Metropolitan Lima.

Metropolitan Lima.

Lima is, of course, the capital of Perú, located on the coast almost exactly half way down the country. The city is not of itself a tourist destination, by virtue of its climate (gray) and its congestion (extensive.) It is, however, both an important jumping off place - most who arrive by air will do so to Lima airport - and as a historical centre in its own right. It is, however, best avoided in the Winter months (March-September) when the climate is leaden.

The map does not give much detail, and is included to provide a general overview of where the traveler is likely to find interest. You should buy a city map, of which there are many types available if you want to navigate around in detail.

Metropolitan Lima

The city of Lima was set back from the sea, served by the port of Callao. The old heart (1, 2, 3, 8, 9 above) has now been surrounded by - and penetrated by - massive construction. The port of Callao has been several times rebuilt since its inception. It is now without charm. The main artery to the sea now flows South, from the city centre to Miraflores, which is also the chief shopping district. This and San Isidro are the wealthiest residential districts, followed by areas such as Chorillos and Surquillo.

Click here to see a series of images The more expensive areas of the town are now all South of the Río Rimac, which cuts the town into uneven demographic and economic portions. (The work 'Limac' means "babbling" in Quechua, and was probably the origin of the word "Lima".) However, the older town was based on both sides of the river, and as the average traveler seldom crosses the river, we have added a section specifically on the charms of the old town.

The poorer areas are, however, characterised by congestion and dreadful, corazon en la boca public transport, weak security and dubious public hygiene. Foreigners seldom visit them except in search of mystical revelation - Lima is thick with witches - illegal drugs and missionary zeal. The Northern desert and hills now support a vast sprawl of settlement, ranging from new pueblo jovenes - "young towns", a euphemism for slum - to much improved settlements. The worst of the pueblos jovenes are cardboard-sided enclosures with no roofs, no facilities and seeming no hope. However, people improve their holdings in situ, and gradually things get better. Facilities penetrate these settlements as they acquire rights, and purchasing power. Many of the older areas have now been established for three or four decades and civil governance, water and drainage, power, property rights and policing have all developed fully. Newer settlements are less fortunate.

The original settlements - chiefly dating to the 1970s - were the result of mass invasions, where tiny parcels of land were seized and held by collective force. More recent areas have been handled in a more structured manner, and the layout is more rational and the plot sizes larger. North of the airport, you can also see a location where prefabricated houses made from wood are sold. Here, one can buy anything from a potting shed to a three bedroomed home and set it up on a plot in the desert, upgrade what you have or buy out your neighbour. Lima is, therefore, a text book case of urban growth. To the discerning eye, houses grow like plants, from their first cardboard seed leaves to their full flower as neat, white-painted structures, conventional brick-and-concrete streets and genteel suburbia. This is interesting, but seldom aesthetically attractive.

The beach at Lima

The inner city of Lima was allowed to degrade greatly in the 1970-90 period. Street vendors covered every available flat space, garbage smouldered in the alleys and public amenities were all but abandoned. The desert re-established itself in erstwhile parks. The city acquired a very negative reputation, and visitors stayed away. Much of this has now changed, and there has been a frenzy of development and investment that began in the late 1990s. Much of central Lima's reputation as a city of parks and gardens has been restored, and personal security in the centre is now better than that of its neighbours.

The negative that has coem from this is that many of the more attractive areas - such as the Golf area in San Isidro - have been buried under high-rise apartment blocks. The wealthier families are, therefore, tending moving out to the affluent suburbs of the South East, such as La Molina. Many service companies are setting up in the arterial roads leading in this direction. The North of the city, once its beach playground, is now generally avoided by the wealthy as the pueblos jovenes encroach on it.


