Lima: “The strangest, saddest city thou can’st see.”

Le Cathedral de Lima

Le Cathedral de Lima

Lima is grey and dull. A perpetual fog shrouds the city, making it difficult to distinguish morning from evening. Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, described Lima as, “the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see.”

While at a first glimpse, Ishmael may be right, a few hours in Lima is all you need to fall in love with the place. The fog my be constant and chilly, but the people and the architecture make Lima the city it is.

Lima is the commercial centre of Peru. The young and successful Peruvians striding the streets in work suits could easily be in London. Indeed, we met a guy called Frank in a cafe over lunch, who tells us he has just graduated from university and is depressed because he now has to get up every morning and do a real job. Despite this, the gap between rich and poor in Lima is strikingly obvious. People old and young line the streets, selling trinkets, chocolate bars, Peruvian flags. Old women sit day and night at the side of the roads selling fruit, while beggars come together outside churches shaking their money pots.

Our day in Lima started with a bang – both literally and figuratively. The Peruvians celebrated the visit of the President of Uraguay, President Jose Mujica Cordano, with a military display outside the ornate Government Palace, on the North side of the Plaza de Armaz.

The Plaza de Armaz was closed off with numerous soldiers surrounding it. At precisely 11am a canon was wheeled in to the centre of the square and fired.

After this alternative wake-up call, we headed for La Cathedral de Lima. Neither of us knew anything about Lima, apart from the vague context page in our Lonely Planet Bible, so hoped the Cathedral would provide us with some context of the city. The Cathedral, which fills the length of the East side of the Plaza de Armaz, is simply incredible. Two towers stand either side or the elegantly carved entrance. It cost 10 Sols (about two pounds) to visit the cathedral and for this price you also get an English speaking guide.

The city of Lima, the capital of Peru, was founded by Marquis Don Franciso Pizarro in the early 1530s. Pizarro sailed from Spain in the early 1500s with over 2,500 colonists. On entering La Cathedral de Lima, we were immediately led into a side chamber. Here, the walls were covered in paintings of Pizarro’s journeys. The main picture depicts a huge fleet of ships leaving Spain for the New World. Three naked men, bound and forced into a small paddle boat filled the foreground of the picture. These men signified those who chose to stay in Spain rather than leave with Pizarro and discover the riches of the New World.

To the right of the picture in an ornate tomb, lies the body of Pizarro. Beside the body is an empty lead box bearing the inscription: “Here is the head of the Gentlemen Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro, who found and conquered the kingdom of Peru…” According to our guide, after his assassination in 1541, Pizarro’s head was detached from his body and put into this wooden box by his killers. The coffin of Pizarro has only been on display in La Catheral de Lima since 1977. Before this date, a different body, believed to be that of Pizarro, had been displayed. However, in 1977, workers undertaking remedial work in the chambers beneath the Cathedral discovered a coffin and wooden box hidden in the walls of the chamber. These remains were examined and identified as the real remains of Pizarro, and have been on display ever since – head and body reunited in the coffin.

Despite initially presenting Pizarro as a kind of national hero, after some questioning our guide admits that most Peruvians see Pizarro as a villian. The relationship between Peruvians and the Spanish is a strange one. Despite gaining independence from Spanish colonisation in 1821, Peru’s culture is still heavily influenced by Spain. 90 per cent of indignious Peruvians have retained the Catholic religion enforced on them by the Spanish, for example. Futhermore, the celebrations in Lima after Spain won the World Cup were epic. Despite all this, every Peruvian I have spoken to has professed a serious dislike towards the Spanish. Indeed, no date in Peru recieves more celebration that Peruvian Independence day.

After receiving this contextual education, we were shown around the rest of the Cathedral. The inside walls of the cathedral are gated, each gate concealing a private chapel. Throughout the colonial times, these Chapels were owned by rich families and used for private worship. However, the chapels were returned to the ownership of the Cathedral in post-colonial times and are now open for public viewing.

We left the Cathedral at precisely 12pm, just in time to see the Changing of the Guard, outside the Government Palace. This elaborate ceremony takes place every day at midday and involves a marching band. The Guard flick their legs into the air like ballet dancers as they march. In the middle of the ceremony, two of the Guards pull their swords from their resplendent uniforms and pretend to drive them into each other’s chests. While this elegant ceremony takes place, the Soldiers and Police standing outside and around the Government building, watching over the crowds, stand casually texting on their mobile phones. This behaviour seems to define the Peruvian way of life: “Tranquille”, I am constantly told – “relax”. Everyone is laid back, friendly. There is no rush here and this attitude to life is wonderfully infectious.

After the Cathedral, we moved on to the Monasterio de San Fancisco. The main reason we wanted to visit this ancient Monastery (built in the early 1600s) was for the library and the Catacombs. The Catacombs are basically a set of dusty, soil ridden underground passage ways beneath the Monastery, lined with the bones from approximately 70,000 human burials.
The bones were sorted into piles of bones of the same kind – all the skulls, for example were grouped together. Walking through what was essentially an underground cave littered with human remain was an odd experience.

The bones were not protected in any way and in some cases merely lay littered around our feet. Eventually we arrived at a circle in the ground. Peering down into it, we saw an entire well filled with human skulls, arranged in an intricate display. We were so close that we could see the sword stab wounds through the hands of some of the skulls, smaller skulls – obviously belonging to babies – also made up the display.

After this strange, but most recommended, experience we left the catacombs and climbed back up into the Monastery. Moving around the building we discovered the library. The long wooden room contained spiralling staircases up to a balcony of yet more books, and book shelves containing books almost as tall as me. Over all there were 25,000 books in the library, many of them, according to the guide book, dating back to the 1400s. A rope a couple of steps into the library prevented us from entering properly but the opportunity to simply stand there and take in the smell and feel of this incredible room was just unbelievable. The room was exactly how I imagined the Labyrinth of Forgotten Books (from Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind) to be; like something out of a Jane Austen novel but so, so much better.

We planned to spend the next day in Lima too, but in the morning we realised that we had covered most of the attractions in Central Lima (we are visiting the other main part of Lima, Miraflores, on our way back home at the end of the trip). So we decided to catch the lunchtime bus to the next place on our route: Huacachina.

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