La Merced

Basilica and Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced in Lima, Peru

In the historic center of Lima, Peru, on the Jirón de la Union, sits one of the oldest churches in South America. When I visited Peru five years ago, I would have the taxi driver let me off at the south end of the Jirón so that I could pass by the elaborate Churrigueresque façade of La Merced and wander in. When I dropped in at these old churches I frequently found myself attending Holy Mass as I was gaping at the gorgeous decorations. I always stayed to the end, out of respect for the religious orders which built such splendid edifices to worship God.

I do believe that the Spanish kings only got a fraction of the gold that was mined in the New World, and that the lion’s share went to the Church and is visibly on display.

Interior of La Merced

As I have said on other occasions, I visited Peru because of the Incas, but what really caught my eye were the old Catholic churches, some dating back almost 500 years. La Merced was built around 1535 by the Mercedarians, short for the Royal, Celestial, and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of Captives. In fact, if I were to visit Peru again—as I hope to—I would skip Machu Picchu and spend more time viewing the Catholic churches and their related ecclesiastical art.

 

 

An Incredible Richness

Altar in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

It was not until I visited Peru five years ago that I realized that the Inca were not the only game in town. In fact, I found the old Catholic churches with their ornate ornamentation was equally interesting. After all, the Inca had no written language and left no books until the Spanish taught them how to write. And yet the Catholic church in Peru was incredibly powerful. A visit to the great old churches of Lima led me to think that the Church in Peru was the recipient of as much gold and silver as the King of Spain.

In the south of Peru was San Luis Potosí, where there was an entire mountain of silver called to this day the Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill.” The silver was sent to Lima, from where it was transshipped to Panama, where the conquistadores marched it across the isthmus to Colón, where it was loaded onto Spanish treasure ships and sent to Spain.

Altar at Lima’s Cathedral

Of course, much of these Peruvian riches never made it to Spain, thanks to the ravages of pirates and storms at sea. Whatever was given to the church, however, went into the churches of Lima and the rest of the Hispano-America. I cannot count the number of times I would walk into a church and be struck by all the gold used in the altars and in gilding the statues and frames of the paintings on display. Look, for instance, at the picture below of the Company of Jesus Church in Quito, Ecuador:

PICQuitoCompanyOfJesus

The Main Altar of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) Church in Quito, Ecuador

It was nice to see the Inca ruins, but the remnants of a once-triumphal Catholicism were far more impressive. Granted that the Inca were perhaps the world’s greatest stonemasons, but the Spanish civilization is far richer.

Among the Ruins of Christianity

A Room in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

I started my travels in 1975 with an interest in ancient civilizations. Then, I found myself also visiting the ruins of a much more recent civilization—our own. It reached its apogee in Peru. I was definitely interested in the Inca, but I found the remnants of Christianity in Peru to be even more interesting. Lima in particular was a treasure house of ecclesiastical art, not only in the cathedral and the main churches, but also in the archbishop’s palace, which is just as interesting.

For some reason, I was particularly interested in the depiction of angels in the New World. These were not the hermaphroditic or epicene angels of the mother country, but images of masculine strength that obviously owed something to the images of supernatural beings among the Incas.

Image of Angel in Lima’s Cathedral

The angel in the above picture appears to be driving a spear into some unformed material, like clay. There is a look of determination on the angel’s face as well as a feeling of strength. Most of the statuary and art in the churches were actually done by Peruvians, and not transshipped from Europe.

Statue of Angel in the Museo de Las Conceptas in Cuenca, Ecuador

I saw the above statue in the Museo de Las Conceptas in a former convent in Cuenca. He is another one of those militant angels of South America, and one who is in the middle of overcoming a demon. Cuenca has two religious museums. One is the former cathedral on the main square, and the other is in the former convent.

If you find yourself visiting Latin America, you will find some interesting bits of our own history as it has been adapted and modified by the converted natives. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is among the highland Mayans of Chiapas. I don’t have any pictures for you, because I was warned against even taking my camera to Chamula. Some European tourists were killed by the Chamulas by taking photos in the church. My brother and I did see the church. There were statues of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints, but they were covered with stalks of corn. In place of pews, there was a large open space, where the Chamulas lie face down on the floor with arms outstretched, surrounded by lit candles.

As you can see, going to church is a part of my visits to Latin America.

 

Gentleman, Vocative

My Guide at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima

My Guide at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima

She was as cute as a button. On a whim, I had decided to take a tour of the Archbishop’s Palace at Lima’s Plaza de Armas, conveniently next door to the massive cathedral. Apparently, I was the only tourist who had wandered in at that hour (about eleven a.m.), and I had a guide all to myself. By this time during my trip, I had come to appreciate the beauty of Peruvian women; and my guide was, I felt, a real looker.