Lima was settled by a range of cultures whose remains date back three thousands years. Remains of these settlements have been excavated at Chivateros, near the Río Chillón. Major ceremonial centres were established, such as Huacoy on the Río Chillón and La Florida or Garagay on the Río Rimac. The culture spread its influence to other irrigated valleys on both sides of Lima, but remained static until the expansion of the Lima culture. (See here for details on these.) Early sites were typified by El Márquez on the Río Chillón and Cerro Trinidad on the Río Chancay. Later locations include the huge Maranga pyramid and Juliana on the Río Rímac. The easiest site to visit outside of the city is the Pachacámac huaco - mud brick pyramid - in Lurín, some 35 Km South of Lima. This is discussed here.

Pachacámac means something like the "shaper of all things" in Quechua. He was one of a family of gods whom the coastal people believed had sprung from the pounding union of the Ocean and Earth. Inti the Inca sun god was one such. Pachacámac was another.

The area around Lima was known as Hurín Ychsma Pachacámac, and it is possible that Lima could have been called Ychsma, or some such sneeze. The Spanish were, of course, less that forgiving to local religious belief and they chose the name of the river over the city.

The Lima culture was conquered by the Warí, a warlike group based in the Southern sierra. When they collapsed in around 800AD, the Chancay culture filled the resulting vacuum. This was a trading society which learned how to mass produce goods such as textiles and ceramics. It was eventually absorbed by the Chimú, and then conquered by the Inca in the Fifteenth century. The Inca focused their activities South and East of the contemporary city, at Pachacámac and Cañete, but were of course active across the entire expanse of the midlands coast.

The Pacific coast at Lima

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The Spanish arrival - heralded by an Earthquake - led to the foundation by of Spanish Lima in 1535. The Coat-of-Arms received from the Kings of Spain on December 7th, 1537 describes Lima as the "The Very Noble, Distinguished and Very Loyal City of the Kings". At that time, Cusco and Cajamarca were the two most obvious locations for a capital city. Indeed, Cusco was the capital of Spanish Perú for an extended period. However, strategic considerations - defensibility, control of the midland sierra and the coastal midlands, the availability of cultivable land, an excellent port and good water - swung the argument against the remoteness of Cusco. The Southern Vice-regency settled into Lima in 1569 and, for centuries, all trade into Spanish South America had to be conducted through Lima, Mexico city or - later - Buenos Aires. Lima became a city of fabled wealth and some dissipation, haunted by pirates and the source of much of the World's silver and gold.

The Seventeenth century marked the height of Limeño influence, when it ruled lands from the Caribbean to Argentina. The establishment of two new Vice-regencies (1739 and 1776) trimmed this territory. The section on history discusses the war of independence from Spain. As the main centre of power in South America, Perú was late to declare independence (28 July 1821) and late to achieve it (1824), after a hard war fought with the aid of figures such as Venezuelan de Bolivar and Argentine San Martín, a British Admiral and Chilean amateur soldiers.

Nineteenth century Lima went through periods of boom and bust, following commodity prices. It was occupied by Chilean forces between 1881 and 2883 during the War of the Pacific. Its population stabilised at around 250,000, large for the time but a manageable number. This began to rise during the industrialisation that responded to World War II, and boomed following the failed reforma agrarian of the 1970s. By 1980, it was around five million. It now stands at around eight and a quarter million. Most would regard this as close to or beyond the limits which its natural resources can stand, but the United Nations thinks that it will top 10 million inhabitants by 2015.

Many wonder why Lima was chosen over the equally attractive site of Trujillo, which has better access to the sierra, better facilities and above all, better weather. The hard truth about Lima is that it sits close to the strongest upwelling of the icy Humboldt current. This makes its desert conditions absolute, but also guarantees that the city will spend half the year shrouded in mist by morning, and subject to a gritty drizzle called la garua for most mornings of the deepest Winter months. Apartment blocks on the coast come with their own cloud system above the fifth floor for most days between March and October. If there is one word for the winter in Lima, it is 'gray'.

