Lima. Late Sunday evening in the working-class district of Rímac, and the crowds of pedestrians are finally thinning out on the Puente de Piedra, the old stone bridge that crosses the river behind the city’s Plaza de Armas. The streetlights have come on. Cold October fog.
I’m sitting on the bridge, listening to a lone man with a bucket full of coins and a loudspeaker. He’s crooning “La Flor de la Canela”—for Peruvians a kind of national hymn, and one intimately bound up with Rímac and its history. The air seems overcharged with jasmine and nostalgia.
Let me tell you of the glory,
The reverie evoked by the memory
Of the old bridge, the river, and the promenade…
The song tells of a flirtatious morena (dark-skinned girl) who once sashayed along these streets, “gathering the laughter of the breeze from the river.” Jaunty, rosy-cheeked, elegant, she seems to float before me and the two or three other listeners, an image of captivating loveliness—as well as a celebration of non-white castes in a deeply segregated society—but alas, one that had already fallen into the romantic past when the legendary Chabuca Granda penned the lyrics way back in 1950.
In this, I muse, the morenita is like Rímac itself. Once called Abajo el Puente (Under the Bridge) for its proximity to the river, Rímac is, everyone agrees, not what it used to be. Its streets can be dicey, its houses dilapidated. The Starbucks and Pinkberrys sprouting in the rest of the capital are nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, even for non-Peruvians, like me, the district’s decayed grandeur expresses something essential about Lima, and by extension all of Peru: that same ineffable magic exhaled by Chabuca Granda’s jasmine-scented melody.
Call it criollismo, the characteristic mix of black, Spanish, and indigenous elements that makes Peru’s culture so distinctive. Or maybe it’s simply history, the visceral sense of the past that hovers so thickly in Rímac’s storied, romantic streets.
Whatever the case, it’s to glimpse this elusive essence that I’ve come to Rímac.
Here’s what I found.
Viceroy and Vixen
I’m standing before the great rose-colored arch of the Paseo de Aguas. It’s Monday morning. The only other souls around are two teens holding hands, furtively, so as not to scandalize the senior citizens. Little do they realize, the spot they’ve chosen has its own associated sexual scandal, the greatest in Peru’s history.
Rímac as a district owes much of its splendor to one man, Manuel de Amat y Junient.
Appointed Viceroy to the great colonial capital in 1761, he was an administrator of diverse talents: amateur architect, military strategist, urban-planning visionary. By all rights, the countless public-works projects he implemented in the 16 years of his tenure should be his principal legacy today. But among limeños, in the 21st no less than in the 18th century, Amat’s claim to fame lay—lies—in one deliciously gossip-worthy fact: he was the lover of La Perricholi.
La Perricholi was Micaela Villegas, a mestiza from the provincial city of Huánuco who’d made it big as an actress in Lima’s Teatro Principal. She was talented: her repertoire at the theater included Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, all the heavyweights of the Golden Age of Spanish drama. She, too, deserves to be remembered for her achievement—in her case, the not inconsiderable one of conquering a racially stratified colonial society via sheer artistic ability (she was reportedly not beautiful). But she was 25, and a chola (girl of Indian descent), and he was 60, and white. People were going to talk.
Talk they did. Whisperings about the May/December couple began to proliferate almost immediately. One legend purports to trace Villegas’s nickname to a jealous spat. Provoked by her mercurial temper, Amat supposedly called her, in anger, “perra chola” (half-breed bitch). His Catalan accent garbled the words, however, which came out “Perricholi”—and were promptly adopted by the spunky criolla as her new pet name.
Another legend holds that when the viceroy propositioned Villegas to be his mistress, she coquettishly replied she would consider it when he laid the moon at her feet. Cagily, he ordered the construction of the Paseo de Aguas, with its fountains and reflecting pool, in front of her domicile in Rímac. At the next full moon, he invited her to stroll along its paths.
Waggings of idle tongues? Very likely. But the history of Rímac, and indirectly of all of Lima, is so interwoven with these stories that no visitor to the district can avoid them. They’re simply part of the milieu, like the mist that shrouds the city in winter. And true or not, the glamour they add to Rímac’s gritty streets is incalculable.
The most powerful man in South America erecting monuments to the peasant girl who has bewitched him? Who could resist such a story?
Not I, I have to admit. Standing here before the Paseo, I find myself contemplating its triumphal arcades and portico by the faded glow of Amat’s scandalous passion.
The aqueducts are dry now, and Lima’s gray skies mean that no moon is reflected in its still pools. But the palm trees flanking the alameda, the subtle Moorish and Roman elements in the arches, evoke a Lima dedicated to pleasure, to erotic intrigue and a carefree sensuality now vanished from the world.
