narrow passageways, we read scriptural reminders posted on the walls, including John 11:25-26, in which Jesus proclaims,“I am the resurrection and the life . . . whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

Next we walked to the Basilica Cathedral of Lima, which, like the Government Palace, is situated directly on the main square, or Plaza de Armas. Our tour guide, Diana, paused first in the chapel that holds the remains of Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Incan empire. We also saw vestments of Pope John Paul II; Lima is said to be one of only three cities where his vestments can be seen. Diana invited us to attend Mass on Sundays at 11 with the archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani. We also paused by a chapel devoted to Santa Rosa de Lima (1586-1617), St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639) and three other Peruvian saints.

Maria and Courtney pose in front of the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno) during the changing of the guard.

As we left the cathedral, shortly after noon, we could hear a military band setting the marching rhythm for the changing of the guard at the  Government Palace, or the Palacio de Gobierno, which serves as the home of Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala. The changing of the guard is a formal affair. Two lines of guards, wearing white jackets and red pants, emerged from the palace, high-stepping their way toward the front gates. While we watched, we heard the band play a movement from “Carmina Burana.”

Lea and Joanna enjoying their first menú lunch at La Merced in central Lima.

Then it was time for lunch at La Merced, a popular restaurant housed in what were once offices for the adjacent La Merced Church where, reportedly, the first Mass was said in Lima. We took sanctuary in the back room, sitting under a beautifully carved baroque mahogany ceiling. Students ordered their menú meal, which features multiple options for a first course, la entrada, and a second course, the main plate, el segundo.

After lunch, we continued our walk along Jirón de la Unión, a pedestrian street that was once one of Lima’s most important boulevards. If you look closely, you can still see many impressive examples of neoclassical and Art Deco architecture, though many of Lima’s older buildings are in need of some tender loving care.

The perfect marble bench for a group of nine in Plaza San Martin.
The perfect marble bench for a group of nine in Plaza San Martin.

We arrived at Plaza San Martin, Lima’s second most important city square, with plenty of time to relax and look around. The plaza, inaugurated in July of 1921 to celebrate Peru’s 100th anniversary of independence, is dedicated to General José de San Martin, a key leader for the struggle of independence in South America. The statue in the plaza’s center was designed by Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure to show San Martin during his voyage across the Andes. More importantly, people enjoy pointing out that the woman at the base of the monument, who represents   liberty, was designed with a llama on her head instead of a crown of flames (llamas).

After admiring the plaza, we wandered into the Gran Hotel Bolivar, a historic hotel located on the plaza, built in 1924 as the first large, modern hotel in Lima. It hosted many famous guests during its heyday, including Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Ava Gardner.

Celia takes a selfie with the students near the cross at Cerro San Cristóbal.
Celia takes a selfie with the students near the cross at Cerro San Cristóbal.

We closed our tour with a visit to Cerro San Cristóbal, the highest hilltop to the northeast of central Lima. Our bus, reaching down deep in the lowest gears, climbed the narrow, twisting streets to reach the top of the hill, which offers arguably the best views of this sprawling city, including sections of the coastline. Just before leaving, the students gathered at the foot of the cross, a Lima landmark.

Photographs and editing by Karen Stoltzfus