Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima?

The Monastery of San Fransisco (AKA Convento/Monasterio de San Francisco or the Monastery of Saint Francis) has some delightfully creepy yet somehow artistic catacombs sitting beneath it. For those who like to do something a little offbeat and unusual, maybe even macabre, a tour of the catacombs of Lima is just the ticket! But before I tell you about what you’ll see there, I’d like you to experience it the way we did.

The Site

The Monastery of San Francisco is just a block or so away from Lima’s Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral of Lima, and the Archbishop’s Palace. As such, it is part of the “Historic Centre of Lima,” which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The monastery and church are yellow buildings that stand out against the grays and browns of the others in the area. Construction began in the middle of the sixteenth century and was completed in 1674. It’s considered to be a fine example of Spanish Baroque architecture.

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis.

There is usually a small horde of pigeons in the building’s courtyard, and a few vendors selling (among other things) food to feed the pigeons.

We entered the monastery (the building to the side of the church), paid for a tour, and waited for an English-speaking guide.

The Library

After a brief introduction, our guide led us out and up a flight of stairs. I wish I could have taken a photo of the stairway, or rather the ceiling above it. It was a beautiful deep red color and looked more Middle Eastern than Spanish or South American. Before I had a chance to ponder it, however, we moved into the first room: the library. I was awestruck, and I think you can see why;

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis, but don't be in such a rush to see them that you fail to appreciate what you see along the way... like this gorgeous library.

Our guide told us that the library contains over 25,000 books, and that some of them dated as far back as the 14th century. The world-renowned library contains the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy as well as a Bible dated 1572.

The Art

As with the Cathedral of Cusco, there was a massive Last Supper painting that depicted Jesus and his disciples partaking of Peruvian foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and potatoes. Unlike the one in Cusco, this one included the Devil himself… perched just above Judas’ shoulder. The guide told us how many faces there were in the painting… and while I can’t remember what that number was, it was a lot more than just the 13 men at the table. Looking at the painting more closely, I could see many additional faces – some no more than just a hint of a heavenly presence gazing upon the scene below.

As we walked along the cloister (the covered walkway between the building and the courtyard), we saw beautiful tiles lining the wall:

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the monastery of San Francisco , but make sure you take in all of the other fascinating art & architecture there as well, like these beautiful tiled walls.

One tile bore the date 1620! To think that those tiles have survived nearly 500 years is just mind-boggling. Even more so when you consider that the building experienced three major earthquakes – in 1687, 1746, and 1970. Interestingly, the first two did very little damage.  It was the earthquake of 1970 that inflicted severe damage on the site. And the tiles were not the only art to decorate the cloister – above the tiles you could see the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (“San Francisco” in Spanish) portrayed in a series of murals.

The Courtyard

The inner courtyard of the monastery was quite beautiful, particularly when viewed from the upper floor:

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco... then step out into the beautiful courtyard for a breath of fresh air.

We enjoyed looking out at the courtyard so much that we lingered there for a few moments at the end of the guided tour, just so we could take it all in.

The building itself was pretty impressive from that vantage point as well.

The Spanish baroque style Monastery of San Francisco allows you to tour the catacombs of Lima.

The Catacombs

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the creepy, crusty, dirty, dusty catacombs!  Actually they weren’t all that dirty but they were bit creepy.

In centuries past, it was customary to bury people under churches. This was commonplace until 1808, when the cemetery of Lima opened. At that time, practices changed and the catacombs were closed, after accepting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 bodies. The catacombs stayed undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1943. When that happened, archaeologists and anthropologists decided to sort through the skeletons. (I’m not clear on why they thought that was necessary.) Apparently whoever was in charge of sorting had a really bad case of OCD.  Instead of keeping the bodies semi-intact, they put all the skulls together, all the femurs together, all the tibias together, and so on. So we passed bin after bin of bones that were not a person, but rather parts of more than one person. It was weird.

But it seemed to be slightly less weird when we got to the well. That was where the bones were not just sorted into bins but rather artistically arranged in to a geometric design.

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco and you will see this artistic display of bones.

I don’t think I would have the nerve to do all that, honestly. Rumor has it that the catacombs also included secret passageways connecting to the Cathedral and to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.

If you’re in Lima and you want to see a really amazing, kinda creepy place, look no farther than the Monastery of San Francisco. It only costs about $3 for a tour, and it will be a fascinating one!

The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima has more to delight visitors than the creepy catacombs. It's on the top ten list of places to see in Lima, Peru!

7 Replies to “Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco”

  1. This is indeed creepy. I also don’t understand why they sorted those like that. Adds more creepiness to it. I’ve been to Lima but never heard and went to that place. So disappointing.

    1. A different time, a different culture. I don’t understand either but I did love the history and the beauty that the other parts of the monastery offered.

  2. Wow, this is right up my street!! I’ve always wanted to visit Peru and now it’s going to have to happen! I visited Sicily a few years ago and saw the Catacombs in Palermo, they were beautiful.

    Katie xoxo

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