I find myself staring at the beer factory across the street, where supposedly the Perricholi’s house once stood. How many nights did she sit at her window, hypnotized by those glimmering pools?
Amat ended up breaking with Villegas and going back to Spain, where he married a 20-year-old niece. She, too, subsided into respectability and marriage. Her remains, according to many, are interred in an unmarked niche in a Franciscan convent around the corner. Fact, or another Lima legend?
There’s only one way to find out. My feet proceed down the alameda, to consult the source.
Vladimir Ojeda, my tour guide, represses a smile as he shows me the huge copper vat. We’re in the distillery of the Convento de los Descalzos (Convent of the Barefoot Friars), and all around us are hand-cranked mills, ladles, baskets full of grapes, fermentation tubs, 50-gallon hogsheads—everything needed to manufacture good cheer on chilly Lima nights.
“You need to understand, the convent was like a city within a city,” he’s saying. “It was designed to be self-sufficient. Of course, the monks needed income. So what did they do? They distributed wine, beer, and pisco [a grape-based Peruvian liquor] from these vats.”
Nor has the tradition died out, he says. Every August 2nd, the friars—some eight in all—who live in the still-functioning convent have a festival in which they fire up the old hooch works to raise funds.
The distillery is just one of the monastery’s surprises. Others include a printing press, a pharmacy with tribal medicines from the Amazon, a music room, and a gallery containing important works by Spanish and Latin American masters, including a striking St. Joseph from the workshop of Esteban Murillo. Vladimir, a graduate of one of Lima’s tourism institutes, talks me through all of it, eyeing me sidelong as I gaze wonderingly.
More than anything, it’s the stillness. Founded in 1592 as a retreat for Franciscans who wanted to escape the worldliness and bustle of Lima, the convent is a place of silences, of long, empty corridors and noontime repose, broken only by the tolling of bells summoning the faithful to prayer. Even in the 1700s, when Amat’s urban-renewal projects were turning the rest of Rímac into a pleasure ground for the rich, the monks clung to a lifestyle of humility, going either barefoot, or shod in the most rudimentary of sandals. Hence the monastery’s name.
“The idea was to imitate the poverty of Christ. It’s an idea they’ve always espoused, up till the present day.”
Or almost always. We come to the cloister’s main chapel, the Capilla de la Virgen del Carmen. Vladimir points out details of the Spanish baroque façade, then ushers me inside. The ornamentation’s splendor overwhelms.
“The materials in this chapel were costly. Extraordinarily costly. Nicaraguan cedar, Sevillian tiles, gold leaf on the altarpiece, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, ultra-thin laminas of white stone from Huamán for the windowpanes.” The smile again, faint as before. “Even an order dedicated to poverty had to pay proper tribute to the Virgin.”
We come to the final cloister. I ask if it’s true that Micaela Villegas is buried somewhere in the convent.
“La Perricholi? No one knows.” Vladimir raps on a plaster wall. “Her will stipulated that she wanted to be buried here, but a corpse has never been found. Rumor has it she’s buried in an unmarked niche behind a false panel. I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.”
At the door, I thank my guide profusely. His is the best tour I’ve taken in Lima, I say. I’m not lying. His smile breaks out fully for the first time.
Outside, the sun is hot. The convent’s hushed corridors and airless cloisters have left me longing for the noise and bustle of the world. Plus, I’m hungry, so I decide to retrace my steps, back to the Puente de Piedra, where the Rímac of today awaits.
Bulls, Slaves, and the World’s Smallest Church
Jirón Trujillo is Rímac’s main drag. At lunchtime, it’s swarming with hawkers and touts and food stands. On some blocks, you have to tread carefully to avoid the peddlers with their merchandise spread out on blankets on the curbside.
I sit down at one of the stands for a bowl of chupe de pescado, fish soup in a rich egg-and-cheese broth. Thus warmed and filled, I must look visibly more content, since the cook, a fiftyish black woman, smiles and asks me what brings me to “Porto Guinea,” one of the district’s monikers from the early 20th century. Her family, she says, has been here for centuries.
I’m not surprised. Rímac has long been a haven for Lima’s black population, ever since the city’s founding back in 1535. At that time, it consisted of a few slave hovels along the river and not much else. Slowly, the neighborhood grew. Then, in 1563, a leprosy epidemic swept through, decimating the African residents, who were treated at the newly built hospice of San Lázaro at the end of Jirón Trujillo (it later became the church of the same name). The district continued as a slave colony until the 18th century, when the Afro-Peruvians were displaced by Amat’s reforms.
I ask the cook about San Lázaro, which dominates Jirón Trujillo from the next block. She says her family has always attended mass there, it being the principal parish in the vicinity. She shrugs her shoulders, engrossed in her grilling. “Supposedly it was built by a great señor, who loved God and hated slavery.” So, at least, the rumor goes.
