For almost 300 years, Lima was the seat of Spanish power in South America. The Viceroyalty of Peru extended from modern-day Colombia to Argentina, and the silver and gold flowing into its coffers from the mines at Potosí and elsewhere made its capital one of the richest cities in the world.
Today, traces of that Colonial legacy are everywhere visible in Peru ’s great metropolis. Seemingly every block in downtown Lima has buildings dating from the 17th or 18th century, jarring visitors with their stark juxtapositions of old and new.
Here are three less-frequented destinations to give you a sense of life in Colonial Lima. Visiting them, one seems to step back in time—to enter a vanished world.
Jirón Junín 548
In the 1500s, Colonial Lima was a frontier town, the Spanish Empire’s version of the Wild West. The population was unruly, potentially mutinous, so the Inquisition was implemented as a means of imposing order on a bewildering mix of races and classes. Its principal victims were bigamists, pirates from Protestant countries condemned as heretics, clergy guilty of sex offenses, and Jews.
The accused were submitted to the auto de fe, an elaborate ceremony designed to shame the miscreant and fortify community opinion against him (or her). Punishments included flogging, confiscation of property, galley service, and in extreme cases, death.
Today, this small museum, built on the site of the tribunal that oversaw the Holy Office, features a perfunctory hall dedicated to the history of Peru’s Congress, but the real attraction is downstairs, where visitors can tour the dungeons and torture chambers where the Inquisitioners plied their trade. The effect is ghastly, although marred somewhat by the cartoonish mannequins in some of the exhibits.
Children will enjoy the museum’s creep factor, but for adults, it serves as a reminder of the tragic side of Peru’s history. Highly recommended.
Jirón Ucayali 363
The most exquisite house in all of Lima was built in 1735 by Don José Bernardo de Tagle y Bracho, an officer of the Spanish Navy. It brings together, with consummate grace, all the elements distinctive of Colonial architecture in the Peruvian capital.
From the outside, the most striking feature is the carved wooden balconies, whose latticed grillwork reflects the Moorish elements imported from Andalusia, homeland of many Colonial officials. These balconies allowed the occupants of the house—especially the women, who in the Colonial era were tightly controlled—to observe the streets unseen.
Equally impressive is the carved stone portico, which bears the family’s coat of arms. The carvings recall the doorways of several Lima churches, incorporating European, Arabic, and even Hindu motifs.
Inside, the house follows the architectural pattern typical of the Colonial era: luminous patios, Sevillian tiles, coffered ceilings, portrait-lined galleries. When the Peruvian government bought the house in 1918 for 320 million soles, it got the deal of the century.
Today, though the Palacio houses Peru’s Chancery, tours can still be arranged through the Peruvian Office of Public Relations (ph. 311-2400). Be sure to call well in advance.
Plaza Independencia (Callao)
During the Viceroyalty, Callao served as the principal port in South America. Gold and silver coming down from Upper Peru (present-day Bolivia) would arrive on its docks to await shipment to Panama, and thence to Spain. The port was thus highly vulnerable to pirates, who more than once had “singed the King of Spain’s beard, ” as Francis Drake put it.
The Real Felipe was constructed in the last days of Colonial Peru, after the 1746 earthquake devastated Callao’s defenses. But its career was short-lived. Just 50 years after its completion, it would serve as the last Royalist holdout against the forces of Peruvian independence, finally surrendering in 1826.
Today, tours take visitors from the cannon embrasures in the fortress walls to the small military museum in the Governor’s House, and then to the highlight of the visit, the Queen’s Tower, with its dungeon (prisoners were forced to remain standing during their internment) and lofty view of the Pacific from the ramparts. The gloomy atmosphere serves as a melancholy reminder of the last days of an empire in decline.
By Mike Gasparovic
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima.