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In the City of Shadows

Have you ever discovered a hidden treasure that made your trip memorable?

Lima Miraflores CatherdralThe long and dark shadows crept out from behind the corners of the buildings… more real than the few people who wandered through the deserted streets. They glided through the shuttered doors and disappeared before the next intersection. The city was full of gloom and a heavy silence, but not empty. It seemed to wait, breath baited for an imminent ambush. Empty houses and boarded windows with their shutters hanging lifelessly spoke of a tragic history. Walking from the Governor’s Palace to the Cathedral of Lima, in the Plaza Mayor, the three of us felt the tenseness in the air and hurried towards the safety of the massive stone spires. In the brightness of mid-afternoon, Lima was swathed in ghosts of the past: a city of shadows.

The hymn sung in Latin seemed to have warped us back through the centuries. Our local friend Eva, my mother, and I quietly slipped around the back of the basilica and towards the side aisle. The ceiling yawned miles above me, the cavernous main chamber echoing with the sound of song. Gold and dark wood created a murky glow over the room. Eva motioned us with a wink into one of the alcoves behind the stone supporting pillars. As we entered, a priest stepped out but gave us no glance of surprise. Mother and I shared a brief glance of excitement before heading in: we felt as if we were being let into a secret. Through a short corridor and down some stairs, we arrived at the hidden treasures of Lima’s Cathedral. Here, in a darkened set of rooms, encased in glass boxes stood the loot of Spanish conquest.

Gold, everywhere gold gleamed from the shadows.

Elaborate reliquary crosses in gold, miniature gold shrines, stoles and copes embroidered richly in gold thread, and gold miters all shone lustrously.

Lima Church AltarThe gold came, obviously, from the resplendent plunder of the Incan empire that ruled Lima (and Peru) when Spanish ships arrived. Once decorating palace and temple facades to emulate the powers of the sun-god, the gold was melted and reused for the new religion which conquered the capital. The icons of Christendom in the age of European colonization have the meaning of both Incan spiritualism and Spanish religion. Though the images all speak of Biblical themes, the handiwork of Incan artisans is never gone. It hides in shadowy form upon the intricately carved wooden panels, the precision of beatific features, and the glint of gold.

Lima Cathedral PulpitThe sight of all the precious artifacts was a reminder to me of Lima’s tortured history. These gorgeous symbols were a painful memoir of a culture being subjugated, yet their very existence revealed the possibilities in artistry, subtlety, and symbolism that can transpire when two civilizations collide. Like the metropolis above us, these gilded articles manifested the constant duality of Lima’s story. Eva assured us that very few people were able to see these wonderful pieces of Lima’s past, but she could not tell us why they were hidden in the depths of the cathedral. Was it to protect them? To hide away shameful remembrances? Whatever the reason, the objects seemed made for the under lit space below the city’s church. Here, they continue to exist in a shadow world, a reminder of Lima’s ponderous past, a shimmer of promising future.


In 1532, conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeated the Incan emperor Atahualpa, ushering in two hundred years of Spanish dominion. Though Spain ruled Lima’s religion and culture, the core of Incan spirituality and artistry shimmered in the background. Politics and power have always cast long shadows in Lima’s history. Almost two hundred years after Lima achieved its independence from Spain, guerrillas waged war against the Peruvian government, leaving Lima a hollowed shell of its former self. Recovery is a slow and tender process, but the city’s cosmopolitan spirit shines through like ancient Incan gold.

To experience Lima’s sumptuous epicurean world, delve into Bespoke Traveler Journal: At The Table.

6 replies »

  1. Beautiful writing. I love the thought of a city of shadows because it can mean so many different things with those shifts of dark and light through history.

    • Thanks Sheila! It’s the image that came to mind as I was wandering through the streets of Lima. It was so otherworldly with its mixture of bomb damaged and abandoned office buildings and its beautiful restored historic landmarks. Both physically and historically, the city seemed to me to be a play on light and darkness.

    • Thanks TB! Lima was a really unique city, but I suppose one can say that of a lot of places. I have to agree, pubs are some of the best hidden treasures in a city, especially the out of the way local ones. In London of course, they have tons of history as well, so that adds to the fun!

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