The Sistine Chapel of the Andes
Just miles from Peru’s Incan ruins lie artifacts from another era—beautiful Baroque churches that married Spanish design with indigenous culture
Perched on a central square in the Andean village of Andahuaylillas, Peru, the whitewashed church of San Pedro Apóstol seems unremarkable at first. But inside is an eye-popping kaleidoscope—a dazzling display of colorful murals, a coffered painted ceiling and an ornate gold-leaf altar—earning it the moniker of “The Sistine Chapel of the Andes.” The Spanish began constructing the Baroque church in the late 16th century, as they cemented their conquest over the Inca Empire.
Most visitors to this part of Peru focus on Inca ruins—Cuzco is only 25 miles away—but its rural churches are worth a trip. An excursion to San Pedro and two other churches in neighboring Huaro and Canincunca sheds light on Peru’s often-overlooked artistic heritage.
Ready for a change after four days on the Inca trail, I hired a taxi in Cuzco and visited the churches one morning, traveling on the open roads of the Quispicanchi Valley and along cobbled village streets, where the pace of life is far slower than on the tourist circuit. In Andahuaylillas, I met Cara Caponi, an American Jesuit volunteer and amateur historian, who led me around all three churches. When she arrived in Peru several months ago, she knew little about these churches, but she’s devoted much effort to studying them and enjoys sharing her appreciation what she’s learned.
San Pedro has been under restoration since 2009, but its doors have stayed open. Locals trained at the fine arts school in Cuzco are cleaning the walls, conserving the paintings and strengthening the facade and roof. The roof of one of the side chapels had collapsed from water damage, destroying sections of the murals. The conservators have painted over the damaged portions in blue, so the remaining figures of angels and Christ peek out as if through a smudged window. The restoration, funded by the World Monuments Fund and the Spanish petroleum company Repsol, should be completed by the end of this year.