The Beauty (and Bones) of Lima’s San Francisco

You can’t help but admire the artistry. The geometric patterns, the concentric circles, the symmetry and precision—it’s all very impressive. But what truly makes these works of art fascinating are the materials used: thousands of human skulls and bones.

Welcome to the catacombs of Basilica y Convento de San Francisco, located in the historic center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Approximately 25,000 people were buried in the San Francisco catacombs, a practice that didn’t stop until the city cemetery was opened in 1808. Of course, there’s more to San Francisco than the mildly morbid art of the catacombs.

The church, which was completed in 1674, is considered to be a classic example of Spanish baroque architecture. The main alter is made completely of wood, and the vaults of the center and naves are painted in a blend of Spanish and Moorish styles. Jude the Apostle is venerated here, and each year during a festival in his honor, a silver stand—weighing over a ton—is paraded around by over 40 people.

The convent at San Francisco is known for its library, which contains over 20,000 ancient texts, including a Belgian Bible printed around 1572. Today you can visit the convent’s main courtyard, and several of the surviving cloisters, including one now occupied by the Peruvian National Police.

A visit to Basilica y Convento de San Francisco is a fascinating part of any trip to Lima. To explore how you can make such a visit yourself, check out the trips listed below.