A Jew goes to church in Lima

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The Saint Francis Monastery.

When I first walked up to the Convento de San Francisco, or Saint Francis Monastery, I was taken back  by the gorgeous Spanish Baroque architecture that seemed to encompass the sky for miles. The design was breathtaking, and as hundreds of pigeons flocked around me I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the exterior.

I was a little skeptical about going here at first because it had no religious meaning for me, but I did as any good tourist would and took the plunge inside. Let’s not forget it is one of the top 10 things to do in Lima.

I took the English tour with a group of about 30 people. The tour guide was a Latina woman with a strong accent who you could tell had given the same speech one too many times in her life.

The church and convent are part of the Historic Centre of Lima and were consecrated in 1673 and completed in 1774. The structure has survived numerous earthquakes, but much of its interior and exterior had to be restored after a disastrous one in 1970.

For a Catholic, I’m sure one could go on for days about the artwork and the meaning of all the Saints, but for a Jew the religious affiliation did not entice me as much as the beauty and historic composition of the building and its belongings.

My three favorite sights in the monastery:

One of the first stops on the tour was the world-renowned library located in its convent. It possesses about 25,000 antique texts, including the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy and a Holy Bible from 1571. We were not able to take pictures, but just being inside, almost close enough to lay a hand on these artifacts, was more than enough for me.

In my opinion, the most amazing piece of artwork throughout the museum was the last supper painted by Diego de la Puente. I was able to find humor in it and the different depiction really caught my attention. Instead of the usual European dishes placed before Jesus, the artist paints typical Peruvian ingredients and meals, like the guinea pig, potatoes and chilies. Something that also shocked me about the painting was the Devil hovering besides Judas. Yes, the Devil!

So if that didn’t lure you in I left the best for last. The catacombs below the monastery are a sight that will leave you speechless. I must warn you to wear comfortable shoes because the chances of you stumbling are likely, and if you’re tall than you might have to get used to walking hunchbacked for a brief time while touring the underground structure, but I can assure you it is all worthwhile. The catacombs were Lima’s first cemetery for Catholics and are located below the monastery. They were discovered in 1943, but as the guide explained there are two more levels of catacombs left unexplored below.  The catacombs remained in use until 1808 when a city cemetery outside of Lima was founded, and it is estimated to contain about 70,000 burials. Neatly aligned bones are literally everywhere. From femurs to skulls, nothing is left up to the imagination. It is a grotesque sight to see; yet I was so fascinated by it that I would do it all over again.

You can visit the Convento de San Francisco everyday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for a small fee of seven soles, or about $2.50. Discounts are available for students and children. And no matter what religion you are, the monastery is a sight to see.

Local children play near the Saint Francis Monastery.

Local children play near the Saint Francis Monastery.

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My visit to the ChocoMuseo

In the process of making milk chocolate at the ChocoMuseo.

In the process of making milk chocolate at the ChocoMuseo.

When I first stepped into the ChocoMuseo the aroma of cocoa beans was breathtaking; a smell so sweet you could almost taste it. As my mouth watered I was promptly greeted by one of their employees, who happened to be a French man studying in Lima for a year. His English was perfect, despite the strong French accent, and he quickly offered my group and I a tour around the museum and a free chocolate workshop. Yes, free!

So it began.

He briefed us on the history of the cocoa bean and its importance to South America, particularly in Peru. It is one of Peru’s tastiest exports, if I do say so myself, and the cultivation of the bean has created numerous jobs for Peruvians in the outskirts of the country.

There are three main varieties of the cocoa plant: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. Forastero is the most widely used. The cocoa pods, which the beans are extracted from, have a rough, leathery texture that encompasses colors of the rainforest. It is hard to believe that our tasty treats come from these bright yellow, red and green pods.

After our brief explanation that lasted no longer than 10 minutes we were offered a sample of the cocoa bean in the raw. After breaking through the hard outer shell it was to my dismay to find a bitter taste, nothing like the sweet, or even semi-sweet flavor we have all come to know and love.

ChocoMuseo guide explaining the history of the cocoa bean.

ChocoMuseo guide explaining the history of the cocoa bean.

We were then taken to another part of the museum just steps from the historical briefing where chocolatiers were hard at work. Our guide explained the extraction and mixing process in which different varieties of chocolate is made, such as white chocolate. This is where the real sampling began. Tiny pieces of white, milk, and dark chocolate were readily available for eating. I must admit I had more than one of each, but our guide was very generous and continually offered the group more. If that wasn’t enough then came the samples of the different chocolate liqueurs. Some were infused with mangos and even chilies. I tried the liqueur infused with mangos, but it was much to strong for my liking and left my chest burning for several minutes. I could see the liqueurs being good in cooking however.

It didn’t end there.

The guide offered yet another sample of their homemade chocolate butter. I tried one infused with bananas, and let me tell you, I would have ate the whole jar if he let me. The creamy texture of the chocolate combined with the taste of fresh bananas left my palate craving more.

As the tour came to an end I wandered into the gift shop section of the museum where I was enticed by little hand-wrapped chocolates of every flavor, numerous chocolate bars, and cute little make-your-own chocolate kits. But all the gifts weren’t for eating. I was attracted to the pure cocoa lip balm and silky cocoa body butter that the guide was quick to dab on my arm. The eatable smell stuck with me the whole day and made me want to gnaw my arm off.

If you’re looking for a cocoa souvenir that lacks the breathtaking smell and taste then I recommend you buy the gorgeous earrings made of cocoa beans. Yes, earrings! Can you say amazing?

On your way out be sure to grab one of their business cards because it is a good for a 10 percent discount on a purchase at their Cusco location.

In a cocoa shell, the ChocoMuseo is not simply a “museum,” but instead a chocolate café, store and workshop. It is conveniently located three blocks from the central square in the district of Miraflores at Berlin Street 375. It is a short walk from many of the Miraflores hotels and is free. You can’t beat the price and a free lesson in chocolate making, oh my! It is any chocoholics dream come true.

Raw cocoa beans at the ChocoMuseo.

Raw cocoa beans at the ChocoMuseo.

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