But wait, Jim! This young lady was probably a postulant—that is to say, a future nun. Her clothing had a definite clerical look to it. For all that, she might already have made her vows and belonged to one of the orders that didn’t wear more conservative garb.

She kept addressing me in the vocative case as “Gentleman” as in: “Gentleman, this statue dates back to the Sixteenth Century.”

She knew every feature of that vast archiepiscopal palace, and kept addressing me as Gentleman.

In that most Catholic of countries, I couldn’t be anything other than the Gentleman I was thought to be. I enjoyed every minute of that tour and hope I conveyed my appreciation to the young lady for a very pleasant visit.

 

Policia

Assault Police Guarding the Palacio de Gobierno

Assault Police Guarding the Palacio de Gobierno

You may recall the news flap that occurred a couple months ago when someone scaled the White House fence and penetrated all the way to the East Room before he was snared. This would not be quite so likely in Lima, where asalto (assault) police with automatic weapons guard the Palacio de Gobierno along with badged security personnel in suits.

The first time I was in Lima, there was a demonstration expected. Just to make sure that it wouldn’t spill over into any sensitive areas, large groups of riot police with shields were stationed all around the Plaza de Armas.

Riot Police with Shields Stationed by the Main Plaza

Riot Police with Shields Stationed by the Main Plaza

South America has had a history of violence against government forces, culminating in the hanging of President Gualberto Villaroel, who in July 1946 was dragged from the presidential palace in La Paz, Bolivia, and hanged from a lamppost on the main square—which is still there and which is grimly shown to tourists.

Did I feel safe in Lima? Yes, as long as I followed the orders of the police about standing too close to the main gate.

 

Kittikat Haven

The Contented Cats of Lima’s Parque Kennedy

The Contented Cats of Lima’s Parque Kennedy

If there is a magnet to which foreign tourists are drawn in Lima, I would have to say it is Parque Kennedy in Miraflores. The triangular park is surrounded by tourist shops and restaurants, including the notorious Calle de los Pizzas. It is also full of contented cats, who were originally introduced to rid the park of rodents. But, as usually happens, the cats multiplied and became a tourist attraction in their own right. Now the city makes sure they are spayed, has an adoption program for them, and makes sure they are fed and not bothered.

Parque Kennedy reminds me of the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays in Buenos Aires. Curiously that park is also triangular in shape; and there, too, the cats are much loved and well cared for. (I begin to detect a pattern here.)

Uniformed Gardeners and Sanitation Workers in Parque Kennedy

Uniformed Gardeners and Sanitation Workers in Parque Kennedy

In parks and other public places around Peru, one finds uniformed gardeners and sanitation workers (shown above) keeping the place clean and beautiful. I believe they also feed the cats and make sure they have water to drink.Throughout Peru, the public places were like oases that drew people who wanted to rest, read a newspaper, or get their shoes shined. The day I left for Arequipa, I spent several hours there petting the cats and relaxing before having a great lunch at La Lucha Sangucheria across the street.

 

Jivaro Juice

Shrunken Heads from the Amazon

Shrunken Heads from the Amazon

I did not visit the Amazonian regions of Peru for two simple reasons:

  1. Mosquitoes and I do not get along well together
  2. I did not want to have my head shrunken like the two individuals above

Everything I know about shrunken heads—and many other subjects as well—come from a misspent youth reading Uncle Scrooge comics. In 1958’s “The Money Champ,” Scrooge McDuck is in competition with South African squajillionaire Flintheart Glomgold to see who has the most money. Unfortunately for the Duckburg millionaire, Flintheart has a supply of Jivaro Juice which he had obtained from head-hunting and -shrinking natives, and which he intends to use to shrink Scrooge’s money pile. In the following panel, Donald’s truck has been shrunk by the ruthless Glomgold:

What Jivaro Juice Did to Uncle Donald’s Truck

What Jivaro Juice Did to Uncle Donald’s Truck

The shrunken heads above come from Lima’s massive Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú. Maybe next time I’ll visit the Amazon, but don’t count on it!

 

Where Did the Other 80% Go?

