Walking tour of Central Lima

Despite living in Lima, it is seldom that I actually go to the centre. Over the last 30 years, the economic, cultural and tourist focus has largely shifted to the coastal districts of San Isidro, Barranco and Miraflores, and there are few practical reasons to visit.

Central Lima 'Office' - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

Yet, Lima's Historic Centre is still the heart of Peru's political life and boasts a varied assortment of surprising museums, glorious churches, historical squares and Colonial architecture. And with the declaration of the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, there are ongoing efforts to restore the Colonial-era buildings and its somewhat damaged reputation. 

So the visit of my photographer friend, James Brunker, offered a great excuse to explore once again, in the company of someone with a keen eye for the details, contrasts and absurdities that central Lima offers in abundance. 

We began at Parque de la Exposicion, which has a Japanese Garden, walking paths, an outdoor amphitheater, occasional cultural events, and two museums: the Lima Metropolitan Museum and Lima's Art Museum (MALI). 

MALI is the capital’s major art museum, and designed by the legendary French architect, Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), who was engaged to create numerous structures throughout Peru during the 19th century. It was completed in 1872 as the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) for the Lima Exhibition. Since then it has served in varied functions as a hospital, history museum, seat of the Ministry of Public Works and other political offices, before finally being inaugurated as the Lima Art Museum in 1961.

Sadly, we had planned our trip badly: it was a Monday, when all museums are closed! So, we could only admire the handsome building from outside before continuing north along Paseo de la República and past the Italian Art Museum, donated by local Italian immigrants in 1921 (Peru’s independence centennial). We could enjoy the lovely exterior mosaics and neo-Classical façade, but sadly could not enter to see the collection of Italian and European paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and exhibit of modern Peruvian artists.

We continued past the Hotel Sheraton and the neo-Classical Palace of Justice (jokingly called the 'Palace of Injustice' by locals, given the shady goings-on inside!) that was opened in 1938 and is the seat of Peru's Supreme Court.  

Two long, very busy blocks took us to San Martin Square, with a massive equestrian bronze of liberator José San Martín, erected for Peru’s centennial. In front of it is a delightful statue of Madre Patría (Mother Peru), commissioned in Spain with orders to give her a corona de llamas (crown of flames). The craftsman, no doubt proud of his knowledge of Andean countries, carefully placed a little llama on her head. 

On one side of the square sits the Gran Hotel Bolivar, which is reputed to serve the best Pisco sour - Peru's famous national cocktail - in the country. It was a bit early to put this to the test, though, so we continued walking along the pedestrian boulevard, Jiron Union that stretches five blocks to the Plaza de Armas. It is Lima's Oxford Street, jammed with 19th and early 20th century buildings housing unimpressive shops and ambulant sellers, but passing close to some of Lima’s oldest churches.

La Merced Church dates back to the founding of Lima, but has been flattened by earthquakes, burned and rebuilt several times. Most of today’s structure is 18th century. Opposite the church, copious Catholic products are sold: huge ornamental candles, tiny medallions, fragrant incense, bibles, icons and statuettes.

Lord of the Miracles Procession - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

We made a detour down Jiron Huancavelica to the 18th-Century Las Nazarenas Church, which is built around a mural of the crucifixion which survived the 1746 earthquake. This is the starting point for the fervent and crowded processions of the Señor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles) on October 18th, 19th and 28th. We were there on October 26th, so there was plenty of activity around the church, of vendors, believers and curious by-standers, which got James' photographic juices flowing. I had to drag him away in order to continue our tour. 

Lucikily, the next stop was the photo-friendly Plaza de Armas, which is Lima's heart, originating with the city’s foundation in 1535. The oldest part of today’s square is the central bronze fountain, dating from 1650.

The southeast side of the plaza is dominated by the Cathedral, finished in 1755 and replacing the previous church demolished in the 1746 earthquake, but rebuilt in the original Renaissance fashion. The façade and interior, with intricately carved wooden choir stalls, silver plated altars, and religious artwork, were completely restored in the late 1990s. 

Presidential Palace, Plaza de Armas, Lima - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

Immediately to the left of the cathedral, the superbly-carved balconies belong to the Archbishop’s Palace.

The Presidential Palace, on another side of the Plaza, has been destroyed by fire and natural disaster, and rebuilt several times on this site since Pizarro’s first government building was constructed in the 1530s. The current palace, taking up the entire city block, was completed in 1937.

Shoe Shop, Central Lima - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

We made our way past a large contingent of police with riot shields, and then some very old-fashioned shoe-shops that seemed to be targeting the gangster market, to the right-hand side of the Presidential Palace, to Desampadaros Station. Its beaux-arts architecture dates from 1912, when it was the main terminal on the Lima - Oroya (later Lima - Huancayo) train line. Trains still depart from here, roughly once a month, on the tourist service to Huancayo, but mostly its offices are now used for administrative purpose.  

We continued walking a block to San Francisco Monastery. Still occupied by Franciscan monks, this is one of the oldest continuously-used churches in the city, having survived the earthquake of 1746 in reasonably good shape. The main walls were built of earthquake-resistant materials called quincha: thick canes, reeds or slim twigs made into a framework and covered with mud and plaster. It was built during the mid-17th century to replace an older adobe and wood church, and has an impressive pair of baroque belfries overlooking a lovely paved entrance courtyard surrounding a fountain. Painted bright yellow, it is one of Lima’s most photographed churches. 

San Fransisco Monastery, Lima - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

Inside, highlights include catacombs, full of bones, and a notable library crammed with antique maps and books, some dating back to the 16th century. An attractive, plant-filled cloister is surrounded by patios with walls covered with European tiles and topped by carved wooden ceilings.

The catacombs were used as a cemetery in Colonial times because Lima did not have a graveyard until the early 19th century. Nobility and the rich were buried in the floors of churches or in niches in side chapels, while the majority of corpses were placed into large pits full of lye within the catacombs. About 250,000 bones were excavated from these mass graves, and they are now rather morbidly arranged by type, with femurs piled in one pit and skulls in another. In some pits, the bones have been rearranged in macabre patterns. One part of the catacombs has a series of coffin-sized niches which are still used for burials, but reserved exclusively for the Franciscans still serving in the monastery.

Behind the monastery is Parque de la Muralla (Wall Park), named after city wall remnants constructed in Colonial times. Built along the banks of the Rimac River, the natural boundary of early Colonial Lima, the park has a small museum explaining the history of Lima’s growth, a restaurant, sections of wall with labeled explanations, an equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro (moved from Plaza de Armas in 2003), play areas for children, grassy areas with benches, and is lit at night. It is very popular with families at weekends and holidays, but was eerily deserted on a Monday morning.

We walked half-way across the Abancay Avenue bridge over the Rimac River, in order to get a better look at the major construction work going on below. They are in the process of building a highway beneath the river - no mean feat, even if the Rimac seldom has much water flowing through it. 

We then walked down Abancay Avenue for three blocks to Plaza Bolivar, named after the celebrated Venezuelan liberator, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), who was also the sixth president of Peru (1824-1826).  

Peru’s Congress building is at the back of the plaza, on the site of the first university of the Americas, the Universidad de San Marcos, founded by the Dominicans in the 16th century. Today, the university has several campuses scattered across the city, while congressional business is carried out here.  

On the plaza’s southeast side is the Museum of the Inquisition, a unique museum explaining the Spanish Inquisition. There were three inquisition sites in the Americas: Mexico City, Cartagena (Colombia), and Lima, where it existed on this location from 1569 to 1820. Of over 1,400 inquisitions held in Lima, only 32 resulted in a death penalty, about half of which were by burning at the stake. Prisoners were tortured for prescribed amounts of time (75 minutes) with medics present to ensure that blood was not spilled and that mutilation did not occur. Nevertheless, tortures were devised to maximize pain, and waxwork models within the museum graphically display this. Visitors can tour underground cells where prisoners were kept. 

The Mercado Central (Central Market), three blocks from Plaza Bolivar, was once the most important produce market in the center. It is still a bustling affair taking up an entire city block, selling anything from sunglasses to squash, and is a good introduction to the typical Peruvian central market of small stalls crammed with household essentials, fresh fish, and piles of potatoes.  

Chinese Doorway, Chinatown, Central Lima  - Photo © James Brunker, Magical Andes Photography

Next to the market is Lima’s small but immediately recognizable Barrio Chino (Chinatown) with several excellent Chinese restaurants and shops selling Asian paraphernalia. There is an arch, the Portada China (Chinese Doorway), marking the entrance into the area.

Immigrants from China began to arrive in the mid 19th century, working in agriculture and later on the railroads. Their descendants form the largest Chinese community in South America, and they have been an important influence in Peruvian cuisine. Every town in Peru has a chifa (Chinese restaurant) and they are normally very good value; the most authentic are in Lima. 

It therefore made sense for James and I to have a chifa lunch here, after which I left him to take more photos ... while I took the bus back to my more familiar district, Magdalena del Mar.