‘Don´t let people see where you keep your real money,’ my lunchtime companion, a local, tells me. ‘I keep my wallet in here,’ he points to his breast pocket, ‘and pay from here,’ dips his hand in another pocket. ‘And don’t let them see your camera.’ Later, he says, ‘See that bridge? Don’t go past there. That is a not good place. Keep this side only.’
Lima is constantly evolving. There are police everywhere, directing traffic, securing buildings, telling you off for not obeying the dancing green man at pedestrian crossings. A few years ago it wasn’t safe to walk the streets. Now, provided you keep your wits about you, a traveller can navigate the blocks around central Lima without too much trouble.
Once I got over my fear and began to explore I realised how steeped in history the city really is. All along the crowded, narrow streets, people duck in and out of half-sized doors to go about their twenty-first century business, but to the outside world, facades are being regenerated, revealing their post-colonial heritage. As the city gets cleaned up it also gets a makeover. Museos dedicated to art and Lima’s heritage are popping up on every other street corner and every time there is an earthquake another piece of Lima’s past is uncovered.
History, religion and politics are everywhere. The Monasterio de San Francisco for example gives you a taste of the city’s Spanish roots and Moorish flavour, which over time has been watered down and sanitised, only to be rediscovered and resurrected in modern times. Inside this and other historic buildings the Peruvians have uncovered layers of murals covered over with mosaics, and later covered up with plaster, but no one knows why. Teams of experts are working to not only restore the original murals, but to piece together their history, including why particular figures weren’t just covered over, but scratched out, erased from history.
Beneath the Monasterio visitors can tour the catacombs. Once housing only the bones of those belonging to the order of Franciscans, later they were reserved for select key figures; later for the order’s benefactors. Many of the remains have been repositioned and shifted, decorated and preserved, upturned by earthquakes and excavated by experts, now piles of bones and skulls, some scattered, some neatly arranged. Earthquakes and the restoration process continue to uncover Peru’s hidden history.
As creepy as I found all this, the Museo de la Inquisicion was more so. Sadly the Lonely Planet’s promised ‘multilingual guide’ only spoke Spanish, but the wax-work depictions of the inquisitors at work told me pretty much everything I needed to know about torture and how to perform it. It was as if everything in the seventeenth century was about excess. Artworks, devotion, torture. Nothing was done by halves.
As well as getting my history and archaeology fix, I got to see real life nuns not just in the wild, but in action! Priests, too, taking confession (they have open confessionals here), and blessing people from across the other side of the room. Not being religious myself, I find religion fascinating. It’s like this whole other world that defies logic, rationality, and yet that’s the whole point.
At the Santuario de Santa Rosa de Lima I even got to read about the extreme and bizarre lengths Santa Rosa went to in her devotion, including keeping her chastity safely chained up (she threw the key down a 15 foot well), telling her mother to piss off and leave her to worship thank you very much, and then tying herself up by her hair to keep herself awake for all but two hours of every night (apparently sleep took away from her time spent in prayer).
None of this should be surprising in a city where most of the population is declared Catholic and churches abound. Even seismic activity (or rather, where something is spared from seismic activity) is attributed to the hand of God, and dotted all over the place are monuments to places where one pillar has remained standing where others have fallen.
Lastly (or firstly) I took in some of Lima’s artistic culture, at the Museo Del Banco Central de Reserva Del Peru, which housed artefacts from different ages and different origins from all around Peru. Despite their differences, Peruvian art all shares a certain roundness, or squatness, the closest to which I’ve seen was at the Minoan ruins in Crete.
And now I’m kicking back for the last few hours before I join up with my tour. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to write and post in the coming weeks, but be assured there will be adventures aplenty.
Until then, Buenos Dias, Amigos.