James and his parents were going to Peru for a week and they invited me to go along (lucky!). Our first day began with a tour of Lima. The wealthy families in the city would construct large balconies on the fronts of their flats to show prominence. Some were pretty interesting and it is estimated that there are around 1,600 balconies in the historic center of the city.
Most of the balconies were built in the late 17th century. Now there's a program called "Adopt a Balcony" where families and businesses maintain and renovate those that are left attempting to keep them in tip-top shape. They certainly add interest to a downtown stroll.
We then toured the Convento de Santo Domingo (a convent) that included a gorgeous chapel, crypts built into the foundation and an amazing bell tower. Our guide unlocked the entrance to the tower and we viewed it privately. The vistas from the top were breathtaking and we check out one of the bells that is circa 1500s.
There's an insider tip about the bell tower: get there before 4pm so you can be sure someone is around to unlock the door to the stairs for you. If you're afraid of heights this is something you should skip. The five flights up are very steep. James and I walked around the outside of the tower when we finally got to the top to admire the 360 degree view of Lima.
Throughout our tour we learned about several interesting Peruvian cultural aspects from our guide. One centers around the Virgin Mary. Peru is a country that largely supports Catholicism. The Spanish influence is seen through the amazing churches they established but the indigenous people of the Andes believed strongly in Pachamama (translated roughly as mother world), a goddess who presides over planting and harvest. In the chapels often the Virgin Mother figures wear a dress that falls in a triangle shape. The guide explained that the shape resembles a mountain and gives a nod to Pachamama or Mother Earth while still being respectful to Mary.
We also toured the Monastery of San Francisco in the historic part of Lima. It was amazing inside but the real surprise was what is located under the church. Bones. Lots of bones in catacombs that visitors are allowed to tour. The site was added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991.
There are 70,000 estimated sets of bones here. Catacombs were the first cemeteries in Lima. Our guide explained that bodies were wrapped then covered with a sort of salt to hasten the break down of flesh. The remaining ossuary is creepy but amazing.
From bones to books... the church has a crazy-fabulous library. It almost broke my heart though to see thousands and thousands of books in a humid, un-protected environment. Some of the books (estimated to be 25,000 antique texts) predate the Spanish conquest. Libraries make me happy.