When we docked at Callao, the port for Lima (which is really just a southern suburb of this sprawling city), we knew this would be one of the historical highlights of the cruise. Founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima would become the capital of the Spanish South American Empire and rule over the entire continent, with the exception of Portuguese Brazil, for 300 years. The modern city of ten million inhabitants still has remnants of Spanish colonial architecture that have managed to withstand the intermittent, devastating earthquakes that plague Peru to this day. Not only cathedrals and monasteries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but ornate Spanish baroque structures housing government offices line the streets and plazas in the center of the city. Other parts of the city echo the belle époque of Paris, wedding-cake buildings with mansard roofs surrounding a circular plaza anchored by a very French-style fountain.
It is obligatory to start a tour of Lima with a visit to the Plaza Mayor, or Main Plaza, just two blocks from the banks of the Rio Rimac where Pizarro first planted the flag of Spain. The Cathedral stands in imposing splendor along the east side of the plaza, with the bishop’s residence attached. Twin bell towers loom over the massive sets of carved wooden doors, and the bells toll at peculiar times, for instance at 10:30 a.m. but not at 11:00. Of course, our first day in Lima was a Sunday, so maybe the bells were calling the faithful to services. If so, they were fighting a losing battle against the bicycle fair in the plaza and the Peruvian girls posing against the background of the fountain.
The predominant color of buildings in Lima is indisputably yellow, and not a pale insipid yellow, but a robust Spanish gold. Not only commercial and residential buildings are painted this color; we saw several churches and other religious structures proudly sporting bright yellow walls.
Interestingly, our first guide in Lima was a young apologist for the Spanish invaders: he insisted that the Spanish were not “the bad guys,” despite what we had been taught and despite their awkward habit of slaughtering the indigenous population whenever the two cultures came into contact. But the fact that 85% of the population of Peru is Roman Catholic, and that the only literate Spaniards who accompanied the soldiers were members of the Catholic clergy (Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits) who wrote personal accounts of what they found in South America and sent them back to Spain, may explain the pro-European slant we detected in our tour guide.
What is indisputable is that the conquistadors plundered tons of gold and silver from the native peoples, took the beautiful and historically invaluable ornaments created by these pre-Columbian artists and melted them down into bars of metal easier to transport, and demolished the architecture that had stood for centuries because it must have been the work of the devil – how else could primitive peoples have built cities of such glorious splendor? I’m afraid that I find the greed and arrogance of the Spanish invaders more appalling now than I did when I first read their history in my elementary schoolbooks.
That said, some of the architectural vestiges of the colonial period are very interesting, in particular the former monasteries and convents, with their high-ceilinged galleries surrounding quiet courtyards edged with rose bushes and hydrangeas. The Convento de Santo Domingo, which houses the tomb of Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint of the Americas, is especially appealing; it breathes a sense of peace and contemplation even in the center of a busy city.
Best of all was our visit to Casa de Aliaga, a 47-room house across from the Palacio del Gobierno, an ornate government building equivalent to the White House (on the site where Pizarro’s own house once stood). Geronimo Aliaga was one of Pizarro’s captains and a close personal friend, and he built his house across the street in the mid-16th century conveniently close to the seat of power in Lima. Aliaga was a shrewd businessman and made a huge fortune in trade, passing along his acumen to his children and grandchildren.
Seventeen generations later, the Aliaga family still lives in the house, which has undergone gentle updating over the centuries but retains its graceful and elegant atmosphere. The matriarch of the family, now 101 years old and in blooming health, occupies part of the house, as do her son, three of his adult children, and a couple of cousins. A few of the public rooms, as well as the central courtyard, are open to the public; nonetheless, the family has dinner in the formal dining room five nights a week once the tourists have left the premises. The exterior of the house is unprepossessing, stretching the length and width of a city block but only two stories tall, with enclosed balconies overlooking the narrow street below; but the interior is spacious and charming, furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas that speak to the good taste and hospitality of the family over the generations. The open-air courtyard, with its fountain and its giant 150-year-old ficus, brings gentle and cooling breezes into the heart of the house, and the second-floor gallery that surrounds it provides shaded seating for guests and visitors. As a special treat, a couple dressed in seventeenth-century Spanish finery strolled through the rooms, looking perfectly at home. We loved the whole experience.
