A Visit to Callao, Peru  

Part of the metropolitan area of Lima, the port city of Callao still retains its own place of importance alongside the capital city, ranking as Peru’s largest port. Nicknamed El Primer Puerto or the First Port, Callao dates back to 1537, two years after Lima’s founding.

Soon after the port was founded, it began to thrive as the top port for Spanish exports from the Pacific coast of South America. It served as the sole port for the Viceroyalty of Peru, receiving materials from throughout Peru as well as Bolivia and Argentina and shipping them to Panama, where they were then carried across the isthmus and shipped to Spain.

At the time of its founding, Callao was separated from Lima by desert; today it ranks next to Cairo as the second largest urban area in a desert region. In the 19th century the two cities were linked by railroad and in the next century Callao and Lima literally grew together into an area now known as Greater Lima.

Although the two cities have become one urban area, Callao still retains its own identity. Its residents, locally known as chalacos, point proudly to Callao’s special assets, including historic sites such as Fortaleza del Real Felipe, a fort built to ward off pirate attacks in the 18th century that overlooks the harbor. Other historic sites include the Iglesia Matriz Church and the Naval Museum. Although Callao dates back to the 16th century, few of its buildings predate the mid 18th century due to a massive tsunami that destroyed much of the city in 1746. The tsunami was spawned by an earthquake that hit and also demolished much of neighboring Lima, as well.

Within in the harbor itself lie several islands including San Lorenzo, home of a military base; El Frontón which formerly housed a prison; and islands called the Cavinzas and the Palominos, uninhabited except for the many sea lions and birds such as the Inca tern and the oyster catcher that call this land home.

Although the harbor largely remains uninhabited, inland lies a metropolitan area with over 8 million residents. It’s now almost impossible for travelers to tell when they leave Callao and enter Lima but the capital boasts an entirely different set of attractions. Founded by Francisco Pizarro, the city grew up around the Plaza de Armas, also called the Plaza Mayor; today it is still home to the presidential palace constructed on the foundation of the palace that Pizarro built.

The plaza is also the site of the Lima Cathedral where the first stone was set in place by Pizarro in 1535; through the years the cathedral has undergone many construction (and, following earthquakes, reconstruction) projects. Today the cathedral contains the remains of Pizarro in a small chapel near the main door. The assassinated leader has not rested in peace long, however; the body that for years was housed in the coffin was found not to be the Spaniard’s after all when, in 1977, workmen found several bodies as well as a lead box containing a head and a note identifying it as that of the fallen conquistador; later tests confirmed one of the bodies and the head to be that of the man who brought Spanish rule to Peru.

Video Resource

Narrated in English, this seven-minute video takes a look at the attractions of Callao: