Monasterio Santa Catalina of Arequipa tour tells the history of class and the church in colonial Peru, when nuns came from the wealthiest famiies
“Yes, everyone ends up wanting to be a nun….”
So said Monasterio Santa Catalina tour guide Patricia Estela Hidalgo Ardela in response to our murmurings of how cool it would be to live there. Apparently the splendor of expansive Monasterio Santa Catalina brings out that kind of reaction from most.
Ardela knows of what she speaks. She has been a tour guide at the Monastery for nearly three decades. Like other tour guides in Peru, Patricia has a university accreditation in tourism. For this writer/photographer team, her expertise and ability to go beyond simple answers to questions makes her a true standout.
What an amazing story she tells! The vast monastery, which covers several blocks now, dates back to 1579, when a wealthy widow donated her fortune to create this nunnery , which she then joined. Vows of poverty that many of us associate with the nuns doing good works across the globe today weren’t part of the deal then. Becoming a nun was more a rich girl’s fate, the daughters of wealthy families that bankrolled their daughters so that they could devote themselves to praying for the family. Because she was expected to be so tied up in prayer on a strict every three hour schedule, she got to bring her servants into the house her family built for her within the convent.
You can tell where the rich girls slept – under protective arches in case of earthquake—and where the servants slumbered without protection. And as you look at the religious sculptures here and throughout Peru with fine hair and wardrobes—dolls of sorts—Patricia reminds that these were just young teenagers brought to the monastery who perhaps like to play dress up with the sculptural figures their families bought for them. When you see saint manequins from past centuries in churches throughout Peru that sport blondish hair you are likely seeing the locks from these nuns. Arequipa is dubbed The White City in reference to the predominance of pure European descendants, as opposed to mestizo, and these daughters of the wealthy who became nuns were prime examples.
In theory the girls could quit the nunnery after a four-year stint as a novice. Political realities—the prestige of having a nun daughter and the shame that would descend on her family if she quit—were such that it was a de facto no exit calling.
Monasterio Santa Catalina Seems A World Apart
Wander the 24,400 square meters labyrinth of several meter thick walls painted in bright colors, interspersed with little garden areas on the 2.5 hectares expanse that is the monastery and strain to remember bustling Arequipa beyond its confines. Quiet and soothing, you too may quickly come to the feeling that probably there was little reason to leave.
The peace here was in fact disrupted quite dramatically in 1871 when Peru won its independence and Pope Pius IX issued edicts that would change the monastery forever. No longer a pay-to-play operation, all the nuns were now expected to live communally and without servants. The servants were given the option to stay or go; only one stayed.
Our advice is to try and extend your stay in the monastery as long as you can with your admission ticket. If you need a pleasant place to plant in to catch up on work, correspondences etc. make a note that the open air café space has wifi, good enough food, and pleasant couches or tables and chairs to lounge in. Luckily our visit timing allowed a return that evening for a free concert and return to the calming ambience.
A requisite stop within the monastery is to the room and reliquary of its almost-saint, Ana de los Angeles Monteagundo, 1606 – 1686, beatified in 1931 after her spirit/remains cured someone of cancer. You get to see the nail vestments she slept in every night as an aid to keep her thoughts pure.
Top Pick in the Top Pick Peru City of Arequipa.
Santa Catalina 301
Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays 9 - 5;
Tuesdays and Wednesdays 9 am - 7:30 pm
Closed for religious holidays and New Years.
40 Soles- purchase at entry. Credit Cards accepted. Tour guide not included.
For more information visit the Monastery Santa Catalina website
Click here to read more Picture this Post travel stories by Amy Munice with photography by Peter Kachergis
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