Because of the location on the plaza of the presidential offices, there is a very visible police presence in this part of the city. But despite their looking very serious and watchful, the police enjoy a high degree of respect in Peru. And we even got a smile and a friendly wave from some officers standing quite casually behind their riot shields in front of the Cathedral.
Unfortunately, Francisco Pizarro lacked the good sense and foresight that were clearly possessed by Geronimo Aliaga. Pizarro had ruthlessly fought and subjugated the once-powerful Inca, leading the Spanish effort to demolish their highly-developed civilization in only one century. He accumulated a great fortune from gold and silver held back from the massive wealth sent to Spain from its South American colonies. When Pizarro was rewarded for his military and plundering success by the King of Spain with the title Marquesa, his close companion, Diego de Almagro, received a much lesser title. This perceived injustice infuriated Almagro, since he had gone on battling the recalcitrant Inca while Pizarro lolled around Lima enjoying the good life. Cool heads did not prevail, and the conflict between the two former friends resulted in Pizarro’s condemning Almagro to death. The Spanish were not then noted for a “let bygones be bygones” philosophy, and on June 26, 1541, twenty armed men, led by Almagro’s son, set out to seek vengeance by assassinating Pizarro in his own palatial home. They were successful, but Pizarro was a tough old bird (he was nearly seventy years old by then) and took three of his killers with him.
One of our tours in Lima was conducted by a noted Peruvian historian, a man with a varied and fascinating background, holding degrees in anthropology and business administration. He was a graduate of St. Mark’s University in Lima, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere, where the country of Peru took shape when it finally achieved its independence. We sat on long benches in the room where all the major issues confronting the formation of the new nation were discussed and resolved, and we could almost feel in the atmosphere of the chamber just how important and serious those decisions were.
In the port of Callao, we saw for the first time on the entire trip another cruise ship, the elegant condominium ship The World, on which we were fortunate enough to sail during her maiden season, when cruise segments were sold to passengers who wanted to experience something unique. She was docked next to us for the two days we were in Lima, and we couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to sail on her again. She no longer operates as a cruise ship with paying passengers, since she is entirely owned by the residents who own condos on board and does not market rentals. The World is beautiful inside and out, with the condos designed by internationally-known interior designers, several five-star restaurants, an on-board market selling fresh produce and groceries, an excellent library, and a staff and crew outnumbering the passengers and providing superb service.
Lima boasts a couple of very upscale neighborhoods, Miraflores and San Isidro, where big-name boutiques and shops line wide boulevards, and high-rise condos loom over the seafront from very insubstantial-looking cliffs. Overlooking the sea is Love Park, where couples come to celebrate their engagement, their marriage, and their anniversary. We felt a bit like voyeurs, watching all the happy young people having their pictures taken, two by two, against the vast blue background of the Pacific. We enjoyed our stay in Lima, although we never had the chance to taste its famous cuisine – Peruvians pride themselves on the blend of different cultures in their country, both in racial mix and in food. Spanish, indigenous Indian, African, and Chinese inhabitants have intermarried for centuries, giving Peru its distinctive face. In Lima alone, there are 3,200 Chinese restaurants (called chifa), which perplexed Gerry: If 85% of the population is Catholic, 10% belong to other Christian denominations, and the rest have no religious beliefs, how can the Chinese restaurants stay in business without any Jews?
Speaking of the Jews, we haven’t seen a single synagogue anywhere in the parts of South America we’ve visited – although there was a very prominently-situated mosque in Coquimbo, Chile, built by a local politician as a gesture of good will to Muslims in the country. But as far as we know, there are no Muslims in Coquimbo; once a week, groups of Muslims make the trek from Santiago to attend services. Lots of races in South America, but basically only one religion. Every town or city has at least one cross on a hilltop, and there are Catholic churches everywhere you turn. Our trip is taking place right at the end of the schools’ summer vacation, so we weren’t surprised to see lots of school-age kids in the parks and markets and on the beaches. But we were struck by the enormous number of families with infants and toddlers. Clearly, family planning is not a priority in this part of the world. But we were given the opportunity to take tons of pictures of delightful young children, with their parents’ smiling permission, and Gerry will assemble a gallery of the best of those photos to add to this blog.