The Altar of La Merced Church in Lima

The Altar of La Merced Church in Lima

According to John Hemming’s excellent history, The Conquest of the Incas, only 20% of the gold went to the King of Spain. Where did the rest go? Pizarro and the conquistadores probably got the lion’s share, but after visiting dozens of Peruvian churches, I am beginning to think that the Church came in for a huge windfall, if not sooner, then later. You can see it at the Cathedral and San Pedro in Lima, in addition to the Church of the Company in Arequipa and the massive Cathedral in Cusco.

The first church I visited in Lima was La Merced on Jirón de la Union, whose altar is shown above. As I visited more and more churches, I saw the tons of gold and silver lavishly displayed, so much so that many of them are victims of larceny, such as the church at Maca at Colca Canyon. (Although stripped of much of its gold, it still looks impressive to me.) In the nearby church at Coporaque, I discovered a motion detector that tracked my movements in the nave with an audible beep.

Nowhere have I ever seen such a display of wealth. It is no surprise that many of the churches, such as the Cathedral at Cusco, have security personnel to protect the churches’ wealth.

There was another side to the splendor of the great Peruvian churches.

The Birthplace and Chapel of St. Martin de Porres in Lima

The Birthplace and Chapel of St. Martin de Porres in Lima

On Callao near the intersection with Tacna is the birthplace and chapel of St. Martin de Porres. The chapel is tiny (you can see the sign by the leftmost door) and contains only a prie dieu and a statue of the saint, along with a bin for prayer requests and another for contributions. The building also contains doctors’ offices and a cafeteria for the elderly poor of the neighborhood. In fact, when I was waiting for the building to open at 2:30 pm, I shared the doorway with one of the volunteers, a sweet lady who spoke little English, which added to my little Spanish, managed to allow us to communicate. Needless to say, I made a contribution.

I neglected to say that St. Martin de Porres was black and a descendent of slaves. The stories about his life have a certain sweetness to them, and he is much loved by the people of Lima.

 

Take the Bus to Callao?

 

Which Bus? Going Where and When? And Taking Which Route?

Which Bus? Going Where and When? And Taking Which Route?

I enjoy taking public transportation in other countries, even in Argentina, which manages to make sense out of several hundred bus lines. But in Lima, you pretty much have to know in advance which bus to take. There is no handy-dandy website as in France or Iceland which makes you feel confident that you’ll get where you want to go.

The street above—Avenida Jose Pardo—is probably Lima’s most European-looking thoroughfare. Both of the above buses are going to Callao (pronounced Cah-YOW), Lima’s somewhat grungy seaport, and the location of its classy airport, but I could not find any body of information that helped me decide to take the bus.

Instead, I took cabs everywhere. Even an hour-long ride from the Plaza Major to Miraflores, where I was staying, in heinous rush hour traffic cost me only about 40 soles, or about $14-16. Although one has to be careful about taking an unregistered cab, one quickly becomes used to telling the difference. When approached by a tout, who wants to take you for a roundabout walk to his ramshackle vehicle, it is best to just say no and run like hell.

Most cabbies, however, were competent and friendly and drove newish cars. No one who takes pride in his vehicle is likely to “express kidnap” you and take you a series of ATMs, where you will be forced at gunpoint to drain your bank account(s). This practice is sometimes known as the “millionaires’ tour.” Trust me, this is one tour you don’t want to take.

In addition to taking cabs, I walked for miles in Lima, Cusco, Puno, and Arequipa. By evening, I was so tired that I had no trouble sleeping for nine or even ten hours.

 

Who Was More Civilized?

Moche Ceramics at Lima’s Museo Larco

Moche Ceramics at Lima’s Museo Larco

Who really was more highly civilized—the Incas or some of the peoples who preceded them? While it is unquestionable that the Incas were the greatest stonemasons and road builders, they could not hold a candle to the Moche in their artwork. Look at the faces above: They are remarkably individualized, especially the one to the right.

If you should find yourself in Lima, I would highly recommend a visit to the Museo Larco in Pueblo Libre. Dedicated primarily to Moche ceramics and metal-working, it is a phenomenal collection, originally put together by Rafael Larco Hoyle in Northern Peru. It is a delightful place to spend several hours, especially if one eats at the museum’s excellent restaurant. (Try the tiraditos.) After visiting the Museo Larco, you could follow the painted blue line on the sidewalk for some twenty minutes or so and end up at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú, with its excellent exhibition on the Paracas Culture.

The Incas were, in their time, an up-and-coming military power that conquered most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and parts of Chile. In the process they supplanted many talented peoples who were set to working raising crops and building roads and structures. Gone forever were the brilliant ceramics. Fortunately, enough was left to leave a brilliant picture of a culture that flourished from 100 to 800 AD, centuries before the Inca rose to power.