On my long and arduous flight schedule back to New York on Sunday, I had a 7 hour layover in the city of Lima, Peru. A few years back, when visiting Machu Picchu, I had gone right to Cusco and never had the opportunity to explore this colonial capital so decided to head into the city for a few hours and check it out. The first thing I was told was that if I go through customs there would be a $31.00 “airport fee” to come back in. Slightly annoyed, I continued on and wound up leaving my debit card in the international ATM after withdrawing 50 Peruvian soles for my venture. Stressed out, I exited the international arrivals area only to be bombarded with hundreds of men and women touting tours to Machu Picchu, taxis, and hotels. I immediately hate this place and regret my decision to leave the airport in the first place.
After haggling with a few drivers, I finally got one to agree to a price to take me to the Plaza de Armas, the main hub of the colonial city and a designated UNESCO sight. The trip downtown, driving past neglected buildings and filthy roads, did nothing to alleviate my skepticism about leaving the airport. Then slowly, the driver pulled into the open plaza before us, and the ornate and impressive La Catedral, the oldest building on the square completed in 1625, had me in its grasp.
Serving as the visual focal point for the plaza, La Catedral houses the remains of the infamous Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who founded Lima.
After poking around a bit, I headed down a block to the left of the square where I found a European style bar that was serving coffee and ham sandwhiches. I fueled up on both and continued around the corner till I came to a very large church with a yellow and white facade; the Convent of St. Francis. When I walked in, there were hundreds of people filling the pews and a choir of children singing next to the altar, near a life-size nativity scene. I realized that Mass was just beginning so I decided to stay. Though I knew I would ‘t understand much of the Spanish mass, I was invited to sit down next to a kindly old man and took this as a good sign. When the Our Father ended, and it came time to wish one another peace, I fumbled out the word “paz” to the little Peruvian lady to my left who unexpectadly grabbed both my hands in hers then proceeded to embrace me. I immediately love this place.
The church also houses a very popular museum which highlights include a vist to the Franciscan Library, famous around the world. The library holds over 25,000 books dating as far back as the 16th century. Another highlight is a visit to the Catacombs that sit below the church, as every inhabitant of Lima was buried here before there was a cemetery in the city. Here, one comes across thousands of bones and skulls that have been organized by archeologists over the years.
With just a little time left in my layover, I made my way back to the Plaza de Armas and found a little museum that was exhibiting the nativity scenes from around Peru for the Holiday season only. There were many interesting displays and interpretations of that pivotal moment that is revered throughout Latin America from December through January.
Overall, Lima is not a bad city to be stuck in for a few hours on a layover. Though not as charming or well-maintained as it’s Peruvian counterpart Cusco, Lima has much more to offer in terms of history and culture, particularly during the Nativity season which can be quite festive and inviting.