Peruvian history, from square one

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The library at the San Francisco Convent in Lima, Peru.
The library at the San Francisco Convent in Lima, Peru. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

As with all colonial cities, a great starting point for exploring Lima is its main square, Plaza Mayor. This historical center of Peru's capital was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 1991.

Across the street from the plaza is Lima Cathedral, a magnificent structure that has the dubious honor of being the final resting place for Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Construction began in 1535, the year Lima was founded as Ciudad de los Reyes, a feat Pizarro considered his crowning achievement. He had a relatively short time to bask in his success: By 1541 he had made enough enemies within his own circle of conquistadors that he was assassinated.

The cathedral has three large doorways, the central gateway called the Portada del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness). Among the many highlights within the cathedral other than Pizarro's tomb is a sequence of large dramatic paintings of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross).

Lima Cathedral contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador of Peru and founder of the city.
Lima Cathedral contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador of Peru and founder of the city. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

A block northeast of Plaza Mayor is the San Francisco Convent. The church and monastery were consecrated in 1673 and completed a century later. Though it suffered extensive damage in a 1970 earthquake, the church retains its elegant Spanish Baroque architecture and its most celebrated possessions: a library containing 25,000 antique texts and catacombs with the skulls and bones of 25,000 bodies. This underground labyrinth served as a burial place until 1808, when the city cemetery was opened on the outskirts of Lima.

On the way to the catacombs, visitors pass through an 18th-century cloister with inlaid Sevillan glazed tiles dated 1620 illustrating the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

To go further back in time, a visit to the privately owned Larco Museum provides a thorough and well-presented overview of Peru's pre-Columbian history. It also has the unique distinction of being one of the great bastions for pre-Columbian erotic pottery. Located in the Pueblo Libre District of Lima, the Larco Museum is housed in an 18th-century vice-royal building built over a seventh-century pyramid.

Guinea pig and pisco sours

While one can digest and savor history, they can't live on it. In Lima, history-accented meals are possible, however, and should be sought out. Arranged by tour operator Coltur Peru, a private dinner at the Casa de Aliaga, the oldest colonial mansion in Lima, is a night to remember.

The house has been owned and lived in by the Aliaga family and their descendants since Pizarro granted the land to Jeronimo de Aliaga in 1535, the year the city was founded. Before sitting down to an elegant dinner at Casa Aliaga served by a white-gloved staff, guests are offered a pisco sour (pisco, lime juice, syrup, egg white and Angostura bitters). Both the Peruvians and their Chilean neighbors to the south lay claim to the cocktail's invention. Visits to the Casa Aliaga can be arranged through local tour operators or after making prior arrangements directly with Casa Aliaga.

Those with an interest in history will also enjoy lunch or dinner at Huaca Pucllana, overlooking the ruins of an adobe and clay pyramid of the same name. The restaurant is located in the Miraflores district of central Lima and serves Peruvian dishes such as grilled guinea pig as well as Italian-fusion specialties.

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