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We cycled to the village of Lampa chiefly to avoid lingering too long in Juliaca, a shambolic city that had the previous day been liberated from eight days of violent road blockades caused by striking miners. (‘Incomparable,’ sighed the owner of our hostal in nearby Puno, shaking his head. ‘A chaotic, windswept shithole,’ reckons a fellow cycling blogger. We have little to add.) The road north-west from Juliaca gradually opens out into classic altiplano scenery beneath vast skies that can turn ominous in moments. Around 35km from its parent city, Lampa hoves into view.

Lampa is usually described as ‘unspoilt’, a word with which we often have some quarrel – many unspoilt villages could do with some spoiling – but here seems an appropriate compliment. There’s little if any modern construction in the town, which is centred on a beautifully maintained square. And monopolising one side of the square is what appears to be an equally well kept church: the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol, built from stone and lime mortar in the 17th century. 

 


 

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As veterans of the travel publishing business, we’re well acquainted with what we’ll call The Church Problem. Touring through Europe or the Americas, whether by bike, bus or car, the casual traveller will inevitably pass through or near countless small towns and villages with a historic church as their centrepiece. The Church Problem entails finding the interesting churches. Or, to be more accurate, finding the churches that will be interesting to travellers who are only passingly interested in churches.

This is, you’d hope, where a guidebook would come in handy, but we’ve had little help from ours. Rarely eager to express a strong opinion about anything, our Footprint South American Handbook isn’t much use; nor, before we ditched it, was our copy of Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring. (Lonely Planet produces some fine guidebooks. South America on a Shoestring isn’t one of them.) We can sympathise with the editors. In our experience, finding a travel writer with the knowledge to make educated distinctions between ancient churches based on anything other than dimly received wisdom is a haystack-needle conundrum.

 


 

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Behind its graceful exterior, topped with handsome tiling and bordered by wildflower gardens, the main interior of the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol seems fairly unremarkable to this pair of dilettante ramblers. Grand, certainly; dark and daunting, in a typically Catholic way; not without its impressive features, chiefly an intricately carved wooden pulpit; but perhaps not worthy of a major detour. The real astonishment lies behind a door on the south side of the main space, shielded from the gaze of regular worshippers.

Born in Lampa at the end of the 19th century, Enrique Torres Belón started his professional career as a mining engineer. In later life, he turned to politics, eventually becoming senator for the region and a figure of no little local pride and renown. Torres was the driving force behind the restoration of the church in the 1960s, a restoration that came with a request that he be buried in it when he died.

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His request was eventually granted, and in some style. Torres’s epic mausoleum stands 25 feet high, topped with a dazzling aluminium replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà, and lined with the skeletons and skulls of more than 1,000 souls pulled from the church’s catacombs.

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Visit on a gloomy afternoon and the effect would probably be eerie. On a clear-skied morning, light pouring in through the oculus, it’s profoundly theatrical. What was presumably designed as a monument to one man has become a monument to life and its pathetic fragility. Look down at Torres’s tomb and a thousand-strong choir of skulls looks back up at you, vacant and hopeless and mute. With what appears to be a Sharpie, someone has written a motto above one of the four open windows down into the well of the mausoleum. ‘Los hombres mueren, las generaciones pasan, solo Dios permanece,‘ it reads. Men die, generations pass, only God remains. No wonder the guidebooks don’t dwell on it.

from Cusco, 08, Peru