Principal attractions

The historical centre of Lima has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Our description will focus on this, rather than on general facilities. The hotels and other capabilities found in Lima range from international standards to the very basic. Anything available elsewhere in the country - from food to music - can be found here. It is, therefore, pointless to list the foods, music, dances and other attractions of the town.

As we have indicated in the introduction to this guide, there are things which paper guide books do far better than interactive ones. One of these is to list things such as hotels and nightclubs, restaurants, shops and other attractions. In broad terms, the best of all of these are found in Miraflores and San Isidro. The city centre has specialised shops and some surprising traditional restaurants, but is chiefly visited for its history and architecture. Sports facilities are scattered around the town, with the beaches the focus of most Limeño minds in Summer. Most affluent people get away from the Lima beaches in Summer, usually heading South or far North; and many will belong to private clubs usually someway out from the city, to which they retreat at weekends to network, swim or play tennis. Caballo de paso and other equestrian events tend to be located well South of the city.

The city centre.

The Plaza Mayor is built on the site of the palace of the Inca governor Taulichusco. It is ringed with Seventeenth century buildings, including the Cathedral, the Viceroys' Palace, the Governor's house - often called the Casa de Pizarro, where the conqueror both lived and was assassinated - and the Municipalidad or town hall. Just South of this is an area of Old Lima, known as the Barrio Alto, which is worth a stroll.

Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone of the historical Cathedral, dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. This was completed in 1540 but it was, unhappily almost completely destroyed, along with much of historical Lima, in the earthquake of 1746. The current Cathedral was completed in the late Eighteenth century. The architect was a Jesuit, and the exterior and interior are austere, although the façade is framed by two much more decorated and domes bell towers that dominate the square. Its altars are, however, vast and complex affairs, as are the choir stalls. The main altar has a figure of Christ which is carved from ivory, and the chapel of the Immaculate Conception is a striking example of Spanish baroque, known as churrigueresque. The figure of la Virgen de la Evangelización was presented by King Carlos V, and crowned by Pope John Paul II in 1985. The crypt on the right of the entrance contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro. There is a museum of religious art in the sacristy, containing a fine collection of cusqueña - Cusco school - paintings.

Click here to see a series of images Immediately adjacent to the Cathedral is the Archbishop's palace, a highly decorated stone-fronted building in the classical style. Its most conspicuous features are the projecting wooden balconies, which are enclosed within pierced screens. This balcony form evolved in Lima such that the ladies of the house could watch the street without being seen, an application which certainly would have been far from the commissioning Archbishop's mind.

The "Casa del Gobierno" or "Casa de Pizarro" was constructed for Francisco Pizarro, and - after his assassination in 1541 - it was subsequently used as the Viceroys' palace. It is now used as the President's palace and it is smartly guarded by the Húsares de Junín, who change guard every day at 11.45, with some ceremony.

The Palacio Municipal replaced the colonial building in 1938, which one must feel is a pity. However, the result is restrained and follows traditional lines, with conspicuous balconies.

Moving away from the Plaza Mayor, the church and convent of San Francisco were consecrated in 1673. The complex consists of a main church and two chapels - La Soledad and El Milagro - and the adjacent convent. The whole is conceived as a sweep and was constructed in a unified baroque style.

The church has twin towers, currently painted yellow ochre, with the details picked out in white, and with a hugely complex stone door entablature and frame. Inside, there are three naves and an altar of astounding complexity. Under the building are complex catacombs that were used to bury important people during the Vice-regency. One fresco, showing the Last Supper, has the Apostles sitting down to a meal of cuy - guinea pig - which is of course a local delicacy.

The twin towers of the San Francisco church.

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The convent faces this with a more austere front, but with the gateway greatly elaborated in stone and the windows fitted with heavy, decorated stone frames. It has internal courtyards, a library and an art museum. A feature are tiles from Seville, dating to 1620. The complex has been designated a World Heritage site. Its chapel has twin towers which echo those of the main church across the little square which the complex flanks.