As it turns out, she’s correct. Antón Sanchez was a sword merchant to Lima’s conquistadores and a pious Christian. When he chanced to visit Rímac in the 1560s, at the height of the leprosy plague, he saw numerous slaves cowering behind bushes out of shame for their condition. Moved by pity, he bought up terrain in the area and established the parish and its hospital. From where I stand, I can see the bronze relief of the parable of Lazarus placed there 450 years ago, a monument to the tradesman’s compassion.
San Lázaro isn’t the only noteworthy church in Jirón Trujillo. Near the cook’s stand is the Capillita del Puente, otherwise known as Nuestra Señora del Rosario, which I decide to duck into after paying my lunch tab. And indeed, duck in is about all one can do, since at just 8 by 12 meters, the Capillita is the world’s smallest church. Originally a private chapel in the house of a Spanish duke living in Lima in the mid-1600s, it was kept open to the public so that they too could venerate the images of the Virgin inside. Today lavish altarpieces nearly overwhelm the church’s five pews.
It’s getting on in the afternoon, so from the chapel I decide to head east four blocks to one of Lima’s truly grand monuments, the Plaza de Acho. Built in 1768 as part of Amat’s urban-reclamation program, this bullring, the oldest in the Americas and the third oldest in the world, initially had a very elemental purpose: to keep the rabble from fighting bulls in the streets. Limeños, it appears, had had that nasty habit since the city’s founding, starting with Francisco Pizarro himself. Amat’s plan must have contributed mightily to public order and hygiene.
When I arrive, the ring is gearing up for the short Lima season, which begins in late October. Two teenaged matadores are pirouetting with their capes on the sand. The afternoon sun is blinding. I ask the keeper to see the museum in the basement. It’s an odd, curiosity-shop jumble of memorabilia: posters of dead bullfighters, costumes, swords. A series of Goya engravings on taurine themes stands out. Upon inspection, their fineness is unmistakable. They’re masterworks. How they ended up here is unfathomable.
I rummage for an hour, at which point the docent announces they’re closing. As I step outside, I notice, oddly, the sun’s absence. I look up. The tower next door casts a long shadow. Yet another local legend says it was constructed as a private grandstand by a bullfight aficionado who was denied entrance to the ring by Amat himself. To thumb his nose at the colonial administration, he gave himself the best seats in all of Lima.
A story that reminds me: there’s one more place in Rímac I still have to visit.
On the Heights
The tour bus is climbing at what feels like a 45-degree angle as we wind our way up the Cerro San Cristóbal, the hill that overlooks Lima. We’re passing between houses miraculously built into the hillside, often by the same Peruvians who now live in them. It’s the end of the day, the last stop on my visit to Rímac. I’m looking out the window. Beyond my reflection from the outer darkness, the lights of the city are visible below. During Easter Week, religious processions trudge up these slopes, in reenactments of Christ’s crucifixion. I can’t imagine how they make it.
Eventually we arrive at the top, where the guide tells us we have 30 minutes to look around. Stepping out of the bus, I experience a moment of bedazzlement: all around and below me, glittering like all the kingdoms of the earth, lie the riches (and squalors) of Lima, washed clean by darkness and the cool night air. A visionary panorama.
Drunk on Rímac and its history, I can’t help but think how they must have appeared to Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish cohorts when they conquered this vast terrain nearly 500 years ago.
Half-miraculous, that conquest. In 1536, during the fierce clash between Incas and Spaniards for dominion over the Peruvian coast, the former sent out some 50,000 warriors under Quizo Yupanqui to lay siege to Lima and push the Iberians into the sea. They were met beneath the hill by 400 Europeans, led by Pizarro himself. Not much of a contest, it would appear. But divine help was on the Spanish side. Legend says that every time the Incas tried to ford the then-raging Rímac River, the waters would swell and drown them. After repeated attempts, they gave up. The Spanish prostrated themselves, giving thanks to God by dedicating the neighboring hill to St. Christopher, on whose day the victory occurred.
I look around me. None of this seems to be in the minds of the Peruvians cavorting near the great cross on the hill’s peak. They’re too busy laughing, exhilarated by the dizzying heights and the chill from off the sea. One smiling young mother approaches me, asking if I can take a picture of her and her family with her iPhone.
There’s some trouble about the flash. The dad comes over to help. We strike up a conversation. He’s from Rímac, it turns out. He asks how I like Peru, if I’ve tried cebiche, if I know his district. I say yes, Rímac has incredible cultural riches.
He smiles proudly, slaps me on the back. “Yes, Rímac is like that, the tourists don’t know it, but they should all come here.” He ends by inviting me to eat at his house. It would be a pleasure, I say.
He smiles even more broadly. “Yes, you’ve got to come. Really, you’ve got to.”