Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa in Photos

We went to Arequipa to hang out at cafes, eat good food, and generally relax, so we didn’t do a lot of touristing. One of the few attractions on our list was the Santa Catalina Monastery and I am so happy we didn’t decide to skip it.

The historical city within a city, that occupies a full city block and is complete with internal streets and water canals, has been an active monetary for local nuns since the late 1500s. At that time becoming a nun (or priest) was very common, every family’s second daughter (or son) was expected to join the church at a young age.

At the time there were many monasteries in the city, but this particular one only accepted women from wealthy families. My previously held belief that women of the church lived sequestered with few luxuries was completely undone by seeing the high class lives that the women of Santa Catalina lived in the early days of the monastery. True to conventional form, they lived entirely apart from the city of Arequipa under the direction of a Mother nun and their lives were regimented with daily lessons and prayers. However Santa Catalina nuns did not live a life of chosen poverty by any means. They all had individual one bedroom apartments with kitchens, rooftop terraces, and a private servant who served as their connection to the outside world. They drank from porcelain tea cups and their walls were lined with fine art. All of this was accentuated by the brightly painted red, blue, and yellow walls that mirrored the city that they had left behind.

In 1870 the Pope ordered a restructuring of the church which required that the nuns become responsible for themselves without the help of servants. I wonder how the harsh change of having to do ones own cooking and laundry affected the older nuns. Unfortunately there weren’t clear records on display about the transition, but it was interesting to imagine as we walked the halls. Currently there are around 20 nuns living in one still secluded area of the monastery though now they have access to all modern technology.

The most memorable part of Santa Catalina was the overwhelming sense of peace that permeated the place as we passed from the bustling city outside to the calm cool courtyards and passageways within. We planned to stay an hour and ended up there for over three, first taking a tour then wandering on our own afterwards. The colors were captivating, making me want to snap a photo around every turn, and the history of reverence was palpable.

I highly recommend a visit here for anyone who finds themselves in Arequipa.

To maintain a sense of modesty and seclusion the nuns did not own mirrors nor did they sit for portraits. Upon their death, a local painter was permitted to enter the monastery to enshrine their memory in a final portrait which then hung in this room where the nuns would be laid for their viewing for one week before their burial in the monastery’s cemetery.

Arequipa is surrounded by volcanos and prone to earthquakes, so the the arch design was purposeful to protect the residents from harm. All the beds and primary cooking areas were within an archway.

Left: Large sinks for doing laundry. Right: A now closed staircase leading to what was once a private rooftop garden.