The church and convent of Santo Domingo was completed around 1700. It is the centre for the important Peruvian saints of Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martín de Porres. Silver urns hold their ashes, and these are the centre of major festivities on their respective patronales or Saint's days. The convent shows a heavy Andalucian influence under its baroque decoration, with tiles in much evidence and highly elaborated windows.

The church of San Pedro was completed in 1624. In a society in which social stratification was basic, this church sat at the top of the pecking order. It was the place where the aristocracy came to worship and to meet. It is constructed with enormous elaboration. The main portico is so elaborate that one wonders how it stays erect. The altar is a gold-plated Churrigueresque efflorescence that must have taken many decades of craftwork to complete. The additional altars of San Ignacio de Loyola and Santa Lucía are equal masterpieces of their kind. The church was designed and built by Jesuits, and changed its name and affiliation after the 1772 expulsion of the order.

The Santa Rosa church was built on the site where Santa Rosa de Lima was born. She is one of two Catholic saints who were born in Perú, and the first person to be beatified in Latin America. Santa Rosa has gained an international following, as well as being the patroness of both Lima and Perú. At the church, the garden which she and her brothers designed is preserved. This contains a well, into which the young saint threw a key and chain, signifying her bondage to religion. Devotees now write prayers on paper and drop them into this well.

Las Nazareñas church and convent is an Eighteenth century rococo construction. It replaced a simpler church, built in what was then farm land. This had been intended to serve the local people around Pachacámac, but also to serve the black slaves brought in from Africa and billeted thereabouts. A fresco which showed a black face in a crucifixion scene survived two major earthquakes, and it became seen as miraculous. The Viceroy built the current church in recognition of the following which this achieved. Variously known as Cristo de Pachacamilla", "Señor de los Milagros", "Cristo Morado", or "Cristo de los Temblores" this image attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees to its patronal. The altarpiece consists of the original fresco, and it figure of Jesus is the patron of Lima.

The San Augustín church was completed in 1574. It has a complex Churrigueresque stone frame around its main door, and remarkable carvings in wood internally. One in particular, the figure of death, is revered for its mystical qualities.

Lima has literally hundreds of other churches and non-religious establishments. Others buildings of potential interest are:

The Torre Tagle palace, which is currently the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was built privately and completed in 1715 by General Jose Tagle y Brachio. It is another building with strong Andalucian influence, having a flat pediment, a lower stone story and an upper one of brick and plaster, adorned with heavy balconies shielded by pierced wooden screens. Internally, it has fine tile, plaster and wood-work. The interior can be viewed by appointment only.

The Casa Goyoneche or Casa de Rada stands opposite the Palacio Torre Tagle. It dates from the Eighteenth century, and is said to be French-influenced. To the uninformed eye, the exterior, sporting balconies and elaborate stone decorations, look very similar.

The Palacio Osambela is a Nineteenth century building that has developed the traditional balconied style of Lima. It was a merchant's house, and has a mirador tower from which to watch the comings and goings of ships at the distant port of Callao. It is now open to the public, but is also the seat of the Institute for Language. The Casa de Riva Agüero is another Nineteenth century building, now owned by the Catholic church. It houses a collection of historical documents.

The Casa de Pilatos is a relatively simple Sixteenth century building, balconied and fitted with a fine stone portico. It is the headquarters of the National Cultural Institute. The Casa de Aliaga was constructed by one of Pizarro's followers, using stone from a pre-Incan sacred site. This had also been the Inca governor's place of judgement and sacficice, his curaca. This said, the Aliagas made a good job of it, as it is a fine house.

Others of interest are the Casa de las Trece Monedas - Eighteenth century - and the Casa de la Riva, from much the same date. The latter is open to the public, and has two fine interior patios, finely carved woodwork and much of its original atmosphere.

Lima is famous for its food.


