Dying to Visit the Catacombs

I am one of those people that seems to have a talent for getting sick whenever I arrive in a foreign country. The sudden relaxation that comes with a vacation is apparently reason enough for my body to unleash the pent-up viruses that I’d been harboring over exam season. So considering that I already felt like death, a visit to the bone-yard housed in the San Francisco Catacombs seemed like an appropriate outing.

No turning back!
No turning back!

The stunning San Francisco church, intricately decorated with a Moorish architecture that makes it such a distinct interior in Lima, is reason enough itself to get up out of bed and face the beautiful Lima sunshine. Completed in 1774, it is a fantastic example of colonial architecture, and is still in use today as a Catholic church. Attached is the San Francisco convent, which also is well worth a visit if only for the amazing library that the lucky monks were able to spend hours in studying everything from languages to geography to biology. However, it is the creepy catacombs beneath that are of special curiosity to me. These were only discovered in 1943, but were used as a burial ground for residents of the city right up until 1808. So that’s 34 years of continued use as a final resting place for wealthier Limeños. No wonder there were over 25,000 bodies found overall.

Entrance to the crypt
Entrance to the crypt

Supposedly, being buried under the church was considered an honor, as one would be closer to god when time came to meet your maker. For this  reason people would pay to be interred in the catacombs. But was this really the best ending that you could have?

Rows of bones
Rows of bones

It’s interesting to note that there are no complete skeletons in the catacombs. Everyone has been separated out into femurs, skulls, pelvises and other ‘miscellaneous’ bones. Upon dying, bodies would be placed into a pit, in a row of similar pits,on top of their fellow (eternal) bed mates. Then some 200 years later, they were discovered and re-sorted. I imagine this was not the final ending that these residents of Lima had in mind for themselves!

More piles of bones
More piles of bones

 

The arrangement of bones itself is pretty interesting, I’m sure someone had fun doing that (check out the photo of the circular skull-pit, for example). There are random skulls up staircases, mounds of spinal columns, and a few pirate-inspired skull-and-crossbones feature pieces that make a good photo (although please note that photos are technically not allowed so turn off your flash 😉 ). Lovers of horror will take special delight in staring into the unlit, seemingly endless corridors and staircases, wondering what secrets lay down there, closed off from the public gaze.

Creepy circular skull pit
Creepy circular skull pit

In all, the catacombs are a must-see when in Lima, as well as the San Francisco church and convent above. For those who are claustrophobic, the catacombs are undeniably enclosed, but they are well-lit and if you did feel you wanted to leave quickly it would be easy to make your escape. There is head-room, but I am ‘Peruvian-sized’ myself so might be biased on that one.

I wonder whats down that dark corridor?
I wonder whats down that dark corridor?

 

Looking up the San Francisco church altar from the catacombs below...
Looking up the San Francisco church altar from the catacombs below…

Beckie is a volunteer with the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru

Beckie Melanie

Beckie is a professional lover of Peru, with two Masters degrees in Anthropology & Development, for which she undertook research in the Andean highlands. She is now starting her PhD with a research focus on Peruvian medicine, so loves to learn all she can about the people and their culture! Beckie is currently learning Quechua, and recommends that everyone come to Peru and try ceviche.

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