Lima is one of the most historically important cities in the Americas. Its only real rivals are Ciudad de Mexico and perhaps Boston. It’s therefore perplexing that it has no centralized museum district like New York City’s Museum Mile, Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, or Mexico City’s Centro Historico. Worse still, not only are the museums widely scattered throughout the city’s 30 districts, but some of the best don’t even appear in the tourist guidebooks, in either English or Spanish. These sites can be unknown even to limeños who have lived in the city all their lives.
Listed below are some of the most rewarding, least visited destinations in the great labyrinth that is Lima. Museum hours in Peru can be irregular, so you’re well advised to call before you go.
Casa de Aliaga
Jiron de la Union 224 (Lima Centro)
That this museum is overlooked by every one of the guidebooks is flat-out incomprehensible. Jeronimo de Aliaga was one of 168 Spaniards who participated in the conquest of Peru. He was present at the capture and garroting of the Inca Atahualpa, and for his efforts he was rewarded by his boss, Francisco Pizarro, with a prime piece of Lima real estate: a plot alongside the Governor’s Palace, where he constructed this splendid mansion before returning to Spain in 1550. Today his casona is the oldest private house in the Americas. It’s still owned by Aliaga’s descendants, who live in an annex next door and rent the colonial-era structure out for tours. It’s also one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in all of South America. The carved doors, grillwork, staircases, and tiled drawing rooms have to be seen to be believed. Tours of the house aren’t cheap: they start around $45 per person, and you have to either go with an official tour company or hire one of the independent guides approved by the family. But if you have any interest whatsoever in Latin American history, or Peru, or architecture, or just plain beauty, the admission cost is a steal.
Casa de la Literatura Peruana
Jiron Ancash 207 (Lima Centro)
The Swedish Academy’s 2010 decision to award Mario Vargas Llosa the Nobel Prize helped put Peru on the literary map. But connoisseurs of Latin American culture have long known of other, equally rewarding Peruvian writers—men of genius such as the poet Cesar Vallejo and the great historian Garcilaso de la Vega, as well as numerous lesser but still eminently readable talents. In 2009, the Peruvian government inaugurated this museum to promote appreciation of this literary tradition and foster reading habits among a broader public. Tucked away behind the Palacio del Gobierno in the former Desamparados railway station, it doesn’t appear in any of the guidebooks, and on any given afternoon most of the visitors are high-school or university students doing research in the library and literary cafe downstairs. But don’t be turned away by the empty halls: the museum is one of Lima’s treasures, an oasis of tranquility in a city legendary for its noise. Unlike Lima’s public libraries, which do not allow visitors into the stacks and do not permit books to circulate, the museum gives free access to its collection of 2,000 volumes, and the exhibition halls are extremely informative and well organized. Each of them presents key facts about literary movements and individual writers in a way that is accessible and engaging. The turn-of-the-century architecture is yet another reason to go. For obvious reasons, the exhibits are in Spanish, but there are excellent English-language tours available, and the staff is extremely friendly and eager to answer questions.
Museo de la Nacion – Yuyanapaq: Para recordar
Av. Javier Prado Este 2645 (San Borja)
There’s much that Peruvian museums do wrong, but this exhibit gets everything right. Supremely, superlatively right. Spare, somber, and elegiac, with bare concrete walls and stark, bunker-like spaces, it serves first and foremost to bear witness to one of the greatest holocausts in Latin American history, a holocaust that left gaping wounds in Peruvian society that to this day have not healed. At the end of the 1970’s, an obscure Marxist group appeared in the provincial city of Ayacucho. Unnoticed at first by almost everyone, over the next 15 years they would grow into a terrifying, bloodthirsty death cult that would provoke a violent repression from the Peruvian military and consume the lives of almost 70,000 citizens (some 2 percent of the population), ushering in a dictatorial regime and bringing Peruvian society to the brink of total collapse. This exhibit, whose name is Quechua for “to remember,” tells the story of Sendero’s rapid metastasis throughout the country in a series of overwhelming photographs, most in black and white. The captions, in English and Spanish, are terse, factual, leaving the horrors of the photos to speak for themselves. The cumulative effect is shattering. Allot at least three hours to absorb the installation’s full impact. If you only see one exhibit in Lima, this is the one.