The National Museum of Anthropology, Archaeology and History has over 100,000 pieces on display, organised chronologically. These begin with the hunter-gather focused Galería de los Orígenes. Next comes a room dedicated to the stages of early settlement and Chavín". The Sala Lima looks at the Lima culture - discussed above - and other cultures of the central coast, such as Nazca and Paracas. Recuay, Pashash and Caxamarca are also discussed.

The highlight of the trip is probably the Sala Moche, which has an unequalled collection of ceramics, pottery and the like from around Chiclayo and Trujillo. The contemporary Tiahuanaco and Warí cultures are also explored. The subsequent pre-Inca cultures are then displayed in the Sala Chimú, Sicán y Chancay where, amongst other things, you can see the mummy and tomb of the Señor de Sipan.

Specialised rooms look at metallurgy and jewellery - Sala Metalurgia y Maestros Orfebres - and textiles, in the Sala de Textiles Precolombinos. There are also substantial Inca displays, but it is fair to say that the emphasis is on pre-Incan cultures. This is particularly true in the room which looks at large constructions, in which the Inca are given no more than their due place.

The museum is located on a square which also has a number of fine houses of historical importance. One in particular was used by two Viceroys and by both de Bolívar and San Martín. This is now a museum which holds many relevant objects.

The Museo de la Nación specialises in dioramas and grand set pieces, which are attractive to the many schoolchildren who visit but which foreign visitors may find a little lacking in authentic substance.

The Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera was founded in 1926 by an amateur collector of huacos, ceramics and other items which were usually dug 'informally' from archaeological sites. The house itself dates to 1707. It has fine collections of textiles, ceramic objects and items in precious metals. It also has the famous collection of huacos eroticas, usually-Moche ceramics showing sexual activity, men with huge penises and huge penises with not even a small man attached. You will be told with some solemnity that all of this was "ceremonial". Make your own judgement: here is an unusual window on a lost culture, which embarrassed early Twentieth century amateur academics have attempted to sanitise.

The privately-owned gold museum, the Museo de Oro del Peru has four rooms full of gold and silver objects, focusing on the Northern Moche, Chímu and Vicus cultures. These range from funeral masks to items of simple jewellery. The same building houses a display of weapons, from the pre-hispanic period to independence.

The Museo Amano is another private museum, founded in 1964 by a Japanese collector of pre-hispanic textiles and quipus. The ceramics and textile collection are particularly focused on the Chancay culture, mentioned above.

The Museo de Arte is located in an 1872 building, designed by Gustave Eiffel during the guano boom years. Its collection spans the entire period of habitation of Perú, and covers decorative items such as jewellery, furniture and textiles as well as clothing and painting. It has a strong collection of paintings from the Cusco school, as well as graphics up to modern times.

The Museo del Congreso y Antiguo Tribunal de la Inquisición is concerned with the doings of the Inquisition, which operated in Perú for centuries and took many lives. It is housed in a building that was originally constructed for one of the original conquistadors. However, this has been graced with a classical façade.

After the abolition of the Inquisition, it was the home of the San Marcos university, South America's oldest seat of learning. The museum shows both a public face - a fine chapel, many art works - and a private one, including underground prisons, torture chambers and the like. The latter are fitted with graphic representations of what went on there. The chapel has a figure of Christ with a manipulable head, which monks used to cause to move in approval or disapproval of questions of state or private concern that were put to it. (One would have thought that if anything constituted blasphemy, this did!) The chapel itself is of enormous elaboration and magnificence.

The Museo Nacional de la Cultura Peruana focuses on handicrafts - from saddles to tools, decorative or votive items to musical instruments - of both contemporary and historical Perú. The building was designed in 1946 and set a trend that many buildings in Lima were to copy.


The Río Rímac cuts Lima in half. The old city on the North bank has been cut through with freeways and traffic, built upon and pressed by pueblos jovenes. Nevertheless, it contains much of interest. The river is crossed by the 1608 Puente de Piedra, the only link over the river until 1868. The masonry was supposed to have been strengthened by mixing it with seagull egg white, which if true makes it the largest tempera object in the world.

