Deep within the shadowy underworld of pleasant Historic Lima, two blocks away from the President’s Palace, there is a place so creepy and macabre that you shouldn’t miss on your next visit.
It’s housed beneath the ghostly Monastery of San Francisco, the colonial church dating back to the 18th Century, where on the surface you’ll find a library of more than 25,000 antiques texts, including the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy and a Holy Bible from 1571. But don’t be thrown off by the charming appeal of the monastery, because below rests Lima’s first cemetery.
The Catacombs of Saint Francis were discovered in 1943 and are estimated to contain the remains of 25,000 people, though some experts say the number is closer to 70,000. Once you make your way down to the subterranean level you’ll walk through narrow bone-lined hallways underneath the church where you’ll see several large and deep holes filled with bones and skulls arranged above each other in a circular pattern.
On this extensive tour you can appreciate the vaulted ceiling and semicircular archways tightly shut with brick and limestone so that the smell of the tombs, where coffins were once placed one on top of the other separated only by dirt and limestone, wouldn’t reach the church.
To this day you can distinguish skulls, femurs, tibias, and fibulae of the bodies that were placed within the old church to decompose.
Even before the earthquake of 1656 when the original church collapsed, the catacombs were used to house the bodies of deceased priests and nobles. When the church was rebuilt after the earthquake, the practice of burying individuals within the church continued even after the labyrinth of tombs was completely filled.
To keep up with the demand to be buried inside the church, the undertakers had to douse the bodies in quicklime, which caused them to quickly be reduced to skeletons. It wasn’t until 1821, with an official decree from José de San Martin , that the practice was stopped.
Church records indicate that some famous Peruvians from the colonial era were buried within the old church.
The remains of Friar Juan Gomez, a 16th Century doctor and “miracle worker,” who worked at the church hospital 40 years is among the thousands buried in San Francisco.
According to the Peruvian historian, Ricardo Palma, one time Friar Gomez saved the life of a man who fell off his horse by simply reciting three prayers for the man. The man, who everyone believed was surely dead, rose to his feet and walked away as if he’d never fallen of the horse.
The people cheered for the friar, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle, long live Friar Gomez.”
According to the Franciscan chronicles, in his attempt to flee the attention and applause of the crowd that had gathered, Friar Gomez supposedly flew away to his monastery.
The catacombs are the last stop on the tour of San Francisco. Before reaching the subterranean level you will see the church decorated with ornate woodcarvings, Spanish style mosaics, and faience tiles.
In the monastery there are plenty of religious works of art and you can also visit the choir stalls where you can see the large choir songbooks displayed on floor stands. Before exiting the monastery you will pass through a series of beautiful courtyards full of plants, walkways and private little nooks where it looks like the monks passed their time meditating.
The tour guides are knowledgeable and fluent in English and provide gross, but interesting little facts about the tombs.
The San Francisco Church and Catacombs is an impressive Colonial-style building located near the historical buildings in Lima’s downtown Plaza de Armas. Tours are available from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Entrance fee is S/ 7.00 or about $2.50.