The cerro of San Cristobal is a hillock that overlooks the city, supporting a large floodlit cross. It is the site of a major pilgrimage in Holy Week, where the stations of the cross are enacted. There is a road to the top, and a museum located there. Views to the sea and across the city are good.

The almeda - boulevard - de los Descalzos is a street constructed in 1611. It was given Nineteenth century touches by a contemporary President, including Italian statues representing the months of the year. It encompassed three old churches, the Patrocino (1734), the Santa Liberata, built a hundred years later, and the Sixteenth century Descalzos convent. This last is a simple Sixteenth century structure that lies close to the banks of the Rimac. It has a museum of religious paintings.

The Paseo de Aguas was created by a Viceroy as a place to wander in the evenings. It is centred on a fountain, fed by aqueducts from the river. It has suffered ravages of time and, worse, unhappy restoration. The Quinta de Presa was built in 1760 in the rococo style. It houses a museum for all things associated with the Viceroys.

A seller of chicha de jora, maize beer with herbs in it.

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The bull ring called the Plaza de Acho was finished in 1766 on a Vice-regal commission. It is world famous, being one of the largest and the third oldest in the world. It is active all the year around, but the Señor de los Milagros festival (see above) involves a major sequence of fights from October to November. The winning matador wins the escapulario de oro, a golden shoulder and chest-plate. The bull ring has a museum focused on all things tauromacho.

Archaeological sites within Lima

External sites, such as Pachacámac, have been discussed in the appropriate circuits. This section focuses on sites within the city itself.

Huaca Huallamarca is located in smart San Isidro, amidst expensive houses and neat gardens. It is a mud brick pyramid of modest size, with a site museum. In easy walking distance but in Miraflores is the larger Huaca Pucllana, which dates to the early Lima culture. The huaco was a mud-brick pyramid some 30m tall, dedicated to the god Pachacámac.

Puruchuco is a well restored Inca site about 7 Km East from the city centre. It was almost certainly the administrative centre from Inca Lima. The names means "feathered bonnet" in Quechua. There is a museum, which is closed on Mondays. The nearby site of San Juan de Pariache, which was clearly related. Note that these sites are in recently urbanised areas where it is advisable to travel with someone who is sensitive to local conditions, and able to speak good Spanish. Even further uphill and to the East is the Cajamaquilla Inca fortress.


Lima has daily fiestas in this district or that, favouring this patron or the other. The following are major public holidays, when the whole city becomes engaged.

January 12th begins the celebrations that lead up to Foundation day, on January 18th. This is high summer, and whilst the military and schools play this for all it is worth, it is usually an excuse for a mixture of beach holidays, sporting events and so forth.

Easter Week occurs in March/April, as Semana Santa. It is taken extremely seriously by a wide fraction of the city and the centre can be paralysed by processions which run throughout the week. Look out for women dressed in purple robes with white rope belts, called moradas. There are also processions of penitents one the street on Thursday and Friday, often in the traditional Spanish dress still seen in Seville. As noted above, the San Cristobal cerro is the site of mass pilgrimage.

The Fiesta de la Cruz on May 3rd also involves this little hill. All over Perú, crosses that have been stationed outside or overlooking towns are brought in to be cleaned, dressed, blessed and re-established. This normally takes three days, but is usually accelerated in the city.

Click here to see a series of images The secular public holiday of Fiestas Patrias celebrates the country's independence on July 28th. Military parades are linked to religious ceremonies, and there are usually fireworks over the bay.

The cult of Santa Rosa de Lima is marked with huge civil and military processions in the centre of the city, on 30th July. Similar events occur around the Señor de los Milagros, which is of course also the patronal of Lima and thus more official and less directly devotional. It takes place on 18th October. Both of these events may have peripheral activities which go on for far longer, particularly the latter.